A Star Returns
After years of battling rumors and bad scripts, Tom Selleck, the former Star of Magnum, P.I., is poised for a comeback.
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While Selleck was in junior college, he was trying to improve his grades so he could get into USC. "I wanted good grades, and somebody told me this theater arts class was an easy 'A.' It wasn't really an acting class, it was a history of the American theater. I took it with two friends, and the teacher said that one of my friends and I were good types for commercials. My friend went to an agent, and I followed him. I started going to auditions for commercials off and on while I was at USC, though at that time I never got one."
He wasn't exactly a star basketball player, either. "My one brush with greatness--I've told Kareem Abdul-Jabbar about this--was that I was him. During practice at USC, the guys who weren't going to play in the real game would learn the offense of the team we were going to play next, and often I would be Kareem [he was Lew Alcindor then] running the UCLA offense against my teammates."
His contract with 20th Century Fox wasn't what one would call lucrative. He earned $35 a week, and being a contract studio player didn't mean much in the late 1960s, a time of independent producers. "Fox finally dropped me," he says. "My screen career was going nowhere." It took him until he was 35 to make it with "Magnum."
While he was under contract, the Vietnam War was raging, and he knew he would soon be drafted. He joined the National Guard and was on active duty for six months. "It wasn't an easy road," he says, "because I was in an infantry unit, and I actually got activated to go to Vietnam the day after I got back from my six months of active duty. I was a six-foot-four machine gunner. Then, two days later, they changed the orders. I think Lyndon Johnson felt we were needed in L.A. for riot control, and they took another unit."
Let loose by Fox, Selleck soon realized he was hooked; despite all the difficulties and disappointments, acting was the career he had to pursue. "I realized I really liked the screen. I knew it was a challenge, but I wasn't afraid of risk. Sports were a big help for me. I had to study, and at the same time make money, because I wasn't going to take any from my parents. I took a lot of acting classes. I started doing commercials. I did a lot of commercials in the next 12 years and made some money. When I didn't work, I collected unemployment. I did whatever it took. I did odd jobs. I sold clothes a lot of the time because sometimes I was able to get paid in clothes, which enabled me to have a good wardrobe, which helped me to get more commercials."
"Magnum, P.I." almost didn't happen. "I had made six unsold pilots before 'Magnum,'" he says. "But by then I had started to realize that I was going to get a shot at success. I was doing some good work. I had done a miniseries called 'The Sacketts' [in 1979]. I had done a pilot for Universal, and they assigned a show to me called 'Magnum.' But I told them they couldn't do that, that I had already done my pilot. But they said, 'No, the deal is for pilots.' So I said that this was August and that the contract had ended in July. But they said they had the right to extend it if I had worked for somebody else, and I had done 'The Sacketts.' So I went to a pretty heavy-duty lawyer, and his reply was, 'Who do you think you are, going to one of the top lawyers in the entertainment business?'
"I didn't like the 'Magnum' pilot very much. He was a kind of perfect character, a womanizing James Bondish kind of guy, and I knew my acting instrument by then, I knew my appetites, and I knew I wanted to be a little more goofy than that and make mistakes. I was a huge fan of 'The Rockford Files' and James Garner. I had done two 'Rockfords' as a character called Lance White. I knew I could never be Garner, that I could never be as good as he is, but I also knew I could work in that kind of arena. And something made me persist. It may have been either my upbringing or just the idea that I was comfortable taking risks, because at the time everybody, including Universal, was saying, 'Who the hell do you think you are? Don't mess with us; you can't turn us down.' But finally we worked out a deal where I could look at three shows, one of which could be 'Magnum,' but it had to be rewritten. They brought in Don Bellisario [and Glen Larson], who wrote a terrific two-hour pilot," which they then filmed.
