Michael Mann is the rare director-writer-producer who has maintained simultaneous careers in feature films and television, and he’s done this since the 1970s. Mann’s TV career includes not only the major hit series and cultural avatar Miami Vice (1984-90), but also television’s first serialized drama, Crime Story (1986-88), and the first weekly series to be shot in high-definition film, Robbery Homicide Division (2002-2003).
As the premiere of the Mann-directed pilot of HBO’s Luck nears on Jan. 29, Mann spoke with me about the entire breadth of his TV career, starting at the beginning, with writing work on the anthology series Police Story, and the Aaron Spelling-produced hit Starsky and Hutch.
Police Story (1973-77) and Starsky and Hutch (1975-79)
Mann: “This was apprentice work to some extent, but more than that. I picked up invaluable skills here, due mostly to two guys. One was [producer] Bob Lewin, who ran Starsky and Hutch, who told me I had an ear for real dialogue and language but I didn’t really have any sense of how stories should tell themselves. And he became quite a generous mentor and really spent time with me developing a sense of structure.
“There’s one episode I wrote, that became the first episode after the pilot had aired, called ‘Texas Longhorns,’ that’s a good example of this. It was a riff on a guy who wants to get rid of his wife, and I modeled the guy on Cal Worthington, who’s a famous Los Angeles used-car dealer.
“The other man who taught me a lot was Liam O’Brien—the brother of the actor Edmund O’Brien, by the way. He ran Police Story, which was an anthology series, a different cast each week. I was also lucky that I came on board that show while Joseph Wambaugh [the cop-turned-novelist who’d written the bestselling The Onion Field] was still active in producing the show.
“Police Story had some of the best writing on television, and one reason for that is because most of the scripts were based on real cases. So I got to sit with a police officer who experienced having a nervous breakdown after he and his wife separated. He was a homicide detective, he was working a case of the freeway sniper who was randomly shooting people in cars. And started to do a midnight bedside vigil to a young Korean girl who was brain dead, who had been shot. And then started having conversations with her. And you get these incredible stories, and in a way, both of these experiences were very formative. One, in terms of a sense of story structure, and two, that appreciation [of] the intense experiences of real people often times have a currency in them and are expressed with language that is beyond anything you can make up.
“As writers, we had the opportunity to sit down and talk to a police officer and hear true details, to discover the process law enforcement went through, and that kind of detail is invaluable—it’s no exaggeration to say that it set me on the path to the way I write every one of my movies and TV projects to this day. I remember sitting with a police officer who was following a break in the case of a sniper shooting, and he was also in the midst of a nervous breakdown, but he held it together to do his job and get it done right before he took care of himself. Incredible devotion and will power. It’s that intense experience of real people that I’m always trying to reproduce in my work.”
The first TV show created by Mann, Vega$, starred Robert Urich as Dan Tanna, a lovable Las Vegas private eye. Mann has said he wanted to do an “extreme” detective series and that one of his visual inspirations was Ralph Steadman’s hallucinogenic drawings for Hunter Thompson’s book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The series didn’t turn out that way:
“I could see the writing on the wall pretty early on when what I called the ‘leisure-suit brigade’ moved in [as producers working for Aaron Spelling] and took over the show. It very quickly became more fluffy. Urich was fine, he was a good performer who could have done the role the way I envisioned it, but he also fit the more breezy, lightweight style they wanted. But I had something more radical in mind. Vega$ was important for me because it began my interest in twilight zones, in areas of activity that were ignored by mass America, for the most part, and that were in the process of change—in this case, the 1950s and ’60s, when Vegas was undergoing a transition from an Outfit-controlled [i.e., organized crime] landscape to a G-rated grind-house.
“Las Vegas itself was a wonderful place for a dramatist, because people going to Vegas were still inventing their own dramas when they set foot in the town: They could become whoever they wanted to be, act that out. As a setting, it was a desert with no intrinsic meaning. I saw how things worked while doing research there, clues in the smallest details: You’d see a guy pull up in his car to check into one of the hotels, and a valet would approach him and if the guy reached into his pocket for his wallet, for a tip, the valet started walking faster. If the guy didn’t go for his pocket, or he came out empty-handed, the valet would slow down, even walk away. [Laughs] Stuff like that, I loved: It was so honest that everything was so mercenary!”
The Jericho Mile (1979)
A TV-movie starring Peter Strauss as a man sentenced to life in Folsom Prison for murder; the character begins running as exercise, and eventually becomes so fast and strong, some officials think he might qualify for the Olympics. Strauss was a major star for his role in ABC’s Rich Man, Poor Man, and would win an Emmy for this Mann-written and -directed film.
