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About Magnum PI, the classic TV show that shot Tom Selleck to stardom (1980-1988)

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Magnum PI TV show cast in 1983

‘Dating Game’ led Selleck to a hit TV series of his own (1981)

From Asbury Park Press (New Jersey) March 15, 1981

THE WORD MAGNUM has several meanings. It’s an ultra-powerful firearm cartridge, as well as the name of one of the most deadly pistols in the world. It’s also the designation of a large champagne bottle. Now it’s become associated with high adventure on television.

When creators Glen A. Larson and Donald P. Bellisario dreamed up the hero of “Magnum, P.I.,” they may well have had the multiple meanings in mind. Regardless of the source of their inspiration, however, they’ve come up with a grand-slam winner.

The CBS series has quickly blossomed into one of the season’s big hits. It has consistently placed in the top 20 and is now hovering just outside the magic circle of TV’s top 10. (The network has ordered another 22 episodes, thus ensuring the series’ continuation well into next year.)

Private investigator (P.I.) Thomas Sullivan Magnum has been given an appropriate name. He’s larger than life, rugged and like a few others in the fictional P.I. game, he’s also a rakish free-wheeler.

AS PLAYED BY macho star Tom Selleck, called the new Clark Gable by some, Magnum has been plopped into a lush setting. The series is filmed entirely in Hawaii; much to the delight of the state’s tourist bureau, it gives millions of viewers a weekly picture-postcard glimpse of exotic locales and stunning panoramas of the lovely islands.

Magnum PI Tom Selleck

For some, it may appear to pick up where the long-running “Hawaii Five-0” left off. But as one spokesman for the producers put it, “The show carefully circumvents Jack Lord’s footsteps. There’s an effort being made not to knowingly use the same locations or backdrops.”

The series’ peg is the basic, veteran-returns-to-become-private-eye potboiler. After serving in the Navy during the Vietnam conflict, Magnum lands a job in charge of security at a palatial beachfront mansion owned by absentee author Robin Masters, in exchange for the privilege of living there in high style.

He must share the swanky digs with Higgins, a stuffy, impeccably British majordomo who comes with the territory. As comedic foil in this paradise found, Higgins, a Royal Army retiree, is the kind of chap who would wear spats to a bowling league.

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THE SERIES DERIVES much of its appeal (a quality likened by many to “The Rockford Files“) from the constant interplay between easy-over Magnum and the bookishly proper Higgins, adroitly played by veteran actor John Merman. Magnum has the assistance of several war buddies, including TC (Roger Mosley), a helicopter pilot, and Rick (Larry Manetti), who runs a fancy night club.

For Selleck, starring in “Magnum. P.I.,” is the most important acting assignment of his career. The 6-foot, 4-inch actor, who weighs 200 pounds, has come a long way from his inauspicious debut in an Air Force training film.

Spotted by talent scouts after an appearance on “The Dating Game” several years ago, Selleck then stepped into several television roles and films, including “Myra Breckenridge” and “Coma.” Between acting jobs, he made a decent living working as a male model. At one time, his rugged visage was seen on billboards throughout the country as the he-man who smoked a certain cigarette associated with the rugged life.

Tom Selleck for Chaz cologne - Vintage ad from 1980

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SELLECK ADMITS, however, that filming a series has its drawbacks, and being a big guy only adds to the inconveniences. One recent scene called for him to emerge from the surf at sunrise, which meant he had to be in the water while it was still dark. Next on the day’s schedule was a scene in which Selleck had to run with two trained Doberman watchdogs.

“One problem was that there was no surf,” Selleck recalled, “and after getting our dawn shot, with me rising out of a perfectly calm ocean, we waited around hoping for some big waves so it would look more thrilling. But they just didn’t develop, and I wound up wrinkling like a prune.

“As for the dog race,” he added, “they chased me, and I had to get into a low-slung car before they caught up. I will say I was pretty stiff when we started, but I was limber by the time I’d folded myself up a dozen times to get into the car for different camera angles.”

Magnum PI TV show 1981

Selleck and colleague Merman have struck up a rapport and, along with the rest of the “Magnum, PI” cast, enjoy hearty guffaws between takes.

Hillerman’s wry, caustic delivery as Higgins has been sharpened over the years by many Broadway roles, movies and TV parts. It’s a style that more often than not causes Selleck to break up in laughter and causes genuine smiles during the actual filming.

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“I’m learning restraint the hard way,” explained Selleck. “It isn’t just the way John says things. It’s often the slightly raised eyebrow or sneer or smile that accompanies it. He’s a master of the approach that used to be found only in the comedies of Noel Coward, or the written words of Alexander Woolcott and Dorothy Parker. Working with him is a decided gloom-chaser.”


Magnum PI TV show opening credits & intro theme song (video)


Magnum PI’s Tom Selleck: Just how tall, handsome and virile is he? (1982)

By Roderick Mann, Philadelphia Daily News (Pennsylvania) February 26, 1982

It’s a highly unusual experience these days to meet an actor who looks like an old-fashioned movie star. You remember the kind: tall, handsome and virile. We’ve become so used to the Al Pacinos and Dustin Hoffmans in recent years that we’ve forgotten there was a time when giants really strode the earth with names like Cooper, Wayne and Gable.

