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Miami Vice Actors You May Not Know Passed Away

Few TV series have had the cultural impact of "Miami Vice," the five-season cop show that ran from 1984 to 1989, logging 112 episodes. A montage of sharp suits, fast cars, and neon lights, "Miami Vice" came to exemplify the flashy excess of 1980s popular culture. The glamorous lives of Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) and Rico Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) — who wore five to eight outfits in each episode — would reinvent the city of Miami in a classic case of life imitating art. "Miami began trying to duplicate much of what we designed as discos, or entertainment places," said producer Richard Brams. "We saw people designing their new establishments the way we had dressed our sets."

But for all the visual influence "Miami Vice" doubtlessly had, it was the music that became the show's most enduring feature. After all, NBC chief Brandon Tartikoff had pitched the show as "MTV cops." This synthy high concept proved to be very successful, attracting a raft of the decade's most popular musicians such as Phil Collins, Chaka Khan, and Tina Turner. It also attracted a sweeping cast replete with famous cameos and budding character actors, including Dennis Farina, Miguel Ferrer, John Heard, and R. Lee Ermey. Almost 40 years have passed since "Miami Vice" premiered on September 16, 1984. Alas, so have some of its cast members. Here are the "Miami Vice" performers you may not know passed away.

Dennis Farina

Dennis Farina played Albert Lombard, a crime boss and gambling racketeer who featured in the episodes "One Eyed Jack," "Lombard," and "World of Trouble." Lombard was among Farina's first roles as an actor. Previously, he had spent 18 years in the Chicago Police Department. He used this knowledge as a police advisor to Michael Mann, working first on "Thief," Mann's 1981 directorial debut. Farina made such an impression that Mann cast him in a small role as Carl, a gangster's henchman. This would lead to bigger characters in the director's other projects, namely "Manhunter," "Crime Story," and "Miami Vice," for which Mann served as executive producer. 

From the late 1980s onward, Farina would establish himself as a character actor with a slick yet tough Italian-American charm. Rarely seen out of a shirt, slacks and well-cut blazer, Farina's biggest roles came in "Midnight Run," "Get Shorty," and "Snatch" — all of them fast-talking, mobbed-up characters. Farina died on July 22, 2013, from a pulmonary embolism. He was 69. 

Leonard Cohen

By its second season in 1986, "Miami Vice" had such a zeitgeisty buzz that it attracted cameos from all manner of performers. Perhaps the unlikeliest was from Leonard Cohen, the Canadian musician with a vibe quite different from the neon excess of "Miami Vice." He assumed the role of French villain Francois Zolan, purring his lines with an inscrutable menace. His appearance was very much a cameo, lasting no longer than 60 seconds in the episode "French Twist."

Cohen had been a musician for some 20 years at the time, having been a poet and novelist before turning his hand to music at the age of 33, when he released his debut album "Songs of Leonard Cohen." "Hallejujah," his best-known song, came along 17 years later in 1984, but it was still obscure when Cohen appeared in "Miami Vice." It would take a 1994 cover by Jeff Buckley and usage in "Shrek" to make it Cohen's defining track. In the meantime, he worked on albums such as 1992's "The Future," which Oliver Stone used in his film "Natural Born Killers," a jet-black satire that echoed Cohen's disaffected worldview. During a period of ill health, Leonard Cohen died after a fall on November 7, 2016. He was 82.  

Gregory Sierra

Gregory Sierra played Detective Lieutenant Lou Rodriguez in Season 1 episodes "Brother's Keeper," "Heart of Darkness," "Cool Runnin'," and "Calderone's Return (Part 1)." Before that, Sierra had cut his teeth playing Julio Fuentes in "Sanford and Son," a sitcom about an ill-tempered junkyard dealer and his long-suffering son, which was a far cry from the stylized sensibility of "Miami Vice." Different, too, was the NYPD sitcom "Barney Miller," in which Sierra played Chano Amenguale, a detective sergeant with moments of righteous passion. 

