Back in the 1970s and 1980s Jan-Michael Vincent burst onto the film and TV scene like a shooting star. He shone brightly in the entertainment universe for a while, dazzling everyone around him. Then the spark went out and his career fizzled, faltered and died.
The disintegration of his career was largely his own fault. Success came quickly and he earned big money. Temptation, however, enticed him into drugs and alcohol. He became addicted to both quickly and with devastating consequences. He soon turned from star to has-been. Jan-Michael the A-lister turned into Jan-Michael the B-movie actor. The final years of his career were to see him taking parts in low-budget or direct to TV movies which was a climbdown from his heyday.
At the height of his fame he was the epitome of cool, an ambassador of style. He sported astonishing good looks and a physique that made girls – and some boys – go weak at the knees. Publicity photographs of him wearing a shirt are rare, as he took every opportunity to show off his muscled body. His looks and his body were his biggest assets and the PR folk made the most of that!
Let’s follow his early life and career and find out just how he rose from nowhere to international fame in a few years, and then lost his way and drifted around the edges of Hollywood until his career finally ended.
Jan-Michael Vincent’s early life
Jan-Michael was born in 1944 in Denver, Colorado. His father was a painter as his grandfather had been, and owned a signage firm in Hanford, California. Jan-Michael’s paternal family seems to have littered with bank robbers. His grandfather was both a bank robber and counterfeiter in the 1920s and into the 1930s. One uncle shot dead by a deputy-sheriff while wanted for a bank robbery in Oregon. Two other uncles jailed for bank robbery in 1931. In 1932 his grandfather and another uncle also arrested for robbing banks.
With a family history dominated by members who lived outside the law, it is surprising that Jan’s father did not follow the family tradition. Instead he took a different route and joined the US Army in 1941. He rose to be a pilot of B-25 bombers and in due course Jan took a similar route after leaving full-time education by joining the California Army National Guard.
In the 1960s in California there plenty of opportunities for young men to involved in surfing and partying. There were plenty of cool dudes on the beaches and sidewalks of the state, so Jan must have really stood out as special to attract a movie scout’s attention. The accepted story is that a talent-spotter saw Jan on a beach in California and immediately thought that here was someone who should be in films.
Despite having no formal training in drama, the 22-year old Jan catapulted into the limelight. In 1967 he got his first role in The Bandits with Robert Conrad. He also had a part in a made for TV movie called The Hardy Boys: The Mystery of the Chinese Junk.
A golden career
He had signed up to Universal Studios where he soon made appearances in a selection of TV shows. Dragnet 1968 and The Banana Splits aired episodes with Jan playing muscly students. In 1969 he landed a starring role in a soap opera called The Survivors. He shared top billing with George Hamilton and Lana Turner although the series canceled in the middle of the season.
The late 1960s were good for Jan. He played opposite John Wayne and Rock Hudson in the movie The Undefeated. The film set in the immediate post-Civil War period, and concerns adventures in Mexico where the Emperor Maximilian is fighting to get his throne back. The film was not a financial success although critics were complimentary.
At about the same time Jan appeared in two episodes of Bonanza and three episodes of Lassie. He began the 1970s with a role in a made-for-TV film Tribes and praised by critics. He also praised for his role in Going Home which starred Robert Mitchum. Jan- Michael Vincent followed this with a film starring Charles Bronson called The Mechanic. Disney cast him in The World’s Greatest Athlete and another made-for-TV movie with George Kennedy called Deliver Us from Evil. TV roles came in Gunsmoke and Marcus Welby M.D.
Jan then shocked audiences by appearing naked in the movie Buster and Billie, a romance released in 1974. Jan now cast regularly in movies roles and over the next few years appeared in Bite the Bullet with Gene Hackman, Candice Bergen and James Coburn, White Line Fever, Baby Blue Marine, Shadow of the Hawk, Damnation Alley, and Hooper with Burt Reynolds.
These were mostly big-budget Hollywood movies and Jan was appearing with some of Hollywood’s greatest stars. His starring roles continued into the early 1980s with Defiance and The Return in 1980 and Hard Country with Kim Basinger in 1981. Last Plane Out released in 1983, the same year as he starred in the TV miniseries The Winds of War.
Then came the role that Jan best remembered for – Airwolf. In this series he played the pilot Stringfellow Hawke co-starring with Ernest Borgnine. This an action series set in the world of espionage and was immensely popular both in the US and overseas. Jan became a household name as the series grew in popularity.
