Miami Vice is one of the smartest, coolest, and most innovative television series ever to grace the airwaves. Vice was revolutionary for using popular music as a storytelling tool, and for its then-unprecedented use of color to bring the film noir tales of the series to life in vivid fashion. In addition to making a name of series regulars like Don Johnson, Philip Michael Thomas, and Edward James Olmos, the show had an almost clairvoyant eye for guest stars, thanks to showrunner Michael Mann and casting director Bonnie Timmerman, veritable legends in their fields.
Many of the show’s guest stars went on to become beloved character actors, TV regulars, and certified A-List superstars. For this list, we’re going to take a look back at some of Miami Vice‘s greatest episodes, and the guest stars who went on to become household names. The first four seasons of Miami Vice are available to watch on Hulu, so if your favorite actor is on this list, then you’re likely just a click away from seeing them in action in one of the greatest television dramas of all time. Here are 20 Stars You Didn’t Know Were On Miami Vice.
Before he was shooting terrorist bank robbers in Die Hard, Bruce Willis was a romantic comic lead in Moonlighting, which ran for five seasons on ABC. Before that, however, he made his first credited television appearance as a guest star in “No Exit,” a seminal episode of Miami Vice‘s first season. Willis plays Tony Amato, a wife-abusing villainous arms dealer, whom our favorite Vice cops are tasked with bringing down. Drama, complications, and Phil Collins ensue.
While season 1 was sometimes bogged down by having a few too many campy comedic side-plots, “No Exit” is an exception, with the heavy political commentary and tense melodrama that would mark many of the series’ best episodes. Miami Vice was one of the first shows (especially among police dramas) which didn’t have a tag sequence at the end of the episodes, often ending abruptly, the moment the final shots were fired, sometimes literally. “No Exit” is a great example of that storytelling device, and it’s a thrill to watch as the final minutes spiral totally out of control before exploding into tragic chaos. Miami Vice and episodes like “No Exit” defined ’80s television and set a standard which still holds strong to this day.
Shortly after completing filming on what would become his game-changing breakout role in Full Metal Jacket, a young (and newly chubby, having gained 70 pounds for his role as Private “Pyle” in FMJ) Vincent D’Onofrio took on a role in “The Afternoon Plane,” from Miami Vice’s third season. While somewhat underwhelming as the culmination of a story that had been building since the pilot of the series, the episode is still strong as a standalone piece of high-tension drama, and unique for being a very stripped down action-drama focusing exclusively on Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas).
Essentially a claustrophobic western set on a picturesque Caribbean island, Tubbs finds himself in conflict with his old nemesis, Orlando Calderone (John Leguizamo, but more on him in a bit…). D’Onofrio plays the awesomely-named Leon Wolf, a criminal who had been arrested by Tubbs in the distant past who gets hired by Calderone due to their shared interest in seeing Tubbs take a dirt nap. By the end of the episode, Leon Wolf goes out like a sucker, but luckily, D’Onofrio has since mastered the role of criminal mastermind, evidenced by his scene-stealing performance on Netflix’s Daredevil.
The last few episodes of season 4 were designed to put Crockett through hell. His pregnant wife is killed by a man he got off death row (who he then murders in cold blood), Crockett himself is nearly fatally shot, and then he’s on a yacht when it explodes, and is presumed dead. The subsequent “Crockett with amnesia thinks he’s a drug kingpin” plotline would be just ridiculous if not for the slow breakdown of the character and the systematic loss of practically everything he holds dear.
The great Julia Roberts, yet to become famous as America’s Sweetheart, appears in the fourth season finale as Polly Wheeler, a cartel employee who quickly becomes Crockett’s film noir moll. Unfortunately, though the show came back for a fifth and final season, Julia Roberts did not, and her absence in the subsequent episodes of the “Sonny Burnett Arc” goes totally unexplained. The episode, “Mirror Image,” also features one of the first appearances of Chris Cooper, who would become famous for his roles in such films as Syriana, The Town, and The Bourne Identity.
