On September 28, 1984, Miami Vice made its premiere on NBC, and a new kind of cop show was born—one in which grown men weren’t afraid to pair pastel Ts with white Armani suits, music was an integral part of the storytelling, and pet alligators and sweet Ferraris were all within reach of an undercover narcotics officer. The show, which for the most part still holds up today (well, the first three seasons at least), is also famous for giving a break to dozens of then-unknown young actors who’ve since moved from the underbelly of South Beach to the top of the Hollywood A-list. Here are just some of them.
1. Jimmy Smits // Season 1, Episode 1
Before there was “Crockett and Tubbs,” there was “Crockett and Rivera.” As in Eddie Rivera, Crockett’s original—and beloved—partner, played by a then 29-year-old Jimmy Smits in his acting debut. Spoiler alert: He doesn’t make it past the pilot episode.
2. Ben Stiller // Season 4, Episode 2
Ben Stiller has made a career out of talking fast and being funny. Which is exactly what he was directed to do as a small-time con artist named Fast Eddie Felcher in his third-ever small-screen performance.
3. Bruce Willis // Season 1, Episode 7
Bruce Willis also owes the beginning of his small-screen career to Miami Vice, on which he played arms dealer extraordinaire Tony Amato in the show’s first season. Four months later, he was trading barbs with Cybill Shepherd as P.I. David Addison in Moonlighting, a role that earned Willis his first (and so far only) Golden Globe Award.
4. Steve Buscemi // Season 3, Episode 7
Before he was a bumbling kidnapper in Fargo or Atlantic City’s most respected bootlegger on Boardwalk Empire, Steve Buscemi was the middleman for a Bolivian drug lord who sort of got his ass kicked by Willie Nelson.
5. Julia Roberts // Season 4, Episode 22
Even the greatest of television series lose their way on occasion, and Miami Vice was no exception. Particularly when they went the “amnesia” route, which had Crockett believing he was in fact his undercover alter ego, Sonny Burnett, at the end of season 4. Which is when Julia Roberts made an appearance as Polly Wheeler, an art gallery manager/drug dealer’s assistant with a penchant for bad boys.
6. Chris Cooper // Season 4, Episode 22
Miami Vice’s casting directors scored big with their fourth season finale, which featured not one but two Oscar winners: Julia Roberts (see above) and Chris Cooper, who landed a plum role as a crooked cop from Fort Lauderdale intent on blowing Sonny’s cover in the drug underworld.
7. Dennis Farina // Season 1, Episode 6
In 1981, the late, great Dennis Farina was an 18-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department who was hired as a consultant on Michael Mann’s Thief due to his burglary expertise. Mann saw something he liked in the guy, cast him in a small role, and Dennis Farina: The Actor was born. Throughout Farina's impressive career, Mann would remain one of his biggest champions, so his appearance in Miami Vice’s debut season is not surprising (Mann was the show’s executive producer, after all). Nor is the fact that his character, gangster Albert Lombard, became somewhat of a recurring character.
8. Kyra Sedgwick // Season 2, Episode 10
At the height of his musical popularity in 1985, following the release of his Diamond-certified No Jacket Required album, Phil Collins stepped in front of the camera to play game show host/con man Phil “The Shill” Mayhew, who moved to Miami from London and quickly set about depleting the bank accounts of the city’s richest residents with a shady drug deal. His accomplice in this endeavor? None other than Kyra Sedgwick, in one of her earliest on-screen appearances (she was just 20 at the time).
9. Benicio Del Toro // Season 3, Episode 23
Also 20 years old at the time of his appearance, future Oscar-winner Benicio del Toro had a bit part on Miami Vice in 1987 as Pito, an ex-con-turned-thespian with a local theater group, Mi Vida Loca.
10. and 11. Viggo Mortensen and Annette Bening // Season 3, Episode 19
Two years after making his big-screen debut in Peter Weir’s Witness, Viggo Mortensen partnered up with Lou Diamond Phillips to play two junior detectives (Eddie Trumbull and Bobby Diaz, respectively) working a case with Crockett and Tubbs. But when a deal goes bad and Viggo is killed, his partner becomes convinced that Tubbs is dirty. Annette Bening also guest stars. The end.
12. Liam Neeson // Season 3, Episode 1
Being a South Florida-set show about drugs in the 1980s, the bulk of Miami Vice’s episodes surround South American drug and arms dealers. Which made its third season premiere, “When Irish Eyes Are Crying,” a bit of an anomaly (in a good way). In it, Detective Gina Calabrese (Saundra Santiago) falls for an Irish philanthropist—played by Liam Neeson—who turns out to be a former IRA member and current terrorist. Oops!
13. Michael Richards // Season 2, Episode 17
If you thought Michael Richards’s inflections as Cosmo Kramer were specific to his Seinfeld character, close your eyes and listen to him playing a sleazy bookie in this episode from Miami Vice’s second season. You’ll swear Jerry, George, Elaine are in the room, too.
