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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 1)

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

In the long run, of course, it was all good; Selleck finally began filming "Magnum, P.I." and the show ultimately garnered the actor five Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series—he won in 1984—and seven Golden Globe nominations for Best Performance by an Actor in a TV Series, one of which he took home in 1985.

It was a role that became, undisputedly, Selleck's. Magnum, as originally envisioned by the creators, was a dashing, virile, James Bond—like character; Selleck made him goofier, sillier, a little flawed but still noble. The kind of guy who, with a simple whine of "gee, guys," could convince his best friends to pull a con, give him access to exclusive clubs or fly him for free on their helicopters just because he was so damn...likable.

And if, at first glance, the character of Magnum—a buff, carefree, single guy living in Hawaii who gets to wear a uniform of tropical shirts over khaki shorts and can, in his off-hours, play beach volleyball, kayak the surf or indulge in a Mai Tai at sunset while viewing bikini-clad babes on the sand—could be confused with Tom Selleck, the actor, the truth is that on the surface they looked pretty much the same.

It's just that Tom Selleck wasn't feeling all that carefree. With all of the hoped-for success of Magnum, he says, things were great. But, sometimes, not so great, too, especially in the on-again, off-again beginning of the series.

"I was starting over," says Selleck, slowly. "I was newly divorced or almost divorced, I can't remember. I was single. It was a pretty lonely, weird time and I'd also been around enough to look at a lot of other careers."

Selleck knew, he said, that his life was about to change and not always in the ways he'd want. He's the first to admit that he's a pretty cautious man, a wary man who guards his privacy, and with success, he says, comes a kind of loss.

"Up until then, you know, I got recognized occasionally from a commercial I did or something, [but] even that was changing because I [had done] a couple of bigger parts...I'd been on "Rockford Files" and I'd done "The Sacketts." But you know your life's going to change whether or not the show's a hit. You know you're going to be much more of a public person. That's something I've never thought of as a good thing about success."

For a guy who, unless it's a really short interview, a scheduled press junket or a sound bite supporting a specific project, doesn't court or routinely give sit-down interviews, the loss of privacy that the success of "Magnum, P.I." brought was a bigger issue than most people would guess.

"It's threatening. I mean, I could walk around Hawaii before the show took off and, apart from some occasional recognition, I had a pretty good life for that time. It was at least two or three months, I think. The actors strike was 10 weeks and I went over ahead of time because I had nowhere else to go. You know, my life had changed. Everything had changed. And the great sadness is that you work [so] hard when you're married or have a relationship and then you get the success you worked so hard for and there's nobody you can really share it with. So it was a kind of weird, melancholy time and I also knew my life was going to change. I'd been around enough to know that [and] I sensed the loss of privacy was probably not welcome."

The success of "Magnum, P.I." lasted from 1980 until 1988, with Selleck serving as an occasional producer or executive producer on episodes. During that time, Selleck was also able to make the occasional big-screen film or television movie, including the western The Shadow Riders, the adventure film High Road to China, the slightly sci-fi Runaway and the surprise hit comedy Three Men and a Baby.

For anyone who had questioned Selleck's ability to transition his pretty-boy face and his viewer loyalty from "Magnum, P.I." to the big screen, one had only to look at the box office success of High Road to China and Three Men and a Baby to know that Selleck had the chops and the fan base to carry off a big-budget film.

In 1987, Three Men and a Baby became the first motion picture ever to lead the box office for the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year weekends, and it ultimately became the No. 1 picture in the world. It also won the Favorite Comedy Motion Picture category at the People's Choice Awards in 1988 and spawned the sequel Three Men and a Little Lady, once again with Selleck opposite costars Ted Danson and Steve Guttenberg, in 1990.

But the even bigger global exposure that came with feature films also brought an additional loss of privacy and, with Selleck having married English actress Jillie Mack in 1987 and their having a daughter, Hannah, a year later, the concept of privacy and security was becoming a bigger and bigger issue. Especially after one particular incident in France.

