No one could predict the winding path of Frank Zappa‘s discography, where satirical rock songs brushed up against avant-garde orchestrations. So even if some stuffier fans cringed seeing their king of weird guest-star on mid-’80s crime-drama smash Miami Vice, others saw a hilariously fitting detour in a career defined by them. Absurdity and surprise were simply colors on Zappa’s massive canvas.
It’s not like the Freak Out! maestro was averse to mainstream TV: In 1963, before he was even famous, Zappa appeared on variety program The Steve Allen Show, showing how ordinary objects — like bicycles — could be played as percussion instruments. He later composed a piece, “The Big Squeeze,” for a Luden’s Cough Drops commercial, made a cameo on the Monkees‘ TV show and hosted a 1976 episode of Saturday Night Live.
But where those assorted projects felt within his quirky creative wheelhouse, Miami Vice did arrive as a shock — even to Zappa, who wasn’t exactly angling for a role on the neon-tinted Don Johnson vehicle. Previous rock-star guests had included Phil Collins, Ted Nugent, Gene Simmons and Glenn Frey — but Zappa wasn’t interested in following their bit-part formula.
“The casting director for the show is this nice lady named Bonnie Timmermann,” the musician recalled before filming the episode, “Payback,” which aired March 14, 1986. “The story goes that she woke up in the morning and was thinking of me and thought I should be this villain in the show. She called to the house and initially I said ‘no’ because I didn’t want to be just another rock ‘n’ roll guy who gets murdered on Miami Vice. I said that if they would change the character a little bit that I would do it. So they agreed to do it.”
Zappa signed on to play Mario Fuente, a major drug dealer trafficking in “weasel dust.” In the episode, the character becomes involved in a messy crime plot involving his former employee Maroto (who commits suicide early in the installment), “Sonny” Crockett (Johnson) and a sizable chunk of missing cash.
After some tangly exposition, the episode peaks with a showdown on Fuente’s yacht, where he routinely conducts business in international waters.
“I once had a trusted employee, a man named Maroto, who was moving some weasel dust for me,” Zappa’s character intones to partners Crockett and “Rico” Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas), while decked out in some flashy ’80s clothes, squinting in the sun and smirking behind his signature mustache. “After years of faithful service, he hurried away with 3 million of my favorite dollars. Can I offer you something to eat? Some wine? I know Maroto has my money. He disappeared for awhile then pops up. He’s arrested; they send him to prison. Now we get to the big surprise. One day, my man Maroto sends for the police officer who arrested him. They talk briefly, and then guess what? Maroto kills himself. You know what I think? I think Maroto told the cop about my money. So I look everywhere for this slime-ball cop. His name is Crockett. Then I found something out — a bigger surprise. There’s a guy — his name is Burnett, a two-bit player looking to get into the weasel dust industry. I find out that Burnett and Crock-ett are the same guy. I want my $3 million, Crockett. It’s mine.”
After a comically staged armed skirmish breaks out, Crockett takes Fuente hostage and speeds away on his own boat. Realizing the cops can’t hold him without evidence, Crockett — in classic cheesy lingo — says, “Time for a swim, pal” and instructs the drug lord to jump. After pinching his nose, Fuente dives overboard, leaving the duo to drive away, hair and jackets gloriously blowing in the ocean breeze.
Watch Frank Zappa on ‘Miami Vice’
Zappa is a natural in the villain role — after all, given his affinity for sex-themed lyrics and a then-recent clash with the PMRC over censorship in popular music, he was already a heel in the minds of many religious and political conservatives.
“I’m a real stinker,” Zappa said of the Fuentes character in the aforementioned interview. “But it’s something I think I can do because I’ve watched enough Republicans that I can convey the sense of evil and sinister — you know how they go.”
Alas, the Miami Vice cameo did not blossom into a TV career — not that Zappa had time for that anyway. He continued to record prolifically throughout the decade, leading to instrumental Synclavier experiments (his Grammy-winning 1986 LP, Jazz From Hell) and orchestral music (1993’s The Yellow Shark). He also staged what become his last major rock tour in 1988 — five years before his death from prostate cancer.
All of these disparate projects are part of a “conceptual continuity” that runs throughout the Zappa oeuvre — and, funny as it may seen in hindsight, the Miami Vice one-off is part of that universe.
“Everything, even this interview, is part of what I do for, let’s call it, my entertainment work,” he said in 1988. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s all part of the same continuity. It’s all one piece.”