Miami Vice set a high standard for TV guest-star appearances right from its first episode. In the 1984 pilot, Jimmy Smits checked in during the first Miami-set scene. A few minutes later, Smits was gone — the victim of an explosion from a bomb planted by drug dealers.
There was no letup in episode 2. In that installment, Ed O’Neill appeared as an undercover FBI agent who’s in too deep. The stars kept coming in the following seasons, which featured Bruce Willis, Dennis Farina, Michael Madsen, Frank Zappa, and dozens of other big names.
By “Mirror Image,” the gripping season 4 finale (1988), Miami Vice’s ratings had dropped but the show kept bringing in guest stars. In that installment, Chris Cooper played a corrupt Fort Lauderdale detective, and a young Julia Roberts played Polly Wheeler, a drug lord’s assistant.
Looking back on his two years as Miami Vice showrunner, Law & Order creator Dick Wolf recalled getting Roberts’ tape from a casting director. Wolf said he needed some convincing before agreeing to give Roberts the part.
‘Miami Vice’ showrunner Dick Wolf thought Julia Roberts was too young and had the wrong look for her part
Speaking with the Television Academy in a 2003 interview, Wolf named a few highlights of his time on Miami Vice. The list included “Missing Hours,” the season 4 episode widely considered the show’s worst. (Wolf liked how far-out it went.) That might surprise some fans of the show.
But Vice fans won’t be surprised Wolf picked “Mirror Image” as another favorite. That riveting episode features Det. Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) suffering from amnesia following an explosion. Crockett believes he’s Sonny Burnett, an undercover identity who works as muscle for a drug lord.
That’s where Polly (Roberts), who gets romantically involved with Burnett/Crockett, enters the picture. Wolf recalled his reaction when casting director Bonnie Timmermann sent him Roberts’ tape. “You know, she was all teeth,” Wolf told the Television Academy. “And she looked like she was 18.”
Though Wolf thought Roberts acted well in the tape, he still thought she was young for the role. But Timmermann said Wolf should cast Roberts for another reason.
The ‘Miami Vice’ casting director convinced Wolf to cast Roberts because of her brother Eric
In the end, Timmermann didn’t convince Wolf based on Roberts’ talent. She pointed to Roberts’ brother Eric, whose career had begun to take off following his performances in Star 80 (1983) and Runaway Train (1985).
“‘Dick, her brother is about to become the biggest movie star in the world,'” Wolf recalled Timmermann telling him. “‘Do yourself a favor: Put his sister in the show.’ [laughs] So that’s one I remember.”
While Eric Roberts’ career didn’t pan out quite like that, Julia’s did. And Miami Vice viewers saw her in one of the first screen roles of her career. (Wolf believed it was the first.) But the first credit listed in Roberts’ IMDB page also had a Miami Vice connection: It was in Michael Mann’s Crime Story.