Had Don Johnson been able to stay awake through his high school business class, he may never have had the acting career that gave rise to "Miami Vice's" Sonny Crockett and "Nash Bridges."
A teacher at his high school in Wichita, Kan. — a woman with a monotonous voice — warned Johnson that if he fell asleep one more time during seventh-period business, she would throw him out of her class. Fall asleep he did, and she marched him out the door by his ear. The only other open class was acting — and the rest, as they say, was history.
Despite his academic misadventure as a teenager, Johnson says that over the decades in Hollywood, he's developed enough business savvy to know when he's getting shortchanged.
On the stand last week in a civil trial over the profits from his hit 1990s show "Nash Bridges," in which he played the eponymous San Francisco police inspector, Johnson told the jury of his business acumen and foresight. Throwing around terms like "pay or play," "AGR formula" and "amortize," Johnson said he conceived of "webisodes" long before anyone else in television was thinking about the Internet, and made sure to retain half of the copyright to "Nash Bridges," a show he helped conceive.
"I wanted to own the copyright ... the copyright protected me and my rights as an artist. And my economic upside," he said. Johnson, now 60, said a show starring him was a coveted piece of business in Hollywood in the mid-'90s because of the success of "Miami Vice."
"I was the 'it' guy for television and, you know, for pop culture at the time," he said.
Through his production company Don Johnson Productions, Johnson is suing Rysher Entertainment, which bankrolled "Nash Bridges," for half of all profit from the series. His attorney has claimed that the actor is entitled to tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.
Rysher contends that the show had such a hefty price tag — in part because of Johnson's salary — that the company has yet to recoup production and distribution costs.
The contractual tussle playing out in Los Angeles County Superior Court is a common scenario in Hollywood — a federal jury in Riverside is deliberating a case that touches upon similar issues involving profit distribution from the game show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" In Johnson's case, as attorneys went through the contract paragraph by paragraph, some jurors looked nearly catatonic.
Rysher attorney Bart Williams told jurors that what with high-speed car scenes, a large number of extras, and filming on location in San Francisco, the cost of producing the show was "absolutely enormous" — so much so that the series may never pay for itself.
Williams also accused Johnson of trying to rewrite the terms of a long-settled agreement because of his lackluster career since "Nash Bridges" ended in 2001.
"This case, ladies and gentlemen, is about Don Johnson Productions' effort, after changed circumstances in the career of Mr. Johnson, to reinvent the contract," he told the jury during opening statements.
Mark Holscher, Johnson's attorney, told the jury that at the time the contract was being negotiated, Johnson was at the top of his game whereas Rysher was a new company that had never produced a prime-time show. Securing his rights had been foremost in Johnson's mind because he didn't receive a cut of the profit from the worldwide success of "Miami Vice," Holscher said.
"Most people who try to get television shows on the air shoot pilots and compete, and the studios hire the actors. What we are going to prove to you is different in this case: It is that Don Johnson was hiring the studio," he said.
On the stand, Johnson recounted — to repeated objections from defense attorneys — how he transformed from a Missouri "farm boy" into to the white-suited, sockless-loafer-wearing star of "Miami Vice."
"Do you still dress like the guy on the car?" his attorney asked, pointing to an image from the show.
"No, I think I burned all of those," Johnson replied.
Johnson acknowledged being somewhat past his prime as a star and hinted that he was financially strained. He told jurors that the bulk of his "earning potential" had been over a period of about 15 years, and that spread out over a lifetime, his income may be similar to an average person's earnings.
Whether the actor will be getting a belated check from his fictional San Francisco cop days, the jury will decide. The case is expected to go to the jury this week.