Airwolf TV star Jan-Michael Vincent dies at 73

Jan-Michael Vincent began acting in the late 1960s, appearing on television shows including Bonanza, Lassie and Gunsmoke.
Jan-Michael Vincent began acting in the late 1960s, appearing on television shows including Bonanza, Lassie and Gunsmoke.PHOTO: CINEMA STILL

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Jan-Michael Vincent, who became nationally recognisable on the 1980s television series Airwolf, but whose career later foundered in part because of problems with drugs and alcohol, died Feb 10 at a hospital near his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He was 73.

The cause was cardiac arrest, according to a death certificate released by the Buncombe County Register of Deeds. His death was not widely reported until Friday (March 8).

Vincent, who had electric blue eyes and a taut surfer's physique, began acting in the late 1960s, appearing on television shows including Bonanza, Lassie and Gunsmoke.

He later had lead roles in films like The World's Greatest Athlete (1973) and Buster and Billie (1974).

He had a particularly nuanced turn in White Line Fever (1975), an action movie in which he played a truck driver who battles corruption.

"The rarity in an action picture of this kind is the quiet and sensitive acting of the two principals, Jan-Michael Vincent as the rebellious driver and Kay Lenz as his wife," Richard Eder wrote in a review in The New York Times.

"They manage tenderness, quarreling and weariness as these things really are managed."

Vincent's most recognisable part was the pilot Stringfellow Hawke on Airwolf, a CBS show built around a cutting-edge combat helicopter that made its debut in 1984. It was produced by Donald P. Bellisario, known for hit shows like Magnum, P.I., and featured Ernest Borgnine as a veteran aviator and flight engineer who was Hawke's surrogate father.

Airwolf was expensive to produce, and many critics received it coolly, but it found an audience and stayed on CBS for three seasons.

Later news reports said Vincent was one of the most highly paid actors working at the time, making around US$200,000 (S$271,820) an episode.

Scandal dogged Vincent in the 1980s. He was known to abuse alcohol and cocaine and was accused of getting into bar fights; he narrowly avoided jail in 1986 by entering a month-long drug rehabilitation programme after breaking probation related to an earlier drunken-driving conviction. CBS cancelled Airwolf that year.

Vincent's career declined after that, although he continued to appear in TV movies like Alienator (1990) and Deadly Heroes (1993).

His substance abuse worsened, and he broke his neck in 1996 after rear-ending his girlfriend's car, permanently damaging his vocal cords in the process.

In 2000, Vincent told Bill Ritter of the ABC News programme 20/20 that he had been sober for a time, but that remaining so was a struggle.

"I'm hanging on by my white knuckles," Vincent said.

Vincent was also involved in another crash in 2008, and in 2012 an infection led doctors to amputate part of his right leg. At his death, he had not been credited for acting in a movie or TV show since the early 2000s.

Vincent was born on July 15, 1945, in Denver to Lloyd and Doris (Pace) Vincent. He grew up in Hanford, California, attended Ventura College and became an avid surfer before his acting career began.

Vincent appeared in movies with some of the biggest stars of the 1960s and '70s. He supported Rock Hudson and John Wayne in the Western The Undefeated (1969); played an eager participant in a long-distance horserace opposite Candice Bergen and Gene Hackman in another Western, Bite the Bullet (1975); and was an up-and-coming stuntman in Hooper (1978), with Burt Reynolds and Sally Field.

He drew on his surfing skills in Big Wednesday (1978), directed by John Milius, which also starred Gary Busey and William Katt and has since become a favourite of surfers. He played Robert Mitchum's son in The Winds of War, the popular ABC miniseries based on the Herman Wouk novel.

Survivors include his wife, Patricia Vincent.