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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.
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

(continued from page 6)

Tom Selleck, 50 years old, emerges from the breakfast room at the elegant Carlyle Hotel on Manhattan's Upper East Side, right hand extended in greeting. His hair is shorter and thinner, his forehead higher, his smiling face broader, his wrinkles more prominent, his hips, well, just a little wider. He is six-foot-four, but somehow this day he seems not quite that tall.

Yet, the moment you meet him, you know: He still has the aura, the charisma, the special feeling of a star.

It has been seven years since "Magnum, P.I."--that hugely successful TV series with its lanky, courageous and yet somehow quintessentially goofy Hawaiian private eye--finished its eight-year run on CBS. For Selleck, much has happened in those seven years.

He has done well with Three Men and a Little Lady, the sequel to his earlier, very successful Three Men and a Baby. But there have also been films that were, in one way or another, disappointments--Her Alibi, An Innocent Man, Quigley Down Under, Mr. Baseball--movies that may have received decent or better reviews, and that may have even sold a fair number of tickets, but that in no way could have been called box-office smashes. Reporters and gossip columnists wondered frequently whether Selleck still had it, whether he could make the jump from small screen to large, whether he was a has-been.

Then, for three years, he stayed away from movies and TV, and the rumors continued: He just wasn't box office anymore, no one wanted him, he couldn't even get arrested in Hollywood. It didn't matter that the rumors weren't true, that he had turned down six movies and had other reasons for staying away, reasons he has only recently begun to discuss.

The hiatus ended last summer with a made-for-television movie for TNT called Broken Trust, in which he played a judge who takes part in a sting against his fellow jurists. The movie aired in August amid much publicity, and the reviews for it and for Selleck were uncommonly good. But that, again, was TV, where it was known he could succeed. The reports over the summer talked of a new Tom Selleck, but riding up in the elevator to his suite on the Carlyle's 33rd floor, attired in casual slacks and rugby shirt, Selleck doesn't look new--only different, only older.

Yet the voice is charming, the smile affecting, the persona calm, relaxed, assured. Entering the suite, walking into the living room, Selleck says he would like to talk about these past three years, to set things straight. Life has not always been easy, he says; there have been money concerns, troubles in his four-film contract with the Disney studio, doubts about his professional future, worries over his ranch in Thousand Oaks, California, where he lives with his wife, British actress Jillie Mack, and their seven-year-old daughter, Hannah. (Selleck also has a 27-year-old son from a previous marriage.) He and his wife have been married eight years, together for 12. He loves to work on the ranch, but a year ago, 53 of its 63 acres burned; fortunately, none of his buildings or animals were harmed.

He sits on a sofa beneath a picture window facing the glowing green of Central Park and the towers of Central Park West. During the interview, Selleck will paint a picture of himself exemplified by his admission: "I've never reacted well to other people telling me what to do."

He smiles. He is not a new Tom Selleck; he is still Tom Selleck the individualist, with the same precise sense of right and wrong he has always possessed, wiser and more experienced. He has come through.

In a way, his decision to take a career break started with Columbus--Christopher Columbus. Selleck had returned after four months in Japan filming Mr. Baseball, a difficult and postponed shoot that would lead to a not very successful movie.

"I hadn't really gotten off the roller coaster since 'Magnum' ended in '88," he says. "I had been trying to cement my place in the movie business. And then my agent called and said I'd been offered a job in Spain, a cameo role as King Ferdinand in Christopher Columbus: The Discovery. He said that Marlon Brando was doing the movie, so I thought, if Brando's doing it, I wanted to do it. I wrestled with it a bit, but not as much as I should have.

"And then, just about the time I was supposed to go over there, Hannah came down with viral pneumonia. The poor thing had a mask on and she was on an IV. That was pretty rough. I delayed my leaving, and the day she was getting out of the hospital was the day I traveled to Spain. But I should have stayed home. I went to Spain really very torn, feeling responsible, because the media had somehow found out about it and were probing around the hospital, and that's pretty tough to deal with."