But all is not lost. Now there’s Tom Selleck. And looking up at his 6-foot-4-inches, it’s easy to see why so many producers have been calling his agent to ask: Is he free?

Magnum PI's Tom Selleck 1981

Mostly, of course, he’s not. He’s stuck out there in Hawaii making “Magnum PI” for CBS, which not long ago shot up into the rating’s top 10. But now and again he breaks away and that’s how you’ll be able to see him Monday night at 9 in ABC’s (Channel 6) “Divorce Wars” and, later this year, in Golden Harvest’s $20 million adventure epic “High Road to China” which just started shooting in Yugoslavia.

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SELLECK WAS in town briefly the other day en route to the Yugoslav location and found time to sit down with me for a talk. He’s an engagingly frank fellow who clearly doesn’t take himself too seriously. But he was, he said, very tired. “For the past six months, I’ve been working an 80-hour week, and that does take it out of you,” he said.

“I’d hoped to finish work on “Magnum” early in January, which would have given me a rest before starting this film. But we had terrible weather in Hawaii and got held up. So now I’ll have no break at all.”

“High Road to China” has a 16-week shooting schedule. Selleck is in almost every scene. By the time it’s over, it will be time for him to turn right around and fly back to Hawaii to start “Magnum” again.

“It’s not the ideal way to have gone into this film,” he said. “But I’m delighted to be in the picture, so I’m not complaining. It’s a terrific part.”

Vintage Magnum PI TV show stars

BASICALLY, THE film concerns the search by an heiress for her long-lost millionaire father and involves an arduous flight from Cairo to Hong Kong over the Himalayas in biplanes, circa 1920. Selleck plays a pilot.

“The whole film is slightly in the ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ genre,” he said. “So naturally I’m pleased.” Selleck, remember, was the first choice of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for their smash-hit film “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” When the film was offered him, he was a virtually unknown actor with a long string of unsold TV pilots behind him.

“GEORGE LUCAS and Steven Spielberg had seen every other actor in town,” said Selleck with a chuckle. “Finally they got around to me. By that time, I’d done the “Magnum” pilot and had a hunch it would go. So when I tested for them I wasn’t as nervous as I would normally have been.

“They knew about the ‘Magnum’ pilot right from the beginning but told me not to worry. ‘Leave it to us,’ they told me and went off to talk to CBS. They told them: ‘Wait until next, season before you buy “Magnum.” By that time, Selleck will have done our film, which will make him more interesting for your series.’

“But CBS didn’t want to wait. They bought the series. And that was that.” When “Raiders of the Lost Ark” came out, Selleck’s friends advised him not to see it. They said it would only depress him to see what a chance he’d missed.

But Selleck went anyway. And loved it. “I thought Harrison Ford was marvelous,” he said. “It was really his film.” Had he really felt that magnanimous?

“I really did,” he said. “Of course, if I’d lost the film, and then ‘Magnum’ had been canceled after just a few shows, I’d have felt quite differently. I’d probably have gone a bit mad and done the kind of things that land you in the ‘Enquirer.’ But the show was a success, so there was nothing to be said.

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“THE IRONIC thing is that after ‘Raiders’ went off to Europe to shoot, and I headed for Hawaii to start ‘Magnum,’ the actors went on strike. ‘Raiders’ was able to keep going because of a special dispensation, but we couldn’t make a move. So, in fact, I could probably have done both.”

Selleck let everyone know that he had been offered the role. “Having lost it through no fault of my own, I felt I was entitled to get something out of it,” he said. “So I told people: ‘That was my part.’ But now that I’ve seen the film, it’s hard to imagine anyone being better than Harrison Ford. He was quite wonderful.”

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” was not the only role that Selleck lost because of his commitment to “Magnum PI.” He was offered “Cannonball Run,” but could not do it. And he was invited to play a role in Blake Edwards’ “Victor, Victoria,” but had to say no.

He’d already turned it down once — “I didn’t really understand it” — when Edwards telephoned him in Hawaii.

“LOOK,” SAID Edwards. “I’m not going to try to talk you into it, but I’m fascinated to know why someone in your position doesn’t want to do this picture.”

Selleck explained that he found the plot somewhat convoluted. “But after talking to Blake for just a few minutes, I knew I could work with him on the picture,” he said. “We started negotiating. But it was no good. I couldn’t get free.” Edwards wanted Selleck for the role that James Garner eventually took.

Baby Tom Selleck at age 2 in 1946
Baby Tom Selleck at age 2 in 1946

SELLECK IS understandably grateful to “Magnum PI” for the success it has brought him. But he admits that the schedule — six days a week, more than 12 hours a day — can be killing.

“Sometimes when I’m feeling down, I ask myself: Is this what I really want?” he said. “See, I’m not one of those people who believes in simply eating and sleeping and working. I don’t think that’s an intelligent way to live.

“So right at this moment, I’d have to tell you that I’ll never do another TV series. Because once you’re over being grateful, you’re bound to wind up complaining about the hours, and the fact that, with any series, it’s not a question of ‘if’ it will be canceled, but ‘when.'”


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