A Man and his moustache: The history of Magnum P.I.

John Bull
John Bull
Jan 29, 2018 · 17 min read

“I’ll pound roofing nails before I shoot this.”

These are not the words that Donald Bellisario wants to hear. He has been tasked by TV legend Glen A. Larson with bringing a new detective series called Magnum to screen. Yet over dinner in La Serre, one of Los Angeles’ most sophisticated restaurants, it has become increasingly clear that Tom Selleck, the series’ prospective star, has no interest in taking it on.

“It was not the best script I’d ever read”

In fairness, Bellisario wasn’t entirely convinced that he wanted to be part of it either. “Glen calls me in” he recalled, in conversation with the Archive of American Television (AAT) many years later, “and he says ‘how would you like to develop a pilot for me in Hawaii?’ I said, ‘love that Glen!’ so he hands me this script called Magnum.”

“So I go home and I read it,” he laughed, “and it was… it was not the best script I’d ever read. It was a rip on 007. It was about a guy, a private eye named Magnum who was ex-CIA who lived in a house on a cliff, and he had this ferocious killer dog that kept everybody at bay and he would fly hang-gliders with machine guns on the wings.”

Magnum was one of two Glen Larson show concepts that Universal had pitched to ABC (the other being Battlestar Galactica). Both series were rejected by the network. Hearing that CBS were looking for a show to replace the now-ailing Hawaii Five-O, Universal took Magnum to them instead. CBS’ reaction was extremely positive: not only would another Hawaii-based show allow them to keep open the extensive studio they’d built on the island during the filming of Five-O, it would also present another opportunity for them to try and find a vehicle for Tom Selleck, who had by this point been under contract to studio for five years without a hit.

The search for a hit

At the time, many thought that CBS’ faith in Selleck was misplaced. The actor was generally seen as a bit-part player, perhaps most famous to the TV-watching public for his guest spots as dapper detective Lance White on The Rockford Files. It was there that he had been spotted by CBS Head of Programming Harvey Shephard, who became convinced that Selleck could be a real star. By the end of the seventies Shephard’s faith in his leading man was looking increasingly misplaced. Selleck had featured in pilot after failed pilot (“There were six of them.” Selleck later commented on The Tonight Show. “I counted it up once, when I was in a masochistic mood”). When Larson and Universal came knocking Shephard decided on one final roll of the dice. As Larson recounts it, CBS’ answer was simple — “If you can get Tom Selleck you’ve got a commitment.”

As Bellisario was finding in that restaurant on Ventura Boulevard though, Selleck’s commitment was proving far harder to secure than one might think. What the producer didn’t know, however, was that Selleck was the very reason that Larson had drafted Bellisario onto the project to begin with — the actor, who had enjoyed Bellisario’s writing for one of his failed pilots, had asked for him.

“Well,” said Bellisario, looking across the table at Selleck, “what do you want?”

“I remember a script you wrote for Gypsy Warriors.” Selleck replied. “I like you’re writing.”

“Tell me something about you, Tom,” said Bellisario, beginning to think through script changes in his head.

Selleck sighed. “I just don’t want to play what I look like,” he explained. “You know, everybody always wants to play me as the handsome leading guy. I want to do something with some humour.”

The two men parted on good terms, Bellisario agreeing to think about what could be done to make Magnum work. The good news was that all CBS cared about was that it film in Hawaii and that Selleck should star and soon Bellisario realised that he had an idea that would satisfy both that and Selleck’s desire not to be cast as the character everyone assumed he would always be.

Reworking an old idea

Between teaming up with Larson to pitch Magnum, and a brief stint as Executive Producer on Quincy M.E. Bellisario had worked in development at Universal. During his time there he had begun developing an idea for a private eye show called H.H. Flynn. It was intended to be a series about three fictional Vietnam veterans living in California: Rick, who owned a club in Long Beach and acted like Humphrey Bogart, T.C., a chopper pilot who spent his days flying workers out to oil rigs and H H Flynn himself. Flynn was a private eye who lived in the guest house at the Bel Air home of a man who was the biggest seller of flower arrangements to Hollywood stars. He would spend his days driving the millionaire’s Ferrari around tackling cases, then spend his nights drinking with Rick and T.J.

Bellisario decided that it would be easy enough to shift the whole premise to Hawaii. “I went in to Glen,” Bellisario later told the AAT “and I said ‘I tell you what man, Tom doesn’t want to do it with you. I’ll write it. I’ll take it over. It’ll be my show. We’ll split the creative credit.”