14. Stanley Tucci // Season 3, Episode 9
In season three’s “Baby Blues” episode, Stanley Tucci played Steve Demarco, the adoptive father of a smuggled baby, and all went well. So well that the show’s producers brought him back for two more episodes in season four—but this time playing an entirely different character: crime lord Frank Mosca.
15. Helena Bonham Carter // Season 3, Episode 16
Aww, Sonny is in love. And with a lovely young ER doctor named Theresa Lyons, played by Helena Bonham Carter. There’s just one problem: she also happens to be a heroin addict. Which causes a bit of friction in the relationship when Sonny sets his sights on taking down the dealer who supplies her.
16. Richard Jenkins // Season 1, Episode 15
“Smuggler’s Blues” is probably one of the best known episodes of Miami Vice, first because it gave Glenn Frey (a founding member of The Eagles) the chance to show off his acting chops, and also because it featured his hit song of the same name. (Apologies if you get that stuck in your head for the rest of the day.) But separate yourself from all the Frey-ness of the episode and you’ll notice future Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins as D.E.A. Agent Ed Waters. (Jenkins appears again in the show’s fifth season, this time as a sleazy bookie named Goodman.)
17. Laurence Fishburne // Season 3, Episode 4
Back when he was still going by Larry, the man who would be Morpheus played a prison guard sizing up Tubbs, who was sent to the clink undercover in order to bust up an in-house drug operation. Turns out that Larry is one of the guys behind it.
18. John Turturro // Season 1, Episode 16
While the men are out busting up drug deals, the ladies of Miami Vice can usually be found in hooker attire, working undercover as prostitutes. So it’s only befitting that the show would feature a few pimps in its time, John Turturro among them (in his television series debut).
19. Ed O’Neill // Season 1, Episode 2
If Miami Vice taught us one thing about undercover work, it’s that your alias should be a different last name only (Sonny’s alter ego, for example, is Sonny Burnett). In the series’ second-ever episode, three years before he became a household name on Married... With Children, Ed O’Neill starred as undercover FBI agent Artie Lawson/Artie Rollins, a man who knows his way around a semi-automatic weapon. What would Al Bundy say?
20. AND 21. Bill Paxton AND WESLEY SNIPES // Season 3, Episode 10
The unwritten rule for all undercover cops is: never fall in love with a prostitute. Which is exactly what Bill Paxton, as Vic Romano, does. Much to the dismay of a pimp named Silk—played by Wesley Snipes in yet another Miami Vice Future Star Twofer.
22. Oliver Platt // Season 4, Episode 14
Stealing scenes is nothing new for Oliver Platt. He’s been doing it his entire career, including in his second-ever acting gig, playing arms dealer Speed Stiles.
23. AND 24. Michael Madsen AND TERRY O'QUINN // Season 1, Episode 10
Season 1 offered up yet another would-be-star twofer, when Michael Madsen played tougher-than-his-name-makes-him-sound drug dealer Sally Alvarado, with Terry O’Quinn (a.k.a. John Locke from Lost) as his lawyer.
25. Teller // Season 4, Episode 8
Penn Jillette’s partner in magic-making’s biggest claim to fame may be his tendency to remain silent, but he had plenty to say as talky defense lawyer Ralph Fisher. Fun fact: Penn, too, appeared on the series, playing a middleman for a big-time New York City drug lord in the second season.
26. John Leguizamo // Season 2, Episode 21
The tendency of Miami Vice’s producers to recast actors they liked—as completely different characters—is fairly legendary. No actor experienced this more than John Leguizamo, who had a recurring role as the vengeful son of the Vice squad’s main target, Calderone, between 1986 and 1987. Two years later, he was back on the show, this time as Angelo Alvarez, a drug dealer in his own right.
27. Ving Rhames // Season 1, Episode 17
Ving Rhames, too, experienced the double-casting treatment. In season one he played a Haitian immigrant named Georges. In the fourth season he was Walker Monroe, a powerful arms dealer.
28. John Michael Higgins // Season 4, Episode 17
Now a regular in Christopher Guest’s ensemble of comic actors, John Michael Higgins was a total unknown when he made his acting debut as Murray Phillips, a tabloid television reporter modeled on Maury Povich.
29. R. Lee Ermey // Season 4, Episode 9
When R. Lee Ermey tells you to jump… you run. The same year he became a household name with Full Metal Jacket, the former Marine Corps Drill Instructor made his television debut as a tough-talking—and very corrupt—homicide sergeant.
30. Chris Rock // Season 4, Episode 7
Funnyman Chris Rock had the misfortune to make his first television appearance in what is inarguably the single worst episode of Miami Vice ever produced. “Missing Hours,” which saw the series take a sci-fi turn for the worse, even featured a guest appearance by James Brown… as an alien. Rock plays an eager young records clerk who the squad tasks with researching UFOs and aliens.
A version of this story ran in 2013; it has been updated for 2022.