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Tom Selleck on Jesse Stone, Friends, and fighting for Magnum, P.I.

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: He might have become a TV icon in the ’80s, but Tom Selleck didn’t spend his early years with aspirations of being an actor. He lucked into this career during the tail end of his time in college. But that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t made the most of it: After spending the ’70s bouncing between appearances on numerous dramas and the occasional sitcom, Selleck and his ’stache took the small screen by storm with Magnum, P.I. Although he’s continued to pop up in the occasional movie, Selleck has predominantly focused on TV work, including a memorable stint on Friends. In recent years he’s been keeping busy with two high-profile projects: CBS’s Blue Bloods, now in its sixth season, and the Jesse Stone franchise. In addition to playing the title character, Selleck also has screenwriting credits on the last six Jesse Stone movies; the latest chapter—Lost In Paradise—hits the Hallmark Channel on Sunday, October 18.

Jesse Stone: Lost In Paradise (2015)—“Jesse Stone”; writer

Tom Selleck: Jesse is a good man with some rather toxic habits. He’s damaged. But we’re rooting for him. And that’s a tough combination. You don’t want to play some guy who just sits around and broods and feels sorry for himself. Jesse has what I would call—and what Robert Parker calleda sense of irony, as opposed to a sense of humor.

A.V. Club: How did you find your way into the Jesse Stone franchise in the first place? Had you been a fan of the books?

TS: I became a fan of the books as soon as I read one. My (executive production) partner, Michael Brandman, was friends with Robert Parker. I knew Bob a little bit. He helped us out with some dialogue, because he loved westerns, and I did the movie Monte Walsh, among others. But Michael said, “You’ve got to read this!” And I read it, and I said, “I’ve got to play this guy!” I think he fits Raymond Chandler’s definition of a hero—and Bob Parker was a big Raymond Chandler fan—and it’s a very short definition: “Down these mean streets, a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” I think you root for Jesse because he’s not really tarnished. But he is definitely damaged. It’s a very interesting challenge.

AVC: This is your ninth film in the franchise, but the first that will debut on Hallmark channel. Has there been any intrinsic difference for you in doing the films for Hallmark instead of CBS?

TS: Well, we had to get that squared away with Hallmark. Hallmark wants to expand their audience, certainly. Jesse is a little more edgy—I would say a lot more edgy—than some of the movies they’ve done. But they were very, very supportive, and I thank them for it. They may have an edge, but they do these Jesse Stone marathons. They own all the Jesse Stone movies, so they’ll run ’em back-to-back all weekend long. And they do it regularly, so obviously they play very well on a network that maybe you wouldn’t think of right away. So they came after us and assured us that I would have the same kind of creative control that I’ve had on the others, so we were able to hit the ground running. I don’t think you can find a difference in this Jesse Stone versus the CBS Jesse Stone in terms of content or how edgy or adult they are.

AVC: For anyone who hasn’t followed the franchise up to this point, is it set up so that even newcomers can still jump right in?

TS: We’ve worked really hard on making each movie play unto itself. At the same time, anybody who’s seen other movies gets a little bonus. So it’s not confusing, because the character is defined. There are recurring characters and everything else, but you don’t need to have seen another Jesse Stone movie to get it. And we’re pretty good at that now. We were very concerned about that for awhile, because we do have what we call a cumulative narrative going on. But each movie is usually defined by where Jesse’s at with his different sets of toxic problems. And that’s the mystery for a new audience as well as the new audience until the actual plot mystery takes over.

AVC: How does it feel to still be playing Jesse Stone? In the books, he’s painted as a slightly younger character.

TS: Oh, forget it: In the books, I was too old when we started! [Laughs.] I think he was 35! I don’t know, I felt that you’ve got to know who are, and you can’t try to be who you were 20 years ago. That being said, you have to be comfortable in your instrument, and while I had a little anxiety about Lost In Paradise because I hadn’t played him in three years… Once I started writing it, that was the hard part. I knew I could play it. And I think audiences will still accept me in the role. After all, it was me before, and it’s me now, and it’s been a couple of years for the character as well as me. So, you know, I don’t have a problem with it. And I don’t think people have a problem with it. I don’t think Jesse’s 70, though!

The Dating Game (1965; 1967)—contestant

AVC: It looks like your first on-camera appearance was as a contestant on The Dating Game.

TS: Yeah, that wasn’t an acting performance: I really was just a scared student at USC. But all of my friends, my fraternity brothers, were going on, so I went on and did it. And I, uh, did not dominate. [Laughs.] I was rather frightened! You know, I remember the chairs all used to come around and then the lights would come on, and they said, “Well, be sure to smile when we introduce you.” And I remember I turned around, the light came on, there was the audience, and when they introduced me, I smiled… and my entire upper lip was quivering! You could see my heart beat in my upper lip. So I didn’t do very well. I wasn’t funny. And I didn’t win.

