Magnum PI: A Loving Tribute

Tom Selleck fronted Magnum PI, complete with dodgy tache, for eight seasons. We take a look at what made it so memorable.
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Tom Selleck fronted Magnum PI, complete with dodgy tache, for eight seasons. We take a look at what made it so memorable.

162 episodes, 8 years. That’s a long run for something that started as a risk. Magnum PI first aired in December 1980 and continued until May 1988. There were guest stars, high drama, tragedy and slapstick humour. Men and women of all ages loved the series. It even made Hawaiian shirts fashionable again.

CBS TV bigwig Donald P. Bellisario had an idea in the late seventies for a show about an easy going private investigator who had the use of the Bel Air mansion and red Ferrari of an absent millionaire novelist.  Eventually the setting was changed to Hawaii to make use of the expensive production equipment left from the recently finished “Hawaii 5-0.” Tom Selleck a likeable, powerfully-moustachioed, twinkly and athletic actor contracted to Universal, was chosen to star. His charm and the luxurious locations made the show an instant hit and against expectations it ran for 8 seasons.

The characters were the strongest attraction of the series. Thomas Sullivan Magnum IV was a charming, decent but unreliable naval officer turned P.I. He sometimes took his friends for granted and always borrowed, lost or broke other people’s property. But he would always stand up for what he believed, and didn’t have a malicious bone in his body. Selleck’s voiceovers addressing the viewers during most episodes brought a warming sense of intimacy. We were all TM’s pal.

Magnum’s home, the guesthouse on world-renowned but rarely seen author Robin Masters’ estate, was a messy den full of empty beer bottles, pizza boxes and strewn clothes, much to the chagrin of Higgins, the stuffy, highbrow English estate butler. Short, chubby and pompous, Jonathan Quayle Higgins III was the opposite of Magnum in almost everyway- organised, intellectual and a fuddy-duddy. Their constant bickering was a highlight of the show. Whether arguing about the Magnum’s wanton destruction of prize flowers, bullet holes in the Ferrari, or general abuse of estate property, their run-ins were pure comedy. The tall, muscular easy-living PI and the dumpy, pedantic ex-British army Sergeant Major letting rip at each other was magic television. The best examples of this were in the classic episode “Paper War.”

The tall, muscular easy-living PI and the dumpy, pedantic ex-British army Sergeant Major letting rip at each other was magic television.

There was also ace chopper pilot T.C., a grouchy but kind-hearted friend of Magnum’s from Vietnam. He was a pre-cursor to The A-Team’s B.A. - a brawny, sometimes stroppy but decent African-American with a fierce sense of right and wrong and the mechanical know-how to fix any vehicle. Community-spirited T.C. ran a charter flight business in Honolulu and was regularly fleeced for favours by Magnum against his better judgement. He was also at the centre of several episodes: crashing into the sea, saving his junior baseball team from gang warfare, losing his best friend in a shootout- the usual American TV drama fare. The fourth main character was Rick, a cowardly but well-connected Italian-American wheeler-dealer and nightclub manager. He wasn’t as handy in a fight as T.C. but knew some heavy people in the Islands and could chase down a registration plate or name for Magnum with astonishing speed. Smooth talking ladies man Rick was always willing to help but first to complain.

There were some prestigious guest stars in Magnum PI. Sharon Stone played a psychologically disturbed millionairess, Frank Sinatra was a tough, no-nonsense Irish-American New York cop in the memorable episode “Laura”, Ernest Borgnine starred as a lovable wrestler and Bruce Forsythe appeared as a game show host.

Even great actors need a strong script, and the writers of Magnum PI were good at producing drama. They touched on serious subjects like post-war trauma suffered by Vietnam veterans. Other issues like child murder, ageing and mortality were also examined skilfully. In “Limbo”, which was supposed to be the final episode, Magnum was shot dead in a warehouse battle and roamed the Islands as a ghost trying to stop villains killing his wife and daughter (such was the outcry at Magnum’s death, the producers decided wake the hero from his ‘coma’ and make one more series).

The comedy storylines will never be forgotten.  Squabbles, broken promises and smashed cameras were plentiful. Magnum counted among his possessions a rubber chicken and gorilla mask. No one knew why or bothered to ask. For a show to pull off tension and belly laughs with such ease takes talent on both sides of the lens. And Selleck wasn’t averse to the odd cheesy grin into the camera.

It’s mostly German fan produced websites that encourage fellow enthusiasts to write a letter of protest to Universal so that they will release the rights to the show and make a big-screen film version with the original cast. This is unlikely given the original actors’ ages (Selleck is 66, John Hillerman who played Higgins, is 78).  But their legacy is a fine one. 162 episodes and 8 years of laughter, tension and the odd tear in paradise.

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