Miami Vice was an American crime drama that was vastly popular in the mid-80s, featuring detectives working undercover in Miami, Florida. One component that made the show so popular was that Miami Vice drew heavily upon 1980s New Wave culture. Today, this show is a time capsule into 80s culture overall. It did this by integrating contemporary pop and rock music into the show. The theme song was especially popular and considered one of the coolest themes at the time. Instead of using made-for-TV music for the show, Miami Vice would spend $10,000 or more per episode to buy the rights to original recordings.
Looking back on the show today, we can see dozens of familiar faces. And not just actors who eventually got their big break. A fair number of musicians also appeared on the show. The series’ integration of popular songs was revolutionary for its time, allowing artists to reach households that may have never heard their work. Knowing this, it’s no surprise that musicians were drawn toward Miami Vice. If they could get their song or themselves on the show, they’d receive huge exposure. Once the show became more popular, becoming a major part of pop culture at the time, appearing in a guest role became a status symbol.
Seeing musicians appear in the acting world is always exciting to see. Especially if the musician is great in both fields! So, we’ve compiled a short list of some of our favorite musicians who have made an appearance on Miami Vice.
The energetic Little Richard appeared in Season 2, Episode 4 of the show. The episode was titled “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run.” In it, Little Richard plays Reverend Marvelle Quinn, a man who is preaching an anti-drug sentiment and sending his disciples out to spread the word on the streets of South Beach. His preaching is then interrupted by a drug bust. It was a brief cameo, but a memorable one. Seeing Little Richard in a role like this wasn’t too far off from the evangelical work he was doing in real life. His appearance on the show was a sort of comeback for the musician as he was finally finding a balance between his religious and rock personas.
Unfortunately for Brown, he was in one of the worst episodes in the show’s history. In Season 4, Episode 7 (“Missing Hours”), James Brown played Lou DeLong, a singer-turned-interplanetary-cult-leader. The episode featured mysterious deaths, UFOs, and crop circles. It was definitely a strange storyline. James Brown’s performance was fun but unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to save the episode. Twitter user, @DannyDutch describes the episode best, saying, “Combine the hardest working man in showbiz with a government conspiracy and a touch of the paranormal and you’ll get probably the show’s strangest guest appearance.”
Known as one of the essential faces of the rock band Kiss, Gene Simmons guest-starred as Newton Windsor Blade in the second season in 1986. A fan of the show, Simmons’ character was a drug dealer, who is considered the "Sears and Roebuck of controlled substances." He looked vastly different than his iconic Kiss ensemble, but he played a party-boy drug dealer well. Unlike some of the other musician cameos, Simmons’ character actually helps the main characters, Crockett and Tubbs, in their pursuit of Colombian drug smugglers.
Known for being a jazz legend, Miles Davis’ appearance on the show was a welcome surprise. He appeared on the show in 1985’s season two episode, “Junk Love.” Davis played a character named Ivory Jones who gets busted for running a brothel. In the aftermath, the pimp agrees to help the cops bring down a bigger criminal. Davis’ character ends up being killed off by the end, but it was a memorable performance.
Frank Zappa was known for many things, but the acting wasn’t really one of them, so his appearance on Miami Vice in season two episode 19’s “Payback” was a big surprise to fans. He was an eccentric guy and the perfect fit for his role as drug kingpin Mario Fuente. He plays an intimidatingly persistent character hell-bent on recovering a large sum of money. In his pursuit, a shootout ensues and Zappa’s character escapes, promising he’d return for revenge. Despite the episode ending with a slight cliffhanger, Zappa never reprised his role on the show. After his appearance in 1986, he did some voiceover work in the years after but never fully returned to acting before his death in 1993.
Rock star Ted Nugent appeared in season 2 of Miami Vice in episode 12 titled “Definitely Miami.” In the episode, Nugent plays a gun-wielding psycho named Charlie Basset. Charlie is a thug who uses his stunning wife Callie to lure rich men to their doom. The episode’s story eventually gets to a showdown at a remote quarry where Nugent’s character is shot by the police. The episode featured Nugent’s song “Angry Young Man,” which came from his 1986 album Little Miss Dangerous.
Fun fact: Miami Vice uses Nugent’s title track later in the season. The episode is even titled "Little Miss Dangerous."
Leonard Cohen chose to appear on Miami Vice because he wanted to surprise his kids, who loved Miami Vice. Cohen appears in Season 2, Episode 17 titled “French Twist” where he plays an evil Interpol commander who orders the assassination of a rogue agent. His character spoke French only but that wasn’t a problem for Cohen who was fluent in French. He was originally slated to hold a bigger role in the episode but after some rewrites, he only appeared for about a minute and a half through a couple of phone conversations. Despite the role being cut short, Cohen said he was happy to do the role.
The beloved singer is known for hits such as “In the Air Tonight” and “Against All Odds” appeared in Miami Vice’s second season in 1985. This was not the musician’s first brush with the show as Collins’ song “In the Air Tonight” was used in their pilot in a car scene that became a distinctive ‘80s pop-culture moment. The show helped it become one of the era’s essential songs.
He came onto the show as a game show host who’s also a conman. Phil “The Shill” Mayhew moved to Miami from London and quickly set about depleting the bank accounts of the city’s richest residents with a shady drug deal. Phil Collins’ song “Life is a Rat Race” was featured in the episode and was penned just for the show.
Glenn Frey’s appearance is special, as the episode he appears in, “Smuggler Blues,” was inspired by Frey’s 1984 single of the same name. The show’s writer even took lines from the song for dialogue in the episode. On the show in 1985 in Season 1 Episode 15, Glenn Frey of The Eagles played Jimmy Cole, a Vietnam vet who agrees to fly Crockett and Tubbs on a mission to locate some drug traffickers. After his single episode appearance, Frey contributed songs to later episodes, including season two’s premiere song. "You Belong to the City," became one of the biggest singles of Frey’s solo career.
John Taylor/ Power Station
A fun appearance was John Taylor from the group Duran Duran. In the episode, he appears as himself in a bar scene as a friend of the main character, Crockett. In the episode, he also performs with the Power Station playing "Get It On (Bang a Gong)." For those not familiar with the history of the group, The Power Station was formed in 1984 during a "split" in Duran Duran when John and Andy Taylor hooked up with former Chic drummer Tony Thompson, producer/manager Bernard Edwards, and vocalist Robert Palmer. Episode 2, “Whatever Works” from season 2 features the band playing in the short time that they were a group, as they had only performed live a few times.
A cowboy showing up in a crime show may seem out of place, but it works well in Willie Nelson’s case. Appearing in season 3, episode 7’s episode titled, “El Viejo”, Nelson’s character (often referred to in the show as “the old man”) was a retired Texas Ranger named Jake Pierson. In the episode, his character interrupts a drug bust and takes off with a briefcase of money. He tries to take the law into his own hands but ends up helping the leads take down a drug lord. He, unfortunately, loses his life in the climax, but such is the fate of many special appearances on this show.
Barbra Streisand makes only a brief cameo in Miami Vice, but I wanted to include it because the reason behind it is interesting. In her episode, she doesn’t have any lines and isn’t even credited. This is because she was just playing a pedestrian that the two main characters pass by in the scene. Her part is so small because she wasn’t sought out to make an appearance. At the time, she was dating Don Johnson, one of the lead detectives, and she was able to join a scene for fun. Pretty cool!
These are just a few of our favorite musicians who have made appearances on Miami Vice, but there were a lot more. Which one do you remember? Who do you think had the best acting chops? Let us know in the comments!
Special thanks to the sources that helped me create this article...
Written by Kristen Petronio