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Magnum Opus

In "Las Vegas" and the Jesse Stone series, Tom Selleck reminds us why he is one of America's best-loved actors.
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Nov/Dec 2007

(continued from page 7)

W. C. Fields had such a voice, as did George Burns. Bob Dylan's singing voice has that same unique quality and Fran Drescher's nasal tones are, uh, unmistakable. The inimitable Mae West—in whose Myra Breckinridge a young actor by the name of Tom Selleck once earned screen credit as "Stud"—had that kind of voice too.

Of course, so does Tom Selleck. Whether he's playing Hawaiian private investigator Thomas Sullivan Magnum IV in "Magnum, P.I."—the role that made Selleck a household name, the owner of the most famous mustache on film since Burt Reynolds and the pin-up poster boy for women all over the globe—or characters as diverse as a bachelor architect diapering an infant (Three Men and a Baby), an American athlete playing baseball in Japan (Mr. Baseball), a gay newsman (In & Out), a roguish ex-husband ("Boston Legal") or a hired cowboy let loose in Australia (Quigley Down Under), the actor's voice is instantly recognizable. You can change the story's locale, the character's career and even the facial hair, but you're going to know it's Tom Selleck's voice no matter what.

On the first day of this interview and still in Los Angeles, that recognizable voice is a little strained; Selleck had been filming earlier in the day on the set of "Las Vegas," the four-year-old NBC drama that he joined this past season in which he plays mysterious and wealthy A. J. Cooper, a Wyoming cattle rancher who buys the fictional Montecito Resort & Casino out of bankruptcy. He's managed to slot in an hour and a half in a hotel suite for the interview but has another meeting at the studio, this time with a network executive, immediately following.

With any luck, the weary Selleck will make it home to his ranch 90 minutes north of Los Angeles by nightfall and just in time to say hello to his wife and his daughter and go to sleep in order to start all over again in the morning.

And, he adds, he's got to start packing. A week or so earlier Selleck had received notice that he'd scored an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie for his role playing troubled police chief Jesse Stone in Jesse Stone: Sea Change. The CBS television movie, the fourth in a series based on the best-selling books by Robert B. Parker, features Selleck not only as the lead actor but as the co-executive producer. Between his nomination and the actual Emmy Awards show in mid-September, he needs to wrap his work on "Las Vegas" and leave for Halifax, Nova Scotia, to begin the fifth movie in the franchise, Jesse Stone: Thin Ice.

Acting is a competitive sport in Hollywood and if Selleck's schedule is brutal at the moment, it is a scheduling game that hundreds— maybe thousands—of actors would love to be playing.

At 62 and nearly two decades after the insane success of "Magnum, P.I.," Selleck is clearly still in the game, still selling tickets and still filling the stands.

Even better, he's still hitting them into the bleachers.

Growing up in Southern California's San Fernando Valley, a Little League—playing Tom Selleck dreamed of a career in Major League Baseball, but it was to be a different ball—basketball—that led the 6 foot 4 inch "Valley Boy" into acting, albeit inadvertently.

Selleck studied business in college, first at a junior college and later while playing basketball at Southern Cal. His grades, Selleck admits a bit sheepishly, were dismal and his basketball not a whole lot better. Still, friends talked him into a theater arts class by telling him that it was an easy way to score an "A" and an instructor encouraged the strikingly tall, handsome student to try out for a commercial or two. Selleck did and, like a lot of USC and UCLA students at the time, landed a role on "The Dating Game." Twice.

The results, Selleck laughs, weren't much better than his college grades; he didn't get the girl either time. "Oh man, 'The Dating Game,'" Selleck says, groaning. "I was a total non-pro and I was a shy kid. I did two of them...they had me back on for some reason even though I gave lame answers and lost. The one thing I remember, because I was terrified, is that they had this revolving stage. You come out and it goes," Selleck whistles the show's theme tune, "and there you are sitting in your chairs. They said, 'Don't forget to smile when you come out.' Well, I just remember it freaked me out so that my heart was thumping, the revolving [stage] comes around and I remembered to smile. I forced a smile and my heart was beating so fast that my lip goes..." and Selleck, laughing, starts twitching his lip madly.

As an adult Selleck mimics the almost painful-to-watch shyness of a college kid, unsure of women and ill at ease in front of a camera, it's hard to reconcile the assertive, notoriously "calls it like he sees it" man of today—and certainly the heartthrob-y bachelor of Thomas Sullivan Magnum—with the image he's re-creating.

Actually, Selleck says, his shyness around women extended far beyond college, no matter what persona he may have taken on just a few years later in shows like "Lancer," "The Young and the Restless" or "Marcus Welby, M.D." Or, in the case of "Magnum, P.I.," nearly 14 years later.

Hell, he admits, he still finds the fairer sex a little perplexing.

"In college I was always 'uh, I really like that girl' and then I'd ask a friend to fix us up. I was pretty shy [and] I was a little slow. Until when? Until always, I think, or until I grew up a little. It takes men a long time to grow up," Selleck smiles, "or at least it did this guy."

