Don Johnson (The London Sunday Times Magazine, June 3, 2018)
I’m sitting at the corner banquette of a restaurant in Studio City, Los Angeles waiting for Don Johnson. It’s a perfectly pleasant, discreet Italian restaurant and I am at the quiet table that I requested. It was waiting for me along with a basket of rosemary and garlic flatbread and sweet tomato chopped salad on the house. I’d been there about fifteen minutes when his publicist calls me. “Where are you? He’s waiting for you. He’s in the restaurant in a corner table.”
I look up, walk round the slightly rustic bar and find him…at another corner table. I beckon him to join me. I’m slightly over animated, nervy, foolish, but he summons me. I must join him. He has the same flatbread but untouched. He doesn’t eat bread, or carbs of any kind, or drink alcohol, although of course he used to. At a certain point in his life he decided simply “it didn’t serve me.”
I’m still a little nervy. How could we both be sat in the same restaurant and have missed each other. He is unmissable. Charismatic, kingly and still with the same stubble as he sported as Sonny Crocket in Miami Vice, undercover cop who liked to stay out all night and take drugs and never wore socks. The feet are under the table so I can’t see the socks but there’s a classic striped navy Tee and Bomber jacket and eyes that change colour. We talk about his eyes. Are they blue? Are they green? Are they grey? Are they yellow? He grins, amused.
His image with the rolled up sleeved Versace jackets and lady loving, marrying Melanie Griffiths when she was 18 and he 23?, divorcing 6 months after and marrying her again 13 years later. His insouciance and shameless sexiness seemed to define the excesses of that era – the eighties. After Miami Vice he had a musical career recording with Barbra Streisand and onstage with Guys and Dolls. There were more TV series like Nash Bridges and some movies that were destined never to be household names. He was always there but not in the same kind of way. He had a kind of renaissance when he was “rediscovered” by Quentin Tarantino and played Big Daddy in Django Unchained, although he would think he was always there. After that he was the ultimate fringe shirted cowboy in Cold in July and had a successful TV series Blood and Oil. Last year he channelled a potty mouth Donald Trump character for the TV series Sick Note with Rupert Grint. “Sometimes you’re a big deal and sometimes you’re not,” he shrugs. He’s serene.
This week though, once again though he appears to be a big deal in the surprise hit with sexy sixty somethings Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Mary Steenbergen and Candice Bergen – Book Club.
Book Club has been wowing audiences and capturing a new market, so much so that there’s already a sequel planned. Johnson has his own theories on that.
“We’re exploring a whole new area and there’s more senior dating and senior sex being had than amongst middle aged people. It used to be you got into your sixties and then it was just over but now as people get older they start to realise I’m here in this life. What are the things I’m gonna regret. I don’t think anyone’s going to look back and say I made too much love.” I’m sure he isn’t.
Book Club is essentially a romantic comedy but it’s not in the way of the dreary Exotic Marigold Hotel with Judi Dench. Those are really old people finding love. These are women with implants, attitude, whose lives are transformed when they rediscover their sexual libido through reading the Fifty Grey of Shades trilogy, which was made into three movies, unleashing to stardom none other than Johnson’s daughter with Griffiths, Dakota Johnson.
I venture, isn’t that interesting? That movie turned around Dakota’s life and now this movie may turn around yours? He looks at me with cold, don’t go there eyes. All the sweet banter out the window. “Let me stop you right there. If you think this is going to turn into an interview about Fifty Shades and Dakota you may as well save your time.” I yelp. The noise that comes out of me is much more like a Maltese terrier than I’d hoped for but I continue by asking him if by now he’s at least read the book as it’s in his movie?
“No,” A pause. He has said in the past that he hadn’t read the books or seen the films because it’s not the type of film he would ever go and see. He puts it in the category of Twilight Saga or Vampire Diaries.
“Here’s the only thing I’m going to say about that; it’s what we call in the business the McGuffin – the reason for this movie just happens to be that the comedy comes from these ladies who read Fifty Shades of Grey. The movie is about these wonderful women and ultimately it’s a love story.”