AVC: You were actually on there a second time, though, right?

TS: Yes! For some reason, they got suicidal and brought me back for the nighttime show, which meant that you got a much better date, both in the quality of the person on the other side of the stage and where you got to go. So I, uh, didn’t get that one, either. And I wasn’t any funnier! [Laughs.] I was just scared! Not a good start. But I’d never thought of acting when I was growing up, and I still hadn’t thought of acting even at that point.

AVC: So when did you finally think of it?

TS: Somebody saw me on The Dating Game. When I went to USC to play basketball, a friend of mine that I was in junior college with went to an agent because this theater arts class that he took—it wasn’t an acting class, it was History Of American Theater!the guy teaching it said, “You guys would be good types for commercials.” So he went to an agent, and he said, “Hey, you ought to try it!”

So I went, and I think it was while I was still at USC when I got my first role, which I’m sure you’re aware of, was an Air Force training film called The Mental Aspects Of Human Reliability. It was a film for Air Force Psychiatrists. [Laughs.] And that was about it, but I did do a Pepsi commercial, but only because I could dunk a basketball with either hand. That was about it, though, until The Dating Game.

But fate has a funny way of stepping in, and the agent said, “This casting guy just called, saw you on The Dating Game, and they have a new talent program at 20th Century Fox where they sign young actors and give them some training. It pays all of about 30 bucks a week, but then you’re in their talent program, and every six months they renew you, you get a raise. And if not, then you’re fired.” And that was my introduction to acting.

Lancer (1969)—“Dobie”
The Sacketts (1979)—“Orrin Sackett”
The Shadow Riders (1982)—“Mac Traven”

AVC: Your first proper TV gig looks like it was an episode of Lancer.

TS: It was on Lancer, yeah. I’ve talked about it on a couple of shows because I like making fun of myself. [Laughs.] It was with a vicious German Shepherd, but the dog wasn’t looking vicious enough. And I didn’t know anything, so they had me hide a piece of steak in my fist and and put my fist up to it, and they said, “Then the dog will really come for you!” And he did, and it was terrifying, but my performance was quite good!

AVC: Sam Elliott was also in that episode.

TS: Sam probably had a better part. [Laughs.] Sam was ahead of me. We were both under contract at Fox, but Sam was always getting better roles. I’m convinced that, when I was 25, I looked 35 and sounded 16. And that wasn’t working very well for me. I had to grow into being me.

AVC: The first time the two of you worked together in any significant fashion, though, was when you did The Sacketts.

TS: Yeah, that was a thrill. I mean, Sam had done a role in Butch Cassidy [And The Sundance Kid], so he was probably the first guy to be cast, and I was the last guy to be cast. We played two of three brothers. Ben Johnson was in it, Glenn Ford, and a whole bunch of guys from that time. That’s where I learned the craft of westerns. I mean, we had Slim Pickens, Jack Elam, Gene Evans, Buck Taylor, Pat Buttram… Every guy I’d ever seen in a western who was still around was in that movie. It was just a wonderful experience, and it got me hooked on doing westerns. Plus, it was a really good miniseries and really gave me a piece of film that I could show anybody, so it led to a lot of work. And my friend Sam just pulled me along. [Laughs.]

AVC: You teamed up again a few years later to do The Shadow Riders.

TS: Yeah, when we did The Sacketts, Ben Johnson, Jeff Osterhage—who played the other brother—and Sam and me, we made a promise: We all said, “If we ever get a chance to do this, no matter what, we’re going to have to drop everything and do it.” And then Louis L’Amour—who I’m thrilled to say I got to know—said, “I want you guys to do it. As a matter of fact, I’m going to invent a new group of brothers.” Because The Sacketts was tied up in some kind of litigation, he said, “I’m gonna write a book just for you guys.” And the thrill of it was that the Louis L’Amour book comes out, and it’s got pictures of Sam and Jeff and I on the back of it.

Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992)—“Ferdinand, King Of All Of Spain”

TS: Gene Siskel reviewed my hair and said it was ridiculous, which I got to accost him about later. You know, I was in that movie for all of about a cup of coffee. It’s a horrible movie. The Salkinds produced it. But Marlon Brando was going to be in it! So I said, “Well, I’ll do it if Brando does it.” They said, “Well, what if he doesn’t?” And I said, “Then I’m not doing it!” [Laughs.]

