Troubled actor and star of 80s TV hit Airwolf

Born: July 15, 1945;

Died: February 10, 2019

JAN-MICHAEL Vincent, who has died aged 73, had it all – fame, fortune, good looks and a glittering career. As the star of Airwolf, he was one of the highest-paid actors on TV in the 1980s. But he sabotaged his own career with drugs, alcohol and violent and erratic behaviour and he died in obscurity of heart problems in a North Carolina hospital.

A one-time heartthrob, Vincent tapped into the zeitgeist with hippy peacenik and golden-boy surfer roles and a mane of flowing blond hair. He died over a month ago, but it went unreported by the media until a website picked up on it at the end of last week.

This was a man Disney cast in the title role of the film The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973) – an innocent Tarzan-like orphan who is discovered by two American coaches on holiday in Africa. And he got to indulge his passion for surfing in the cult movie Big Wednesday (1978).

But Vincent was a shadow of his former self during a monosyllabic interview on Australian television a few years ago. His memory had gone – he could not even remember how he got into acting. He had a series of serious car crashes and had a leg amputated below the knee.

He was born in Denver in 1945, but grew up in Hanford, California, where his parents owned a billboard company. His father wanted him to join the business, but Vincent saw his future elsewhere.

He attended Ventura College in California for three years, before heading for Mexico, basically to party. He was an unlikely recruit to the National Guard before landing a contract with Universal on the strength of his looks.

He appeared in such hit TV shows as Dragnet (1967), Lassie (1968) and Bonanza (1968), played a young officer in the American Civil War movie The Undefeated (1969), alongside John Wayne, and starred in the movie released in the UK under the self-explanatory title The Soldier Who Declared Peace (1970).

This is a neglected gem which had an impact on me personally when I saw it in my early teens, with its rebellious spirit and a song assuring us “God will forgive each lonely soldier and understand the things he loves”. It is on the Internet under its American title Tribes.

Vincent carved out a career in the second rank of Hollywood players, supporting Burt Reynolds in Hooper (1978) and earning a Golden Globe nomination in the epic television mini-series The Winds of War (1983), until Airwolf turned him into a major star in 1984 - despite prior arrests for possession of cocaine and assault.

Stringfellow Hawke was a moody action hero with a supersonic stealth helicopter. Initially Airwolf was very dark, with Hawke distrustful of pretty much everyone, including government agencies, though it was rebooted as a more family-friendly action show in season two.

It was an expensive show, not least because Vincent was reportedly getting $200,000 an episode. The original series was cancelled after three seasons, largely because of Vincent’s unreliability. A fourth season was made for a different network, with a lower budget and different cast.

Vincent’s reputation went before him and his career nosedived. He appeared in obscure straight-to-video action movies, including Alienator (1990). He was arrested on several further occasions and was sentenced to 60 days for parole violation in 2000. Several former partners accused him of assault and he was ordered to pay $374,000 to one.

He was married three times and divorced twice. He is survived by his third wife and by a daughter from his first marriage.