Lived Through This

What Happens When You Have the Same Name as a Celebrity

My life as ‘the other Don Johnson’ in 1980s Miami

Vintage photo of a light-skinned man with brown hair, wearing aviator shades, a leather jacket, and a polo t-shirt, standing in front of a palm tree and the ocean.
Vintage photo of a light-skinned man with brown hair, wearing aviator shades, a leather jacket, and a polo t-shirt, standing in front of a palm tree and the ocean.
The author. Photo: P. Giantonio

The sirens woke me up, but it was the flashing lights piercing the curtains and bouncing off the walls like angry red-and-blue strobe lights that got me out of bed. I pulled on some jeans, padded downstairs, and stepped into the thick, humid South Florida nighttime air.

There were half a dozen police cars with doors open parked all over the place. Most of the cops were gathered around the house across from mine. A few locals stood around, looking sleepy.

“What happened?”

“Someone sprayed that place with a machine gun.”

This was Miami in the 1980s. Pablo Escobar’s cocaine was flooding the country, and my city was a hot spot. Pablo had a house on Miami Beach facing beautiful Biscayne Bay and backing up to a golf club. I lived on the other side of the course. You could say we were almost neighbors.

However, while he was smuggling in billions of dollars of cocaine, I was living like a monk with six other guys, eating vegetarian food and meditating twice a day. We all worked for an Indian guru, managing his legal and financial affairs. I wasn’t doing cocaine, nor was I drinking or having sex. We were all following the rules of the ashram we joined like good devotees.

That same South Florida drama soon inspired television entertainment. In 1983, the Miami Herald ran a story about a new TV show called Miami Vice: a stylized cop show with fast boats, slick cars, and two lead actors—Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas—as undercover cops doing battle with the cartels and various bad guys. The actors wore linen pants, slip-on loafers (sans socks), and pastel-colored T-shirts under Armani jackets. Don Johnson pioneered what became known as “designer stubble” by regularly going unshaven.

It was groundbreaking TV for its time, high on style and low on content and plot. The music was hip and showcased top recording artists. It became wildly successful and was soon syndicated around the world.

The original plan was to do most of the filming in Los Angeles, but then the producers decided on Miami and South Miami Beach. “South Beach,” as it became known in the ’90s, was a run-down area stricken with poverty and crime. Except for Jewish retirees living in broken-down art deco hotels on Ocean Drive, there weren’t many people around. The relative quiet of South Beach made filming much easier for producer and director Michael Mann when he had to shut down the streets and blow things up.

In 1984, I had left the ashram to start life with my fiancée. My days of abstinence were over, and it was time to get a new job. While looking for full-time employment, I registered with a talent agency, hoping to work as an extra on the Miami Vice sets—after all, it wasn’t every day that a flashy television show would be filmed nearby starring someone with my name.

Not long after I started a two-week training program for a sales position, I got the call asking if I could be on the set the next day. They wanted me to be Glenn Frey’s stand-in—yes, that Glenn Frey. The timing was terrible. My heart said, Go, you fool! My head said, You can’t just blow off work. I reluctantly said no and slumped off the next morning to training, totally bummed I’d missed my big chance to be part of the Miami Vice scene.

It was cool knowing someone famous was so close — until my phone started ringing nonstop.

Little did I know that the Miami Vice scene would keep popping up for me. Don Johnson had moved to town, and his home was on a private island I could see from the new condo I was renting with my fiancée. It was cool knowing someone famous was so close—until my phone started ringing nonstop, particularly on Friday nights when the show came on. Yellow phone books still existed then, and my name and info were listed. My address was 20 Island Avenue, which sounds like the kind of address a guy like Don Johnson might have. Apparently, every person in the city thought the same thing.

I got his mail all the time — strangers writing to him, women he met in clubs pouring their hearts out, young women sending cute photos. The door person at my condo was continually turning away people with flowers, gifts, and packages he knew weren’t really meant for me. It was nuts.

Everybody wanted to talk to him. I’d answer the phone, and they’d flip out.

“Are you really Don Johnson?”

“Yes, I am!” I’d play along for a while and then say, “Look, my name is the same as his, but I’m not him, okay?”

They’d always ask if I knew how they could get ahold of him as if sharing a name connected us personally. When I’d let them know I did not, they’d hang up, disappointed.