Fortunately his phone rings and he leaves the table to have a brief conversation. By the time he comes back, the initial tension is dissipated and we speak on neutral subjects like how he doesn’t get jet lag. He can outfox it – except for once when he took a melatonin on his way from Los Angeles to London to shoot Sick Note. He says he managed to make his quasi dream state work in his favour to more easily channel “the character of an unconscious egotist and totally self-involved person.”
And did he love Rupert Grint? “Well I liked him. I don’t know that I love him.” I wonder if Harry Potter movies were also not on his hit list. “What – with six children? You see all of those.” He has three children with his wife of 20 years Kelley Phleger, Jasper, 16, Deacon, 12, and Grace, 18 and Jesse Johnson, 35, from his marriage to Patti D’Urbanville and of course Dakota, 28, from his marriage to Melanie Griffiths.
He orders the grilled salmon with some green vegetables. It’s not on the menu. Of course it’s not. He says he’s on a Keto like diet. It helps with his clarity. He tells me that the phone call he took was for some humanitarian work he’s doing but he can’t announce it right now. “But it’s with a powerful global organisation that works with the UN. I’ve worked with the UN before in different capacities. I do it on a very undercover level.”
I tell him he’s an undercover kind of guy. He laughs approvingly. “Not really. I just don’t require special notice for doing something that is intrinsically human – being of service.” He’s very busy right now. “I am. It’s a very rich time.”
His character in Book Club is hardcore romantic which is not how we have seen him for a while in his roles. “Yeah, but it’s not a new thing. It’s in my DNA. The role was very naturally organic to me because I have a deep, deep fondness for Jane Fonda. We’ve known each other for a long time. I joined a Peace and Justice group Jane Fonda had founded just so I could be near Jane. I was about 21 at the time and she was a little older (she is 12 years older with possibly the best facelifts in the business). I was smitten the moment I saw her in Barbarella,” he says dreamily.
Jane Fonda has already said that she specifically requested Johnson for her love interest. In the movie he meets a woman who he was in love with forty years previously and the relationship rekindles. “Art following life or life following art or something. I’m not sure which way round. It’s a dream.”
He’s big on dreams. Uses their signs, symbols, imagery in the creation of characters. He used to be big on cigarettes until one day he stopped and now he only vapes. He stopped a lot of things and he makes it sound simple.
“Everything gets easier when you question whether or not it serves you and if it doesn’t serve you in a way to make you behave in a better way, you’ve got to get rid of it.”
I stare at my empty bread basket. I suppose the bread didn’t serve me but it was delicious. He laughs and continues. “I have found a way of simplifying my world. I don’t eat sugar or grain. I eat everything else. I have discovered the key to controlling your moods and your weight and your health is to control your blood sugar. It’s a very efficient fuel for the body.”
Over the course of our lunch, I learn like most people who were previously addicted to alcohol or sugar and were extreme in any way, find that control is the trade off, their comfort place.
I’ve always seen him as a dog person. He grew up with dogs and has talked before about his ability to communicate with dogs. He corrects me. “I’m an animal person. When I had my ranch in Colorado I had a virtual petting zoo. Goats, pigs, chickens, donkeys, cows. I grew up on a farm.”
He grew up on a farm in Missouri so living on a farm was second nature to him. Did he eat the cows? “No, they were pets.” He got rid of the ranch twelve years ago. Does he miss it? “Oh no. I move on. Once it’s in my rearview mirror I don’t look back. My best friend Hunter Thompson lived a quarter of a mile from me and he died. Glen Frey (of the Eagles) lived there but moved away (then also died) so the charming ski town where I had bought for my ranch suddenly changed. Everything changed but that’s the one thing you know. Change for sure is coming.”
He had owned the ranch for 25 years and worked with Hunter Thompson on Nash Bridges. In 2013 he resolved a high-profile dispute over monies owed to him by the show’s producers as he successfully claimed half ownership and was awarded around $19 million for his work. He didn’t get rid of his 12 very fancy cars because he was broke. The cars, Lamborghini’s, Porsches etc were “completely impractical. I realise that I bought a lot of this stuff because I thought I was supposed to have them. I had an image of what you were supposed to do when you were famous and had too much money. All this conspicuous consumption. I just got rid of it all.”
