The thick, brown Manila envelope arrived containing the full script of the proposed “Killshot” episode of NBC’s top rated show, Miami Vice. I eagerly opened it and found in large, bold letters across the top: “Confidential.” It felt like I was about to read a highly classified government document.
It read like a play. Each line had the character name and a colon. Most said “Crockett:” or “Tubbs:” referring to Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas’s characters. But, then I came to the main character, the fictitious Miami Jai-Alai player Tico Arriolla. He was portrayed as a troubled athlete embroiled in dealing cocaine. When I finished the entire script, I knew our president would never accept it. But, I had no choice. I had to let him read it. I slowly walked to Dick Donovan’s office.
About two hours later, Donovan came to my office, tossed the script on my desk, and told me there was no way we could approve it. It portrayed drugs and violence within our sport. They need to change it. It’s not acceptable.
So, I called Michael Mann, the Executive Producer, and relayed Donovan’s response. I begged him to rewrite it so the player wasn’t a drug dealer. Somehow clean it up for us. He told me he would talk to Leon Echaso, the writer and director. A week later he called me back.
“We made changes to the script,” Mann told me. “Tico does not deal drugs. It’s more about his brother, a DEA agent, and conflicts about drugs. We don’t think it makes Jai-Alai look bad. This is about the star of the sport entangled somewhat in the drug world along with his DEA agent older brother.” But, he would not send down another script.
I returned to Donovan and told him about the changes. He said he would talk to Roger Wheeler, Jr., World Jai-Alai’s owner. “If he doesn’t have a problem with it, it’s ok,” Donovan said. Roger approved.
August 2nd, 1986, a caravan of trucks, trailers, and limos pulled up to Miami Jai-Alai. I met Leon Echaso, the writer and director, who told me how excited he was that we were doing this episode on Jai-Alai. Leon, growing up in Miami, was a big fan. He couldn’t have been nicer.
They parked the trailers in the back parking lot where the players parked. Each star had his or her own trailer with a sign on it. Don Johnson, Phillip Michael Thomas, Saundra Santiago, Olivia Brown, Edward James Olmos, and Fernando Allende (Tico), each with individual trailers.
I remember the first day I met the stars and crew. We had a short production meeting. Everyone seemed so nice and thanked us for allowing the filming at our location.
Then, Don Johnson came in. I was introduced to him and we shook hands. He was strikingly good looking… and he knew it. He gave an air of arrogance, probably because he was the hottest television star of day. Phillip Michael Thomas seemed down to earth and genuinely happy to meet all of us. I would later interact with the others, especially the female stars.
Later, I was introduced to Fernando Allende, a young, suave South American soap opera star. He had never seen a game of Jai-Alai and was supposed to portray the top player in the sport, Tico Arriolla.
The director told me we had to teach Allende the proper throwing motion of a professional Jai-Alai player, even though they would use a real player in the action scenes. We chose our top player, French star Michelena, to be Allende’s body double. Michelena would be the player you see in the episode making all the great shots. Fernando Allende would prove to be difficult to train. Here’s why.
The day we were going to shoot the first scenes, we had about 50 crew members, actors, and stage hands all over the court. The director wanted to film some close-ups of Tico (Allende) throwing the ball. I strapped on the cesta and told him it was best to begin with just a throwing motion without the actual ball. With the hordes of people on the court just about surrounding him, he grabs the ball from me and tries to hurl it at the front wall. Of course he threw it sideways, almost backwards, nearly hitting some of the crew. The Jai-Alai ball is hard as a rock and any hit could cause serious injury. I quickly grabbed the ball and put it in my pocket, grateful that no one was hit.
Allende yelled loudly at me, “Give me the ball! I am a star and I will do whatever I want!” Now I knew what they meant about hot-headed, prima donna stars. I grabbed the director and said, “Leon, stop this idiot before he kills someone with the ball.” He calmed him down and said we would practice later. Allende regained his composure and walked away.