Decades before he was chewing the scenery in films like Captain America: The First Avenger and The Hunger Games, Stanley Tucci was just a hard-working actor looking for his big break. One of his earliest credits was in a Season 3 episode of Miami Vice, entitled “Baby Blues.” The episode was one of Vice’s darkest, even by the nihilistic standards of the third season, and involved criminals kidnapping babies from Colombia and smuggling them to Miami to profit from their subsequent adoptions. Tucci’s role in the episode is fairly minor, but he seemed to have made a mark, since he was brought back for Sesaon 4 in a different, more villainous role.
In the episodes “Contempt of Court” and “Blood and Roses,” Stanley played slimy mob boss Frank Mosca, who terrorized Crockett, and later, fellow vice detective Gina Calabrese, played by Saundra Santiago. Tucci is so convincing as the self-assured and menacing Mosca that it’s a miracle he wasn’t type-cast as a mobster for the rest of his career, especially since his first notable role after his stint on Miami Vice was in five episodes of another gritty cop drama, Wiseguy.
Ian McShane was around way before Miami Vice, having acted in British television and film going all the way back to the early 1960s. Still, it would be decades before he would become a household name thanks to his role in the legendary western series, Deadwood. In 1987, he guest starred in Season 3’s “Knock, Knock… Who’s There?” in which he displayed a ridiculous Latin accent, though it somehow avoided undercutting his otherwise unmatched acting chops.
McShane returned, albeit as a different (but still Latino!) character, in the series finale, “Freefall.” Crockett and Tubbs are given a suicide mission to escort and protect McShane, who plays a General/dictator who plans on leaving his country, betraying the drug dealers who funded his rise to power. Of course, nothing is as it seems, and things escalate way beyond what anyone, including the viewer, could have expected. It’s an epic episode full of gun battles, dramatic confrontations, and everything that made Miami Vice the definitive show of the ’80s.
Season 2 features several of the series’ best episodes, including “Buddies,” in which James Remar guest stars as an old Vietnam comrade of Crockett’s who is in a bad way with a local mafioso, played by Frankie Valli. Meanwhile, Eszter Balint (Louie’s Hungarian girlfriend from Season 5 of FX’s Louie) plays a battered woman on the run from said mafioso with her baby in tow after she kills a would-be rapist and unknowingly steals gambling tally sheets. Oh, and said rapist? He’s played by Nathan Lane, in one of the most out of the field small screen castings you’ll ever see. Even by Miami Vice standards, this is a particularly star-studded episode.
Lane plays a crappy comedian who stumbles across young Dorothy Bain (Balint) and, after presenting himself as helpful and sweet, quickly reveals himself as a sexual predator. Unfortunately for him, Bain is having none of his funny business and stabs him to death. From there, “Buddies” is Miami Vice at its finest, with a glorious shouting match between James Remar and Don Johnson, and a downright beautiful music video sequence at the end, set to “No Guarantees” by The Nobodys.
The first episode of Miami Vice after the pilot was called “Heart of Darkness,” loosely based on the legendary novella of the same name, which had previously been adapted into a little film called Apocalypse Now. While that movie is one of the most revered war films of all time, “Heart of Darkness” ain’t too shabby, either.
Ed O’Neill may be best known for his comic roles in beloved sitcoms like Married… With Children and Modern Family, but he is also an accomplished dramatic actor, and he really shows off his skills here as an FBI agent who may or may not have gone too deep undercover in Miami’s criminal underworld. O’Neill, especially in 1984, was a broad and physically intimidating man, and at times in this episode, he looks like he’s going to explode into a blind rage… And then he does, and it’s a nightmare spectacle of masterful acting — and over-the-top ’80s fashion, of course, but that goes without saying. It is Miami Vice, after all.
John Leguizamo (Super Mario Brothers, John Wick) played two different characters across three seasons of Miami Vice. First, he appeared in the stunning Season 2 finale, “Sons and Lovers,” as Orlando Calderone, son of the villainous drug dealer who had killed Tubbs’s brother in the pilot of the series. After thoroughly ruining Tubbs’s life in explosive fashion, he returned in the previously-mentioned “The Afternoon Plane,” where the character was given a final, if somewhat underwhelming, send-off.