Nearly two weeks have gone by since the initial interview in Los Angeles and Selleck is now in Halifax, Nova Scotia, thoroughly wrapped up in the filming and production of Jesse Stone: Thin Ice.

It's late August and, like the rest of the eastern seaboard, Halifax's weather is fluctuating wildly between thunderstorms and bright, crisp summer days and between stifling humidity and the occasional breezy morning. The film crew, led by Selleck, co-executive producer Michael Brandman and director Robert Harmon, are working day and night so they can stay on schedule and "can" the film in the production's allotted time frame and in Selleck's scheduled break from the set of "Las Vegas."

This is the fifth Jesse Stone movie that Selleck's filmed in Halifax in as many years and it's obvious that he's become pretty comfortable being in the seaside town just as the town's come to accept him and the inevitable hubbub that occurs when a film crew descends.

If there's one thing missing, Selleck and some of his guy friends grumble, it's a place to smoke a cigar.

"I don't crave cigars...in fact, it's very uncomfortable smoking a cigar in an uncomfortable situation where you might think you're bothering someone. Now, Jillie doesn't mind. I mean, I don't smoke in the house very much, but she doesn't really care if I do. We've got high ceilings, an old Spanish house.

"Now Halifax," Selleck sighs, "is turning the way of the authoritarian mandate controlling smoking, which I don't really approve of, and it's getting very hard to find a place to smoke in. There used to be restaurants and smoking clubs. You know, it's moved beyond helping the public health and it's moved towards, you know, 'We're going to protect you from yourself.'"

Still, Selleck says, he's found outdoor areas where he can enjoy a cigar just to unwind a bit. "If I'm in a work situation I'll smoke cigars just because you have to wait around a lot. There's time if you've got a 45-minute set-up in between takes and you know your words and you know your character. The worst thing in the world to do is sit around doing your words and thinking about your character and getting nervous! At home if I'm in the normal mode I'll probably smoke three, four cigars a month. Here I'm smoking one a day, probably."

As for what he's smoking, Selleck doesn't hesitate. "I smoke Arturo Fuente cigars, the Don Carlos Robusto and the Short Story. And if that's all I had I'd be happy the rest of my life. [The Don Carlos is] always a good smoke. It's really a good cigar and I know the family. They're a terrific family. And even when they're hard to get, they kind of help me find some. So I'd say 90 percent of the cigars I smoke are those, the Don Carlos Robusto. And if I want a good short smoke, it's a Short Story. I've never had a bad smoke with a Don Carlos. I did a take yesterday and I stuck [one] on the foot part of my chair. I went in and did two or three takes, did the scene, came out, and it was still lit."

Selleck used to be a big Cohiba fan, but says he's slightly less enthusiastic these days. "Look, I'm over the Havana thing. I've smoked some really good Havanas. I think they cost a lot, though. The cost of cigars influences me [some], but the Cohiba Robusto, especially when they first came out, I think they were better than they are now. That doesn't mean they aren't good now, [but] what I found basically with Cubans, which is frustrating, is you get an exceptional cigar but...quality control—wise for those prices, you're going to find some lousy smokes. If it's not taste, it's the way the cigar is made. It's got a tunnel or it's going to go out or it's going to drop. In a box you're going to have a certain amount of those, and you shouldn't. So that's always frustrating. But, you know, maybe they've corrected that now. There was a period, I heard, where the Havanas, they were rushing them to market, not aging them properly, stuff like that."

When it's pointed out that in Halifax he can pretty much buy whatever cigar he wants, Selleck doesn't miss the inference. "I'm not just running out and buying Cubans and trying to—for those Customs officials reading—I'm not trying to smuggle Cubans back into the United States. I'm pretty much a free-market guy," Selleck quips, "so it's not really patriotic."

More than 30 hours after this last conversation, it's hard to tell whether Selleck is simply feeling a little more relaxed and a little less guarded than usual or just that he's weary from a 14-hour day of shooting. Either way, it is after 10 o'clock at night, he's seated in front of an Italian seafood dish with a very nice glass of Riserva Ducale Chianti in his hand and, for whatever reason, Selleck suddenly feels as if he owes more than a general complaint about the privacy and safety issues that he's talked about and that come with being a public figure; he owes an example.