So at the time I had, like, seven scenes with Brando. By the time they rewrote the script, I had one scene. I did have Rachel Ward as my queen, but it was just a big disappointment, and it was… Well, it was just unfortunate. But I’m in the movie for all of, like, three or four minutes of film, and they reviewed it like it starred me and Marlon Brando! So I caught a lot of flak for it. It’s the only picture I speak ill of. Some work out better than others, but I don’t criticize them. This one kind of was misrepresented. But, yes, I did play— and get the title right!—Ferdinand, King Of All Of Spain.

AVC: I’ll make sure it’s represented accurately.

TS: Yes, that’s very important. [Laughs.]

AVC: And even if it was cut down to just the one scene, how was Brando?

TS: Brando was conflicted. He was as disappointed as I was, because he played Torquemada, head of the Spanish Inquisition, and he was really committed to it. But once they changed the script… I thought he had become my best pal, because we would meet at night to talk about the next day. Actually, he was getting five million dollars for two weeks’ work and he wanted the paycheck, so he knew if I left—because they had financed the movie partly on our names—that might mean that he wouldn’t get a paycheck. So he kept me interested. [Laughs.]

But we had great discussions. It was really memorable. We had some great nights, and he wrote me a couple of really lovely notes, because my daughter had been born not too long before I came. So it was worthwhile from that point of view. But Brando was no longer very involved in the work. He had to play a monk, and he pulled the hood down so far that you couldn’t see his face. He was playing a lot of tricks on the producers and director, and mumbling his lines. I didn’t quite expect that. But he was the man when I grew up. When I started acting, he was the guy.

Runaway (1984)—“Jack Ramsay”

TS: Jack Ramsay is not exactly a character whose name is on the tip of everybody’s tongue, but Runaway was a really great popcorn movie that Michael Crichton wrote and directed. It was very futuristic, it had robots and all sorts of stuff, and it was a nice movie. It was a good movie that I’m very proud of. It didn’t do very well, which was a great disappointment to Michael, who became a friend. And Gene Simmons was in it! Gene hadn’t been in a feature film before, but he was great. We had some great talks and good times. He played this evil guy named Luther who’d invented bullets that could go around corners and hone in on people, and he had robot spiders that could attack people and inject them with poison. I know it sounds hokey, but with Michael Crichton at the helm, it was pretty good stuff.

Myra Breckinridge (1970)—“Stud”

TS: Yeah, I guess it was just “Stud.” In the script, we were numbered. I think it was “Young Stud #7” who had the best line. [Laughs.] That was a horrible movie, but Mae West wrote her own stuff. She walks in, and all these young studs are waiting to interview with her, and she looks at one guy and says, “How tall are you?” He says, “Six feet, seven inches.” She says, “Never mind the six feet, tell me about the seven inches.”

I didn’t have as many good lines, but I had more to do with her, and she became very fond of me. And I liked her. She always liked people to gossip about her. She was in her… [Hesitates.] I think she was 80! But she was getting a lot of ink at that point, so she asked me to escort her to a couple of events. And that was just neat, getting to know her. There’s always something good. Brando? Mae West? Michael Crichton? That ain’t bad!

High Road To China (1983)—“Patrick O’Malley”

TS: Patrick O’Malley I’m very fond of. You know, because I had signed to do the pilot for Magnum, P.I. , in spite of the fact that I could’ve done both, CBS wouldn’t let me do Raiders [Of the Lost Ark]. At that point, there were movie actors and there were TV actors, so I said, “Well, I guess I’m going to be a TV actor. I love this script.” Before Raiders came along, it was the best thing that ever happened to me, so I said, “So be it: I’ll stand by my contract.” And lo and behold, after that first year, Magnum came on really strong, and it doesn’t make me that special, it makes me in the right place at the right time. But because of that, I was suddenly offered a feature film, an action-adventure picture with a huge budget, and one which was highly successful, by the way. There were actors at that point who had left a series and started a feature career, but there was no one at that point who was trying to do both at the same time. So that was unique. It also made the jury rather tough, because a lot of people didn’t see it that way, so I was walking into an arena where that wasn’t accepted. But it’s a good movie. It holds up.

Friends (1996-2000)—“Dr. Richard Burke”
In & Out (1997)—“Pete Malloy”

TS: In & Out and Friends were both cases where I got advice from professional people that I shouldn’t do them. In & Out for obvious reasons, Friends because 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!” You know, I believe in taking risks. I think that’s what actors need to do: They have to risk failing. So what? I’ve had a long career based on that philosophy. I said, “I haven’t done a sitcom since Taxi, and I like comedy, and I like the show!” You have to make a commitment based on a pitch, because they haven’t written it yet, but they pitched the idea. I knew I liked Courteney because I’d already done a screen test with her for a part she was too young for (in Folks), so that kind of fit perfectly, because I knew was a good actor she was, and I knew we could work together.

