Onscreen, Tom Selleck has a reputation for playing reliable, straightforward men; but his life offscreen is a little more complex, proving that there is more to everyone’s favourite moustachioed actor than meets the eye.
Those growing up in the 80s will best remember actor Tom Selleck as private investigator Thomas Magnum in the eponymous hit TV show Magnum, P.I.; or perhaps it’s his charming turn in romantic comedy Three Men and a Baby and 1990 sequel Three Men and a Little Lady that resonates best when it comes to one of the industry’s most likeable guys.
Further roles as dashing ophthalmologist Dr Richard Burke in Friends and Commissioner Frank Reagan in CBS’s hit cop show Blue Bloods, followed, not to mention a brilliant portrayal of brave police chief Jesse Stone in the Hallmark film series based on Robert B. Parker’s crime novels.
Selleck has done the lot, and across multiple genres since securing his break at the ripe old age of 35 (by Hollywood standards, anyway) with the now 73-year-old Michigan native a reassuring presence on our screens for more than four decades. Wholesome, handsome and honourable are words often used to describe the man who is as American as apple pie, and humble as it too. “There was a time I could have been mistaken for Burt Reynolds – I had a moustache and so did he,” laughs Selleck. “But he was the number one star in the world, so there wasn’t really much confusion.”
Selleck was born in Detroit in the mid-1940s to hardworking blue-collar parents, and was the second-born of four children. His mother, Martha, was a housewife, and his strict father, Robert – who often beat the young Tom for his mischievous antics – worked as a carpenter. Far from being the financially devastated city it is today, back then Detroit was a thriving metropolis and the heart of the automobile industry. Even so, there was little carpentry work in a town built on steel and steam, so Robert upped sticks and moved his brood to Sherman Oaks, California where he used his savings to invest in real estate.
There, the Sellecks thrived, including a teenage Tom, whose natural athletic ability landed him a basketball scholarship at the University of Southern California where he majored in business administration. USC is famed for shaping business leaders and entrepreneurs, but things took a different turn for Selleck, who was encouraged by a drama coach at the college to consider acting. This led to appearances on The Dating Game (a blind date-style show), stints as a model, dozens of commercials for the likes of Pepsi and Safeguard deodorant, and finally, a contract with 20th Century Fox upon graduation.
“I think, when I went to Fox, I was on my own with no frame of reference, no connection. I’d never done a play in my life. I started at about $35 a week, and every six months you either got fired or renewed. If you got renewed, you got a raise on their term contracts,” said the star of his original stint as an actor.
Despite showing such early promise, Selleck’s career in Hollywood was cut short when he was called up to fight in the Vietnam war, enlisting in the California National Guard in the 160th infantry regiment from 1967 to 1973. A period of great learning for the star, who even appeared on army recruitment posters. “I am a veteran, I’m proud of it,” says Selleck. “I was a sergeant in the US army infantry, National Guard, Vietnam era. We’re all brothers and sisters in that sense.”
It is not hard to understand Selleck’s long-running appeal in America where such values as honour and integrity are highly regarded. Even his most famous roles, from ex-US Navy SEAL Magnum to the upstanding Commissioner Reagan, the central characters are law-abiding citizens who always serve the good, before they serve themselves. Those are traits that Selleck, a member of the Disciples of Christ Protestant Church, feels are vital in today’s reckless society.
“I try very hard to conduct myself in an ethical way, because that’s important to my stability now. We’re a culture that’s so centred on the individual,” he observes. “It’s the culture that says nothing is more important than the way you feel. We’re living in an age that celebrates unchecked impulses.
“As far as Blue Bloods goes, there’s a really interesting Catholic edge to this, and I’m glad it’s there. A lot of the time religious groups are derided or criticised in drama, or made to look peculiar. I think it’s very healthy to have such a positive influence of faith in an otherwise very approachable cop drama.
“I’m not saying we need to start moving firmer positive religious undertones into what we watch; I just wonder why it’s not been do so much before now.”
That’s for others to decide – Selleck is a professional who takes care of his job first and foremost, and has resisted the urge to speak up about the current Hollywood sex scandal… in fact, this is probably the first time his name has even been used in the same sentence as the now ubiquitous #MeToo hashtag, as the star conducts a private life with the same grace and poise as he does his public outings. He has been married twice; firstly, to model Jacqueline Ray in 1971 – Selleck adopted her son, Kevin Shepard, and despite their subsequent divorce after nine years of marriage, still considers himself to be Kevin’s father – before wedding his current wife, Jillie Mack, in 1987, with whom he has one daughter, Hannah, 29.
But such a respectable public persona doesn’t necessarily mean Selleck’s red, white and blue ethics are beyond reproach. For society has changed enormously in the last 40 years, and so has Hollywood. And while it is perhaps ill-advised to look at the past through today’s lens, it has nonetheless become a common practice of today’s younger generation, who are considered more tolerant, compassionate and less blindly patriotic that their elders.
A good example of this was when beloved show Friends made its debut on Netflix in the UK earlier this year. No doubt the leading streaming service predicted it would spark a resurgence of popularity for the light-hearted comedy within the internet generation, but instead Millennials were shocked by storylines, branding the show transphobic, homophobic and sexist. Viewers found gags regarding Chandler’s (Matthew Perry’s) cross-dressing father as distasteful; they considered Rachel’s (Jennifer Aniston’s) hiring of an assistant based on his attractiveness to be sexual harassment; and the union between Courtney’s Cox’s Monica and her father’s best friend who was 20 years her senior, Selleck’s Richard Burke, to be just plain wrong.
