From a small-town kid born into poverty to future TV superstar, the life of Don Johnson has had more twists and turns than any of the characters he played on screen. He tried to find happiness in many different places, to no avail. Would he ever get the peace that he wanted? Let's find out.
Don Johnson was born on December 15, 1949, in Flat Creek, Missouri—relocating to Wichita, Kansas at the age of six. Now, Don wasn’t exactly born with a silver spoon in his mouth. In fact, he grew up in poverty. The son of a farmer dad and a beautician mom, there was nothing spectacular about his family. They were, however, hiding a grim dark side.
Not only was Don Johnson born into poverty, but he was also a victim of domestic issues. His “rage-filled” father frequently beat him and his parents eventually separated when he was 12 years old. From then on—as the oldest sibling—he needed to fend for his family. But it was too much pressure for such a young man. By age 16, he had enough of his dismal family situation and left home. For the rest of his life, Johnson believed that difficult time forged him into the man he'd become.
With what was coming, he was going to need all the resilience he could muster.
After putting himself through high school in 1967, Johnson made the decision to go into the theater program at the University of Kansas. This wasn't his auspicious beginning though—he dropped out after a year. But Johnson wasn't finished with acting just yet. He soon moved to San Francisco, California, where he enrolled at the American Conservatory Theater.
It wasn't long before the decision paid off.
Ironically, Don made a good choice moving to San Francisco. The closer he was to LA, the closer he was to Hollywood. Pretty cool, because he ended up getting his first film role in 1970 with, The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart. Don even admits that he was feeling “pretty good” to have landed a role in a movie with an Academy Award-nominated producer, Martin Poll.
Don Johnson felt like he'd made it—but he was in for a rude awakening.
After getting his foot in the door of Hollywood in 1970, Don struggled to make big steps in his acting career. He worked on other films like Zachariah, The Harrad Experiment, and Return to Macon County. But his rocketship to stardom had stalled. For Don, it was simply a matter of trying but failing, as none of these films brought him any significant fame.
In spite of that, one of them would impact Don in a way outside his career.
If a string of bad showings was becoming a problem for Don, I’ll raise you another. Johnson found himself in cahoots with Melanie Griffith, the daughter of his The Harrad Experiment co-star, Tippi Hedren. Apparently, Tippi made “no protest” of their relationship, but with Johnson being 22 and Griffith being 14 at the time, the age gap between the two was more than enough to raise a few eyebrows.
But no one was going to keep Johnson away from Griffith.
There was no shortage of love between Johnson and Griffith when they met in 1972. He recalls meeting Griffith, who was an extra on the set of his movie, and described her as being “incredibly precocious”. To him, she was a lot more mature than all the other women he’d previously met—even though he admits initially being “skeptical” of whether or not he should pursue her.
He decided to go for it—and he was going to get way more than he bargained for.
It’s definitely not a normal scenario to pick up your girlfriend from high school even though you’ve already long since graduated. Ask Don Johnson, he’d agree. He admits “feeling a little strange” picking up Griffith after school, but he wouldn’t need to do that for long. That’s because a 15-year-old Griffith got expelled from Catholic school for “questioning the religion”, then moved to live in a rental home in Hollywood with Johnson.
While they seemed settled, there was a lot of drama still to unfold between them.
Johnson and Griffith had started living together until they eventually split in 1975. A year later—during a night when he was meeting former Miss World Marjorie Wallace—Johnson recalled getting a call from Griffith at “four or five in the morning”. In Don’s words, they had both “professed undying love” before flying to Las Vegas to get married in 1976.
A dramatic sequence to say the least, but this renewed spark between them would disappear almost as fast as it arrived.
History’s most fascinating stories and darkest secrets, delivered to your inbox daily. Making distraction rewarding since 2017.
The marriage between Johnson and Griffith was not necessarily a happily ever after. In fact, Griffith admitted that it felt doomed from the beginning. The marriage served as a catalyst to “end the relationship” on her part because the couple knew it wasn’t working between them but they “couldn’t split up”. Toxic much?
