‘Miami Vice’: How Mark Harmon Almost Replaced Don Johnson in Season 3

Would Miami Vice have been the show it was without Don Johnson? It’s hard to imagine. Johnson starred as detective James “Sonny” Crockett in 110 of the show’s 111 episodes. When you think of Miami Vice style, Johnson’s sockless, blazer-over-tee look is the first thing that comes to mind.

But cast changes happen — even when the show initially revolves around one or two characters. Homeland found a way to move on after the death of Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), and Miami Vice might have come up with something similar if the show lost Johnson.

NBC almost had to go that route after the show’s second successful season. Prior to arriving on set for season 3, Johnson tangled with the network in a pay dispute that got bitter. At one point, an NBC executive told a reporter that Mark Harmon was ready to replace Johnson.

NBC considered bringing Mark Harmon onto ‘Miami Vice’ in 1986

MIAMI VICE: Don Johnson as Detective ‘Sonny’ Crockett, Philip Michael Thomas as Detective Ricardo Tubbs | NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

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Pay disputes are quite different from occasions when a star and network can’t agree on terms. That very thing happened in the middle of The Sopranos‘ run, when James Gandolfini demanded that HBO raise his salary. Eventually, the network blinked, paying Gandolfini the money he wanted.

Had HBO not accommodated his demands, the network would have been hard pressed to replace Gandolfini, who was quite literally the face of the hit mob show. NBC faced that same dilemma when Johnson upped his salary demands prior to Miami Vice’s season 3 shoot.

The network didn’t back down without a fight. After reports circulated in June ’86 that Johnson was holding out — and delaying season 3 shooting — an unnamed NBC official gave United Press International a tip. Mark Harmon was ready to take over as star of Miami Vice, that NBC exec told UPI.

“We’re not going to let Johnson wreck the show,” UPI quoted the NBC official saying. “We have Harmon in line and ready to go.” The idea was to bring in Harmon as a new character and take it from there. Fortunately for Johnson’s fans, the situation didn’t deteriorate further.

Don Johnson settled his pay dispute with NBC and returned to ‘Miami Vice’

Mark Harmon and Pam Dawber in 1988 | Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Shortly after reports of Johnson’s holdout hit the press, the situation was resolved. Though the details weren’t revealed, Johnson reportedly wanted his per-episode salary of $30,000 pushed over $100,000. Whatever NBC gave him, it worked.

“I am looking forward to the new season and joining the cast and crew on the set Monday morning,” Johnson said in a statement the AP reported the same week news of his holdout landed.

By that point, Universal Studios had filed a $10 million breach-of-contract suit against Johnson. Apparently, it was all a game of high-stakes bluffing. Johnson joked about the matter in his statement.

“I told them I was going to be on vacation until June 23,″ a spokesman quoted Johnson saying, via the AP. By then, word about Harmon replacing him had been circulating for several days.