Like all humans, I rely on certain rituals to anchor my week. My current seudah shlishit: getting a cheddar and swiss hot dog from Spike’s, plus fries and a Diet Pepsi, and eating it at home while watching something on Hulu. I prefer Burn Notice while it’s in season, but will fall back on another action drama (like Magnum P.I.) otherwise. Coasting around the “dial” leads to the occasional bit of weirdness, though, like that episode of Miami Vice starring G. Gordon Liddy.
Liddy plays Maynard, an ex-CIA officer who’s aiding a cartel of American businessmen in funding the Nicaraguan Contras. Freelance reporter Ira Stone catches some of Maynard’s mercenaries destroying a Nicaraguan village on tape. He flees to Miami and begs Crockett to keep him safe until he can sell the tape to a major network. Crockett doesn’t believe him at first, since Stone’s a paranoid drug addict. I should note here that Stone was played by Bob Balaban, who has sadly never shaken the “raving junkie” typecasting.
Why is this so bizarre to me? Two reasons.
First, Liddy’s not a bad actor. He’s no worse than anyone else on the show. Miami Vice actors either play wild cartoon characters (e.g., Bruce McGill in “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run”) or stare into the middle distance and mumble. Michael Mann can sure frame a shot, but he had little interest in coaching an engaging performance out of his cast.
Liddy approaches his role as a villainous general with sleazy relish. When one of his cartel asks him for proof that his mercenaries can terrorize the Sandinistas, Liddy tosses a necklace of human ears across the table and grins. He only has one odd line delivery, about two-thirds through the episode. He extorts the tape that Balaban’s character filmed from Balaban. Crockett thinks ahead, makes a copy of the tape, and meets Liddy in a parking lot to deliver it. Liddy waddles up with this giant bag slung over his shoulder, which apparently contains a machine that can magically detect whether a videotape is a copy or an original. “Copy!” he yells at Crockett, a mix of shock and contempt preventing him from using verbs or definite articles.
Second, and I apologize for repeating myself, Liddy plays a former CIA officer who uses illegal means to funnel private contributions toward archconservative political ends. In other words, he’s playing himself. Had he still been working for the government in 1984, instead of having been arrested for his role in the Watergate burglary, this is what Liddy would have been doing: funding the Nicaraguan contras. As it is, someone got Ollie North to do it.
Either Liddy has no sense of irony or a very well-developed one. I can’t tell. And I used to listen to his radio show (… yep).
I’m not sure which I’d prefer. I love irony so much that I’d be equally happy if the joke were on Liddy as if he were in on the joke. Maybe he had no sense of how the episode would look in post production and thought that he might come out looking heroic. The fact that he kidnaps a helpless man and orders a goon to torture him casts some doubt on that, to say nothing of the necklaces of human ears he keeps in his briefcase. Or maybe Liddy grew tired of American intervention abroad after doing a bid for Nixon. Or maybe he just knows how his bread is buttered. Someone offers him the chance to make a hundred thousand dollars by playing a snarling archconservative; who’s he to turn it down?
(Note this was actually Liddy’s second time appearing on Miami Vice. The first time, in Season 2, his character was smuggling heroin into the country in body bags)
This was hardly Miami Vice‘s weirdest example of stunt casting. Other odd guest stars include Glenn Frey as a bush pilot (“Smuggler’s Blues”), Phil Collins as a con artist (“Phil the Shill”), Frank Zappa as a drug dealer (“Payback”) and Willie Nelson as a Texas Ranger (“El Viejo”). But you don’t watch Miami Vice for the method acting or the gritty naturalism. You watch it for the cool sets, the slick action and the hot soundtrack. “Stone’s War” features songs by Steve Jones, Jackson Browne and an oddly placed Peter Gabriel track. Miami Vice wasn’t the first franchise to substitute attitude for plot, but few can do it better.