Regardless, their union at this point in time wasn’t in the cards, but at least something good was coming Johnson’s way.
All the while Don was going through that rollercoaster with Melanie Griffith, his acting career would also come to the forefront. In 1975, he starred in a movie called A Boy and His Dog, which earned him a Saturn Award for Best Actor in 1976. You heard that right. Best. Actor. He tied acting legend James Caan for that award, so it wasn’t easy. But you can't say Johnson didn't put in the work.
He even had to do something pretty…interesting, while putting his all into this character.
Don’s acting in A Boy and His Dog involved a lot of improvisation and imagination. The role required him to act on set as if he could understand what a dog was communicating to him—because it was a movie about a telepathic dog. In Johnson's words, his biggest struggle was making it “believable” so that people would buy it. Needless to say, the credit he got for this role was well-deserved—but it wouldn’t be all helpful for him.
Johnson claimed that the sudden popularity from A Boy and His Dog “unnerved” him. In other words, he wasn’t quite ready for the spotlight that suddenly shined on him. It sent him down a dark path. Suddenly, Johnson found himself relying on booze and substance use to cope. By the late 70s, he'd become deeply addicted to all different kinds of narcotics.
As a matter of fact, his approach to partying was quite shocking.
Being a young man in Hollywood and with his recent success, Don made use of his youth…but not in a good way. Johnson acknowledges this much, saying he would try to “set a land speed record” for partying whenever he was off the clock. Soon, he felt trapped in this lifestyle with no way out in sight. However, this wouldn’t be the only trap he was stuck in.
Although Johnson went into many relationships after his split from Griffith, none of them lasted long. From 1976 on, he would date Lynn Whitfield, Tanya Tucker, and then Sally Sheridan in 1980. That’s three relationships in a period of four years (jeez Louise). It wouldn’t be until a year after that cycle of relationships that he would get a wake-up call.
Meeting Patti D'Arbanville in 1981 changed Don Johnson's life forever. The reason being that this relationship, unlike his previous ones, produced a baby—Jesse Johnson. When Patti learned of her pregnancy, she promptly stated that she would be keeping the baby. They both decided to not commit to marriage, but to remain common-law partners. Nonetheless, Jesse’s birth would be impactful for Don in a big way.
Johnsons wasn't exactly ready to be a father. D'Arbanville admitted to thinking of splitting from Don, as she described him as a “beautiful and talented man spinning out”. At one point, she thought the only real solution was leaving him. However, before that could unfold, Don told Patti of his initiative to do something about his destructive habits. Whether or not he was going to take this seriously remained a question.
Surprisingly, after years of struggling with his destructive habits, Johnson's rehab was quite a breeze. Thanks also to the fact that D'Arbanville was also someone who had gone through similar issues. She guided him through her own experiences, but even she got shocked when it only took 45 days for him to move on from his habits. They both felt like his quick turnaround was a miracle.
Yet, Don would need another miraculous turnaround for his career.
Even though he finally got his life in order (for the time being), Johnson was genuinely concerned as to whether his career was over. He was reportedly not in good physical shape when he went for auditions. This was to the point of casting directors likening his audition to bringing in a “relief pitcher”. It goes without saying that nobody took him seriously, but soon this “relief pitcher” was about to become an ace.
By now, that 1976 Best Actor Award was merely a distant memory of what could’ve been. It wasn’t until 14 years of struggling to make his mark as a TV actor that in 1984, Don would finally get his “big break”. He got his legendary role of James (“Sonny”) Crockett—the lead role—in Miami Vice. But Johnson very nearly ruined his own chance at stardom.
Before he landed the gig, Johnson was apparently sail fishing in Stuart, Florida. His agent called him to fly to LA and audition for Sonny Crockett to which he reportedly replied, “I’m not doing that. I’m fishing”. Yeah, he really said that. After a back and forth with his agent on whether he should keep fishing or go audition, he eventually (thankfully) chose the latter.