Having listened to Bellisario’s concept Larson soon agreed. According to Larson himself, his last contribution was to suggest a new identity for Magnum’s millionaire host — that of an elusive millionaire author called “Robin Masters.” “He’s based on Harold Robins,” Larson later explained, “who had houses everywhere but was always travelling and was never at them.” Bellisario explained the new series concept to Selleck who soon signed on for the pilot, and Magnum P.I. was go.

Off to Hawaii

Or at least it would be, once Bellisario turned in a script. The first part of that involved transposing the H.H. Flynn concept to Hawaii. Having never visited the Island himself, Bellisario turned to a travel guide that he had to hand to provide a feel for Hawaii’s geography, townscapes and culture. Bellisario was left with an impression of a place that was laid back and still relatively undeveloped, an easy going place that mixed pleasure with business.

The characters of Rick and T.J. he simply lifted from his original H.H. Flynn concept, except T.J. now flew tourists rather than oil workers. Flynn, meanwhile, became Thomas Sullivan Magnum IV, a laid back private investigator happy to split his time between taking cases and simply enjoying life on the island. Bellisario also decided to keep the idea that all three men had served together in Vietnam.

The Vietnam controversy

This was a far more controversial decision at the time than it may seem now. The war, and its social and political fallout in the US ,were still fresh in people’s minds and until Magnum P.I. American TV had generally only portrayed Vietnam veterans in a very simplistic way. “Everybody comes back so fucked up.” Bellisario explained in an interview. “Unable to function. Killers.”

It was an image that Bellisario strongly believed didn’t match with his own experiences and that of his acquaintances. The war had affected them all, but it had done so in a far more complex way that he thought he’d ever seen on screen. “The key to Magnum” Bellisario later explained, “was that after all the tours of duty that he did — he was an Annapolis graduate, I think he did three tours in Vietnam — he just… when the Vietnam war ended he just didn’t know what to do. And he just decided — he woke up one day and decided — and this was the key to the whole show — woke up one day and realised that he had been 35 without ever being 25. He was affected by it — and so was T.C. and so was Rick.”

Magnum P.I.’s approach to Vietnam veterans marked a seminal moment in U.S. television — the point where it became possible to talk about the war and its participants properly again on U.S. networks. At the time, though, it was far from guaranteed that the Vietnam flashbacks that Bellisario wrote into the pilot would survive the cut. “The network did not want me to deal with Vietnam.” Bellisario later remembered. “The network said ‘Why do you have to have these Vietnam flashback scenes in the pilot? Everybody hates that war! Nobody likes that war! Why do you have to have this?! Do without it!’ I said ‘No, it’s integral to the characters.’ I said ‘I tell you what, let me shoot the pilot, and after you see it if you don’t want the Vietnam scenes in it I’ll cut them out.”

The studio agreed. Unbeknownst to them, Bellisario then quickly rewrote the scenes to make sure that — from a continuity perspective — they would be almost impossible to remove.

With the benefit of hindsight it’s hard to imagine the characters of Magnum, Rick and T.C. without Vietnam in their lives. Whilst it never defined them, it not only explained how these three men could become so closely attached to each other, but also provided a whole wealth of potential story lines as well. It is clearly the subtle rehabilitation of an entire generation of soldiers, however, of which Bellisario is most proud. “When I created Magnum,” he later commented to E!, “I got thousands of letters from Vietnam veterans thanking me for portraying Vietnam veterans who were something other than killers and drug addicts and crazy and, you know, unable to function in society.”

The creation of Higgins

To begin with, Bellisario had intended Magnum, Rick and T.C. to represent the core cast of characters. As he began writing, however, he began to suspect that Magnum needed some kind of regular foil — not a villain as such, for Bellisario was conscious of the need to keep the mood relatively light — but someone against whom the laid-back P.I. could butt heads. The answer came to him one day whilst watching the 1964 British film The Guns at Batasi. In the film, Richard Attenborough portrayed a stiff, career Regimental Sergeant Major in the British Army, tasked with keeping order at a small military outpost in an African country on the brink of independence. Increasingly torn between the demands of the Army and his own idea of right and wrong, the film ends with Attenborough’s character cashiered out of the Army for choosing honour over orders.

““I’ll never forget Richard standing at the bar.” Bellisario explained to the AAT, when describing the film’s final scene. “He couldn’t believe this and he had a whisky and there was a picture of the Queen hanging behind the bar. He picked up the whisky and he flung it at the picture and he shattered the glass on the picture of the Queen — and then immediately was horrified at what he did.”

He ran behind the bar and picked it all up and cleaned it all off and hung the picture back up on the wall. Then turned around, put his swaggerstick under his arm and walked off — that was the end of the film. I thought ‘he’s perfect! He’s the major-domo for Robin’s nest!’ And that was… Richard Attenborough was my pattern for that.”

The character of Sergeant Major Jonathan Higgins, ex-British Army, with whom Magnum would form a classic love-hate relationship over the next eight seasons, had been born.

Filming the pilot

Magnum P.I. opening credits

In February 1980 Bellisario delivered the script for Don’t Eat the Snow in Hawaii, the two-hour pilot movie. Along with director Roger Young he then set about casting the remaining lead roles. The crucial role of Higgins went to Texas-born stage actor John Hillerman. Initially the studio were unsure, having expected a British actor to get the part, but Bellisario was convinced that Hillerman’s general attitude and gravitas were perfect for the role, and lobbied hard for him to get the part. Having demonstrated that he could do a sufficiently passable English accent, the studio reluctantly agreed to his casting. Hillerman’s Texan background would later form something of an in-joke for the episode The Elmo Ziller Story, which featured Higgin’s Texan half-brother (unsurprisingly played by Hillerman himself using his native accent).

For Rick, meanwhile, Bellisario cast Chicago-born actor Larry Manetti, with whom Bellisario had worked on Black Sheep Squadron. Manetti at first was reluctant. The character of Rick, he pointed out, required him to play at being Bogart — something he admitted he could not convincingly do. “I knew Larry wouldn’t do a good bogart,” Bellisario later admitted to E!, “but i didn’t want him to do a good Bogart! I wanted him to do a bad Bogart! “

Luckily, perhaps, for both Larry and for audiences the ‘Bad Bogard’ concept would not make it past the pilot. “The network never got it.” Bellisario admits, “So they said, ‘Okay you can keep Larry if he doesn’t do Bogart.’ From then on the Rick you see is the real Larry. He’s not acting!”

For the final major role, that of helicopter pilot T.C., Selleck suggested Bellisario and Young audition Californian actor Roger E. Mosley. Selleck had worked with Mosley on the 1973 film Terminal Island; the movie itself was terrible — so much so that both Mosley and Selleck spent a good chunk of their Magnum P.I. earnings trying to purchase back all the negatives — but Selleck felt that the brooding attitude that Mosley had brought to his role in it would be perfect for T.C. Bellisario agreed.

With both cast and script now in place, the production prepared to move to Hawaii. On setting foot on the island for the first time, however, Bellisario soon spotted a problem. “I’ll never forget when I first went to Hawaii to scout for the shoot I was stunned!” he later told the AAT, “because the Hawaii I wrote about didn’t have tall buildings down town and all this stuff. I wrote about Hawaii 1955!”

A Hawaii of the mind

Whilst writing the pilot, using his travel book as a guide, Bellisario hadn’t stopped to consider that the island might have changed greatly since it had been published — and Hawaii had changed. It was no longer a sleepy paradise full of single storey buildings, cane fields and dirt roads. It was an island of high-rises, condos and four-lane highways. The question now was whether to update Magnum P.I. to reflect the reality of 1980s Hawaii. After careful thought, however, Bellisario decided to do something different. Instead of making Magnum P.I. conform to Hawaii he would make Hawaii conform to Magnum P.I. “Give me Hawaii before the war.” Bellisario told pilot director Roger Young.

It was an inspired decision. The Hawaii of Bellisario’s travel book (and ultimately of his imagination) was far more evocative and in tune with the easy-going attitude of the series than 1980s Hawaii could ever have been. Indeed, although this aesthetic would become the bane of practically every episode director throughout Magnum P.I.’s eight season run (both Bellisario and later Selleck as showrunners would frequently force reshoots if they spotted an errant condo or telephone pole), it would lend the series a genuinely timeless quality. In effect, Magnum P.I. became a subtle alt-universe period piece from the very beginning and thus remains eminently watchable today — more so perhaps than any of its contemporary drama and action series with the possible exception of M*A*S*H.

