Question: Tom Selleck was known for a cologne before he got big on Magnum, P.I.. What was the cologne? Robert C., Vermillion, S.D.
Televisionary: That'd be Chaz, Robert, though Selleck's poster-boy looks weren't what landed him a starring role on a hit detective show. No, it was a guest-starring role in a hit detective show that did that.
Selleck who was already making a living doing commercials, guest work on TV shows, a few movies and a year-and-a-half stint on The Young and the Restless played impossibly perfect private eye Lance White in a 1978 Rockford Files episode. The character, and the actor playing him, proved popular enough with fans that CBS and Universal, which produced Rockford, decided to give Selleck his own vehicle. So they dug up Magnum, an old script about a private detective in Hawaii, and figured the timing was right since the venerable Hawaii Five-O was leaving the air after a dozen years on the schedule.
The only problem Magnum was as he-man a character as his name implied. "It was a good pilot, but not a Tom Selleck pilot," a network exec told TV Guide in 1980. "It was a 007 pilot, a Bob Conrad pilot, very macho. The hero would snap his fingers and the next girl would show up."
"It wasn't bad, but it wasn't what I wanted," Selleck agreed. "I wanted the guy to make mistakes, to have flaws. I don't always have to get the girl. And I don't want to look macho."
Those were the qualities that made James Garner's Jim Rockford, another manly but flawed hero who appealed to both women and men, a success. Stick that character in an island paradise and the situation looked promising. In fact, after the aforementioned Conrad got a look at the pilot, he told executive producer Don Bellisario (JAG), "I was prepared to be polite and tell you I enjoyed it and walk away, but actually I was floored. You've got a hit show. And you've got a star."
That they did. Selleck played the role perfectly, looking every bit the action hero while tooling around in a gorgeous Ferrari 308 one moment, forgetting where he parked the car while running from thugs another. And that's when he wasn't being chased across Robin Masters's expansive estate by Zeus and Apollo, the two Dobermans who forever wanted a piece of him. All of it added up to a likably fallible character who, TV Guide reviewer Robert MacKenzie wrote, "may help give maleness a good name again."
Much of the reason Selleck played the part so well was that it wasn't such a far cry from his real, self-effacing personality. A lofty 6'4", he was known to downplay his height by an inch to accommodate those shorter than him. And despite growing up a talented athlete, he still managed to suffer physical mishaps that would've made the bump-prone Magnum proud.
While driving in a borrowed car at 16, for example, Selleck and a group of friends went over a 125-foot cliff. ("We all should have been killed," he recalled; the worst injury sustained after the accident was a broken pelvis.) A year later, while playing baseball on the day of a date with a girl he'd had a crush on for a long time, a throw hit him in the groin; the ensuing injury meant the romance never happened. And then there were the numerous broken fingers and multiple nose breaks from baseball, softball and basketball. All perfectly Magnum-worthy stuff.
Maybe it was a higher power telling Selleck that, despite being blessed with model looks and grace, a big ego wouldn't be tolerated. Whatever was behind it, he got the message. Even heavily suggestive fan mail from lady admirers couldn't pump his ego up. "They're in love with this guy up on TV," he said in 1983. "But he doesn't go to the bathroom. And he doesn't wake up in the morning with bloodshot eyes."
Even when he had true star power and could have pulled a diva act on the set, Selleck was a professional. Unhappy with some behind-the-scenes politics, he shut down production for a day when he flew to L.A., from the Magnum set in Hawaii, to talk with the powers that be at Universal. But, to be fair, he gave back his estimated $50,000 salary for the day to cover the cost.
I know, I know fans of the column may be a bit surprised at my fanboy attitude here. But what can I say? I got a kick out of Magnum.
And one more thing, just because this question comes up now and then: John Hillerman, who played the snooty Higgins, isn't British. He's a Denison, Tex. native who worked very hard at nailing the accent.