The detective drama had been on the air for six seasons, but “political circumstances” between producer Paramount Network Television and network CBS kept it from getting renewed, the actor recalls. (Paramount decided the production cost was too high even though the series still had decent ratings for CBS.) Twenty years later, the show is still a success in syndication. As TV’s nostalgia boom has led to reboots and revivals of dozens of late-20th century titles, the door was opened for Johnson in his titular Special Investigations Unit captain role in a new format and on a new network.
“I felt like there was more to be mined in these characters; plus, I love the tone — being able to do something that is incredibly dangerous and demanding, but is also comedy inside the four walls of a cop show,” Johnson tells Variety.
The revived “Nash Bridges,” which begins with Johnson’s Nash getting suspended from the force and then jumping forward to a year later when he gets back into the action, originally started as a chance to re-pilot the crime drama for the 21st century. But the scope of the story Johnson and writer/executive producer Bill Chais wanted to tell was too much to be crammed into a single episode.
The result is a two-hour movie that airs Nov. 27 on USA. Johnson is an executive producer on the telepic that reunited him with original series co-star Cheech Marin.
“We’re picking them up where we’ve left off from, and then something crazy happens and he’s away from the force for a year,” Chais says of Nash. “During that time, he’s had some time to reflect and had conversations with Cheech’s character [where he was] deciding whether he wants to come back, and realizes he has to because the city’s in terrible trouble.”
As in any episode of the original series, there is a crime that needs Nash’s attention — specifically a “surprising murder of someone you don’t like,” Chais previews. “The whole thing would have just been about solving his murder, which would have been like a really satisfying hour of television, but what it spins off to is what gave us the scope of a two-hour movie.”
Nash reunites with his former partner Joe Dominguez (Marin), but he also has to work with the next generation of law enforcement, namely Steven Colton (Joe Dinicol), who Nash first labels as a “millennial snowflake” and butts heads with because of Steven’s insistence that Nash need not be so quick to draw his weapon.
In crafting the story for this “Nash Bridges” movie, Chais says he thought a lot about how policing today is different than it was 20 years ago. While he still wanted to capture the same “’80s buddy cop” tone of the original series, he also saw “an opportunity to tell a show about a person who was in ascendancy and the master of all that he surveyed and just kicking ass and everything in one era, and now it’s 20 years later, and it’s a different era and how is he going to function?”
“The difference between the millennials and the boomers” was what Johnson thought gave this story its unique blend of comedy and conflict and made him excited to step back into the world of the show again.
“There’s a line I ad-libbed that I think encapsulates what we’re talking about here,” he says. “We’re checking our guns and Steven says, ‘What are you doing?’ and we say, ‘We’re checking our guns.’ ‘What for?’ ‘To be ready.’ And he says, ‘Have you ever thought about talking to people?’ Nash goes, ‘Yeah, I love to talk to people if they’re not throwing hot lead at me.'”
The key, both Johnson and Chais say, was showcasing the differences in Nash’s old-school ways with today, but not presenting one to be better than the other.
“The idea is someone who’s older and came up a different way actually has something to teach and actually has a lot to learn. And we felt that it went both ways,” Chais explains. “We never wanted to be preachy; we always wanted to be sensitive to the issue that that the world is different. He wasn’t part of any problem, but the world has changed and maybe there is more he could do to be part of that.”
Another thing that needed to change — at least slightly — was the way Nash carried himself. He, too, is decades older, after all.
“I stay fit and I do it for the mental part of my being, more so than the physical part — although the physical part is incredibly important for flexibility and just a good, healthy life. So, I felt that it was important to bring that to the character, but I also felt like it was important to say, ‘OK yeah, you can still bring it, but he’s going to wait a minute or two before he brings it.’ He’s wiser, he’s less likely to be the testosterone-filled dude that would kick in doors and be the first one through the door and all that he was back then,” says Johnson.
But he’s still quicker than most to jump into action, and creating action sequences for the “Nash Bridges” movie was something Johnson pushed Chais to do more of. Chais, who has a background in procedurals from “Franklin & Bash” to “Unforgettable” and “Bull,” was excited to take character banter into such explosive situations as “car chases, gunfights and oil trucks blowing up.” Because as much as the conversations around law enforcement may have changed, one thing that remains a constant is how dangerous the job can be.
“Nash Bridges” leans into that by creating a movie villain who is “universally bad,” Chais says, “so that wherever you’re coming from, you’re rooting for the bad guy to get got, quick and hard.”
Although the story within this two-hour project is self-contained, the refreshed world it sets up comes with new character dynamics both Chais and Johnson hope can play out more in the future, now that there are exponentially more options available to content creators in the streaming era.
“I’m not a guy that looks back,” Johnson says. “Opportunities lost are just opportunities lost. Do I feel like that there’s stuff that we can mine out of some of the other original characters and out of bringing some of the people back that I had on in the first place? Yeah, I do. And I’ve got some wonderful ideas,” Johnson says. “In this day and age, I can do them any way I want: I can set it up as a four-part miniseries that has close-ended episodes within the hour but the miniseries has a runner in it that takes us through four episodes. It’s so freeing, and it gives me such a broad palette and canvas to work with.”
“Nash Bridges” airs Nov. 27 at 9 p.m. on USA.