Shortly after, lightning struck again. Selleck auditioned for the lead role in an adventure movie, the role of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
"I wasn't the hottest actor in town, but I was getting better," he recalls. "So after I had done the pilot, before it was picked up, I went to audition for Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. I was one of the last guys to get in the room. I did a screen test. I had blown most of the screen tests I had done, but this time I was philosophic because I had a hunch that 'Magnum' might work. I was relaxed, and I tested pretty well. And they offered me Raiders of the Lost Ark."
Selleck told Spielberg and Lucas that he had done a television pilot that might be picked up for the new season. "Nobody does that. But that's just the way I think. I guess I got this ethical sense from my mom and dad. Lucas and Spielberg were quite impressed that I told them, but they weren't concerned that the 'Magnum' thing would get in the way, because they said they had cards to play with the network and they would work it out. But I guess CBS didn't want a guy doing a movie who was going to do a series, and I finally had to say no. That's all history now, and it was Harrison Ford's deal."
The eight-year success of "Magnum," of course, is also history. The show's triumph was in large part connected to the character that Selleck created, and the sense, shared by many viewers, that the personality of Thomas Magnum contained more than a little of the personality of Thomas Selleck.
"I think a lot of Magnum was me," he says. "I'm not him and he's not me, but when you do a series for that long, when you become so tired that what you are going with is your gut, it's inevitable. Magnum's choices were probably filtered through my values." And what are those values? He ponders. "Boy, that's hard," he says. "I guess consistency. Some kind of attempt to do the right thing."
Selleck's character, his insistence on values, and his concern for what he believes to be right came to the fore several years ago when a homosexual organization that specialized in dragging people out of the closet declared on a poster that he was gay. A tabloid newspaper picked up the report. Selleck was furious, and fought back.
"The gay thing was a big risk, actually," he says, "but it couldn't have turned out any better. Someone told me you're really not successful in this business until you start hearing rumors about yourself. If people who are gay find me attractive and want me to be gay, there's nothing I can do about it. But I'm not gay, and I knew there was a political element in it because of my conservatism.
"I got a lot of advice not to react, people telling me that reacting would only lend credence to the whole thing. But I thought, I'm married, and what does this say to my wife and my child about the way I live my life? It's not being antigay to say you're not gay. I said that no one has lived on the face of this earth who can truthfully say I'm gay. I don't feel the need to comment publicly on gays or the gay movement, but I felt I had to do something about it for me to remain reasonably sane. If you're gay, you're gay, and if you're not, you're not. I did the right thing. And I got an apology from the tabloid inside of a week."
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The age of 50--"the 50s are pretty scary," he says--is often a time for pondering the time remaining in one's life. Selleck says he has been doing a lot of that lately. "For one," he says, "I've answered the question once and for all about whether work is going to go away. It's not. I'll work at one level or another. But basically, I don't like the business of acting, of getting jobs--I don't like a lot of things about this business. I want to keep the ranch going, pulling weeds, tending the animals. The ranch is a pretty funky place. It's not an elaborate estate, but hopefully the kind of place where you can get dirty and then sit down in the living room. We like that. We're comfortable with that."
Life on the ranch, he says, "doesn't mean I'll care less about acting. But I want to do the right thing with Jillie and Hannah. I'm just getting very comfortable at not projecting too far ahead. It drives people crazy, but I am pretty good at taking things as they come. Mainly because you could never have predicted the path my life would take. And the path hasn't been so bad."
Selleck is, he says, "a lot happier" than he has ever been. "It sounds like I was a troubled, unhappy person. I wasn't. It's just that things are a lot more in balance.
"And when I look back, some of my fondest memories are reserved for the struggle, the tough times. Looking back, I'm real happy with the last three years. And believe me, a lot of things in the last three years have been conflicted and angry and hurt. But that's life--and I've really learned to develop an appetite for it. You realize that getting there wasn't such a big deal, because there's always somewhere else to go. The goals aren't that important. To me, the ride is more important than the goal. And right now, I'm real happy with the ride."
Mervyn Rothstein is an editor at The New York Times and a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator.