The moustache. The Hawaiian shirts. The chest hair. That description could be none other than the magnificent Tom Selleck playing Magnum P.I. (of course, minus the Hawaiian shirt that could also just be a description of Tom Selleck in the 1980s.). Selleck plays Thomas Sullivan Magnum IV; a former Naval Intelligence Officer and Vietnam veteran turned private investigator who lives in the guest house of Robin’s Nest – an expensive ocean-side mansion on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Here he provides security expertise to the owner of the estate Robin Masters, and also solves, or attempts to solve the detective cases that are brought to him. Masters is akin to Charlie in Charlie’s Angels in that apart from occasional shots of him from afar, or from the side or back, he is only ever heard, not seen. An author of racy novels, he lives in luxury and Magnum is quick to take advantage of the perks of being on site, which include jumping behind the wheel of Masters’ bright red Ferrari 308 GTS. There are several allusions in early episodes to the fact that Magnum did Masters a big favour at some point in the past, which would go some way to explaining how he gets to lead such a cushy life now. And a little known fact; Robin’s voice was actually provided by one Orson Welles….
Jonathan Quayle Higgins III (John Hillerman) is an ex-British Army Sergeant Major; as the Estate Manager he patrols the grounds with Zeus and Apollo, his two beloved Dobermans who are particularly fond of trying to pounce on Magnum. Higgins is a great fan of order and stability; he and Magnum exchange words over petty things on a regular basis. Higgins’ ‘jobsworth’ style conflicts frequently and often humorously with Magnum’s casual lounging-about-in-small-shorts behaviour. Despite the clashes however, Higgins admires Magnum’s dedication to his work, and he also provides the P.I. with some detailed insights into his own fascinating life story. The pair develop a warm respect for each other, akin to friendship, as the seasons progress.
Magnum has two other cronies close by; former Vietnam Marines Theodore ‘T.C.’ Calvin, who owns a charter helicopter business called ‘Island Hoppers’, and Orville ‘Rick’ Wright, who runs the upmarket King Kamehameha Club. T.C.’s skills as a pilot, as well as his tough physique, and some of Rick’s less than salubrious underworld contacts prove useful to Magnum in many of his cases, and although he frequently aggravates them both by tricking them into helping him, the three share a close friendship that sees them through some of the perilous situations they get into.
Money is obviously not a problem for Magnum; he picks and chooses the cases he works on – and it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate to say this can depend on how eye-catching the person approaching him is. One thing Magnum relies on is his charm and attractiveness to women; but a refreshing aspect of the show is that he doesn’t always get the one he wants; he may be a hunk in tight jeans, but above all he’s human, he’s fallible and he sometimes messes up. This makes the character real, and believable.
The 8 season, 162 episode run was massively popular; the first five series all made it into the top 20 shows each year in the U.S. ratings, and it won many awards, including an Emmy and a Golden Globe for both Selleck and Hillerman. This was mainly due to the wide-ranging and convincing story lines which crossed several genres, including tense drama, farce and slapstick comedy, as well as hugely exciting action sequences.
The show was rightly lauded for its sensitive and accurate portrayal of soldiers returning from Vietnam, not only showing the difficulties that they faced reintegrating into civilian society, but also making it clear that not every soldier returned as a shell-shocked sociopath (which was common of many programmes of the time) but as a well-adjusted human being. Magnum P.I. was also noted for the innovative filming techniques it used; Magnum often broke the fourth wall by conspiratorially smiling at the audience down the camera and the show’s storylines on occasion crossed over on to other programmes, such as Murder She Wrote and Simon and Simon.
Tom Selleck famously had to turn down the part of Indiana Jones in the film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, as he was committed to beginning the first Magnum series in March 1980. Ironically, there was then a writer’s strike which pushed back the filming to the December of that year, and meant that Selleck could have fitted in his turn as Indy after all. His sacrifice was acknowledged in the final season episode ‘Legend of the Lost Art’ which allowed the characters to take part in a parody of the film.
Selleck’s laid-back style made Thomas Magnum really likeable, and his convincing relationships with the show’s secondary characters, along with a sharp and often funny script made Magnum P.I. immensely watchable.