Tom Selleck and “Magnum, P.I.”

Though I was but a teenager, I think I was a little scornful of Magnum, P.I. (1980-1988) when it debuted. “There’s already Hawaii Five-0,” I reasoned, as though there could only be one television series set in Hawaii, although in my defense, more than one cop show set on the islands is a bit much — and at the time I didn’t even know about the earlier The Hawaiian Eye with Robert Conrad. I also thought the name of the character “Magnum”, as though he were named after his own gun, showed a lack of imagination. Then there was the trope of the unseen host (millionaire mystery writer Robin Masters, played by Orson Welles) whom one would only hear on the telephone, which seemed like a rip-off of Charlie’s Angels, one involving a guy whose primary contemporary gig was hawking Paul Masson wine yet.  An lastly there was the star Tom Selleck himself, a former male model with the same kind of mustache as the guy from the Village People. It all added up to something like ambivalence for me, if not worse.

But my best friend, who was no dummy, was a fan, so I eventually gave it a chance and found that I enjoyed it, although it took me while to understand what the set-up was. Magnum (Selleck) lived on Robin Masters’ estate in his own bungalow as chief of security, a sort of Kato Kaelin on steroids. (Selleck is one hairy dude). A Vietnam vet from Navy special ops, he also moonlights as a private eye, with the aid of his old navy buddies T.C. (Roger E. Mosley) and Rick (Larry Manetti). (There was critical praise for the characterizations at the time, despite the far-fetched premise. Contrast these characters, for example, with the loony tunes Vietnam Vets on The A Team). A constant thorn in Magnum’s side is Higgins (John Hillerman), Masters’ English estate manager, a former British army officer, a snob and stickler for the rules, who sometimes helps, sometimes hinders Magnum’s efforts.

The show was funny, and Magnum was likable. There was something innovative about his informality, the baseball cap and the Hawaiian print shirts — he was like a Parrothead detective. Yet the one episode I’ll always remember is extremely dark. It aired in 1983. Called “Home from the Sea”, it put Magnum in the dire predicament of being dumped in the ocean with no boat, and no one knowing where he was — he has to tread water the entire episode to stay alive, never knowing if he will be rescued before he exhausts himself and drowns. The tension (and boredom) are relieved with flashbacks, of course, but it was a very original, very intense bit of television.

Over the years, I’ve become something of a Tom Selleck fan, even an advocate, though there was the hurdle of his early film career to clear. A lot of us pre-judged High Road to China (1983) as a Raiders of the Lost Ark rip-off, not knowing that Selleck was originally wanted for the part of Indiana Jones but had to turn it down due to Magnum commitments…or that High Road had been in development a long time and John Huston was originally to direct. Then came, ya know, Lassiter (1984), and Three Men and a Baby (1987). Not real towering cinematic achievements. But over the years I’ve ended up watching a lot of his subsequent work, much of it in westerns, and to my recollection I can’t recall him ever giving a bad performance. Sometimes he’ll even stretch, just a little (once he even played a gay guy!) but he seems to have an absolute awareness of his limits and to go at his work and his choices with admirable integrity. I can’t say I’m a fan of Blue Bloods, but I’ll watch him in a western any time. And very soon (like this week I hope), I intend to watch him in his first starring film, the low budget horror movie Daughters of Satan (1972). Let’s see Higgins bail him out of that one!