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.
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96
He doesn't look like Magnum anymore.
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."
Selleck believes that Universal "thought that things weren't going too well for me--or at least that's how it appeared--and that a much safer bet would be to get me to make four 'Magnums' a year for television. That would reinvigorate the franchise, they thought. But I won't do that, particularly now. The only way they're going to get hold of this Magnum character is to make a feature film."
Selleck stands and, as if to signal intermission, walks into the next room. "Would you like a cigar?" he asks. He was just in Washington, D.C., he says, as part of the promotional tour for his TV movie, and he picked up some pre-Castro Havanas. He has smoked cigars on and off for many years, and on a regular basis for the past five or six.
"Most of the time I smoke Havanas," he says. "Hoyo de Monterrey double coronas, Punch double coronas. I haven't had a Ramon Allones Gigantes. Those are really coveted because they're so hard to get. Cohiba Robusto is the only Cohiba I like. I find the others overrated; they're all overpriced." But he adds, "I have enough Havana cigars. It's kind of neat being a celebrity--a lot of people find out that you like cigars and give them to you. To me, Cuban cigars won't be as much fun when they're not contraband."
Selleck has also been enjoying more and more non-Cuban cigars. "The domestic cigars keep getting better and better," he says. "I'm smoking a lot of La Gloria Cubanas from Miami--when I can get them. The La Gloria Cubana Wavell is a sensational smoke. But because they're so highly rated in Cigar Aficionado, they have become almost impossible to get. I also love Davidoffs. I know they're expensive, but Davidoff Special R's are just excellent. The Special T's are very good, and they're a classic shape. Their Double R's are also consistently high in quality. The Davidoffs are just made so well. And I'm finding that with almost all of the Havana cigars there are a lot of inconsistencies. You're going to get some duds in every box, which is sad. I know the problems, without getting into the politics of Castro; there are huge problems with supply and demand, and the large demand affects the quality control."
When it comes to his favorite, however, Havana wins, with the Montecristo No. 2, a figurado. "I'd rather hold a Monte No. 2 than any cigar," he says. "I just love its shape."
He is not a heavy smoker--perhaps five or six cigars a month, he says, unless he is on location, when he smokes more frequently. "I love to smoke a cigar and read a script. I have a house with a high ceiling, and I also have a room for smoking. I like the contemplative aspect of cigars, the sheer pleasure of a good one. They're just remarkable, and smoking one is such a relaxing thing to do."
Another reason he loves cigars, he says, is because "they're so wonderfully politically incorrect now. The '60s child in me just loves the fact that I'm fighting against the trend. There are a lot of things about cigars I love because of the anarchist in me. A lot of people are doing that. The cigar business is booming, and it's lovely in that sense."
And the antismoking movement? "I wouldn't smoke cigars if I thought they were that detrimental to one's health. Solutions to problems in a free society are messy. There are no magic bullets, no bumper-sticker solutions. If we want an authoritarian state, we can continue to do the kind of stuff we're doing now about smoking."
He also treasures the fact that women are smoking cigars--"and not just those stupid little petite ones that some women think they have to smoke to stay feminine. I don't like cigars that have small ring gauges, unless I'm looking for a quick smoke. Bigger cigars smoke cooler and taste better. When a woman can smoke a cigar like a Cohiba Robusto with confidence, and enjoy it as much as a man, I find it incredibly feminine."
The actor is also a fancier of the finest Ports--Fonseca, Dow, Taylor Fladgate. "I love the Fonseca '63. I have six bottles in the cellar, as well as a couple of other '63s. A glass of that and a cigar is my idea of heaven. A Hoyo double corona would be just about right. And a good book."
If not a fine Port, Selleck sometimes chooses a good single malt Scotch with a cigar. "A Glenmorangie. A Laphroaig. And the really peaty stuff. It's really hard to beat a good 25-year-old Macallan. Some of them are so good and so expensive I tend not to drink them. Part of me is really this lower-middle-class kid who thinks you should put plastic covers on the couch and not use the good silver."