To some fans, Sierra didn't quite fit into the show, with one dubbing him an "identikit cop show boss" whose conservative style made "Crockett and Tubbs look like they were wearing costumes," in the words of another. Ultimately, Sierra left the show and was replaced by Edward James Olmos in the role of Marty Castillo, the severe yet coolly enigmatic cop boss who proved to be a much better fit for the "Miami Vice" aesthetic. After his stint with the Metro-Dade Police Department, Gregory Sierra would continue his busy career in film and TV. He died of cancer on January 4, 2021, at age 83.

Glenn Frey

A founding member of the Eagles, Glenn Frey launched his solo career in 1982 with the album "No Fun Aloud," which was a modest success. Frey's second album, 1984's "The Allnighter," generated more interest, especially the video for "Smuggler's Blues," which tells the story of a drug runner being pursued by criminals and authorities as he crosses borders with a briefcase full of cash. 

This was so "Miami Vice" that when executive producer Michael Mann saw the video, he used it as heavy inspiration for Season 1, Episode 15, also named "Smuggler's Blues." Mann then cast Frey as Jimmy Cole, a guitar-loving pilot who agrees to fly Crockett and Tubbs on a secretive mission to Colombia. It was Frey's first role as an actor, yet the singer proved to be a natural. His association with "Miami Vice" continued with the tracks "New Love" and "You Belong to the City," which were featured in the episodes "Nobody Lives Forever" and "The Prodigal Son," respectively. Frey made several other film and TV appearances, too, including cameos in "Wiseguy" and "Jerry Maguire," but nothing came close to "The Heat is On," the hit single from "Beverly Hills Cop" that would define his solo career. 

After suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, colitis, and pneumonia, Glenn Frey died on January, 18, 2016. He was 67. 

Brian Dennehy

In "First Blood," Brian Dennehy raised the hackles of a generation with his performance as Sheriff Will Teasle, a small-town bully who picks a fight with Sylvester Stallone's John Rambo. For "Miami Vice," Dennehy channeled this natural flair for villainy into the Reverend Bill Bob Proverb, a television evangelist who appears in the episode "Amen... Send Money." The title's cynicism should tell you something about Proverb's character. He is a classic charlatan — manipulative and Machiavellian. Dressed in fine silk suits, he leads a millionaire's lifestyle with the reams of viewer donations that flood his office. However, his wife Leona's drug problem gets her busted by Tubbs, beginning a feud that reveals the true extent of Proverb's sickening self-interest. Dennehy captures all of this with some serious scenery chewing, especially in the studio scenes where he bursts with righteous emotion like a true megachurch evangelist. 

After his "Miami Vice" role in 1987, Dennehy would appear in titles such as "Presumed Innocent," "Romeo + Juliet," and "Death of a Salesman," for which he won a Golden Globe. Active into his old age, Dennehy died on April 15, 2020. He was 81.

James Brown

R&B legend James Brown, often referred to as "The Godfather of Soul" or "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business," appeared as Lou DeLong in the episode "Missing Hours," which most "Miami Vice" fans will tell you is the worst episode in the show's history. By "worst," they mean "weirdest," because "Missing Hours" has moments that are almost beyond description. When there aren't people dressed as aliens or a shirtless man throwing himself through a plate glass window, we see James Brown having his image superimposed onto surrealist clouds as his face is replaced by the expression of Trudy Joplin, a colleague of Crockett and Tubbs. It's hard to know whether Brown's character is real or imagined, but his reality is confirmed when he appears at the station to confront Joplin, who appears to have been hallucinating. And yes, that is a 22-year-old Chris Rock standing behind Brown in the image above. 

James Brown died of congestive heart failure on December 25, 2006. He was 73. 

Miguel Ferrer

Best known as the upstart executive Bob Morton in "RoboCop," Miguel Ferrer appeared as two different characters in "Miami Vice." First was the role of an unnamed district attorney in "Death and the Lady," but a meatier turn came in "To Have and to Hold," which saw Ferrer play Ramon Pendroza, the son of Louis Pendroza, a Miami drug lord. 

