Inside Frank Reagan's Brooklyn home, the weekly Sunday family dinner sits steaming on the table, but it's daughter Erin, an assistant district attorney, who's in hot water. Her granddad, retired cop Henry, rages at her for taking on a case he doesn't like. Hurtful words fly, and when Frank tries to cool the debate, Henry shouts, "I decide when it's enough!" and stomps away. A tense silence falls until the handsome, mustached man at the head of the table says with authority, "Pass the yams." And the group of actors starring in Blue Bloods cracks up.
They all know that Tom Selleck, who plays New York Police Commissioner Frank, hates vegetables. "I can't eat this," he mutters. Then looks over at vegetarian Will Estes, who plays youngest son Jamie, "You can have mine!" It's the iconic actor's way of injecting some fun into the scene's umpteenth take. "We were getting bored and tired," Selleck says later of the ad-libbed lines.
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With four generations at the table — including Henry (Len Cariou), Frank's three surviving children, detective Danny (Donnie Wahlberg), probie officer Jamie, Erin (Bridget Moynahan), and their offspring — the Sunday meal is the heart of each episode of the popular hybrid cop/family drama. For Wahlberg, the verbal jousting brings back childhood memories. "There are the fun moments just like when I was a kid. We would worry about Dad getting mad at us for having too much fun at dinner. Sometimes Tom is the overseer," he adds with a smile, "so when we get him acting silly, it's a real treat."
That sense of family is exactly what veteran producer Leonard Goldberg had in mind when he began working on the show. The producer of such '70s and '80s classics as Charlie's Angels and Family, he returned to series TV to develop Blue Bloods after years in the movie business when asked by CBS president Les Moonves. The weekly dinner idea percolated, he says, when a friend gave him a book of Norman Rockwell's paintings. "It included his famous Thanksgiving Saturday Evening Post illustration, which shows a rural family seated at the table as the mother brings in the turkey. Our family was going to be an urban family [without a mother], but that painting was our family. There would be a police story — to keep CBS viewers happy — but it really would be a character piece."
And it would have a strong hero. After a long stint with The Sopranos, creators Mitch Burgess and Robin Green say they'd had their fill of the antihero. "We wanted to go for the positive, the heroic," Green says. It's a strategy that's working. Blue Bloods is the season's No. 2 freshman series with 11-12 million viewers and became king of the hill on Friday nights. The drama has performed so well that CBS moved it to Wednesdays, a night with more viewers, for a four-week test. It promptly became the second most-watched show of the night, after American Idol. Though the show moves back to Fridays on February 11, "Wednesday is the right place for it," says media analyst Bill Carroll of Katz Television Group. "If you have a show with Tom Selleck, put it somewhere that viewers can easily find it. Plus, Blue Bloods fits in well with [the Wednesday] lead-in Criminal Minds."
Not that getting the show up and running was all smooth sailing. Although CBS entertainment chief Nina Tassler deemed the series, in Goldberg's words, "perfect for CBS because it's a step away from a procedural, but enough of a procedural that our audience won't be too jarred," the producers and their star had to fight to keep the family elements as strong as the cop action. While Burgess stresses that the "long season — 22 episodes — needs excitement and guns and running and jumping," Selleck makes his priorities clear: "We need the police procedure to earn the time for the more leisurely but well-paced family drama."
Selleck had been courted by network and cable nets for years to head up a series, but other than his failed 1998 sitcom The Closer and a stint on Las Vegas, the TV superstar, who made Hawaiian shirts rock in Magnum P.I. from 1980-88, has mostly stuck to guest roles and movies, both on the big screen and TV. He had decided against turning Jesse Stone, his hit CBS movie franchise, into a weekly hour, and crime procedurals didn't appeal to him. "I'm attracted to character-based scripts," he says over breakfast at a New York City hotel, "and there aren't many [of those]. This one came to me with the pedigree of writers from The Sopranos. I read the script and liked it immediately."
That Frank Reagan is a man of fierce loyalty and few carefully chosen words was a selling point for an actor who excels at understated strength. "We arranged a meeting," says Goldberg. "He walks in, and the man is six-foot-four and so strikingly handsome — there was no doubt that he was going to be the patriarch of our family and our city."
For behind the scenes pictures from our cover shoot with Tom Selleck, click here.
For more with the cast of Blue Bloods, including scoop about the upcoming Valentine's Day episode, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, February 3!