The next day, Don Johnson and the other stars were going to shoot some court scenes. I told my wife, Sue, about it and invited her to the closed shoot. She was so excited she got some of her friends to come with her. It really was an exciting day for all of us. Even our players, who were the top players in the sport, were thrilled to meet the stars.
After the morning shoot, the caterers set up this tremendous buffet lunch in our north lounge. I was invited to eat with the cast. I sat with Saundra Santiago and Olivia Brown, who both played the female detectives in the show.
Santiago sometimes portrays an undercover prostitute to trap the bad guys. Undoubtedly, she was in the fantasies of most of the male audience of that time. Now, I’m sitting across the table from “Gina” (Santiago), trying to be cool, yet bedazzled by her beauty. She and Olivia were so nice. They laughed at my stories, probably just being polite. But, they were both very sweet, down to earth ladies.
I remember Saundra mentioning how cute she found Michelena. I told her he was the best Jai-Alai player around and had a great French accent. I kidded her about fixing her up with him. I believe they did go out. I’m sure Michelena, though happily married and with kids, has a great story to tell about going out with a Miami Vice star. But, I will leave that to Mich.
The filming went on for about a week. They had a scene where Crockett and Tubbs meet Tico’s brother, DEA agent Frank Arriolla, at a matinee to watch Tico play. We needed a full house.
In those days, we had a good crowd at the afternoon performances, but it was not always full on a Wednesday matinee. So, we placed a few ads saying the Miami Vice crew was filming at the fronton that day. The audience could see Johnson and Thomas close up if they came. The place was packed!
Another memorable moment was the “Strip Club Scene.” The script called for the detectives to interview a stripper that had knowledge of a crime involving Tico. After not finding an appropriate place to film, they asked if they could use the player’s recreation area upstairs in the player’s quarters.
They would use props to turn it into a strip club.
However, there was one major problem. They wanted to shoot during a Saturday night performance where we would have about 7,000 people attending Miami Jai-Alai. The entire player’s quarters is locked and restricted by law. No one was allowed in the player’s area during a performance without special permission from the state authorities. After begging our state official, he relented to allowing minimal personnel in the door that night, mainly from an emergency fire escape entrance.
It was amazing. They did turn it into a strip club with about 50 extras, music, lights, etc. I couldn’t believe when I walked from the bench area where the players were waiting to go out on the court, up the stairs, and through the door. I thought I was entering a real strip club, not that I have ever been in one. The packed house of Jai-Alai fans, screaming for their players to win the game and their bets, had no idea that our player’s quarters was doubling as a strip club.
As we got closer to the end of the script, the producers came to me and said that I had helped them so much they wanted to give me a part in the episode. Toward the end, Tico plays his final game before being struck in the head with an errant shot. They knew I had done some fronton announcing and wanted me to play the role of the announcer during the volley leading up to the “killshot.” I was grateful for the chance and quickly said yes.
They sent me to a sound studio and had me watch the volley on tape. They asked me to write the script for the announcer, describing the play, ending with the devastating hit to the head. Then, they asked me to “act.”
“We want to get a solo shot of you in the announcer’s booth immediately after you see Tico getting hit, ” the director instructed “. You need to show surprise, even horror on your face.”
I hadn’t acted since I played Peter Pan in 2nd grade. How do you fake “surprise” and “horror”? It took about four takes. I leaped from my chair, tried to make my eyes wide, and opened my mouth portraying shock.
Then, I uttered my now infamous words, “A player has been hit! Please stay in your seats.” This was the beginning and ending of my fewer than 5 second acting career. But, it will never be forgotten. I WAS on Miami Vice!
The NBC hit show won 13 Emmys. Michael Mann went on to be a very famous producer, writer, and director. While the episode, “Killshot” may not have won any Emmy, it will be one of the highlights of my career.
The sport of Jai-Alai got an hour of prime time national exposure. It was a time we all needed the escape of “Hollywood.” No one knew that we were about to face the beginning of the end for the sport of Jai-Alai.