Like others in this list, acting was not Ferrer's first calling. He spent years as a musician, touring the country with his mother Rosemary Clooney, the famous singer. This was because he felt eclipsed by his father Jose Ferrer, who won the Best Actor Oscar for "Cyrano de Bergerac" in 1951. Once he felt confident enough to forge his own path, Ferrer quickly established himself as a character actor. Following "Miami Vice," "RoboCop," and several other TV appearances, Ferrer made his mark as FBI forensic agent Albert Rosenfeld in "Twin Peaks," a screenwriter in "The Harvest," and a high-stakes drug dealer in Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic." 

Miguel Ferrer died of throat cancer on January 19, 2017. He was 61.

Paul Gleason

In his review of "Die Hard," Roger Ebert praised the "superior special effects, impressive stunt work and good performances" — so why did he give the film a measly two stars? Well, it seemed entirely due to the character of Dwayne T. Robinson, the deputy police chief played by Paul Gleason. Ebert thought Robinson's verbal attacks on John McClane, an NYPD cop stuck in a skyscraper with 12 marauding terrorists, were an example of "Idiot Plot Syndrome" and that Robinson was a "phony counterpoint" who was "consistently wrong at every step of the way." 

Most viewers believed in Gleason's character as the proverbial chain of command jobsworth, which caused them to invest even deeper in McClane's perilous situation. Such a reaction reflected Gleason's talent for portraying browbeating authoritarian types, which he also displayed as Vice Principal Richard Vernon in that other '80s classic "The Breakfast Club." His character in "Miami Vice," however, is cut from very different cloth. In "When Irish Eyes Are Crying," Bunny Berrigan is a flamboyant businessman whose IRA sympathies cause him to work with Sean Carroon, a seasoned terrorist played by a young Liam Neeson, to shoot down a British Concorde jet. Of course, this being "Miami Vice," Berrigan wears yellow trousers with a white jacket and brandishes an Uzi 9-millimeter, the era's chicest submachine gun. 

Paul Gleason died from an asbestos-related lung cancer on May 27, 2006. He was 67. 

Charles Ludlam

Charles Ludlam was an avant-garde stage actor who played the role of "Transvestite Pusher" in the episode "The Prodigal Son," which sees him meet Crockett and Tubbs on the streets of New York City. Ludlam described working in TV as "tremendously difficult" because of all the "waiting around" and "tedium" but enjoyed it nonetheless. It gave Ludlam the opportunity to bring his Ridiculous Theatrical Company shtick to a mass audience. Ludlam founded the company in 1967 and served as director, reveling in "all manner of comic exaggeration." 

Tragically, Ludlam died of AIDS on May 28, 1987, aged 44. His death came at a time when AIDS was very poorly reported. For example, The New York Times' obituaries would skirt the issue, attributing deaths to pneumonia, toxoplasmosis, or even heart failure. These causes of death were not untrue, but the Times failed to acknowledge that it was AIDS that caused these diseases to manifest. So when theater reporter Jeremy Gerard heard of Ludlam's death, he was determined to rectify The New York Times' willful negligence. After lengthy phone calls with Ludlam's parents, Gerard was given permission to publish the full cause of Ludlam's death, a first in the paper's history. This transparency continues to be instrumental in destigmatizing HIV/AIDS. 

John Heard

They may not know his name, but John Heard is a familiar face to millions of viewers. This is because Heard has appeared in a cross section of popular culture, from "Big" and "Home Alone" to "CSI: Miami" and "Prison Break." Perhaps his best work came in the first season of "The Sopranos," in which he plays the corrupt detective Vin Makazian, one of Tony Soprano's connections in the Newark Police Department. Disheveled and stoop-shouldered, Makazian cuts a very different figure to Laurence Thurmond, Heard's character in "Miami Vice."