However, two seasons later, Leguizamo would make a return appearance, this time as a low-rent gang-banger whose brothers are gunned down in a diner. After being a prominent nemesis in previous seasons, it’s a bit bizarre to see Leguizamo in such a comparably less important role. Regardless of the somewhat baffling casting decision, we’re always happy to have more John Leguizamo wherever we can get him. The episode, “Victims of Circumstance,” is one of the standout entries in Miami Vice’s fifth season, with a plot about holocaust survivors and a haunting guest-turn by Karen Black.
Laurence Fishburne starred as Morpheus in The Matrix trilogy, and has starred in movies as varied as Othello, What’s Love Got to Do With It, and King of New York, to name just a few. Back when he was just another struggling actor, he appeared as a crooked, drug-dealing prison guard in “Walk-Alone,” a memorable third season episode of Miami Vice. Hilariously, he’s credited as Larry, rather than Laurence.
In another Tubbs-centric episode, Miami’s favorite Afro-Cuban Vice cop goes deep undercover after his girlfriend is randomly gunned down in a nightclub shootout. Indeed, the life expectancy of girlfriends on this show was never very long. Meanwhile, Ron Perlman (Hellboy) also makes an appearance as the warden of the prison, who basically just shows up to deliver some exposition and then fade into the background and serve as “mission control” while all hell breaks loose among the inmates. Perlman’s reputation as a leather-faced badass had not yet been established, so it may come as a surprise to many viewers that his role here is actually quite nondescript.
Not including her own music videos or the opening titles sequence of the 007 film, For Your Eyes Only, Sheena Easton made her acting debut in five episodes of Miami Vice’s fourth season. The world-renowned pop star stepped out of her comfort zone — playing world-renowned pop-star Caitlin Davies — whom an indignant Crockett is forced to play bodyguard to. However, they quickly fall in love, and even get married! Sadly, nothing gold can stay, and so the new Mrs. Crockett is gunned down during a concert by one of Crockett’s arch-enemies, Frank Hackman (Guy Boyd), a duplicitous schemer who had conned his way off of death row one season prior.
Season 4 is easily Vice’s weakest year, but Easton’s episodes add a unique energy into the mix, and she has great romantic chemistry with Don Johnson, despite being a full decade younger than her co-star. What’s a decade or two between romantic partners, especially when the man is older, isn’t that right, entertainment industry?
Dennis Farina starred in one of producer Michael Mann’s other shows, the criminally underrated Crime Story, which is available to view on Hulu, but in severely compromised form; unlike Miami Vice, where great effort was taken to preserve the original music from the original airings, no such attempt was made with Crime Story, and many scenes with period 1950s music were replaced with generic placeholders.
Until the day when Crime Story sees a proper release, we can at least see Dennis Farina (who also starred on Law & Order for two seasons) in three episodes of Miami Vice as Al Lombard, an ethical, but nonetheless ruthless and criminal, mobster. His appearance in Season 1 (in the episodes “One-Eyed Jack” and “Lombard”) was one of many where the villains were presented as complex and nuanced, as opposed to the broader one-note pastiches of Vice’s contemporaries. While his fifth season appearance (in the episode “World of Trouble”) was bogged down by an unnecessarily complex McGuffin straight out of some sort of sci-fi flick, Farina still delivered the emotional melodrama which was always Vice‘s biggest strength.
Kids these days know Bill Paxton as the man who saved the first season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. from mediocrity, and he’ll next be seen in the hotly-anticipated television version of Training Day on CBS. Back in the day, however, Paxton was a rising star. Around the time that he stole scenes in James Cameron’s Aliens, Bill Paxton starred in “Streetwise,” from Miami Vice’s third season.
One of the most broodingly cynical episodes in the whole series, “Streetwise” features Paxton as Vic Romano, a cop on the edge, trying in vain to save a young woman named Carla from her life as a streetwalker while contending with her pimp and drug mover, played by Wesley Snipes.
Bizarrely, Paxton’s character’s name, Vic Romano, served as the inspiration for one of the hosts on MXC: Most Extreme Elimination Challenge, a Spike TV dub of the Japanese game show, Takeshi’s Castle. Don’t be afraid to whip that one out at your local bar’s next trivia night.
