After all these years -- decades really -- Don Johnson has climbed back into the ring. Distant reflections or inflections of Sonny Crockett are long gone. His stature remains trim, bantam-weight, the famous hair, a slicked-back mane of gray, parted down the middle.
The voice is unmistakable, with some Missouri flatness in the vowels, and a long-distant touch of the prairie too. That should work well for his new series for ABC -- "Blood and Oil," about the sprawling get-rich-quick, get-poor-faster patch in North Dakota (arriving this fall.)
Johnson, now 65, is here at a 2015 press tour to promote his new soap. Promotion is not normally considered his strong suit, or wasn't. But there's a new show to sell. It's obviously his strong suit now.
Once a swashbuckler who battled with CBS, and the entertainment company (Rysher) that produced his long-ago hit, "Nash Bridges," he got a reputation as a "difficult" star but also got a huge payoff (nearly $20 million) for his trouble. There were the marriages (four) and the colorful backstories related to those which kept tabloids engaged for decades. (He and Melanie Griffith were once a Hollywood power couple). There was the sartorial splendor of the "Miami Vice" years -- and the sense that there but for the grace of "Vice" and its immodest star went the fortunes of NBC.
But all that was then, and this is now. "Blood and Oil" marks Johnson's return to prime time on a major broadcast network for the first time in fourteen years -- and in the lead role no less. He's also an executive producer, along with Tony Krantz, Josh Pate, and novelist Rodes Fishburne ("Going to See the Elephant"). Expect no battles with the production company this time -- he IS the production company (or a member of it anyway).
The show's about a family -- the Briggs, of which Johnson's character is the patriarch -- building an empire on the prairie. ... Think "Dallas" absent Dallas.
The show is shot in Park City, Utah, so it's technically absent a North Dakota setting too -- even though it is supposed to be about a wild west Dakotan town circa 2008.
Producers describe it as a "heightened" version of the Dakota oil patch: Indeed, literally heightened, because there are mountains in the background.
But mountains and oil aren't the big draw here. "There is only one Don Johnson and he is an icon,"Krantz told writers here Wednesday morning. "He was our first choice [for Happ Briggs] and our only choice. We had no plan B [and] he's an executive producer. It's not a titular thing either. [His involvement] is right down to the budget, and every other aspect of the show."
Johnson is asked by a critic with a long memory about his long-ago reputation for being a hothead, or in this critic's (Ed Bark) measured words, "you seem like a more level-headed, stable guy."
"Back then I was a brash, terrified young man with a big ego and a lot of ambitions," said Johnson, "and I'd like to think that since then, I've let those things that don't serve you fall to the wayside. For me, it's all about the joy and enthusiasm about being given the opportunity to be here."
Oil was discovered in the the "Bakken" formation in western North Dakota in the early '50s, but was not considered recoverable until 2008; the U.S. Geological Survey now estimates there are about 7.4 billion recoverable barrels -- and in those barrels lies this new prime-time soap, about greed, lust, racial strife, family dysfunction, and of course oil. (The word "blood," producers say, is a play on the word as it relates to families, as in "blood is thicker than water...")
"Blood and Oil" -- which also stars Delroy Lindo as sheriff Tip Harrison who tries to keep the law in the lawless town and "Gossip Girl" star Chace Crawford as a newlywed who comes here to find his fortune -- "is about the essence of the American dream," says Johnson. "This story is ageless and timeless, and that's what's so exciting" about it.
Actually, what's so exciting about it is a star who once commanded prime time and (who knows!) just might again.
Series launches Sunday, Sept. 27 at 9.