“There’s people who live life authentically and there’s people who live a life of fabrication. And it begins with the question of how you’re gonna do your time. And these are observations I made about Folsom when I was there with Dustin Hoffman when he was directing Straight Time. He directed it for two or three days, then he fired himself because he realized he couldn’t direct and act at the same time…. It was my first time in Folsom which was the end of the line of the California Penal System, which meant it had a mature population of convicts. There weren’t guys who were freaking out because they were suddenly thrown into the joint, as if it was like San Quentin. When you kill somebody in San Quentin, then you got sent to Folsom. So the operative phrases were things like, you’d hear people say ‘this guy could do a nickel or dime standing on his ear. He could do 5 or 10 years easily.’ But that meant it was the violence and the rules were ordered. But then the gang structures inside the prison, which at that time would have been Hell’s Angels — there was no Aryan Brotherhood then — Mexican Mafia — and the Black Guerilla Family, were beyond rigid. And it felt to me, viscerally, like this is lethal. It’s kind of like high school. We had 13 stabbings and one killing during the 19 days in which we were shooting. So it was obviously a dangerous place.
“It felt like men were escaping into a fantasy world of alliances and group identifications and gangs… But it was fantasy. It was airbrushed Hustler and Playboy… And I walked by one cell one day in one of the cell blocks and there were these pictures on the wall of a man and his wife having sex on a conjugal visit. There was the birth of their child, in bad black-and-white photographs, and it just rocked me. Because I knew enough to know that this guy was doing the hardest kind of time. And the hardest kind of time is when you really are in tune with the world that you are excluded from. Every minute, every hour, every day. And that’s also a form of–that is the reality. And this guy was escaping it not at all. And that was very poignant, and that became the idea for the character Stiles [played by Richard Lawson], who gets killed part of the way through, that he didn’t have Playboy centerfolds in his cell. He had real pictures of the real life that he wasn’t part of. And Murphy was an authentic character who starts to have expectations. And if you have expectations, now you’re approaching, your head’s approaching where Lawson is, as his expectations are destroyed, because he can’t race outside. The ending of the film is really kind of a counterpoint. He runs and wins the fastest time, so there’s a triumph, and at one and the same time, he’s lost his soul.
“The real hero when we went to Folsom was [costar] Miguel Pinero. Here was Peter Strauss, a big star from Rich Man, Poor Man—but Pinero [an ex-con who'd written the award-winning prison play Short Eyes, and cofounded the Nuyorican Poets Cafe] was the guy everyone wanted to meet. Prisoners would bring him glasses of water with a napkin wrapped around it, so his fingers didn’t get wet—these small gestures of respect were their form of courtesy.”
MIAMI VICE (1984-90)
The show that made stars of Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, as cops who dressed in well-tailored, pastel-colored clothes. Created by Anthony Yerkovich, with Mann’s extensive involvement in the first two seasons as a producer who helped, often uncredited, in writing, directing, and casting, Vice was famously conceived by NBC president Brandon Tartikoff with the latter’s two-word pitch: “MTV cops.” The series became so famous for its use of major-act rock music on its soundtrack that lists of its songs would be printed in newspapers the morning after it aired.
“The thing about this series now is that the reality of what the show did in, I would say, its first two and a half years is much different than the image of the show that’s entered the popular imagination, of what colors peoples’ memories of it: the pastel clothes, the flamingos in the opening credits, Elvis [the alligator] as Don Johnson’s pet. If you look at the first two seasons, there are some very strong, timely, serious stories being told. The decline in quality after that I ascribe completely as being my own fault; I wasn’t there nearly as much, I was getting into doing Manhunter, I was distracted. But go back and look at an episode like ‘Stone’s War’—it’s almost shocking to see now: It was Contragate with music by Jackson Browne ["Lives in the Balance"], about a CIA operation to get money and drugs out of Nicaragua to finance the [Iran-Contra] war. G. Gordon Liddy was a guest star.
(Indeed, it is striking to watch “Stone’s War” now, and to hear Johnson’s Sonny Crockett warn of “reruns of Vietnam in Central America,” and see Liddy — one of the Watergate master-mini-minds — play an Oliver North-like character who proves his Reagan-era bona fides by laying out on a table a length of thin rope strung with the severed ears of Sandinista insurgents. Then, too, there are also cool cars…)
“We wound up doing four soundtrack albums with music from the show, all of which went to No. 1. Glenn Frey was in the episode called ‘Smugglers Blues,’ the title taken from his song, and that episode was written by Miguel Pinero. There’s an episode called ‘No Exit’ that has an amazing cast including Bruce Willis in one of his earliest TV appearances, as an arms smuggler and wife-beater. It takes me two years to make a movie, roughly, so one of the ongoing attractions of doing a TV show is that, while you’re doing research for any project, you develop a huge backload of stuff – timely things, the way people talk, things that are happening in the culture at that time – that you can’t use if you wait for a movie release date. But when you’ve got a TV show up and running, you can get stuff out there, into the world, relatively quickly. Plus, I got to work with an awful lot of good actors and non-actors. We really ran the gamut: Giancarlo Esposito, John Turturro, Eartha Kitt, Frank Zappa, Little Richard, Lee Iacocca, Ted Nugent, Kyra Sedgwick, Leonard Cohen.”
In Part 2, Mann will discuss TV work including Crime Story, Robbery Homicide Division, and the new HBO series Luck.