Johnson had been making $30,000-35,000 per episode for his role as James "Sonny" Crockett during Vice's first two seasons. With the show a massive hit after the second season, Johnson felt he deserved a pay rise that better reflected the huge success the series had become (the highest-paid television actor at the time, Tom Selleck, was making $250,000 per episode on Magnum P.I.). Universal offered to increase Johnson's pay to $38,500 an episode, but he turned this figure down, reportedly pushing for a wage of up to $100,000 per episode. When this was declined, he walked off the set and refused to return to the production unless he received a level of pay that he deemed more befitting of the show's popularity.
Universal began filming what was originally to be the third-season opener, "El Viejo", around Johnson's absence, but this soon proved to be an impossible task. Within a week, the studio had filed a $20 million breach-of-contract suit against Johnson, and issued the star an ultimatum: return to the series or be replaced. The two actors considered as Johnson's successor were Broadway star Treat Williams (Once Upon A Time In America, Deadwood) and Mark Harmon (NCIS), who at that time had recently left the series St. Elsewhere. In either case, Williams or Harmon would not replace Johnson as Crockett, but rather play a new partner for Ricardo "Rico" Tubbs, thereby allowing Johnson to return in the future.
Just a few hours after Universal filed their lawsuit, and before a definitive replacement could be named, Johnson relented and returned to work for an undisclosed amount of money, ending the holdout.
While the resolution of the affair was said to be amicable by all involved, the holdout did have one major effect on the show -- the delay in filming, coupled with prior work commitments for guest star Willie Nelson, meant not all of the scenes in "El Viejo" could be shot in time for the episode's season premiere slot. As a result it had to be held back until Nelson was free to finish his scenes with Johnson, leading to the famous continuity error where Crockett's Ferrari Daytona reappears after it was destroyed in "When Irish Eyes Are Crying", the episode which replaced "El Viejo" at the start of the season.
- Don Johnson was not the only person to hold out over pay on a television series. The lead stars of The Dukes Of Hazzard, Tom Wopat and John Schneider, refused to begin filming on the fifth season of the show in 1982 unless their pay was substantially increased. The studio refused and they were replaced by different characters, only to later relent and return to the series just before the end of the season.