Before he was cast as Tom Cruise’s right-hand man in the Mission: Impossible film series, Ving Rhames made one of his very first acting appearances in Miami Vice. In two different episodes, Rhames successfully played one of Vice‘s most noble one-shot heroes, and one of its most evil rogues. In “The Maze,” a particularly claustrophobic episode from Miami Vice’s first season, he plays a homeless man who sacrifices his life to save his sister from sexual assault by villainous hostage takers.
Three seasons later, Rhames made a return appearance as a far less virtuous character, an arms dealer named Walker Monroe in the episode “Child’s Play.” He turns a child into a gun-toting criminal (who is shot and nearly killed by Crockett) and brutally beats up his girlfriend. As Miami Vice villains go, he is certainly one of the most ruthless and inhumane characters in the series.
These days, the great Kyra Sedgewick is best known for taking down criminals in The Closer, the TNT original drama that transformed the network from a syndication hub for old cop shows to a cable juggernaut with adult-oriented dramas and intelligent procedural. She also commands some serious laughs as Lieutenant Holt’s nemesis on FOX’s cop comedy, Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Back in the day, when she was just twenty years old, she appeared on a notably peculiar second season episode of Miami Vice, “Phil The Shill.” She plays a mobster’s moll who winds up falling for and becoming accomplice to the titular con-man, played by none other than Phil Collins, whose music was used prominently in various episodes of the show. In the annals of the sillier, less dramatic episodes of the series, “Phil The Shill” is certainly more watchable than the show’s weakest entries, such as “The Cows of October” and the legendarily bad “Missing Hours,” which co-starred James Brown and Chris Rock. We don’t talk about that one.
Lou Diamond Phillips
In the episode “Red Tape,” Lou Diamond Phillips (La Bamba) and Viggo Mortensen (Lord of the Rings) play two young cops, Diaz and Trumbull, with their whole careers in front of them… Until a bomb at a routine bust kills Trumbull and sends Diaz on a quest for revenge, all of which causes Tubbs to become disillusioned and quit the force. Fear not, for it’s all a ruse to root out the mole whose leaks have led to the deaths of multiple good cops. Spoiler alert: one half of the leak turns out to be Annette Bening!
Somewhat humorously in hindsight, Viggo Mortensen gets blown up in the opening scene, yet still has prominent “guest star” billing, almost as if Bonnie Timmerman and Michael Mann knew that he’d become an A-List star eventually, despite his minimal screen time in the episode. Meanwhile, Lou Diamond Phillips delivers a passionate performance as a cop who willingly goes over the edge in the name of revenge. Finally, Philip Michael Thomas also gets to shine in “Red Tape,” as the episode’s events turn Tubbs into an uncharacteristically loose cannon, even though it’s (at least partially) an act — as opposed to the cool and composed cop he usually presents himself to be.
“Amen… Send Money” is another weird episode. Season 4 has its moments, but, taken as a whole, it’s easily Miami Vice’s weakest year. Still, unlike this season’s true stinkers, “Amen… Send Money” at least manages to serve as effective satire of the greedy televangelists of the era, folks who are willing to exploit gullible Americans for financial gain. Plus, one of the pastors, Bill Bob Proverb, is played by the great Brian Dennehy, who is all but literally chewing the scenery.
A 22-year-old Ben Stiller plays “Fast” Eddie Felcher, who sells so-called holy trinkets, combining the sliminess of the worst (best?) used car salesmen with the religious rhetoric, if not the self-indulgent faux-righteousness of the so-called holy men who feature heavily in the episode. “Fast” Eddie lives up to his name, racing through his dialogue like a street-corner salesmen with aspirations of fame and riches. The gaudy gold chains are just a fun bonus.
Helena Bonham Carter
Helena Bonham Carter starred in two episodes of Miami Vice’s third season, though her first appearance was basically just a cameo in the episode “Duty and Honor.” Helena didn’t really get to shine until the following episode, “Theresa,” named after her character, Theresa Lyons. She plays Crockett’s girlfriend, a successful doctor whose addiction to painkillers quickly leads to disaster.
