‘Miami Vice’: How Michael Mann Became Sold on Returning to TV for the Show

Before HBO and other premium networks began attracting film stars and directors, it was a tough sell for someone to leave that world of cinema for TV. Yet that’s exactly what Michael Mann did when he took the job executive producing Miami Vice (1984-89).

Mann knew exactly what he was getting into when he began his work as showrunner on the NBC series. Prior to making his feature-film debut with 1981’s Thief (starring James Caan), Mann had written for for Starsky and Hutch, Police Story, and other shows.

Clearly, it would take something special for someone who’d just had Thief nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes to return. But Mann saw extraordinary promise in the Miami Vice script. And the fact he wasn’t writing or directing helped him decide.

Michael Mann once spoke of being ‘seduced’ by the ‘Miami Vice’ script

Michael Mann stares into the camera at the 1981 Cannes film festival.
Michael Mann at the Festival de Cannes, 1981 | LAFORET/SIMON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

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Mann didn’t go straight from the red carpets of Cannes to production meetings with NBC executives. Following his success with Thief (which also turned a profit), Mann directed The Keep (1983), which he’d adapted for the screen. That picture didn’t have the same box-office success.

Nonetheless, Mann still didn’t see any cause to turn back to TV, which he’d left after shooting his Emmy-winning Jericho Mile (1979). “What the hell do I want to go back into TV for?” Mann recalled thinking in a 1985 Washington Post article. But Mann’s agent convinced him to read the script.

That changed Mann’s mind. “I said, ‘This is great, man. This is terrific.’ You get seduced by content,” Mann told the Post. “It was vivacious, audacious, irreverent. It was something I’d been interested in doing for a long time: pump a contemporary rock ‘n’ roll sensibility into a policier genre.”

Mann also noted how his distance from the script helped convince him. “If I’d been directing it, or if I’d written it, I’d have been filled with doubts,” he told the Post. “But given the fact somebody else was directing and somebody else wrote it, I could be objective. My instincts told me, ‘This thing is gonna go.'”

Mann came to love the high-volume aspect of ‘Miami Vice’ production

Edward James Olmos speaks to Philip Michael Thomas and Don Johnson on the 'Miami Vice' set.
MIAMI VICE: Philip Michael Thomas, Don Johnson, and Edward James Olmos confer on the ‘Miami Vice’ set. | NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Since the Miami Vice story and script came from TV veteran Anthony Yerkovich, Mann never had creator credit for the show. But as executive producer and showrunner, he supervised every aspect of the series — down to the color scheme and the watch on the wrist of Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson).

Once he got into the rhythm of cranking out all the episodes for a network season, Mann found it to be a rush. “This show is a ball. It’s absolutely a blast,” he told Rolling Stone in ’85. “I mean, how else do you get to tell 22 stories a year?”

Mann loved how episodes would quickly fall into place. That’s what happened after he heard “Smuggler’s Blues” by Glenn Frey. With Miguel Piñero (who played Calderone) writing a script and Frey playing a role, Mann had that standout episode on the air within the month. It was a sort of TV Mann could handle — at least for two seasons.