Equally, Selleck’s staunch support of the NRA (National Rifle Association) is a quality which would have been celebrated in Hollywood of old, but may be seen as an archaic view by current standards, given the rise in violent gun crime. Then again, why would a man who has served for his country and played several gun-toting law officials onscreen not be an advocate for the right of every American to bear arms? In fact, even in 2008 Selleck unexpectedly found himself in the firing line of Rosie O’Donnell’s liberal agenda when he appeared on her show. Despite protesting that he came on the show “to plug a movie, not have a debate”, a furious O’Donnell continued her onslaught until Selleck reasoned calmly: “We all agree we need to solve social problems. My leanings tend toward individualist solutions.”
Politically too, he has drawn ire for his right-leaning policies, notably his 2004 donations to George W. Bush and 2008 backing of Republican presidential hopeful John McCain (prior to this he has made smaller contributions to Democratic candidates), though now declares himself to be a “registered independent with lots of libertarian views”. Again, Selleck doggedly combats critics with diplomacy, remarking: “I’ve learned by hanging out in Hollywood, where I disagree politically with many, that most people’s hearts are in the right place, and the only thing we have to argue about is the way to solve the problems.”
Selleck is right to defend his values, though these days he is far more reluctant to discuss such matters publicly, understanding that in our bid to become more tolerant as a society it is important we still listen to the views of others. Whether certain parts of his ideology are divisive or not, his overall view that we ought to work together to solve the world’s ills, that we have a responsibility both collectively and individually to improve humanity for all, is a positive one.
Throughout a career which has been challenging at times, the worldly wise actor has, rather than bemoan the unfairness of it all, often relinquished his fate up to a higher power. “‘A man’s heart plans his way, But the Lord directs his steps … Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time,’” he remarked [quoting Proverbs 16:9, NKJV; 1 Peter 5:6, NIV].
A lesser man may have thrown his arms to sky in fury when, just as his career was taking off, he was called to join the army. He might have baulked at the cruel unfairness of returning to California to find he had been dropped by Fox, leading to 11 thankless years as an out-of-work actor. But Selleck takes such setbacks in his considerable stride, and with a shrug off those broad shoulders accepts graciously that what is for you, will never go past you.
“I think we can all point to good events and bad events in our lives. To have faith, to believe in good, and to put your energy into helping others in the hope and, perhaps, expectation, that good things will come to you, feels about right to me. My faith has always shown me the right way and it’s based on being as good as I can, and no matter how society has changed, I don’t think those values have changed at all.”
A good example of life’s habit of rolling the dice came when he first landed the role that would eventually make him. Proving, that like buses, good opportunities tend to all come at once, it was shortly after filming the Magnum, P.I. pilot that Selleck got the call from Steven Spielberg asking him to do a screen test to play Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Uncertain of whether Magnum would get the green light for a full series, and also knowing that previously his screen tests had been underwhelming, the ambitious actor agreed to give it a go. As it happened, the revered director loved Selleck’s screen test and offered him the role, only for the network CBS, who had him under contract for the detective series, to step in and insist he turn it down.
“So, I move on, and I go to Hawaii to start Magnum and then the actors go on strike,” explained Selleck on the Late Show with David Letterman. “And I had given a deposit to a landlady that I couldn’t afford, a security deposit, so I started working for her as a handyman. So, I’m in Hawaii, with no job, and guess who comes to Hawaii to finish their movie? Raiders of the Lost Ark. So, I could have done both, but eventually the strike ended, and I’d like to say that the rest is history.”
Of course, Magnum, P.I. was an enormous hit, spawning eight seasons and winning its lead a Best Actor Emmy award. Selleck became a household name overnight, and the Hollywood films duly followed: Quigley Down Under, The Shadow Riders, Last Stand at Saber River and Three Men and a Baby to name a few. By the mid-90s however, his relevance was starting to wane, and career resurgence came from the strangest of places when he accepted a guest spot on kooky comedy Friends.
“If I was a certain type of person, stuck in my ways, I’d have said no. But just like many different faiths and cultures, surely it’s better to embrace them all and see how it works out?” he offers.
Interestingly, Selleck himself admits to being advised to not do the show, particularly as he had taken such a long break from television prior to it. But proving once more that he is his own man, the actor trusted his instincts, and his time on the series introduced him to a whole new audience. “They said, ‘It’s a TV show! You can’t guest on someone else’s TV show. They’ll say you’re crawling back to television!’ But, you know, I believe in taking risks,” said Selleck. “I think that’s what actors need to do: They have to risk failing. I’ve had a long career based on that positive philosophy. I said, ‘I haven’t done a sitcom since Taxi, and I like comedy, and I like the show!’, so how could I not accept?”
Having cemented his place in industry folklore, Selleck can rest easy knowing he is at a point where work will always be there, should he want it. Similarly, he us unlikely to find himself in any financial strife, choosing a humble life on his ranch in Ventura County, California. The home sits on 65 acres of land, which includes a horse corral and 20-acre avocado farm, and is more than enough to satisfy Selleck’s needs, despite what others may assume…
“Anywhere I go, somebody says, ‘Don’t you have a house in Boca Raton? Or New Jersey?’ or wherever,” he laughs. “The truth is, I’ve only got the one place.”
Having stated time and again that his priority is and always has been his family, it’s clear that Selleck doesn’t really need to bow to the whims of Hollywood. But given his integrity, talent and unfailing veracity, it’s clear that a less-than-perfect Hollywood definitely ne