When Selleck got to Spain, he found even more problems. "The script had been completely changed," he says. "Instead of having six scenes, five of them with Brando, I had something like five scenes, only one with Brando, and he was only lurking in the background. I said to myself, 'This isn't right; they're in breach of contract. This is wrong, and I'm getting out of here.' So I packed. But I talked to my lawyer in L.A., and he said that while they were in breach, they had 24 hours to cure it, and he said I couldn't get on a plane, that they would sue me, because they had financed the movie on my name and Marlon's. I was in this movie for a cup of coffee, maybe three minutes, and I hadn't even allowed them to bill my name above the title, and I had to sit on it and stay there."

When Selleck returned to California after filming, his daughter was fine. "But I didn't feel that going to Spain was the right decision as a father. I should have listened to something inside me. I should have said no to the movie. I hadn't spent enough time at home."

As he is speaking, the door to the suite opens, and, as if on cue, his wife and daughter enter. Jillie is petite, small-boned, with a very British face and smile, and Hannah, thin and blonde, looks very much the seven-year-old she is, with a little bit of both parents in her appearance. Hannah runs over and plants a kiss on her daddy's cheek. He hugs and kisses her in return, and she sits next to him.

"We just came up to say hello," Jillie says. "We're going to go out. We might go to the Statue of Liberty." But Hannah firmly shakes her head no. She wants to stay with her dad.

"Come on, baby," Selleck says to her. "You're going to go with your mom." He turns to his wife. "I have to talk about her some more." He pauses as Jillie and Hannah give him a kiss and leave. Where was he? Ah yes, Christopher Columbus, and the reasons he stayed away from movies for three long years.

"That movie really caused me to reassess things," he says. "When I've talked about this before I've talked in terms of the reviews of the movie, which were pretty bad and very disturbing. But that was six months later, and that wasn't the real key to me reassessing what my priorities were. The real reason was my daughter and not being there for her. I know if she had still been in the hospital I wouldn't have gone; they would have had to come and arrest me to get me out of there. But leaving even when she was discharged certainly was not right."

So he decided to take a year off.

"I just said to myself that the movie stuff was not worth it," he says. "My daughter was three, and it wasn't that I had been a bad father, but at that point in my life I could afford to be home a lot more than I was when my son was that age. In those years, if I got offered a job and it was in any way beneficial to the career I was trying to build, I just went. I had to. Now I could afford to say no." (He has often acknowledged publicly that "Magnum" has made him a millionaire many times over.)

But the year "turned into a lot longer"--three years, to be precise. "During that time," he says, "I had signed a four-picture deal with the Disney studio. I've never talked about this publicly, because I have a relationship with that company, and when you have squabbles they should be settled within the family. But there's a new regime there, and that makes me feel it's reasonably fair now to talk about that stuff.

"After I signed the deal," he says, "things changed at Disney. Jeffrey Katzenberg [chairman of the studio from 1984 to 1994], wrote a famous memo about high costs and high-priced talent. I was pretty high-priced talent. They had to offer me pictures in good faith within a given period of time, pictures they were prepared to make. I looked on this as my annuity. I had worked a long time and I had finally gotten fortunate. I'd been offered multiple-picture deals at many studios, but I felt comfortable with Disney because I knew I was right for about 60 to 70 percent of their product.

"If you look at the movie business," Selleck continues, "you see that basically for every success you're allowed three flops. And I was convinced that at least one of these four films was going to be a success." But times have changed. "I'm not sure that I have that big a grace period now," he says. "I think people are getting smaller and smaller grace periods. But I looked on this deal as security. It was a great deal. But I haven't done a picture for Disney. And now it [has become] a two-picture deal" due to contract stipulations.

The problem, Selleck says, was in the quality of the movies he was presented. "I said no to what they offered me. Almost all of it you won't know about because they never made the pictures. I was wrestling with a lot of demons at that point. I was angry. What they offered had to be a picture they were prepared to make, and what they offered they never made. That's not right. The scripts just weren't good enough. The movies they offered me were $4.1 million deals. There were people in the business who told me I should just call their bluff, that they're going to have to pay me whether or not they make the movie. But I wasn't really interested in getting paychecks for nothing.

"The movie business is increasingly driven by a movie's release date," Selleck adds. "If a studio wants a movie out by Christmas, it has to start at a certain time. And if the script isn't ready, they say they'll fix it. Sometimes that works, but too often it doesn't. I have always been concerned about getting a script right before you start."

