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Johnson, son play same character

When Don Johnson saw his son Jesse in uniform, he got all choked up: “It was very moving ... my emotions were right at the surface when I was making this film.”In “Word of Honor,” Jesse Johnson portrays Benjamin Tyson, an Army lieutenant in the Vietnam War. Some 30 years later, Tyson’s seemingly tranquil life as a successful business executive and family man is shattered when he’s blam
/ Source: The Associated Press

When Don Johnson saw his son Jesse in uniform, he got all choked up: “It was very moving ... my emotions were right at the surface when I was making this film.”

In “Word of Honor,” Jesse Johnson portrays Benjamin Tyson, an Army lieutenant in the Vietnam War. Some 30 years later, Tyson’s seemingly tranquil life as a successful business executive and family man is shattered when he’s blamed for a massacre at a village hospital during the war. Johnson, 53, plays the mature Tyson.

The Turner Network Television movie, which also stars Jeanne Tripplehorn, repeats throughout December.

Seeing Jesse — very much his dad’s younger self — in the movie’s flashback sequences made Johnson reflect on his own state of mind at the time of the Vietnam War. He shared those feelings with his son.

“We talked about what it was like to lose my friends,” he said, “what it was like to see the news coverage, and how frightened and terrified I was approaching my 19th birthday, because, when you were 19, boom! You just went.”

But Johnson got lucky. The draft adopted a random selection system in 1969 and a high lottery number kept him out of the conflict. He was able to continue “hustling around trying to get jobs as an actor.” He also joined Hollywood activists such as Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland in protesting the war.

Besides stirring personal memories, Johnson notes there are issues in the movie that are resonant of current conflicted opinions about the war in Iraq.

“We didn’t want to get too political,” says executive producer and co-writer Leslie Greif, “but we did want to focus on the murkiness of war — the morality, the immorality. When is your enemy your enemy? When is he your prisoner? When is he your patient? ... all the ambiguities that drive all the madness and passion.”

Bad boy

And Greif thinks Johnson was quite right for the role. “He can be the bad guy, he can be the good guy. He can walk that line,” Greif says, referring to the mystery surrounding what happened to Tyson in Vietnam. “He has that twinkle that makes you say, ‘Even if he’s a bad boy, I love this guy!”’

Asked about that gleam in his slate-blue eyes, Johnson — most famous as cop Sonny Crockett in the 1980s NBC series “Miami Vice” — chuckled, “What look?”

The actor, who starred as another cocky cop in “Nash Bridges” from 1996 to 2001, is dressed formally in a navy blue suit — no pastel garments in sight. And the man who made stubble a must in the ’80s is clean-shaven as he chats in a Beverly Hills hotel suite.

There’s a bandage on his finger. It covers a gash caused when he tried to catch a glass of water that his 3-year-old daughter, Gracie, had knocked over when she was reaching for something of greater interest.

Johnson, 53, and his wife, Kelley, also have an 18-month-old son, Jasper. And he has a daughter, Dakota, with Melanie Griffith, to whom he was twice married. Jesse, who turns 21 Sunday, is Johnson’s son from his relationship with Patti D’Arbanville.

The actor’s romantic life has attracted its share of tabloid headlines. But despite the dubious exposure, Johnson, whose films include 1996’s “Tin Cup” with Kevin Costner, considers himself “very lucky with the reportage over the years.”

No such luck for Lt. Tyson. When the story of the massacre is revealed, he and his family become the target of a media frenzy — another aspect of the story Johnson found intriguing.

He describes Tyson as a “shutdown kind of guy,” typical of many Vietnam War veterans who “carry around things with them for the rest of their lives no one can relate to. They are locked inside ... there are parts of them that aren’t totally functional.”

So the role demanded a lot of between-the-lines nuance that is “hard to play, but rewarding for an actor,” Johnson says. “I would much rather play an emotion or a moment, or body language. In fact, I never think about delivering lines. They either fall out of my mouth, or they don’t.”