Jan-Michael Vincent, 1945–2019
The hard-living Airwolf star who crashed and burned
In the mid-1980s, Jan-Michael Vincent was the highest-paid actor on TV, earning up to $200,000 per episode playing daredevil helicopter pilot Stringfellow Hawke on the CBS series Airwolf. With a square jaw and a surfer’s physique, Vincent seemed tailor-made to be a Hollywood star. But his offscreen behavior ultimately destroyed his career. Struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, Vincent frequently appeared drunk on set and got into after-hours bar fights, leading crew members to nickname him “Jan-Michael Vodka.” Unable to rely on an erratic star and with ratings dwindling, CBS canceled Airwolf in 1986 after three seasons. Vincent’s career went into a tailspin.
Raised in Hanford, Calif., Vincent, an avid surfer, had little interest in working a 9-to-5 job, said The Washington Post. He headed for the coast “when his strict father tried to strong-arm him into joining” the family’s sign-painting business. After dropping out of college and serving a stint in the California National Guard, Vincent was spotted by a talent agent who, “marveling at his good looks, got him a contract with Universal Studios.”
Vincent played a hit-man apprentice to Charles Bronson in 1972’s The Mechanic, said The Guardian (U.K.), a devil-may-care surfer in 1978’s Big Wednesday, and one of Robert Mitchum’s sons in the hit 1980s TV miniseries The Winds of War. “But his post-Airwolf years amounted to a litany of misfortune,” with Vincent consigned to D-list films. A 1996 car accident left him with damaged vocal cords and a permanent rasp; an infection led doctors in 2012 to amputate part of his right leg. Addiction was a constant struggle, he told a reporter in 2000. “I’m hanging on,” he said, “by my white knuckles.”