Jan-Michael Vincent, best known for his role as attack helicopter pilot Stringfellow Hawke on the television series Airwolf (1984–86) and as the protagonist of 1978’s Big Wednesday, died on February 10 at the age of 74 after suffering cardiac arrest while a patient at a North Carolina hospital. According to a death certificate obtained by TMZ, “We’re told no autopsy was performed and he was later cremated.”
Vincent was finishing a tour of duty in the California Army National Guard when a talent scout was struck by his looks. His first acting job was in the movie The Bandits (aka Los Bandidos), co-directed by and starring Robert Conrad, in 1967.
Vincent’s career took off in the late 1960s when casting agent Dick Clayton signed him to Universal Studios. He made an appearance on the Dragnet 1968 episode “The Grenade” as a muscular high school student who suffered an acid attack by a mentally unstable classmate (played by Mickey Sholdar). He also appeared in the Danger Island segments of Hanna-Barbera’s The Banana Splits series as Link (1968–69). Finally, in the fall of 1969 Vincent had a starring role in the prime-time soap opera The Survivors, alongside Lana Turner and George Hamilton; the series was canceled mid-season.
Vincent also performed in several movies in that period, such as the 1969 Twentieth Century Fox movie The Undefeated (as Bubba Wilkes) starring John Wayne, Rock Hudson, and Antonio Aguilar. His name appeared as Michael Vincent in the credits of the movie. Vincent guest-starred in three episodes of Lassie with actor Tony Dow and two episodes of Bonanza.
In 1970, Vincent garnered critical praise for his role in the made-for-TV film Tribes (also known as The Soldier Who Declared Peace in Europe and the UK), co-starring Darren McGavin, about a tough Marine boot-camp drill instructor dealing with a hippie draftee (Vincent) who will not follow the rules. He gave a complex performance opposite Robert Mitchum in Going Home (’71). That same year, he appeared in the Gunsmoke episode “The Legend”. In 1972, he co-starred with Charles Bronson in the crime film The Mechanic and a made-for-TV love story Sandcastles. In 1973 he starred in the Disney comedy The World’s Greatest Athlete with Tim Conway and John Amos. He played Richie, an alcoholic teen in a 1973 episode of Marcus Welby, M.D., “Catch a Ring That Isn’t There”.
Vincent also starred in the 1974 romance Buster and Billie as the antihero Buster Lane, where he startled audiences with his full-frontal nudity. In 1975’s Bite the Bullet, he played opposite Gene Hackman, James Coburn, and Candice Bergen. He also starred in the trucker movie White Line Fever (’75); in 1976’s Baby Blue Marine, a war film directed by John D. Hancock, which also starred Glynnis O’Connor; and in 1976’s Shadow of the Hawk co-starring Marilyn Hassett. Vincent also appeared in Damnation Alley, based on Roger Zelazny’s science fiction novel, in 1977. Two more notable 1978 appearance were the surfing film Big Wednesday with William Katt and Gary Busey, and Hooper with Burt Reynolds, in which Vincent played a young stuntman.
In 1980, Vincent starred in the gang-themed drama Defiance, which received a limited release. In that film, he and Danny Aiello co-star as Manhattan residents who fight back against the gang members who terrorize their neighborhood. He also appeared in The Return, a science-fiction film that was released directly to television and video. In 1981, he co-starred with Kim Basinger in Hard Country. Vincent starred in the 1983 action film Last Plane Out.
After the completion of his role in the 1983 television miniseries Winds of War, Vincent was cast as Stringfellow Hawke for the action-espionage series Airwolf, in which he co-starred with Ernest Borgnine and is the role for which he is best known and remembered. It was noted at the time that Vincent’s salary for his work on Airwolf was $200,000 per episode, the highest of any actor in American television. While filming Airwolf, Vincent admitted to drug and alcohol problems for which he acknowledged seeking help. After Airwolf ended, he found roles in smaller budget and lower exposure film projects.
1990s and 2000s
Vincent worked with Traci Lords in the 1991 suspense film Raw Nerve. He also co-starred with Clint Howard in the 1996 black comedy/horror film Ice Cream Man, which had a very limited theatrical release but did eventually reach cult status via home video as an unintentional comedy.
In 1994, he played in a South African produced movie called Ipi Tombi produced and directed by Tommie Meyer based on a musical by Bertha Egnos
While in the hospital in 1996, Vincent was committed to a role in Red Line with Chad McQueen as Keller. He appeared in the film with a swollen face and scars, and still wearing his hospital ID bracelet.
In 1997, he had a small guest role on Nash Bridges, playing the title character’s long-lost brother, and in 1998 he had a cameo in the independent film Buffalo ’66.
His most recent movie roles included the independent film White Boy, also titled Menace (for the U.S. video version), released in March 2003.
Vincent married Bonnie Poorman in 1968 and they had a daughter, Amber Vincent, in 1972. Their divorce was finalized on January 2, 1977. His second wife, Joanne Robinson, left him and had a restraining order entered against him in 1998, alleging that he had abused her since their marriage in 1986.
Vincent battled alcoholism and intravenous drug use for much of his life. In 1977, 1978 and 1979 he was arrested for possession of cocaine and in 1984 and 1985 he was arrested after two bar brawls. He also received a felony assault charge in 1986, of which he was acquitted after his attorney argued that the woman tripped and fell on a telephone cord in his home. He then was arrested for drunk driving but avoided jail by entering rehab in 1988. In 2000 a $374,000 default judgment was made against him after his former girlfriend alleged he had physically assaulted her after their breakup and caused her to miscarry their child.
During the 1990s, he was involved in three severe automobile collisions, which he barely survived. In an accident in August 1996 Vincent broke three vertebrae in his neck. He also sustained a permanent injury to his vocal cords from an emergency medical procedure, leaving him with a permanently raspy voice. The first near fatal accident occurred in February 1992 and the third happened in September 1997.
Vincent was charged with drunk driving again after his 1996 accident and once again sentenced to rehab and placed on probation. In an interview on the TV program The Insider on September 18, 2007, when asked about his 1996 car accident, he answered, “Y’know, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I don’t remember being in an accident.”
In 2000 Vincent violated probation for his prior alcohol-related arrests by appearing drunk in public three times and assaulting his fiancée. As a result, he was sentenced to 60 days in the Orange County Jail.
Vincent was involved in another automobile accident in 2008.
In an interview that took place on October 24, 2014, with National Enquirer, Vincent revealed that his right leg was amputated just below the knee in 2012 after he contracted a leg infection as a result of complications from peripheral artery disease. After that, he walked with a prosthetic limb, though he was sometimes forced to use a wheelchair. He also revealed he had a tax debt in excess of $70,000.
Vincent died on February 10, 2019, in Asheville, North Carolina following a cardiac arrest while hospitalized; His death was not reported until March 8.