An example, he says, that he's never talked about publicly before.

Selleck begins by telling the story of how, during the height of his success playing Magnum, he did High Road to China, a feature that enjoyed commercial success in America and, as a result, garnered a personal appearance request for him and costar Bess Armstrong to come to Paris to coincide with the movie's French premiere.

One of the events was held in a large public park where Selleck was to receive the Medal of Paris from the mayor on a grandstand at one end of the park before continuing on with another event on the opposite side of the venue.

Officials walked Selleck and the very petite Armstrong off the grandstand and the crowd of 20,000 screaming attendees descended on the actors, crushing them into the crowd. Selleck, who beforehand had made a point of inquiring about security details, realized that not only was the security detail—made up of 75 horse-mounted Parisian gendarmes—not going to break up the crowd, a crowd that had already stampeded a dog to death in the rush forward, but that the producer of the event, affiliated with the film company, had orchestrated the melee.

Even as he tells the story of an event that happened more than 20 years ago, you can see that Selleck is still as angry about the experience today as he was then.

"In the madness a dog was killed—trampled to death—and it really disturbed me. I wasn't," he laughs a little sarcastically, "scarred from it, but it informed me so much about where this business could go. Keep in mind that I'd been in Hawaii, I'd been 'removed' for a while. I'd go to L.A., do a rush of stuff, but it was controlled stuff. I was so disturbed by that [Paris] deal that I remember saying to my agent, 'If this is what it's like, I've got to find another line of work. It's mad.' It was just so disturbing and so undignified that I think it affected my choices and how much I did value my privacy and how much I avoided stuff after that. And maybe it made me more guarded. I've never told anyone that story before," he says, pausing, "but I had to find a way to do this business and stay a little saner."

Today, part of that sanity comes from having as normal a family life as he, his wife and his daughter can maintain on their ranch. Set among rolling hills covered in oak, this is no rich man's hobby farm; the ranch is home to an eclectic mix of family pets and livestock, including a stable of horses. Selleck, a big fan of Western movies, admits that he doesn't ride as much as he'd like considering that he's juggling projects at two major networks. Still, when he can find the time or is lucky enough to land a film that calls for a cowboy to ride the open range before disappearing into a sunset, he prefers to ride Western.

His daughter, Hannah, on the other hand, is a whole different story; Hannah's horses are trained show jumpers, she rides competitively in events all over the country and hopes, ultimately, to compete in the Olympics. Even as Selleck grumbles good-naturedly about her choice of passion ("she couldn't have found a less expensive sport to compete in?"), it's obvious that he and his wife are as committed to her happiness and goals as she is.

"I'm very proud of her. You know, she didn't pick it when she was four years old because it was expensive," Selleck says with a sigh. "And she's stayed with it. She's stayed with it through...well, she broke both bones in her lower leg, she's broken her wrists, she's broken her collarbone and every time got back on a horse. So it's taught her a lot of stuff that most kids, particularly athletic kids, don't get. You learn through your failures. She doesn't win every horse show. She doesn't win most of her horse shows. It's a lot like baseball: if you get a hit three times out of 10 times, you're a superstar.

"I think lessons in sports come more often than not not from winning but from failure," Selleck muses. "But she's found a sport that is also a sport for [laughs] affluent people. My wife and I have talked a lot about this. We grew up with pretty simple lower-middle-class values, both of us, her in England. Kids don't just get those values by osmosis and [Hannah's] grown up in a different environment where I've had money and we've had a nice house. The day we came home from the hospital, the day she was born, that's the day we moved onto our 63-acre ranch, and that's where she grew up. So she's picked a sport where I have to sometimes say 'we can't afford that' and it's a blessing. You know," Selleck sighs again, "there are a lot of multibillionaires in the sport [of competitive jumping] that drive the price of these horses up into higher and higher levels. So we've taken her about as high as we can take it."


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