Bright Lights Film Journal

Tight Pants in Paradise: Tom Selleck Is <em>Magnum, P.I.</em>

Keats, Shelley, and firm, manly thighs

Ever wonder what life would be like if English majors ruled the world? A chilling prospect, to be sure, but a damned unlikely one. Fortunately, such a world can be examined, in all its appalling detail, without the monstrous inconvenience of having to live in it, by viewing the first six seasons of Magnum, P.I., now available on DVD.

The idea for Magnum was hatched by Donald Bellisario and Glen Larson back in 1980, pitching the show to CBS as the story of an LA private eye who lives on an elegant Hollywood estate. By the time the idea worked its way up the food chain, however, the location was switched to Hawaii. The legendary Hawaii Five-O series was finally saying, um, aloha, and the CBS production unit in the islands was in no hurry to come back to LA, land of suits, smog, bosses, and wives. So, aloha, Jack Lord, and aloha Tom Selleck!

It’s a good guess that Bellisario and Larson had an appetite for noir, both on paper and celluloid, and the glamour of old-time Hollywood.1 But in 1980 what was hot was not LA noir but Vietnam, thanks to the massive critical and box-office success of The Deer Hunter (1978), plus the more than massive publicity surrounding the release of Apocalypse Now (1979), hardly dented by the fact that the film was a huge disappointment to all but the most devoted Coppola fan.

The two-hour pilot for Magnum, “Don’t Eat the Snow in Hawaii,” was hard-nosed and violent and included massive amounts of back story set in Vietnam, setting up a mood of disillusionment and betrayal — the past reaching out to wreak havoc in the present in classic noir fashion — and suggesting that whatever the noble impulses that had prompted U.S. involvement in Vietnam, corruption at the top — a suffocating web of selfish and murderous intrigue — had irretrievably poisoned the entire enterprise.2

A number of similar episodes followed, buzzing around, hinting at, but never explicitly confronting the ugliest episodes in the entire Vietnam nightmare — deliberate atrocities by American troops, as documented by the investigation into the My Lai massacre. In “No Need To Know,” Higgins’ old army commander shows up, just for a visit, ostensibly, but in fact the old boy is hiding out from the IRA. There are strong suggestions, never made explicit, that he supervised torture of IRA members in the past and now fears retribution. The Brits keep Magnum in the dark and treat him with private contempt — his Boy Scout ideals are useless in the confrontation with “evil.” Naturally, it’s Magnum who saves the day when the IRA terrorists show up and Magnum who lectures the Brits on their elitist mentality.3 Two weeks later, in “Never Again, Never Again,” we meet a sweet old couple who survived the Holocaust and are being threatened by some sort of Nazi outfit. But, then, whoops, they are the Nazis!

The Hollywood noir slant of the show got its first real airing in “Lest We Forget,” which featured old-time Hollywood stars June Lockhart and Jose Ferrer, with flashbacks to Dec. 6, 1941, using daughter Anne Lockhart and son Miguel Ferrer to play the young couple, a very inside touch. This was the first of many flashback episodes, all flashing back to a Gatsbysque time when everyone wore white flannels and drove gleaming Cadillac roadsters. A few weeks later, the noir gimmick was pushed to absurdity and beyond in “The Black Orchid,” in which Magnum is hired to babysit a crazy broad who likes to pretend her life is a noir flick.4

With these noir episodes, Magnum began to shift gears. Eventually, the show’s producers realized they didn’t have a two-fisted action series but a serious chick show, a chick show with no chicks! Despite his massive physique, Tom Selleck never looked comfortable punching out bad guys or blowing them away. He was more of, well, let’s say it, a male model. With that porn star moustache, dimples that made John Davidson look shallow, and a chest that resembled an acre of shag carpeting, Selleck always looked like he just climbed off the cover of a romance novel — the world’s largest teddy bear, with just a hint of a penis. This wasn’t a guy who hit people! This was a guy who cared about people!

The hard, masculine edge of the pilot fell away. Tough Vietnam vets Thomas Magnum, Rick (Larry Manetti), and TC (Roger E. Mosley) regressed to a nearly prepubescent state, giggling and bickering among themselves while being bossed around by the totally prissy, totally ineffectual, totally girly Higgins (John Hillerman).5 Each show began with Magnum “keeping in shape,” which involved a lot of running around either shirtless or in a tank top, and a lot of bending over in tight shorts. The typical Magnum client tended to be a repressed young chick from the mainland with a certain attitude, half “classy” and half “old maid,” who had the idea that she was better than Thomas because she was the one with the checkbook. Fate would somehow contrive it that Ms. Priss would first encounter Magnum dripping from the shower (wearing a bathing suit, of course), his mighty chest looming above her like the father of all orgasms.

Not that there would ever be an orgasm. The show was remarkably, and curiously, chaste. Although “irresistible” to women, Thomas never seemed terribly interested in them (ditto for Rick and TC). To take the edge off Magnum’s monster bod, he was given a “little boy” personality, obsessed with sports, the Ferrari, and his mindless mind-games with Higgins, intended to win him the use of the tennis courts (but we never see him play) or “the camera.” (“Oh, boy! Now we can take pictures!”). Magnum’s clients rarely got laid; an odd blending of father/big brother and cabana/stable boy, Thomas was a creature of midnight dreams and fantasy, not flesh and blood passion.6

It’s hard to say where all this came from, if not astoundingly astute analysis of fan mail. All the Magnum episodes were directed by men, and men wrote almost all the scripts as well. But whatever the secret, and whatever the source, Magnum was a huge hit, so much so that the usual pressure on a network TV series to be “commercial” all but evaporated. The producers were free to do pretty much whatever they damned pleased, which meant lots and lots of “art” and elegance — Shakespeare, ballet, fencing, Impressionism, Expressionism, English aristocracy, classical music, classic cars, classic clothes, classic cinema, classic cuisine — yeah, if it was classy, it was on Magnum. And it worked.