At the time that Airwolf airing, Jan being paid $200,000 per episode. This made him the highest paid TV actor at the time. However, stardom and wealth were to be Jan’s downfall as he admitted to having addiction problems with both drugs and alcohol. During series 3 of Airwolf he frequently turned up in no fit state to act his part. He failed to remember lines, forgot who he was acting with, and also struggled to walk or even stand properly. The filming of the series went over budget as a result of the delays and the difficulties caused by Jan’s problems and was canceled at the end of the series. The three series had totalled 55 episodes and had become a popular fixture.
Even after the cancellation of Airwolf there were a few directors still willing to use him in their ventures. He appeared in an episode of Hotel in 1986 and in two made-for-TV movies Six Against the Rock and Tarzan in Manhattan in 1987 and 1989. Jan promise to seek help for his addictions did seem to make a difference and he was able to take on some leading roles during the late 1980s.
He appeared as the lead in Hit List in 1989 a thriller directed by William Lustig. In 1990 he took the leading role in Alienator and in the Australian thriller Demonstone.
The days of Jan appearing in major Hollywood movies did however seem to be over by the 1990s. He made appearances in a few direct-to Video and less successful films that made no real impact. His dependence on drugs and alcohol continued and he became less easy to direct as time went on. As he progressed into late middle-age, he found even the character parts drying up.
With only slasher movies and erotic fare like Sins of Desire looking to hire him, he found his name slipping further and further down the cast lists. In The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams Jan plays a trapper whose listing is even further down than the named animals that feature in the film!
Jan-Michael Vincent’s last movie role came in 2003 when he landed a cameo part in White Boy. His last TV appearance had been a guest appearance in 1997 in one episode of Nash Bridges.
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Jan-Michael Vincent’s ruptured personal life
Jan was 22 when he was handed a golden ticket which gave him a career in movies that other actors only achieved after years of study and gaining experience. He started out pretty much at the top of the tree. He starred alongside Hollywood greats like John Wayne and earned huge sums of money for the time.
Yet he did not seem to appreciate the opportunity that he had been given. As a teen and young man he must have had some pride in his appearance. He must have worked to achieve the ripped body that became the key to fame and fortune.
Perhaps in the very early years of his life in movies he did appreciate his good luck. That soon changed as he became more used to the high life. He dabbled with drugs and turned to alcohol.
He was arrested for possession of cocaine in three consecutive years – 1977, 1978 and 1979. Perhaps it was no coincidence that his first marriage – to Bonnie Portman – ended in divorce in 1977?
He was a menace when drunk and in 1984 and 1985 he was arrested for brawling in bars. These were the years that he was at the height of his fame starring in Airwolf. In 1986 he was accused of assaulting a woman in his home, but his lawyer argued the incident was an accident and he was acquitted.
Violence in the home, though, was not unusual as Jan’s second wife left him and accused him of physically abusing her. Violence towards the women in his life continued, and in 2000 an ex-girlfriend stated that he had assaulted her when she was pregnant and she miscarried their child.
Drunk driving was also a feature of Jan’s life. He was arrested in 1988 but avoided prison by agreeing to go into rehabilitation. During the 1990s he had three serious auto accidents. The first happened in 1992, the second in 1996 and the final one in 1997. It seems that Jan was a menace on the roads as well as to those people who loved him.
The 1996 accident was probably the most serious of the three and resulted in him breaking three vertebrae and having to have an emergency trachotomy at the scene. This left him with a hoarse voice for the rest of his life.
The same year saw him charged with drunk driving again but he again agreed to rehabilitation and a period of probation. In 2000, unsurprisingly, he was in trouble again. He violated the terms of his probation being caught intoxicated in public on three separate occasions. He spent 60 days in the Orange County Jail.
The new millennium had started badly for Jan and carried on in much the same way. Another motoring accident happened in 2008, and in 2012 he had his right leg amputated. His years of drink and drug abuse had affected his health to the extent that he developed peripheral artery disease. He was fitted with a prosthetic leg and on occasion used a wheelchair. It was two years before he spoke about the amputation in public. Then he admitted that he had been lucky to survive the operation.
Jan-Michael Vincent’s death
One of the effects of using recreational drugs is that it can cause a condition called bradycardia. This condition results in a very slow heart rate. While it can be managed and medicated in otherwise healthy sufferers, those in poor health become vulnerable. Jan-Michael Vincent’s death was in part due to bradycardia brought on by his use of drugs. He suffered a cardiac arrest while in hospital in North Carolina in 2019. He was 74 years old.
Jan-Michael Vincent is a good example of someone who gets the big break early in life and then squanders those chances by behaving foolishly. Despite several spells in rehab, it seems the Jan was not willing to give up his addictions. The result is clear to see as personal and career decline followed.
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