I signed for three and ended up doing nine of them, and it was very funny—and I always remember this—that I didn’t realize the impact the show was having until they came to me in March and they said, “They want you and Courteney on the cover of TV Guide.” Well, I know the business, and I knew what that meant: By that time of year, they’d already promised that cover to somebody, so they were willing to bump somebody off at the risk of a relationship and put us on. And I said, “Boy, this is really big!” That was kind of a weird validation, one that I only got because I knew the business pretty much by then, but it was a joy, all of those actors were a joy to work with, and I would’ve done 30 of them if they’d asked me.

AVC: Your role in In & Out wasn’t a big part, but it certainly was a pivotal one.

TS: I got a lot of questions afterwards: “I didn’t know you’d do a movie like this!” I said, “What, a screwball comedy kind of in the realm of Some Like It Hot?” The advantage I had when I interviewed with Frank Oz was that that whole ensemble was already put together. If you start to think about the talent of the actors in that movie, down to the last bit roles, Scott Rudin just put together this phenomenal cast. It was kind of a no-brainer.

Did I consider it a risk? I don’t think about image or stuff like that. I just thought it was a great opportunity to be in an ensemble piece with a character who was interesting to me because, if you know the movie, he had to be the guy you love to hate or hate to love, because he was a bit of a scoundrel, and certainly an unethical journalist. And that’s a challenge, because love is in each of those descriptions. And he carries the message of the movie to Kevin Kline… in a very funny way! [Laughs.] So it was a very, very important character, and I was just thrilled to do it.

The Gypsy Warriors (1978)—“Captain Theodore ‘Ted’ Brinkenhoff”
The Rockford Files (1978-79)—“Lance White”
Magnum, P.I. (1980-88)—“Thomas Magnum”

AVC: The story of Magnum, P.I. ties into Stephen J. Cannell and The Gypsy Warriors, right?

TS: Well, my connection with Don Bellisario was Gypsy Warriors, but it wasn’t that simple. I did two pilots for Steve Cannell, a good friend and a dear friend who has passed on now, and they were the only two pilots he ever wrote that didn’t sell. [Laughs.] But Gypsy Warriors got so close to getting on the air that they hired writers to write episodes, and one of those was Don. Under an old contract that was expired, they had signed a show called Magnum to me, and they didn’t have a legal right to! But they had really good lawyers, and I had no money, and I basically got to the point where I said, “I won’t do it.” Which took a lot of nerve.

They said, “Who the hell do you think you are? You’ve never even been on the air!” And I said, “I’m nobody, but this show…” Magnum at that point was very James Bond—he was perfect, he had women on every arm any time he wanted—and I said, “I don’t want to play a guy like that.” I’d already done two Rockford [Files] for Steve Cannell, and I said, “I want to play a character more like Jim Rockford.” And I fought for that.

AVC: And won, apparently.

TS: Yeah, at a certain point, Glen Larson, who was the gentleman who controlled it, basically stepped upstairs, and they brought in Don Bellisario. And we had lunch, and he said, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to play somebody suave like Jim Rockford.” And he said, “I get it.” And he worked for Cannell, and he wrote the best two-hour movie—which was the pilotthat I’d ever gotten the chance to be in. I learned a lot from that: You’ve got to take risks, and you’ve got to stand for something. You can do it as a gentleman, but it’s never going to say in the credits, “Well, he wasn’t that juiced about this, but he got paid.” There’s no explanation. There’s no excuses. You’re judged on the work that you do.

Blue Bloods (2010-present)—“Frank Reagan”

AVC: Now that you’re in your sixth season, is Blue Bloods everything you’d hoped it’d be?

TS: It’s everything and more, but it’s been a long journey. I always saw it as a character-driven show, and I saw my character as living in a different world but in the same business as the cops on the street. And as we found that, I think we found the strengths of the show. Blue Bloods is doing phenomenal, I’m happy to say; I think it was in USA Today the other day where they called us “an unsung success.” Nobody’s made much of it, but we’re kind of wildly successful. We get the highest ratings on Friday night, and we’re the highest-rated show at 10 p.m. anywhere on any night. And those are things they said couldn’t happen. Go figure.

Daughters Of Satan (1972)—“James Robertson”

AVC: We’re out of time, so you lucked out: I won’t have a chance to ask you about Daughters Of Satan.

TS: Boy, you’re right: I did luck out! [Laughs.] But what a role. You know, that really should be re-released.

AVC: As it happens, it’s actually available for streaming on Amazon Prime at the moment.

TS: [Sighs.] Yes, I expect it is. Well, look, at least I had fun!