But despite all the high-mindedness, the show displayed astounding condescension to the actual Hawaiians, who, when they appear at all, function as “natives,” providing local color by dancing the hula and producing “native” art that is collected and appreciated exclusively by wealthy whites. And nearly all the whites are wealthy, leisured, old-money folks with fancy homes, fine manners, and posh accents.7 As for the Japanese and Chinese, they hardly exist. We seem to be in Bermuda in the thirties instead of the good old USA in the eighties.

It sounds improbable, but the public loved it. They loved seeing Thomas acting like a little kid, sleeping late, sponging off his friends, driving Robin’s Ferrari, parking it in Higgins’ spot at the King Kemehameha Club, charging all his drinks to Higgins’ account, using the club as his office — being a total heel, basically, but getting away with it because he was so cool!

Yeah, it worked for America, all right, but it didn’t work for me. When I set out to write this article, I thought I would watch all eight seasons of the show — 162 episodes.8 Well, I just couldn’t do it. I tried, damn it, but after the first season, I was hurting. I was hurting bad. I tried to make it through the second season, but those two-parters — “Memories Are Forever” — they were just too damn heavy, too damn kitschy! Too intense! I couldn’t take it! I jumped ahead to see Sharon Stone, I watched cross-over episodes with the Simon and Simon dudes — and I used to likeSimon and Simon! — but I just couldn’t hack it! Too sensitive! Too allegorical! Too allusive! Too alliterative! Just too damn English major for my ass!9

OK, before I get too carried away, let me just quote TM on Hawaii: “Hawaii’s like every sensual woman I’ve ever known. She can have raging, violent bursts of temper, followed by incredible calm, and peacefulness.” I think that just about says it all.


Magnum was so defiantly uncommercial that the show’s seventh season ended with the ultimate noncommercial gesture — the death of Thomas Magnum! Fans, who had no inkling that the show was even ending, naturally went bonkers and insisted that Magnum be revived for another season.

Despite the fans’ devotion when the show was actually on the air, Magnum‘s following has dwindled remarkably since then. There are no Magnum books, and no Magnum sites online.10 Only the first six seasons have been released on DVD, and not all are currently available for purchase.11 The discs that were released were “bare bones” versions, with no extras of any sort. Endless rumors of a Magnum film have gone unfulfilled. It seems the Magnum girls have moved on.

Selleck’s contract with the show cost him the starring role in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but one wonders how the film would have done with him as Indiana Jones. Tom had the beef, all right, but his powers as a thespian were limited. During Magnum and after, his name won him the lead in a number of big pictures (Lassiter, High Road to China, Quigley Down Under), but none of them made a real splash. But Tom isn’t proud. If the big screen won’t work for him, the little one will. He’s continued to work steadily in TV since the mid nineties and now has a semi-recurring role in made-for-TV flicks as Robert Parker’s “Jesse Stone.” The guy is tough! Even getting his butt kicked by Rosie O’Donnell for being a gun-nut hasn’t slowed him down!

  1. Bellisario has said that Magnum was more or less intended to be Humphrey Bogart. In the pilot, Rick (Larry Manetti) is the owner of “Rick’s Café Americana,” a direct steal from “Rick’s Café Américain” in Casablanca. In the series, of course, Rick was demoted to manager of the King Kamehameha Club. []
  2. The more I work on this sentence, the more it sounds like Iraq. []
  3. The third season featured “Black on White,” an elaborate episode setting the My Lai theme in the Mau-Mau uprising in British East Africa in the 1950s. []
  4. Pushed to absurdity and beyond, yeah, but subsequent seasons would go even further. []
  5. Higgins was chief of “security,” of course, which somehow got breached in virtually every episode, despite the best efforts of both Higgins and “the lads.” Hillerman, who grew up as the son of a gas station owner in Deniston, Texas, evidently didn’t care much for the frontier. He developed the fussy, bitchy Brit persona for the short-lived Ellery Queen series on NBC in the late seventies as “Simon Brimmer” and brought it intact to Magnum. []
  6. Women who did get in bed with Thomas tended to go crazy and kill themselves (Sharon Stone’s fate in “Echoes of the Mind”), or else disappear, which happened to Michelle (Marta DuBois), Magnum’s wife, whom he married and “lost” in Vietnam, finding and losing her again in Hawaii (the clumsy plot was cribbed shamelessly from Casablanca), in the second season two-parter “Memories Are Forever.” Michelle and her daughter by Magnum, Lily Hue (Kristen Carreira), were featured in later episodes of the series. I haven’t seen any of the “Lily” episodes, but I’m betting they were real tear-jerkers. []
  7. My impression of modern-day Hawaii, drawn from an extremely small sample, is that all non-whites, whether Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, or “other” on the islands, regard “haoles” with casual contempt — losers in Bermuda shorts who have no clue and just don’t belong []
  8. An impossible task, actually, because only the first six seasons were released on DVD. []
  9. And let’s not forget the goddamn voiceover — “I know what you’re thinking.” Excuse me, but what the fuck was that about? []
  10. If you want to know more about John Hillerman, you can check out two (two!) Ellery Queen sites. []
  11. According to online complaints, the discs, most of them double-sided, do not play well. Netflix converts the discs to single-sided format for rental. I didn’t have any problems with the discs I watched. []