Jan-Michael Vincent, Star of 'The Mechanic' and 'Airwolf,' Dies at 73

His 1970s heyday included starring roles in 'Buster and Billie,' 'White Line Fever,' 'Baby Blue Marine' and 'Big Wednesday.'

Jan-Michael Vincent, who starred in such action fare as The Mechanic, White Line Fever and TV's Airwolf before a raft of personal problems and illness sent him on a downward spiral, has died. He was 73.

Vincent died Feb. 10 of cardiac arrest at Mission Hospital's Memorial Campus in Asheville, North Carolina, according to his death certificate obtained by The Hollywood Reporter.

Vincent had a very public battle with drug and alcohol abuse and his career was already on the wane when he was drunk and involved in a 1996 car accident in Mission Viejo, California, that broke his neck and damaged his vocal cords.

Twelve years later, Vincent was in another car crash, then contracted an infection that led to two sections of his right leg being amputated. He spent his final years broke and living in the South.

Things were much different in the mid-1970s, when Vincent was poised on the cusp of superstardom. A chiseled heartthrob with a mane of flowing hair, he capitalized on his hunky image by appearing shirtless in photos and on the big screen, and the agent who discovered him also discovered James Dean.

Vincent portrayed up-and-coming characters in Michael Winner's The Mechanic (1972), as the too-ambitious protege of contract killer Charles Bronson; in Vigilante Force (1976), as Kris Kristofferson’s brother; and in Hooper (1978), as a stuntman mentored by Burt Reynolds.

Vincent also starred as a popular high school jock opposite Joan Goodfellow in the tragic love story Buster and Billie (1974), directed by Daniel Petrie; played the rebel trucker Carrol Jo Hummer in the violent White Line Fever (1975); and went along with being mistaken for a Marine Corps hero in Baby Blue Marine (1976).

After a bit of a career lull, the blue-eyed Vincent played naval officer Robert Mitchum's black-sheep son and wooed Ali MacGraw on the acclaimed ABC 1983 miniseries The Winds of War, adapted from Herman Wouk's best-selling work of 1930s fiction.

He then was cast as Stringfellow Hawke — the pilot of a high-tech, CIA-created Bell 222 helicopter and the brother of a missing Vietnam vet — on Airwolf, created by TV action maestro Donald P. Bellisario. The series, which also starred Ernest Borgnine, aired from 1984-86, and Vincent at the time was among the highest-paid actors on television.

But with all his troubles, his career would never be the same after Airwolf.

"He had tremendous natural ability, and that was his curse," David Grove, author of the 2016 book Jan-Michael Vincent: Edge of Greatness, said in a January 2017 podcast interview with Phil Hall. "When you are born with natural ability, there's a tendency to get by on that. It's like a well; when it's dry, there's nothing left, because you've never worked to build that foundation."

Vincent was born in Adams, Colorado, on July 15, 1945, according to his death certificate, and raised in Hanford, California, about 30 miles south of Fresno. His father, a bomber pilot in World War II, owned a sign-painting business.

Vincent graduated from Hanford High School in 1963, went to Ventura College in Southern California when he wasn't surfing and served with the National Guard. He then met Dick Clayton — who had discovered Dean, Lee Majors, Tuesday Weld and many others — and the talent agent got the virile youngster into the training program at Universal Studios.

In 1967, Vincent was in a Hardy Boys TV movie and made his movie debut opposite Robert Conrad in the Mexico-set The Bandits. A year later, he guest-starred on Lassie and Bonanza, appeared in Universal's Journey to Shiloh and was a regular on Danger Island, a serial that ran on Saturday mornings on The Banana Splits Adventure Hour.

After working opposite John Wayne and Rock Hudson in The Undefeated (1969) and playing Lana Turner's son on the short-lived ABC drama The Survivors, Vincent won notice when he played a hippie-type Marine opposite Darren McGavin in the 1970 ABC telefilm Tribes.

He then played Mitchum's son for the first time in Going Home (1971).

In his '70s heyday, Vincent also starred as a Tarzan-like character in Disney's The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973) and appeared in the well-regarded endurance horse race actioner Bite the Bullet (1975). He also toplined the post-apocalyptic Damnation Alley (1977), and in John Milius' Big Wednesday (1978), he played a self-destructive surfer, a role perhaps too close to home.

Vincent reportedly was Universal's choice to portray oceanographer Matt Hooper in Jaws (1975), but Steven Spielberg went with the more-nerdy Richard Dreyfuss instead. (The character was a studly guy in the Peter Benchley best-seller on which the movie is based.)

Vincent appeared in Buffalo '66 (1998), but most of his final efforts were lower-budget actioners and thrillers, many of which went straight to video.

Survivors include his wife, Patricia.

Duane Byrge contributed to this report.