He’s very zen and I suppose this is how he copes with being a big deal or not. When did he realise he WAS a big deal? “It depends on what you want. You have to be clear about what your intentions are. My intentions were to do something I loved and I just happened to get paid for it. The better you are at doing something the more people notice. Fame is a by-product and a pretty powerful by-product. It takes a long time to get used to. Some people never recover from it.”
At the height of his Miami Vice fame, they were shooting an outdoor scene and the women in the offices above all threw their underwear out into the street. “That’s a true story. It was very comical to me. I mean I’m still laughing about it. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
I don’t think I think about fame in that way anymore. I don’t have a massive social media presence. I mean I’m grateful for my followers on Instagram and everything but I don’t feed that machine like a lot of contemporaries. Actually, I shouldn’t say contemporaries because of some of my contemporaries don’t even bother. Jane (Fonda) does – I think that Instagram is in some ways a voice and sometimes it’s ego and I find that unattractive so I don’t have a large commitment to social media.”
Social media is of course the greatest modern-day addiction and he’s probably filed that in the compartment of things that do not serve him, things to which he could get dependent. “Yeah, getting ‘likes’ is a little dopamine hit. It’s actually physical. The release of dopamine which is the pleasure centre of the brain. So when you open up the Instagram and someone has liked your picture you get a little ‘bop’. I suppose our generation did that in other ways but this seems to be shamelessly about servicing the ego.”
I’m grateful that we’ve got over our rocky start of sitting waiting for each other in opposite corners of the restaurant and my mentioning of the D word. He’s warmed up and seems to grin a lot. I can’t tell if it’s a joyous grin or a supercilious grin but it’s definitely a charming grin.
His skin is extremely youthful. He says it’s because he’s been using a reverse ageing cream. He certainly looks considerably younger than his 68 years and he’s super trim. He rejects coffee today but says he does drink it sometimes. He requests more sparkling water. It arrives, no lemon, no lime. There is an attractive austerity to him because it is a complicated one. In his attempt to be simple he is of course immensely complicated and in some ways unfathomable. When he looks at you – or rather through you – with those colour changing eyes, it feels like a dopamine hit. He shows me his Instagram. The latest one is of him having a head cast done for the HBO series Watchmen, based on the graphic novel written by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore. He looks at my Instagram. “That’s a lot of cats. What are their names?” Slut, Roger, Lola, Mister. “Is it only cats who follow you?” I’m hoping that he doesn’t notice any egotistical looking selfies. It turns out he is a big cat fan, by this I mean a fan of big cats.
When his mother in law was big cat rescuer Tippi Hedren (Griffith’s mother) he “raised a bunch of them. I raised lions, tigers and leopards. It was a blast.”
Was it a dopamine hit? “Yes it was. When you raise them as babies and bottle feed them you become a parent and they are very loving. They used to sleep with us. We would go to bed and have a couple of lions in the bed with us.”
Did they snore? “Yes sometimes.” And did he say shut up Melanie and find he’d just nudged a lion? “I wouldn’t put it that way but you nudge them and they go miaow (makes a whimpering sound) and then they go back to sleep.”
Were these full sized lions who shared your bed? “Adolescents, about 9 months old. Then they start to become cumbersome and scare the neighbours, but in our world it was normal and they were very housetrained. Tippi still has the big cats on her reserve. The ones that slept with us were essentially Tippi’s but they felt all part of the family.”
A lion for a brother in law? “Yes. They were all big cats who were rescued from zoos or people who thought they would be fun and then when they got to be 300 pounds they didn’t want them anymore.”
Now he has me charmed. It’s no wonder this is a man who’s been all about women. It’s no wonder this man used to be dubbed Don Juanson. He’s all about the women. He confirms to me he lost his virginity at 12 with the babysitter who was 16. Now I get it when he says romantic is in his DNA. He started young and says “yeah, it was like checking your Instagram page.” He was everybody’s crush in the eighties and some of those same people are crushing on him now. Part of the appeal is he’s unexpected. You might have been thinking he’d be brash and excessive when he’s all about the zen.
You think of him as salty when he’s actually quite sweet. You wonder was he just a womanising racoon or a man who knows how to love women? He’s purposeful, determined, well read, ordered, yet there’s certainly been a lot of crazy in his life, like marrying Melanie Griffiths twice.
