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Philip Michael Thomas: Three Names, One Special Miami Vice Memory

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman offers his insights, opinions, and observations about the local scene. This week, looking back on the 30th anniversary of Miami Vice.

With the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Miami Vice, who among us doesn't feel a tug of nostalgia. We remember what our city was once like before the show's cast and crew draped it with neon, forced entire segments of the population to abandon their socks, gave us new appreciation for flying flamingos, and actually made us believe that South Beach could be more than merely the final resting place for the nation's aging.

Where are you now, Crockett and Tubbs, when government corruption is once again rampant and politicians are behaving like weasels in the wild? It still seems like now's the ideal time for a pair of leisure-suited detectives with perfect coifs to come and rescue us from our malaise.

Not that I can take any credit at all for contributing to that show's indelible imagery, but I am proud to say that I had a minor role in a single episode during one of the show's final seasons. OK, so acting as an extra in a two-minute scene didn't have any immediate impact on the show's lingering legacy or contribute to its credibility, but hey, it did create some special memories for me. And considering the fact it's the only extra work I can really put on my résumé -- other than participating in a crowd scene in the legendary opus Porky's 2 -- that in itself is enough for me.

The premise of the scene I was in was simple, tried, and true. A mobster had tossed one of his enemies off an overpass near downtown Miami, and I, along with another dedicated thespian, was hired to play a pallbearer. You'd think that was simple enough, right? But being the method actor that I am, I wanted to be sure we pulled off the scene with the care and precision our roles demanded. Consequently, cast and crew assembled one early morning on a shabby side street near downtown and prepared to go through our paces.

In truth, it didn't take a lot of concentration. After all, when you're recovering a body that's just been thrown off a bridge, not much direction is necessary. Go get the victim, load him or her on your stretcher, find the ambulance, and then walk out of the shot. It took me no more than a few hours to master that mission, as long as my colleague possessed the same sense of commitment as me and didn't screw things up by trying to commandeer the stretcher in some opposite direction.

After several takes, we reconvened on the sidelines of the set where my costars, Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, were prepping for their take. The idea was to have the pallbearers in the same shot so that Crockett and Tubbs, newly arrived on the scene, could observe us in action. I was standing directly in front of Thomas, readying myself for this crucial part of the action, and waiting for the director to yell "Action!"

That's when Thomas tapped me on the shoulder.

I froze with anticipation. Wow, I thought to myself. The legendary actor is about to offer me some valuable advice. Some small measure of his thespian-like insight. Some crucial information that will help me stand out and show my superiority as a genuine professional.

I turned to face him, awaiting the key communication he was about to impart.

"Ummm, could you scrunch down a little bit? You're blocking me out of the shot," he informed me.

I was incredulous. That's not the guidance I was hoping for. In fact, it didn't seem like guidance at all. "Scrunch down?" Did they teach that at the Actors' Studio? I doubt it!

Still, I complied with his request, figuring it was bad form to upstage a fellow actor... especially if one of those actors happens to be Philip Michael Thomas on the set of Miami Vice. Still, it stung. Was the man's ego so gigantic that he couldn't afford to share the spotlight? I heard show business was a cutthroat profession, but until now, I had no idea exactly how cutthroat it could be!

That unfortunate encounter haunted me for years. However, after a while, I decided I needed to get past it and get myself back on track. I went on to become the PR person at Hard Rock Café in Bayside, figuring that now that I had made my mark in television, additional offers for acting gigs calls would come pouring in. They never did. My career as a professional extra had run its course. I had to adapt to civilian life. Maybe Thomas had spread the word -- I needed to be told to scrunch. Obviously, scrunching is a key part of show-biz protocol. If you have to be told, you don't belong.

So one day, I was working the floor at Hard Rock when a familiar figure appeared at the hostess stand. It was none other than my former coworker Tubbs, still looking as cool and charismatic as he did back in the day. As he and his entourage -- yes, he still traveled with an entourage -- were escorted to their table, I wondered if perhaps he had come to make amends, to apologize for deliberately stealing the scene, forcing me out of the frame and forcing me out of show business all at the same time. However, I soon realized that his memory wasn't nearly as long as mine, and in fact it was clear he had no memory of working with me at all. In fact, it soon became clear he had no memory of me at all either.

Naturally, I felt inclined to remind him, but it didn't seem to sink in. Instead he asked one of his compatriots to hand him a headshot, upon which he inscribed something for me.

"Especially for you, Lee... Yesterday is a cancelled check... Tomorrow is a promissory note...Today is CASH IN HAND! I'll be back to Rock the Hard Rock Cafe..."."

Heady words. Poetic too. And, perhaps in his own way, he was trying to belatedly pass on that inspiration he had failed to deliver the first time around. So if you're reading this, Mr. Phillip Michael Thomas, thank you. All is forgiven. Your eloquence is inspirational. And if we ever work together again, it will be your turn to scrunch.

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Lee Zimmerman

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