Selleck also enjoys a good bottle of wine. "I love big, oaky California Cabernets," he says. "I know French wines pretty well, especially the big five Bordeaux, but I haven't been drinking them lately. If I am in an Italian restaurant I will invariably order a Brunello di Montalcino. A lot of my choices are tied to memories. I've had a lot of good Brunello with friends in Italy and in other places. I like repetition. I like a sense of continuity. That happens a lot with wines." He very seldom drinks white wines. "If I'm at a formal dinner and they serve it with the first course, I'll drink it. But I drink red wine with fish. It just doesn't bother me. I know the difference. I can play the game. But red is what I like."
His California ranch, he says, has an excellent wine cellar. "It used to be Dean Martin's ranch. The cellar is a bunker built into the side of a hill. It's also a great temperature for keeping cigars. When I run out of room in my humidors"--he has more than 500 cigars at home--"I keep the cigars in the cellar. The humidity level is not quite right, but it's close enough, and I can put them back in the humidor later and restore them easily."
Also in the cellar is some Château Margaux '82, "and a lot of old bottles I got as gifts. I even have a '74 Mondavi Reserve. I should be drinking it now. Maybe it's even a little past it."
One of his favorite memories is a dinner he gave in the early 1980s for then-president Ronald Reagan. It was at Chasen's restaurant (which has since closed) in Los Angeles, and the guests included William F. Buckley and many other politically conservative luminaries. "I served a 1974 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon to President Reagan," Selleck recalls, "and he had several glasses. I was thrilled when he asked for another glass."
Selleck is known for his own conservative politics. He was a vocal supporter of Reagan and of former president George Bush. Though he now considers himself a "disaffected voter," he registered as an independent in 1992 and contributed money to Paul Tsongas, Jerry Brown and Patrick Buchanan "in the spirit," he says, "of creating a legitimate debate." He has been called the successor to Charlton Heston as the leader of Hollywood's right wing, and it has even been rumored that Selleck himself might be considering a run for public office--a rumor that he has always denied.
These days, though, he is playing down his conservative leanings; although he is still very much of the right, he talks more about the politics of consensus than about any contracts with America.
"My reputation as a conservative is valid in a lot of ways," he says, "but what disturbs me is what people think conservatives are. What conservatism represents to me is civil libertarian thought. To me, it's as simple as this: We all agree we need to solve social problems. My leanings tend toward individualist solutions. I don't like to characterize anybody, but I think liberals tend to have collectivist solutions. The twentieth century has been a collectivist century. Most of our solutions to social problems--even the term social problems--are collectivist. We've had this global experiment, and we're starting to see the end of the chain letter. I say let's try new things. I can't guarantee you they'll all work. If 30 percent of them work, I'll be happy. It's just time to reassess things and say that maybe this idea of the common good has to be translated through the individual.
"I've learned by hanging out in Hollywood, where I disagree politically with most people, that most people's hearts are in the right place, and the only thing we have to argue about is the way to solve the problems. So I don't like it if the conservative philosophy becomes an 'anti' philosophy, just sheer negative thought. If that's conservatism, I don't want to be labeled a conservative. If I can be an advocate of individualist solutions to our society's problems that are affirmative solutions, that's to me what conservatism means."
The actor is concerned about consensus with his Hollywood colleagues. When he found out that a recent TV Guide interview had quoted him as saying that Barbra Streisand, a frequent champion of the liberal line, "ought to shut up about that," he immediately called her to apologize. "I'm very fond of her," he says, "and thank God I was able to reach her before she read it." The quote, he says, was taken out of context.
"No matter how much I tell Barbra that's not what I said, that's not what I meant, I'm sure she'll be a little hurt by it, and that's not right," he says. "Maybe I should have been smart enough not to give them a sound bite. I wasn't aware I was giving them one. It would have had to have been said with humor because I know Barbra too well to have done that."
Selleck is honorary chairman of The Skin Cancer Foundation and a volunteer and spokesman for the Los Angeles Mission, "which deals with the homeless situation in L.A. without taking federal funds. They're incredibly effective because they're not constrained the way an organization that takes federal funds would be."
For more than two years he has also been the national co-spokesperson, with Barbara Jordan, the liberal former congresswoman from Texas, for the Character Counts Coalition, an organization that seeks to instill in young people--and adults--qualities such as respect, caring, responsibility, trustworthiness and citizenship.
"She's certainly no conservative," Selleck says of Jordan, "but I learned a long time ago that when you're talking about values you have to do it in a nonpartisan way, you have to achieve a consensus, because otherwise somebody is going to assume there's a hidden agenda. And besides, because of all she has accomplished, Barbara Jordan has always been a hero of mine."
The conversation turns from politics to passions. Selleck is the proud owner of a 1928 Bentley 4.5 liter Le Mans, in British racing green, the type of car built for racing. "It's an open cockpit, helmet-and-goggles kind of car, with a little windscreen," he says. "They call them racing trucks. It's out at the ranch. The 1928 Bentleys took the first four places at [the 1929] Le Mans. At the end, they finished in team order. They lined up their cars 1, 2, 3, 4--that's how much they dominated. Mine didn't race."
He is not a collector, he says, nor is he a racer; he gets his pleasure from owning the car and from "having the nerve to drive it. If you buy an expensive thing and you never use it, I don't think there's a point to it. I've even driven it on the freeway to my offices. It'll do 90 miles an hour if you have a lot of nerve and nobody in front of you--because you'll need some room to stop."
Another passion is accumulating handmade shotguns. "I'm not much of a hunter," Selleck says. "I shoot a lot of clay targets. To me, the excitement is in ordering a fine shotgun, going through the process that everybody who has bought one has gone through for 100 years. You order it, you make a significant down payment, and then you wait three or four years for the gun to be custom-made for you. They're not making these guns much differently from the way they were made in 1920. That's why it takes so long."
He will often order a shotgun to celebrate a major achievement in his life. "We ought to commemorate our wins," he says. "We tend to forget them and remember other things." As "Magnum" was coming to an end, for instance, he ordered a pair of shotguns from Holland & Holland, "one of the finest makers in the world." He also has three Purdey shotguns and a shotgun from Beretta, the Italian gun maker founded in 1530. A basic Holland & Holland or Purdey, he says, starts at around $50,000.
"I know shotguns are politically incorrect," he says with a laugh, "but it's too late for me to be concerned about such things. And the shooting sports are very misunderstood nowadays. Shooting clay targets is a very cleansing experience. It's very relaxing. It takes a lot of concentration. It's also very social, since you're usually shooting with friends. You can talk and forget about almost anything else that's on your mind."
What attracted Selleck to the Bentley and shotguns, as well as to cigars, is their tradition and history, the sense that they have withstood the test of time. "I knew about most of these things well before I could afford them," he says. "Now I'll have them to pass on to my children."
Thomas William Selleck was born on Jan. 29, 1945, in Detroit. His father, a real estate salesman, moved the family to California when Tom was four. Tom was the second son; there would later be a third, and a daughter.
"I had a strong, really good upbringing, not puritanical," Selleck says. "Growing up was troubling, like it is for everybody. But I had a pretty good time of it. I didn't drink or smoke. I didn't grow up in any kind of affluence. My mom and dad were less well-off than I would have realized. My dad's a risk taker. He moved us out to California with very little money and went into a straight commission job, and what I found out when I grew up was that he didn't sell a house for about two years. But I wasn't aware of this at the time. I had a very stable family, and we had food on the table. And that's pretty good at four."
Selleck played basketball in high school, junior college and at the University of Southern California. "I was never a very good student, but I was smart enough to get by," he says. "I always wanted to go to USC, but even though I was a good athlete no one was breaking down the doors for me. I didn't go to USC on a basketball scholarship, but I said, 'If I make your team I'm going to need some help,' because my parents were borrowing money to send me there. Which to this day is a source of enormous guilt, because I left with three classes to go in the business school to sign a contract with 20th Century Fox."
Acting, he says, was almost an afterthought, a result mostly of living in the city that was the capital of the movie business. "If anything," he says, "I wanted to be a professional baseball player, which probably came out of Little League. I really hadn't thought out life at that point. I was a second son, and I pretty much did everything my older brother did. I studied business in college because my father was in business. Years later, the dean of the business school looked at my transcript and said, 'Tom, this is the most remarkable record of mediocrity I've ever seen. You never got higher than a C in your major.'"
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."
* * *
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.
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