There were other connections too. We ended up sharing the same dentist—although his appointments happened via portable chair taken to his home on Star Island. Someone else I knew worked for Don as one of his two personal assistants. I met people who worked on the set. Another friend of mine later renovated his home.

Miami was a small place then. When I made dinner reservations, I’d often find myself booked at the best table in the house. When the waitstaff realized I wasn’t who they were expecting, the excitement quickly drained out. But we all had a good laugh.

In my sales job, when I made cold calls, people went wild. They’d cover the phone and shout across the office, “I can’t believe it! Don Johnson is calling!” It was ridiculous and nonstop for over 10 years. It made for great conversation, and no one ever forgot that I called. I had a lot of fun with it.

Ten years later, I was in Austin, Texas, for an annual company conference at a resort hotel. On the last night, celebrating the end of the meeting, a group of us gathered around the piano just outside the lobby bar. My friend Larry started playing some Billy Joel tunes. We were singing, laughing and having a wonderful time.

As we finished up “New York State of Mind,” I heard a woman’s voice behind me saying, “Hello there! There’s so much good energy here. Can I join you?” We welcome her, and she moved to an open spot across the piano. My friend Judith poked me softly in the ribs and said, “Do you know who that is?” I had no idea. “It’s Maya Angelou, the renowned poet.”

She chatted and sang with us for the next hour or so, beaming and laughing. Before we left for the night, someone asked her what she was doing at the hotel. “I’m here for a luncheon tomorrow.” She went on to say, “Don Johnson is the guest speaker at the luncheon.”

We all chuckled, and someone said, “Well, Don Johnson is right here,” pointing at me.

Angelou laughed and said, “Oh my, you must get a lot of attention.”

Living with the same name as someone famous led to many, many, jokes.

The next morning, I stood in the lobby with 50 of my work colleagues waiting for the airport shuttle buses to arrive. I knew that Don Johnson could be arriving for the luncheon at any time, and I was excited for the chance to see him in person.

A few minutes later, the revolving doors spun around, and there he was with Melanie Griffith. I said to myself, Well, I’m not going let this chance slip through my fingers.

He was walking right toward me. I moved forward slightly with my hand out and said, “Excuse me, Don, I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Don Johnson too.” He stopped, smiled his million-dollar smile, and shook my hand. I said, “I used to live in Miami during the show and got a lot of your mail and phone calls.”

He laughed and said, “I hope you kept the mail. I don’t need more.” Melanie smiled and shook my hand. Then the pair were whisked away to their event.

I stood back beaming. My colleagues were equally excited. “You just talked to Don Johnson!” How could I not? After we both lived in Miami for so many years, I never thought my chance to meet him would happen at a hotel in Austin, Texas.

My experience with Don Johnson was delightful and serendipitous. I’d heard from various people over the years that he was full of himself and an egomaniac. It was a nice surprise—and somewhat a relief—to experience him as nothing but pleasant and easygoing.

Living with the same name as someone famous has led to many, many, jokes over the years. “Oh, so you left acting, and now you’re in sales?” Or, “Where’s your sport coat and T-shirt? Are you wearing socks?” One CEO shouted at me, “I always wanted to meet Don Johnson!” My name was an effortless conversation starter. Everyone could walk away and say to their friends, “Hey, I talked to Don Johnson today!”

The experiences gave me a taste of what stars go through — people constantly after them with little regard for their privacy. The price of fame, sure, but they’re human beings like the rest of us. Don Johnson didn’t have to stop in the lobby and speak with me. Neither did Melanie Griffith. Maya Angelou could have walked on past that piano. But they all took a few minutes to connect with other human beings.

It’s so easy to make up stories about people. It’s natural for our brain to take disparate bits of information, string them together, and complete the story in our heads. Our job is to not slip into judgment, gossip, and acting out the stories we’ve made up. People are people no matter their name or their occupation.

I ordered some firewood the other day. When the guy answered the phone, I told him who I was, and he said, “Don Johnson? Miami Vice? What are you doing in Scotland now?”

It just never ends.

10 years as a monk, 49 years meditating, 30 years in the shark-infested waters of corporate America | Connect with me on Linked In-

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store