Apparently at least one woman was able to overlook Selleck's shyness; he married model Jacqueline Ray in 1971 and, together, they raised Ray's toddler-aged son, Kevin. Selleck spent the '70s getting small roles on television dramas and modestly larger roles in films, some fairly awful (Daughters of Satan, Terminal Island) and some a little better, such as Midway.

But most of all, it seems, Selleck made television pilots. During his first decade or so acting, Selleck made seven pilots—only one of which ever sold—and spent 11 years doing bit parts and struggling. It wasn't until he had a small, recurring role in "The Rockford Files" that things started to click.

In fact, he points out, he wasn't cast in the Hawaii-based "Magnum, P.I." until age 35 and the irony isn't lost on him as to how easy some people thought his success must have been based on his looks. "I became an overnight success," deadpans Selleck, "at age 35."

Although he felt more than a little jinxed when it came to pilots, he at least loved the locale of Hawaii and, having separated from his wife, was open to the idea of a little time away from Hollywood.

"I love Hawaii. When I was in the [California] National Guard and in the infantry, I went there one summer for summer camp. That was a great gig. You know, we had two weeks where we were training in the hills that was pretty miserable, but I remember visiting [a friend] at the Outrigger Canoe Club and playing a little beach volleyball with him and I thought, 'God I'm in the wrong business! If I could be making a living at something else, I'd live here. Nah, that'll never happen' and I end up going there! And it was that life at the Outrigger Canoe Club and the fact that most of my friends were outside the business [that] was really good for me. They didn't cut me any slack and they kidded me a lot. I wasn't the best volleyball player at the club. I was good but not anywhere near the best. They are really, really good players, so most volleyball games were a loss. A," Selleck says with a grin, "humiliating loss."

For a brief period it looked as if "Magnum, P.I." and Selleck's shot at staying in Hawaii might also be a loss—a debate about filming caused multiple delays—and then, simultaneously, another opportunity came and went too: a role, the lead role, in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

According to Selleck, he's awful when auditioning for an acting role—nerves, mostly—but, perhaps because he felt that the "Magnum, P.I." pilot was really going to fly, he must have relaxed enough to read well; Steven Spielberg and George Lucas offered him the role of Indiana Jones.

One of the rumors that's too often repeated, says Selleck, and the one that in some respects annoys him the most, is that he turned down the role of Indiana Jones. It's simply not true, the actor says.

No actor in his right mind would turn down that role, Selleck insists, unless maybe he'd already made a television show pilot in good faith and, although still technically in limbo, had a resulting case of a disease not often seen or diagnosed in Hollywood: ethics.

"Before I ever did the test, I said to them, 'I have this pilot,' and they [Spielberg and Lucas] said," Selleck mimics a gasp, "'You're telling us that? No one does that! No one tells us when they have a pilot!'"

It was the right thing to do, Selleck said, and the honest thing, but their response was more than he could have hoped for. "I was philosophic going in and [told them] that 'I don't know, the show hasn't sold yet, but I think it's going to,' and they said, 'We'll test you anyway. We're not real worried about it.'"

"Well, they weren't real worried about talking CBS into letting me do the movie [and] basically said they had cards to play with the network," continues Selleck, and, after reading a portion of the Raiders of the Lost Ark script, he knew he wanted the role. Badly. CBS, however, had other ideas and nixed the thought of Selleck taking on both roles. Reluctantly, Selleck agreed and told Spielberg the news.

Then, says Selleck, it all went sour. In the weeks after Selleck said he couldn't take on a commitment for Raiders, "Magnum, P.I." got sidelined yet again while CBS and Universal Studios, which had shot "Hawaii Five-0" in Hawaii for 12 years, argued about where the new Hawaii-themed show was going to film, in L.A. or in Hawaii. While the debate raged between the production companies, "Magnum, P.I." was taken out of the scheduled lineup, leaving Selleck with nada.

To make money, Selleck said yes to a television movie, Concrete Cowboys, opposite Jerry Reed, during which time CBS put "Magnum, P.I." back on the schedule for production, this time recast with someone else as Magnum.

It was, says Selleck now, insane. "They'd recast my role [on "Magnum, P.I."] and it was going on the air, so now I wasn't doing Raiders and there wasn't any "Magnum, P.I." either!"

Finally, says Selleck, CBS and Universal settled their differences, decided to film in Hawaii, and Selleck was back in again. For just a few weeks. "I went to Hawaii to start. I had a living allowance of $2,500 a month, had found a little house, a one-bedroom house but with a great view and I put down rent, last month's rent, security deposit and everything, all of which I didn't have except for that allowance. And then, before we started [filming], the actors went on strike."

Fortunately, his new landlady hadn't quite finished the remodeling and Selleck convinced her that he was handy enough to finish the work in return for rent consideration. Ironically, though, while Selleck was doing carpentry work on his rental, the cast and crew of Raiders of the Lost Ark came to Hawaii to film some of their final scenes.

"There they are, finishing Raiders of the Lost Ark in Hawaii, where I'm sitting around working as a handyman for $7 an hour with no "Magnum, P.I.," groans Selleck.

"I still have—I haven't framed it or anything—but I still have a letter from Steven [Spielberg] saying what a rotten deal I'd gotten and that I had a part out there [somewhere] and somewhere along the line we are going to work together."

"I haven't," Selleck says, grinning, "played that card yet."


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