Despite the Katzenberg memo on high-priced talent, he says, he doesn't really know why things turned out the way they did at Disney. "I fight very hard against conspiracy theories," he says. "These things happen. There were good movies being made at Disney, but not as many as before. What was coming through their development people was really not good at all, and [Disney] ultimately admitted that there had been something wrong with their development of live-action features, as opposed to their animated films."

While all this was going on, Selleck was receiving other film proposals--but with the kind of roles he had already played; he didn't like being typecast. "I was reading a lot of material, but I just didn't like what I was being offered," he says. "The movie industry is so research-driven, and you get put in a box very quickly. When you do something that succeeds, you get a lot of offers of clones. I don't mind doing movies that are in the same ballpark, but when it's almost like a computer kicked out the right elements, I'm not interested. So one year turned into three."

He stops for a moment. He is apparently feeling a bit uncomfortable about what he is saying. "It's not really my style to talk about this," he says. "But now that I'm coming back, I really felt I had better try to control the perceptions about my coming back with a movie for television. The easy angle is that I couldn't get arrested in Hollywood, and those perceptions can affect your 'hireability.' I can take whatever people say personally; I'm not going to get that hurt by it. But I don't want people to think that I wasn't getting employed and that I'm crawling back to television."

During that time, he kept reading in the gossip columns that he had disappeared professionally, that his career was in limbo, that he no longer had what it took. It wasn't easy. "I could tell you it's business and you don't take it personally," he says, "but that's not true. On my good days it's business, but on most days there's a personal element. I'm not selling vacuum cleaners--I'm selling me. When I talk to young actors, I just say: 'You better be prepared to persevere and have a pretty thick skin, because the rejection is personal.' "

There were money concerns as well. "I live a pretty simple life," he says. "I've been poor. I've been middle class. I've been rich. By most standards it's better to have more money. You live better, of course. But, and I don't know how to explain this to most people, your nut just gets bigger. I don't know what really rich means. Really rich people, I guess, don't worry about that. I had established enough of a lifestyle; it wasn't a globe-trotting lifestyle, but it was a comfortable one, and it was expensive. And I had no money coming in. There were times when I was worried about where to get money for a payment, where I would get the cash for this and that."

He laughs uneasily. "And this was at a time when my family business with my brothers--a real estate development company--needed a certain amount of cash, because we were in a pretty big recession. Our company's doing just fine now, but that required cash, my lifestyle required cash and there was nothing coming in. There were a lot of film offers that were quite tempting for the money, but I was just trying to keep my eye on the fact that if something was not good, I was not going to do it.

"Number one, I didn't want to leave home. I liked being there. My daughter had started in a prekindergarten class. It was a 45-minute drive, so we would fight the traffic every morning to take her to school, and it was great. I was doing all the things I think a parent should do, if they can afford to. It was very hard to leave this situation unless [an offer] was good, and nothing good came along. Meanwhile, everybody was writing that I was going to do a television series, but I'm not. If I did, Hannah would be asleep in the morning when I left for work, and asleep in the evening when I came home. And I don't need to do that. At least not yet."

During those years, Selleck also tried to sell a movie idea to Universal Pictures--a feature in which he would have again played the role of Magnum, but with a switch. In the movie, Magnum would be in the Navy (which he returned to at the end of the series). Selleck's close friend, novelist Tom Clancy, would have written the story. But much to the actor's disappointment, the movie never happened.

"Universal was interested," Selleck says. "I went to them after Mr. Baseball because I heard about all the movies that were being developed based on television series, such as The Fugitive and Maverick. I thought a "Magnum" movie would be a kind of slam dunk, because the show is still seen in 90 countries--we have a huge audience. At first I thought they weren't talking to me because they thought I would hold them up pricewise. So I said I would be fair with them. I thought it was a no-brainer, a no-downside movie.

"But they wanted to know how we could create a perception that this is a big movie. So I mulled it over and called Tom Clancy, who is a friend and was a real fan of the show. Magnum's going back to being a Navy Seal was right up Tom's alley. I asked him what he thought would be a hot global issue a year from then--this was a couple of years ago--and he said nuclear proliferation in North Korea," Selleck says. So I went back and asked Universal if having Tom Clancy would create enough of a perception that it's a big movie, and they said yes. And what happened then, in my opinion, was a lot of foot-dragging. What they would have had a year ago was a very timely movie that would have dealt with how the North Koreans got their plutonium, in a very credible Clancyesque way. That's a pretty good movie."


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