Quite an interesting build-up to landing a job, however, you might find his connection to the casting executives pretty ironic too.
Don’s casting as Sonny Crockett, you could say, was a matter of perseverance. Johnson was familiar with the executives at NBC before Miami Vice because he already had a few failed pilots for other shows. Well, those failures finally turned into a success. It got him acquainted with the executive—Brandon Tartikoff—who was well aware of Don and green-lit his casting.
But rest assured, Johnson was not expecting what was about to unravel.
Don Johnson as Sonny Crockett turned him into more than just a budding star—he was iconic. Thanks to Miami Vice, his fame blew up internationally and seemingly overnight. Rolling Stone even claimed, “No one had more swagger in the Reagan era than Don Johnson”. Talk about praise huh?
Soon enough, Johnson would be showing his enthusiasm for his role through his efforts.
This was the first time in a long time that Don had an opportunity as big as in Miami Vice. He sure was going to make the most of it. Ever hear of “going above and beyond”? That’s exactly what Johnson did during his time working. He was extremely dedicated to his role, as he started working out and eating healthy—living a wholesome lifestyle.
Don would even make suggestions on the portrayal of his character. This was particularly notable in a specific way...
Flamboyant to say the least, Sonny Crockett wore brands like Versace and Hugo Boss over pastel cotton shirts. He would even wear expensive watches from Rolex and Ebel—not to mention he drove around in none other than a Ferrari. Just think of him as the “hype beast” of his era, rocking designer brands and flaunting that “cool guy” aura.
Don Johnson defined what was hot and trendy, but all of this would soon become too much.
Although Johnson was grateful that his stars were finally aligning, he had his fair share of struggles getting used to the stardom. He mentioned that this fame was sometimes too much to handle, even to the point of it being “debilitating”. On the flip side, he often credits Miami Vice as a reason for his relevance as an actor, describing his time as Sonny being an “exhilarating” and “exciting” experience.
He also had a number of exhilarating experiences off-screen too.
Some of Don’s escapades were...let’s just say "adventurous." He was a spontaneous person who would do what he felt in the moment. Even recalling a time when he “flew to Mexico” for the sake of getting Mexican food. Yup. Forget traveling to different restaurants. Don was the type of person to fly to other countries to get the food he was craving.
However, this wasn’t the only extra venture he took part in.
Although Don was busy acting, he didn’t forget about his passion for music. During his run on Miami Vice, he found enough time to make music and even recorded his first solo album in 1986, Heartbeat. He also made a cover of the song, “Tell It Like It Is”, a feature on Miami Vice. He was juggling his acting and musical career, but soon his love life would get into the mix again.
Johnson brushed shoulders with plenty of Hollywood figures, but one of significance stood out in particular. At a 1987 Christmas gathering—which included the likes of Jack Nicholson, Bruce Willis, and Oprah Winfrey—Don met Barbra Streisand. Don Johnson was big, but Streisand was massive. Still, the sparks flew, and it wasn't long before they made it official.
The Johnson-Streisand train rolled full steam ahead as they revealed their couple status a month after their initial meet-up. Where did they reveal their couple status you might ask? Somewhere romantic? Not exactly. They made it official to the public during a 1988 Mike Tyson-Larry Holmes boxing match. It may not have been the most lovey-dovey of places, but that was the least of their problems.
Not everyone was excited for the two new lovers.
The Johnson-Streisand power couple was one to behold, as the two were stars in their own right, though perhaps there was an overabundance of self-confidence. As People magazine described it, Barbra and Don possessed “two of the biggest egos this side of Frank Sinatra”. They were a force to reckon with, but the overflow of ego was probably too much for even them to handle.
Few people were surprised when it went up in flames.
If people were still questioning this couple based on compatibility, one thing for certain was that Johnson definitely met his match personality-wise. Streisand was no pushover herself and this often led to many conflicts with a “very stubborn” character like Johnson. Barbra was also lovingly described as being as “hard as her well-tended nails”.
There were already plenty of rough edges between the couple. Could they make it work?
Most people felt that Streisand was perhaps too genuine for Johnson when it came to intentions. As People even reported, “Babs was known to help open doors for her partners”. She was popular for “going all out” for the men in her life, and Johnson was famous for having a few loose screws regarding his relationships. Even though there was a lot of noise and criticism, Streisand still wanted to make it work.
Streisand took it above and beyond by embracing Johnson’s destructive partying habits. She could relate to the labels that followed Don’s reputation; terms such as “tough” or “difficult” was nothing new to her. According to Streisand, a lot of the bad imagery about him was simply “not true”. Finally, Don had someone in his corner who was willing to defend him—but a familiar face would soon reappear and change everything.
For whatever reason, Don could not move on from his once-infamous relationship with Melanie Griffith, even during his time with Streisand. Call it fate or destiny, but Johnson reconnected with Griffith while he was dating Streisand, to help her check into a rehab facility. This meeting clearly renewed the old spark between them, as Johnson was about to do the dirty on Streisand.
It wouldn’t be long after Johnson’s meeting with Griffith that the two would rekindle the connection they once had. Don’s famous relationship with Streisand ended up lasting less than a year. He never forgot about his time with Streisand though and had high praise. He recalled her being “fascinating” and thanked her for “opening his eyes to a lot of things he hadn’t considered”.
But destiny obviously had other plans for Don’s love life.
The beginning of 1989 marked the third go at Don and Melanie’s relationship and the second time married. The difference this time? They welcomed a baby—none other than Dakota Johnson. If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably because she’s also a pretty famous name in Hollywood (thanks to the Fifty Shades of Grey movies and one legendary Ellen interview).
The birth of his daughter was huge, but it wouldn’t be the only big thing to happen that year.
The idea that “all good things must come to an end” is something Don realized when he knew there was nowhere he could further push the character of Sonny Crockett. Therefore, he decided to call it quits in 1989. He even stated that he was starting to get “fatigue” from playing this role continuously.
However, even though Johnson’s time on Miami Vice concluded…Sonny would continue to be part of Don’s life.
Separating the actor from the role wasn't so easy for Don Johnson and Sonny Crockett. Though in truth, Don took it a step above Sonny in reality. He spent a lot of his time investing in boats, cars, and other luxury items. Speaking of “larger than life”, how about purchasing a private jet and an entire ranch to top that off? Don Johnson did all of it.
It looked like a life of “glitz and glam”, but there was more than met the eye.
It seemed that with the recent birth of his daughter plus his fame and success, Don Johnson would be someone on top of the world. Not so.
Don’s spending sprees never filled up his gaping feelings of emptiness. According to him, the reason why he would buy all these different things was to try and cover up that patch. He wanted to find a way to stop feeling “utterly miserable” and thought this was the way to do so. He couldn't have been more wrong.
Even after cleaning up his act to get the part on Miami Vice, Don admitted to his on-and-off relationship with drinking and narcotics throughout his career. His continuous struggles were “intensely unhappy” times, and he even wondered how long he could keep living the way he was. Yet, while Johnson was in a tussle with his demons, he never lost his composure when it came to work.
Amid dealing with his personal vices, Don always exemplified professionalism. On the set of Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991), Johnson had to wait up on “no-show” Mickey Rourke for a makeup and hair test. Rather than give in to anger, Don reportedly sorted things out with Rourke and they ended up having a “fun” relationship. But speaking of fun relationships on set...
“Never mix business with family”. Ever hear that quote before? It certainly never applied to Johnson, who ended up working on consecutive movies with his then-wife Melanie Griffith. This was first with the 1991 movie Paradise, and in 1993 with Born Yesterday. Johnson recalled the experience as being “fantastic,” since they could work and then go home together.
These seemed like happy times for the Johnson family—but things would soon take a quick turn for the worse.
Through sharing a child to working on movies together, Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith had a seemingly picture-perfect partnership—but behind the scenes, the cracks were beginning to show. As time passed by, the two were starting to acknowledge that they “were changing in different ways” and the light from their spark was starting to flicker out. But Johnson married her before, and even reconciled on multiple occasions.
Surely this couldn’t be the actual end?
It seemed like Johnson would finally be able to settle down to live happily ever after with Melanie Griffith, but it never happened. By the time 1994 came around, they had simply cooled off on the fire-burning passion they once had. While both cited “irreconcilable differences” as the reasoning for their split, they would always have a connection “through their child” according to Johnson.
Although this was an unfortunate end, Don would eventually find true happiness.
In 1999, Johnson fell in love with Kelley Phleger. Unlike a lot of the other flings Don had, Phleger came from a humble background. She wasn’t a musician or an actress like his ex-wife, but rather a schoolteacher. Not exactly a Hollywood “household name,” but she might’ve been exactly the type of person Don was always looking for.
When Johnson married Kelley Phleger on April 29, 1999, it marked another turning point in his life. He would finally give up the vices that were tormenting him for such a long time. In his words, he “jettisoned the drinking habits and gave up the 20 cars”. In this surprising turnaround, Don would credit his newfound beliefs for the change in his life.
The former Hollywood bad boy compared his life experiences to being on a “spiritual journey”. He explained his shortcomings as if trying to “break open lots of oysters,” from which he suffered lots of pain in the attempts to do so. For him, those oysters were initially his indulgence towards drinking, narcotics, and materialism. Through these lessons, he would finally find what really brought him peace and happiness.
After Johnson’s arduous path of finding peace, he finally ended up getting his answer—family. He had three more children with Kelley Phleger and wanted to make up for the time lost with his two older children. Don considered this a “sacred life” to value with the people he loves.
He could play the role that brought him true happiness—being a father.
For Don, being able to reconcile with his two older children—Dakota Johnson and Jesse Johnson—filled his heart. As we mentioned earlier, his daughter Dakota would go on to star in Fifty Shades of Grey. This was Don’s proud dad moment, and by all accounts, he was “bursting” with it while witnessing all of her success.
Truly a heartwarming moment for dad...but when it comes to Don Johnson, scandal is never far behind.
In 2002, Don Johnson and two others were stopped for a routine check at the border between Switzerland and Germany. Johnson joked with the guards and even signed a few autographs. It seemed like business as usual. They searched Johnson’s car, and found a seemingly innocent briefcase—but when they opened it, they made a disturbing discovery.
In the briefcase was evidence of about $8 billion dollars worth of transactions. Immediately, the authorities suspected that Johnson was laundering money. Though he was eventually cleared of wrongdoing, the tabloids latched onto the story in the interim and went to town. Johnson recalls the devastating consequences, including having to console his crying son, who had read the stories.
My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.
Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
Want to tell us to write facts on a topic? We’re always looking for your input! Please reach out to us to let us know what you’re interested in reading. Your suggestions can be as general or specific as you like, from “Life” to “Compact Cars and Trucks” to “A Subspecies of Capybara Called Hydrochoerus Isthmius.” We’ll get our writers on it because we want to create articles on the topics you’re interested in. Please submit feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for your time!
Do you question the accuracy of a fact you just read? At Factinate, we’re dedicated to getting things right. Our credibility is the turbo-charged engine of our success. We want our readers to trust us. Our editors are instructed to fact check thoroughly, including finding at least three references for each fact. However, despite our best efforts, we sometimes miss the mark. When we do, we depend on our loyal, helpful readers to point out how we can do better. Please let us know if a fact we’ve published is inaccurate (or even if you just suspect it’s inaccurate) by reaching out to us at email@example.com. Thanks for your help!
The Factinate team
If you like humaverse you may also consider subscribing to these newsletters: