Obituaries

‘Airwolf’ actor Jan-Michael Vincent dies

Mr. Vincent’s breakout role was in “The Winds of War.”
Associated Press/File 1986
Mr. Vincent’s breakout role was in “The Winds of War.”

Jan-Michael Vincent, a golden boy of Hollywood action films in the 1970s who starred on the mid-1980s TV adventure series ‘‘Airwolf’’ and saw his career crater amid drug and alcohol addiction, died Feb. 10 in Asheville, N.C.

The death was confirmed by the Buncombe County Register of Deeds, which provided a death certificate listing the cause as cardiac arrest. He was 74, by most accounts, but the certificate listed him as 73.

With a surfer’s physique and virile charisma, Mr. Vincent entered films in the late 1960s and became a mainstay of action dramas. He was the hitman apprentice to Charles Bronson in ‘‘The Mechanic’’ (1972) and a handsome young stuntman in ‘‘Hooper’’ (1978) with Burt Reynolds as an aging one.

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A rare departure from form was ‘‘Buster and Billie’’ (1974), an unsentimental look at 1940s high school students in rural Georgia, with Mr. Vincent giving an understated performance as the local jock who breaks — with violent results — with social conformity and expectations.

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His biggest breakthrough was the male ingenue part in the ABC miniseries ‘‘The Winds of War’’ (1983), based on Herman Wouk’s bestselling novel set during World War II. He played a son of naval officer Robert Mitchum and the love interest of Ali MacGraw.

The 18-hour program averaged tens of millions of viewers over the course of its broadcast, rivaling Alex Haley’s ‘‘Roots’’ in popularity. The next year, Mr. Vincent premiered in CBS’s action series ‘‘Airwolf’’ as Stringfellow Hawke, the moody pilot of a supersonic helicopter; Ernest Borgnine co-starred as an older pilot.

While on the show, where he earned a reported per-episode salary of $40,000, Mr. Vincent spoke of addictions that for years had kept him off the A-list of movie roles. His erratic behavior and cocaine consumption were a major reason ‘‘Airwolf’’ was canceled in 1986.

His screen credits dwindled amid a series of arrests for drunken driving and barroom altercations. ‘‘A lot of my problems have been simply that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,’’ the actor told an Australian newspaper, the Sunday Mail, in 1987.

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In 1996, he was in a car crash that severely injured a passenger — a female domestic worker in his home — and the actor suffered a broken neck and damaged vocal cords that left him with a permanent rasp to his voice. Over the years, various women, including his second wife, accused him of physical assault.

His right leg was partially amputated in 2012 amid complications from peripheral artery disease.

Jan-Michael Vincent was born in Denver on July 15, 1944 — although his death certificate says 1945 — and grew up Hanford, a town in California’s central San Joaquin Valley where his parents owned a billboard company. He told People magazine that had little patience for an office job and that after high school graduation in 1963, when his strict father tried to strong-arm him into joining the business, ‘‘I put my surfboard in the car and left.’’

He settled in Ventura, Calif., where he surfed and attended Ventura College for three years.

He had just served a stint in the California National Guard when a casting agent, marveling at his good looks, got him a contract with Universal Studios. By the late 1960s, he was appearing on ‘‘Dragnet,’’ ‘‘Lassie,’’ ‘‘Bonanza,’’ and the prime-time soap opera ‘‘The Survivors,’’ among other TV shows.

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He won a supporting part in the John Wayne western ‘‘The Undefeated’’ (1969), then a co-starring role opposite Mitchum in ‘‘Going Home’’ (1971), as a troubled young man.

Mr. Vincent later appeared in Disney’s ‘‘The World’s Greatest Athlete’’ (1973), opposite Tim Conway, and ‘‘Big Wednesday’’ (1978). Increasingly too drunk to remember his lines, he ended his career in D-grade fare such as ‘‘Rave Nerve’’ (1991), featuring former porn actress Traci Lords.

When interviewed a few years ago by an Australian TV reporter, Vincent said he struggled to recall much of anything about his career or the accidents that may have contributed to his failing memory. ‘‘I’m just laying low,’’ he said.