A calmer Don Johnson gets priorities in order

Actor's in TNT's `Word of Honor'

December 03, 2003|By Luaine Lee | Luaine Lee,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - You take away the mahogany tan, the convertible, the white suits with pastel shirts and what have you? You have Don Johnson the person.

Buried in the debris of publicity for most of his adult life, Johnson has not only survived the white-hot lights, he's turned them inward.

Always an underrated actor, Johnson has given up his breezy banter for words of significance in his latest teleplay, Word of Honor, premiering Saturday on TNT.

Johnson plays a Vietnam veteran who harbors a secret which threatens to destroy several lives 30 years after the fact. How he handles the crisis examines the very essence of honor.

For years it was hard to see the real Johnson behind his Nash Bridges-Sonny Crockett image. And his flamboyant lifestyle didn't help. Married to, and divorced twice from, actress Melanie Griffith, he admitted at one time to abusing drugs and alcohol.

But now, at 53, Johnson says it was not difficult for him to hang on to his values in spite of the hysteria that swirled around him.

"I'm from the Midwest. I was born in Missouri on a farm. I have those values. And that upbringing that I have is from that time and it's with me my whole life, and I bring that to my own parenting and also to the choices I make in my work and my relationships," he says.

"I have a strong sense of values and what's really valuable in life and what things are lasting and the things that are temporary. I'm not a person who is possessed by my possessions. I'm willing to let go of things a lot more easily than I've seen in some of my other contemporaries who are defined by their big houses or cars, or those sorts of things, or their careers or stature. I don't nurture those things like other people do," he says.

Finding honor in his own business hasn't been difficult, either, he says.

"I have the same agent for 20 years, the same PR guy for 30 years. I'm a fiercely loyal person," says Johnson.

Becoming a father for the first time was a crucial moment in his life, says Johnson, who dreams of establishing a kids' camp on land he owns in Missouri.

Johnson is married to Montessori schoolteacher Kelly Phleger and is the father of two: a daughter, 4, and a son, 1 1/2 . He also has a 20-year-old son, Jesse, by actress Patti D'Arbanville. Jesse plays Johnson as a young man in Word of Honor. He and Griffith are the parents of a 13-year-old girl.

"When I had Jesse, I couldn't believe how quickly I fell in love with this little creature. It was instantaneous. And I also couldn't believe how important it was for me to be there for him every second of his life - every play date, every hockey game, every play performance. He's graduating from Occidental College this year, and Jesse and I are so close and that relationship I'm so proud of. I tell all my kids they're my favorite, but I have a special relationship with him. I think everyone does with their first child. And he's kind of grown up in my fame world."

Johnson also confesses that starring in the five-year juggernaut, Miami Vice, profoundly influenced him.

"I didn't really change, but it changed the way that I had to learn some things I never thought I'd have to learn - like how to be famous. You can learn how to be an actor, being famous is a very different ball of wax. And fame as we know it in the 20th century - and as we know it in the last 20 years - is completely different. It's a different landscape out there. It's a different time. There are greater demands put on you. The scrutiny ...

"They get away with saying things like you're a public figure, but even public figures have the right to a private life. And there is no such thing for celebrities these days. And people take advantage of that as well. It made me have to learn how to do things I didn't necessarily think I'd ever have to do."

Today he's easier in his skin, he says. "I'm better now. First, I'm much more comfortable with it and secondly I don't give a damn about it," he chuckles.

"I think it was the late, great Katharine Hepburn who said, `I don't care what anybody writes about me as long as it's not true.' And by and large, nothing anybody has written about me has been true. So what do I care?" he laughs, a deep, resonating laugh.

Word of Honor also airs Dec. 7, 10, 19, 20 and 21 at various times.

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