A defense attorney, Thurmond is even more corrupt than Makazian, yet he dresses in the familiar pastel hues and flies a private jet in his spare time. Appearing in the episode "One Way Ticket," Thurmond is shown to be man utterly without principles, defending the murderer who killed his friend because he secretly works for the murderer's boss. Heard plays the role well, although it's a footnote compared to his long, full career.

John Heard died of a heart attack on July 21, 2017. He was 71. 

G. Gordon Liddy

He may be a polarizing figure, but there's no doubt that G. Gordon Liddy lived a life. Who else could say they had been a lawyer, an FBI agent, a talk show host, an actor, and a convicted political criminal? And not any old political criminal, either. The crime in question was none other than the Watergate scandal, in which Liddy was involved along with E. Howard Hunt as part of President Nixon's team of "White House Plumbers." After refusing to testify against his superiors, Liddy was sentenced to 20 years in prison but served just four years and four months after Jimmy Carter commuted his sentence.

Following his release, Liddy embarked on a second career in the media, cultivating a brash, mustachioed image that was completely unrepentant. His first move was in publishing, writing a successful memoir that was admired by both sides of the political aisle. 1986 saw him embrace full-blown bombast, appearing at "Wrestlemania II" to judge a boxing match between Mr. T and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper. Shortly before that, in December 1985, Liddy made his debut in "Miami Vice" as William Maynard, a renegade colonel and Vietnam veteran. Maynard, who appears in episodes "Back in the World" and "Stone's War," imitated Liddy's maverick backstory, only this character dabbled not in political burglaries but in batches of toxic heroin and violent power struggles with the Nicaraguan Contras. 

After suffering from Parkinson's disease, G. Gordon Liddy died on March 30, 2021. He was 90. 

Bill Paxton

Fan favorite Bill Paxton appeared in the episode "Streetwise" as Vic Romano, a Metro-Dade detective who falls in love with a sex worker named Carla Cappoletti. When Romano and his lover are found with high-purity cocaine, Crockett gives him a lifeline by offering to help Romano find the source of the product, which could save the detective's career. 

Romano is a typical noir character, slipping into immorality one bad decision at a time. Paxton would play similar roles in "One False Move" and "A Simple Plan," two superb neo-noirs from the 1990s. But he was best known for his work in science fiction, action, and drama, namely in "The Terminator," "Aliens," "True Lies," "Apollo 13," and "Twister." It was in these films and others that Paxton displayed his heart and nuance as an actor, which he sometimes balanced with brilliantly obnoxious performances, especially in "Aliens" and "True Lies." However, his peers and admirers respected him not just for his career but also his personal character. In the words of Vanity Fair, "Paxton was known as one of the most charming, funny, and caring actors in the business who'd go out of his way to make his co-stars have fun."

Paxton's new show "Training Day" had recently broadcast its second episode when he underwent open heart surgery on February 14, 2017. Tragically, Paxton would die 11 days later from a stroke. He was 61.

R. Lee Ermey

Authority figures were R. Lee Ermey's bread and butter. After years of literally being one — he spent over a decade in the United States Marine Corps — Ermey took his work experience to the silver screen, landing very small roles in war films such as "Apocalypse Now" and "Purple Hearts." It would not be until 1987 that he made a real impression, starring as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket," which premiered on June 17 of that year. It was a tremendous bit of casting that took elements of Louis Gossett Jr.'s performance in "An Officer and Gentleman" and made it a whole lot realer and nastier. 

Around six months later, on December 4, Ermey made his TV debut with "Miami Vice," playing Detective Sergeant Ernest Haskell in the episode "The Rising Sun of Death." Haskell fits the bill for Ermey's brand of stiff-backed authority, yet in true "Miami Vice" fashion, the detective sergeant is revealed to be far less principled than his badge suggests. 

After his breakthrough work in 1987, Ermey would score roles in classic films such as "Mississippi Burning," "Seven," "Dead Man Walking," and "Toy Story." He also gave uncommonly warped turns as Sheriff Hoyt in two "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" reboot films. R. Lee Ermey died of pneumonia on April 15, 2008. He was 74.