The action in the episode is somewhat lacking — with a dramatic car chase ending with a laughably low-rent “crash” and other cut corners — but when it comes to the dramatic scenes between Helena Bonham Carter and Don Johnson, the episode really shines. Helena was only twenty years old acting opposite the 37-year-old Don Johnson, but despite being way too young to be a doctor (unless she’s Doogie Howser, of course), she’s tremendous in her role as a good woman who made a few bad choices, and is torn between her job, her addiction, and her love for Sonny.
Liam Neeson saved hundreds of people in Schindler’s List, and probably killed at least as many in the Taken trilogy. Also, he’s a Jedi Master who trained Batman, and that’s just scratching the surface of Liam Neeson’s awe-inspiring resumè. Back in the days when he was an up-and-coming, but still relatively unknown actor (especially to American audiences), Neeson snagged a beefy role in the third season premiere of Miami Vice.
“When Irish Eyes Are Crying,” was the first episode under new showrunner Dick Wolf (of Law & Order fame, but you already knew that), and it dealt with “The Troubles” in Ireland spilling over into Miami. Is Neeson’s character a pacifist calling for the end of the war? Or does he have a more sinister agenda? Actually… You’ll just have to watch the episode to find out.
In addition to Liam Neeson, the episode also guest-stars Paul Gleason (the principal from The Breakfast Club), and features Jeff Fahey as an no-nonsense arms dealer who infamously proves the effectiveness of his Stinger missile launchers… On Crockett’s beloved 1972 Ferrari Daytona Spyder. The look devastated look on Don Johnson’s face is just priceless. May it rest in pieces.
One of the most revered character actors of all time, Steve Buscemi has appeared in nearly 150 movies and television shows. One of his first roles was as Rickles in the season 3 episode, “El Viejo.” A drug-dealing middleman working for a larger cartel, Rickles comes into conflict not only with the Vice squad but with a retired Texas Ranger, played by country music legend (and close personal friend of Don Johnson) Willie Nelson, who is a pure badass as the merciless ex-lawman on a quest for revenge.
Aside from the awesome sight of Willie Nelson taking Steve Buscemi as a human shield during an intense shootout, the episode is notable for featuring Crockett’s black Ferrari… Despite it having been blown up several episodes earlier. Originally, “El Viejo” was supposed to the season premiere, but various factors led to it being pushed back and “When Irish Eyes Are Crying” taking the role of season opener. Some scenes had already been shot featuring the original Ferrari, and they decided that covering a gaping plot hole wasn’t worth spending the money to reshoot all the vehicle scenes with the shiny new Ferrari Testarossa. It’s still a magnificent stand-alone episode, but the continuity error is really noticeable when the series is watched in order.
Due to its groundbreaking use of popular music in addition to a traditional score, Miami Vice became a popular destination for pop stars who wanted a shot at acting. Aside from the already-mentioned Sheena Easton, Phil Collins, and Willie Nelson, there are a ton of musicians who made appearances on the show. Some were good actors, and some were downright bizarre.
Ted Nugent, perhaps due to be certifiably crazy in real life, gave a great performance as a tough-but-soft-spoken killer in “Definitely Miami,” in which he does battle with Sonny Crockett. Cue an amazing music video sequence of Cry by Godley & Creme. The great Frank Zappa appeared in “Payback,” also from the second season, in which he is set up to be a recurring nemesis to Crockett, even discovering his true identity, though he never reappeared in any subsequent episodes. James Brown appeared in the previously mentioned “Missing Hours,” which is easily the worst episode in the entire series, and that’s all we have to say about that. Leonard Cohen had a handful of brief scenes in “French Twist,” in which he displays an adorable french accent. Popular Motown singer El DeBarge appears as himself in one of our favorite episodes, “Bought and Paid For,” where a performance of his band’s hit song, “Rhythm of the Night,” adds a sinister dissonance to a particularly gripping scene.
Other musicians to appear on the show include Gene Simmons of KISS, Glen Frey of The Eagles, Eartha Kitt, the legendary Little Richard, and Suicidal Tendencies, the first Hardcore Punk band to have a crossover MTV hit.
What’s your favorite episode of Miami Vice? Are you going to boot up Hulu to see some of your favorite stars wear ridiculous 1980s clothing? Maybe, if we’re lucky, an HD remastering of the series could lie in store for us in the near future, which would be absolutely fantastic. Sound off in the comments!
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