Somehow, for Magnum P.I. it had all come together. Despite lukewarm ratings the pilot, which debuted in December 1980, practically oozed potential. It was a tight, comedic thriller that dripped style and Selleck’s disarming, everyman Magnum tested incredibly well with both male and female audiences. Indeed on seeing the pilot, Harvey Shephard didn’t even stop to wait for the numbers — he commissioned a 22 episode first season on the spot.

Selleck and Spielberg

Shephard wasn’t the only one who spotted the potential in Selleck’s performance though. Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas were watching too. That Selleck “turned down” the role of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark has become something of an accepted cinematic myth. The truth, however, is slightly different. Off the back of the Magnum P.I. pilot Spielberg and Lucas did indeed offer him the role but Selleck did not turn it down by choice — CBS forced him to do it. “This show was just critical to our schedule.” Shephard explained later in an interview with E! “We just felt that we couldn’t let him go.”

Selleck pushed to be allowed to film Raiders and then start on Magnum P.I., but CBS refused to budge. They were insistent that the series form part of their upcoming programming schedule, which meant filming needed to begin immediately, and they were also insistent that Selleck must play the part of Magnum. Selleck’s problem was that he couldn’t just walk away. His five-year developmental contract with CBS stipulated that he had to accept at least one of the series they offered him within the period of the contract, as long as certain conditions (minimum episodes, salary, lead actor status) were met. The day before that contract expired CBS offered to meet all of those conditions and more for Magnum P.I.

In the end Selleck had no choice; he was contractually obliged to turn down Raiders and accept Magnum P.I. It was a hugely frustrating moment — one made even worse by the fact that almost immediately after production on Magnum P.I. began a Screen Actors Guild strike shut down filming for over three months — the same amount of time Selleck had needed to film Raiders. It is to Selleck’s credit that despite this he threw himself wholeheartedly into Magnum P.I. The fact that the series itself was a near-instant success, garnering both critical and public acclaim, no doubt helped. For, hard as it may be to understand now, for the next eight years Magnum was not only one of the biggest things on TV (regularly pegging back even shows such as M*A*S*H in the ratings) but also one of the best.

Subverting genre tropes

This was thanks both to its excellent cast (both Selleck and Hillerman would win Emmys for their performances) and to Bellisario’s writing. It was also thanks to Bellisario’s determination to flip as many genre tropes as possible on their head.

Magnum not only doesn’t always save the day, but he doesn’t always get the girl. The outcome of many episodes is also genuinely unpredictable. As early as season one, the episode Never Again… Never Again, in which Magnum tries to help two elderly Jewish Holocaust survivors who are being pursued by Nazis, features a genuinely shocking twist at the end.

Did you see the sun rise?

Bellisario’s creativity really becomes obvious, however, in what remains not just one of the best episodes of Magnum P.I. but one of the best episodes of American TV ever made: the two-hour long season three opener Did You See the Sun Rise?

The episode flashes between Magnum and T.C.’s time in Vietcong captivity, where they were tortured by a KGB agent named “Ivan,” and a modern plot by the KGB to assassinate a Japanese dignitary visiting Hawaii. The episode sees semi-regular character Lieutenant McReynolds killed by a car bomb intended for Magnum, — a bomb set by the same Ivan, now a KGB assassin disguised as a Bulgarian diplomat. Despite foiling the attempt on the Japanese dignitary’s life — an attempt that involved brainwashing T.C. into being part of the crime — it seems initially that Ivan will escape thanks to his diplomatic immunity. Magnum and Rick, however, have other ideas. As the episode draws to an end, with Rick running interference, Magnum kidnaps Ivan and takes him out into the Hawaiian jungle at gun point. There, rather than begging for his life, Ivan instead taunts Magnum for his inability to pull the trigger.

“You won’t. You can’t.” He laughs. “I know you, Thomas. I had you for three months at Doc Hue. I know you better than your mother. Your sense of… honour and fair play. Oh, you could shoot me — if I was armed and coming after you. But like this — Thomas… never. Goodbye, Thomas. Do svidaniya.”

As Ivan begins to walk off, however, Magnum calls him back. “Ivan?” Says, Magnum, remembering McReynold’s final words to him, “Did you see the sun rise this morning?”

“Yes. Why?” With that, the camera zooms in on Magnum, who raises his gun and fires, the screen immediately fading to black.

“The network weren’t happy with that one.” Bellisario later admitted.