In a recent interview Griffiths, now single for the first time in years following her divorce from Antonio Banderas, seemed to come over all swoony when his name came up on her phone. She spoke of him almost breathlessly and implied they still loved each other and said that Don Johnson’s diamond engagement ring was better than Banderas’s.
Johnson has had four wives in five marriages, three of which were brief. His first two marriages were annulled within days. He met Griffiths as a teenager and they married when she was 18, were divorced 6 months later. In the eighties there were many affairs. He lived with the actress Patti D’Urbanville (she of the Cat Stevens song Lady D’Urbanville) for five years and they had a son Jessie. He also had an affair with Barbra Streisand. He speaks of them all so warmly. He says Streisand is “a wonderful, wonderful woman and very funny. We are friends to this day… I stay friends with people I connect with because they are unique and extraordinary beings and the world is a better place when they’re here.”
He has been married to Kelly Phleger for nearly 20 years. She calls him DJ. He calls her, “Fabulous Kelly. An extraordinary woman. I knew this the first time I laid eyes on her.”
They met at a party in San Francisco and he made it his business to meet this “statuesque brunette.” After their first conversation he told her that he was going to marry her. “I just knew. Yes… and then she ignored me for a year – she was with someone else and she is a woman of character and principle and I wasn’t idle.” I’m sure he wasn’t. Two years later they were married. Idleness has never been in his DNA, in his love life or in his career.
After he came out with Till I Loved You with Streisand, he played in rock bands for a while. “Although I will sing a little bit in an episode of Watchmen and I’m still very connected to all that stuff, I made a choice that I was going to enjoy life. I would do music for free and work as an actor on a commercial level. I play music with my kids. Jessie plays guitar, piano, Alexander plays everything, Deacon plays everything, Jasper now 16 is always making beats but he’s my basketball player. 6 foot four and a lovely young man. I’m very close to all of them. we might have arguments and disagreements like every family but they are my best friends.”
He’s always managed to stay close to his ex-partners. “Look, there’s something insane about people who stop having relationships they have a child with. Insane. You loved each other once and that child is an expression of that love and if you say something unpleasant about that person that you made the child with, you’re saying something unpleasant about that child and that is essentially ridiculous.”
When the man who never looks back reunited with Griffiths for a second marriage, he reasoned that “two old souls connected so that Dakota could be born.” He nods. Was it just that? Pause.
“Melanie and I have loved each other since we were kids. Love doesn’t die, it changes in volume and intensity but it never dies and I feel the same way about life. We are energy. Energy doesn’t die it just transforms and that’s the way I feel about love.”
So he’s saying that even if your partner cheated on you, lied to you, left you and hurt you, you should forgive them? “Yes. If you forgive everybody all your family, all your friends and lovers in your life and release all the resentments, anger, there is happiness.” “I don’t want to hold any anger towards someone because that doesn’t help you.”
OK, I tell him that he is a much more evolved person than I am. He says earnestly, “if you’re able to make that statement, at least you understand that there’s an option. Forgiveness, it’s happiness,” he says and he looks at me, bores a hole in my soul with those eyes. There’s another dopamine hit.
He reaches for his sparkling water. I tell him I can see no bread might be possible. I can’t see no coffee and I can’t see forgiveness.
“It doesn’t really cost you anything and it benefits you.” I tell him to stop being unreasonably wise and we need to talk about something trivial which is how does he maintain the perfect level of stubble? He looks at me. he’s very wary of trivial but goes for it anyway.
“In the eighties no one walked around with 3 day stubble but I did it because of the nature of the character and then I realised there are benefits to being in the sun and not shaving because you shave a layer of skin off so you leave this baby skin exposed to really powerful sunlight so it’s the secret of no sun damage.”
Then he corrects me and says sometimes he does shave it all off because he’s discovered the age defying skin cream called Augustinas Barder. “This doctor is the head of stem cell research at Leipzig University and he has discovered how to communicate with your own stem cells so it’s reverse ageing.”
A bit like Book Club. Women in their sixties and seventies rediscovering themselves as a hormonal teenager when they read Fear of Flying.