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Gary Younge
Miami, money and meltdown

In 1985, shortly after Don Johnson went to the White House without any socks on and Ronald Reagan asked him to sign a picture of the actor on the cover of Time magazine with the headline "America's favourite vice", the actor reflected on the way fame had transformed him. "I'm different than I used to be," the star of Miami Vice told Time. "You know that Cyndi Lauper song, Money Changes Everything? It's true ... Last year I bought my son a bicycle for Christmas. This year I'm giving him Toys R Us."

But there were some things, he vowed, that would never change. "I'm maybe one of the few people left in the world who will honour his word," he said.

Those words now echo around the hilltops of the Colorado ski resort of Aspen where Johnson, once one of the highest-paid actors in American television, is now in so much debt that he cannot even pay his grocery bill, not to mention his wine tab and security bill. A local supermarket, Clark's Market, has sued Johnson, 54, in Pitkin County, seeking payment for an unpaid debt of $5,470 (£3,085). Johnson had set up an account whereby his bills were instantly charged to his credit card. Then his card expired, but Johnson kept shopping. "The guy doesn't pay his grocery bills and we have to go to court," Tom Clark, owner of the nine-store chain told the New York Post. "It's pretty simple. There's not much to it."

At the same time, a number of other creditors from Aspen are listed in a bankruptcy petition, from the Grape and Grain off-licence to Aspen Valley hospital and the Dish Network, which provides a satellite dish service. The debts range from $7,345 for hospital fees to $50.83 to a firm called BMC West, Colorado Springs. Things are so bad that last month Johnson filed for bankruptcy protection for one of his firms to prevent the City National Bank, based in Los Angeles, auctioning off his home.

Left there and this would be one more tale of a fallen star with empty pockets who has descended from eminently desirable - "I never wanted to be the sex idol of the universe," he once claimed - to the epitome of desperation. But alongside his unpaid bills lies far murkier dealings that would not have looked out of place in a script for Miami Vice.

Last summer, according to a bankruptcy court filing, Johnson's trust tried to pay off a mortgage with "guaranteed promissory notes" from Bogota, Colombia. "After investigation, the Bank of America was unable to assure itself of the validity and collectability of the notes and refused the trust's request," the court was told.

Almost a year earlier, in November 2002, Johnson was detained at the German-Swiss border with a suitcase filled with as much as $8bn worth of credit notes and other securities. German customs officers had no evidence that Johnson had committed any crime but the sheer scale of the find prompted them to take photocopies and contact their US counterparts, who investigated.

No charges have been brought and Johnson cannot see what all the fuss is about. "There is no truth to this story," he told Reuters. "They have taken a routine incident and blown it up into this money-laundering ring that supposedly I am involved in and it has caused me unbelievable difficulty."

His lawyer, Ronald Litz, says Johnson was simply on his way back from meeting potential investors in Zurich, who were later scared off by the bad publicity. "The poor guy was just trying to get money for a film," Litz told the Los Angeles Times. "The deal was about to close this week and now the investors are afraid he is involved in money-laundering. But the documents weren't his. They were the investors'."

The way Johnson's friends tell it, the threat of foreclosure, bankruptcy filings, suits and promissory notes are evidence of nothing more than a straightforward cash-flow problem. "In terms of day-to-day reality, Don Johnson, the actor, the individual person, has not filed for bankruptcy, is not bankrupt and is simply going through a re-finance, a restructuring of his business life," says his publicist, Elliot Mintz.

There is some truth in this. The companies Hill, Williams and Hicks and Timber Doodle Glade Equity Venture have filed for bankruptcy, not him. The trouble is that the filings show that Johnson owns 100% of the latter and, according to Bank of America, the former is "controlled directly or indirectly by Don Johnson".

Johnson's personal affairs have never been straightforward. Sent to reform school when he was 12 for hot-wiring a car, he moved in with one of his professors at university and pursued a life of sex, C-movie roles and recreational drugs for long enough and with sufficient zeal that it could not be mistaken for youthful exuberance. "I was about as wild as they come," he says. "People are thrilled I lived through it."

In the midst of all this came Miami Vice, the show that put downtown cops in upmarket, designer clothes and sent Johnson racing along the beachfront in a black Ferrari Spider and on to instant fame. Johnson played Sonny Crocket, a troubled, Vietnam vet with a hairless chest and an impressive line in cotton jackets with the sleeves pulled up. "That was some ride," Johnson told the Los Angeles Times. "And it was hard to navigate, because the show was so white-hot at the time. I had been working for 15 years before that and had some notoriety, but that kind of fame is something no one can prepare you for."

Over the years he became tabloid fodder, living large and in public. He has married, divorced, remarried and redivorced Melanie Griffiths, and shuttled in and out of rehab for alcohol and drug addiction. Five years ago he married again - San Francisco debutante, Kelley Phleger - and they are still together.

But the fortunes of the on- and off-screen characters could not have been more different. While Johnson was playing the field, Crocket rarely got to sleep with anyone and the few times he did, it was a disaster. Once he overslept and his partner got shot; the other time the woman got up first and stole his gun. While Johnson was making millions, Sonny got turned down for an American Express card.

But when Johnson first saw the script he said that he felt he knew the character only too well. "It was like the guy had been following me around." As time went on, he found him. For while Johnson's work dried up, the money in his account appears to have kept flowing out. Despite playing alongside Kim Basinger, Melanie Griffiths and Mickey Rourke, his bid for celluloid stardom failed, as he was cast in forgettable films such as Sweet Hearts Dance, Dead Bang and Hot Spot. He returned to television with another cop show, Nash Bridges, which, although not embarrassing, was hardly a hit.

His Aspen ranch comes with a 1,250 sq ft swimming pool and a guest house worth $4m. He also leases a home in Beverly Hills. Most of the outstanding bills appear to be related to the upkeep of the house in Aspen: for security, rugs, food and drink. Mintz says Johnson still goes for nice meals and even the bankruptcy filings show that his assets are worth far more than his debts.

Johnson's latest attempt to reverse his professional decline and financial demise premiered on cable six months ago - a made-for-television movie about a corporate executive suddenly faced with charges of humanitarian abuse after a fellow Vietnam vet decides to unburden his conscience on his death bed. Its title? Word of Honour.

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