Laura

At its worst, throughout its entire run, Magnum P.I. remained pleasantly watchable. At its best, however, it was award-winning, although regularly losing out to Hill Street Blues in the Emmys. Even as late as its seventh and penultimate season it remained capable of packing a serious punch.

As filming on the series began, Larry Manetti found himself having dinner with an old friend — Frank Sinatra. “I said ‘Frank, would you do the show?” Manetti recounts, “and he looked at me and said, ‘I thought you’d never ask.”

Sinatra in Magnum P.I. It would be his last acting role

The resulting episode, written by series regular Chris Abbot, was Laura. In what turned out to be his last acting role, Sinatra stars as a retired New York police officer trying to close his final case — by tracking down the two men who tortured, murdered (and it is strongly implied raped) a seven year old girl. Initially Magnum is keen to help, but it soon becomes clear that Sinatra’s goal is not to arrest, but to avenge. The young girl was his granddaughter. As with all the best episodes of Magnum P.I., the episode doesn’t end in the comfortable way the audience might expect.

The beginning of the end

All good things, of course, ultimately come to an end. By 1987, seven years after missing out on Raiders, Tom Selleck had finally managed to secure a hit on the big screen with Three Men and a Baby — somewhat ironically another role, like Magnum, that he had been reluctant to take. This would almost certainly have marked the end of the programme anyway, but in truth Selleck, cast and crew had already decided it was time to call it a day. “I was exec producing and acting,” Selleck would later explain, “and I wanted to have Magnum go out in the right sense, and that it was our choice and that we went out in a strong position — and that was like the fantasy.”

They had, in fact, tried to do exactly that at the end of series seven — in true unpredictable Magnum, P.I.-style going so far as to have Thomas gunned down and killed in the final episode. In the face of fan uproar, however, both studio and Selleck relented and a final, shortened eighth season was commissioned which finished with a far happier ending.

The Robin Masters mystery

That ending did leave one question unresolved though — did the author Robin Masters really exist, or was he in fact Higgins? The answer is in fact a complex one — Higgins was… and yet he wasn’t.

As far as Bellisario is concerned, in his Magnum, P.I. Robin Masters is very much a real man.

“Robin Masters was never Higgins,” he says, “People will say that all the time. You’ll see — if you look at it you’ll see Robin Masters’ hand on a drink in a private jet talking on the phone to Higgins early on in the first year.”

Indeed not only did he exist, but he was voiced by Orson Welles. “I just thought it would be great to get Orson Welles’ voice,” explains Bellisario, “and Orson would do anything for money at that point. There’s a sad story.”

After Bellisario left the show, however, Selleck, Hillerman and the writers became increasingly enamoured with the idea that the opposite was true — and by its end the series was being written with the tacit assumption that Masters and Higgins were one and the same. “We left it open,” confirmed Hillerman after the final episode had ended, “but the implication is that he is Robin, yes.”

Ultimately, it seems fans didn’t mind this last piece of ambiguity. Magnum, P.I.’s final episode remains the fifth highest watched episode of TV in American history, with almost 50% of televisions in use at the time tuned in to watch the end.

The crossovers

It was a worthy final reward for a series that remains one of television’s finest products. A series that featured iconic Ferraris and moustaches, and whose televisual universe — thanks to Bellisario’s love of a good cross-over episode — encompasses Hawaii Five-O, Simon and Simon and, rather wonderfully, Murder She Wrote. If planned crossovers are included then both Quantum Leap and The Equalizer are also part of Thomas Magnum’s universe as well. Only scheduling conflicts prevented us from seeing Edward Woodward pop up in Magnum P.I., and footage of Sam Beckett “leaping” into Thomas Magnum got as far as being shot, before more scheduling issues prevented that cross-over from being completed as well (infuriatingly that footage has so far failed to surface anywhere). Then, twenty years later, the Magnum P.I. universe would expand one final time to include Las Vegas, with Selleck, Manetti and Mosley all guest starring together — Manetti and Mosley in character, albeit without explicitly being named.

By most accounts Quantum Leap is Bellisario’s personal favourite of all his creations. That may well be the case, but Magnum P.I. is without doubt his best. And the beauty is that with all eight seasons available on DVD and streaming services (in most regions at least), Magnum P.I. remains today what it always has been — hours and hours of thoroughly enjoyable TV.

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John Bull

Written by

John Bull

Writer and historian (military & transport). Editor of London Reconnections and Lapsed Historian. I focus on ordinary people who did extraordinary things.

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