Selleck’s ‘Magnum, P.I.’ Shattered Hollywood’s Vietnam Veteran Stereotypes
Tom Selleck is widely regarded as one of the most popular actors in television today.
Currently starring in CBS's "Blue Bloods," he has also been recently known for the Jesse Stone TV movies as well as his guest-starring stint on "Friends." However, his iconic role remains playing former Navy SEAL-turned private investigator Thomas Magnum in "Magnum, P.I."
It's that role that turned Selleck into a huge star – one that nearly catapulted him into the "Indiana Jones" franchise.
Selleck’s portrayal of the Vietnam veteran, in essence, broke the stereotype that Hollywood was dishing out at the time. Prior to "Magnum, P.I.," Vietnam vets were widely trashed in the entertainment industry – a place where Jane Fonda was still finding a lot of work.
When the series starts, Magnum has resigned from serving as an intelligence officer in the Navy, disillusioned in the wake of Vietnam, where he earned the Navy Cross. He’s not a borderline psychopath or ashamed to have been there. Far from it – he maintains his pride in having served, and he is still close with his friends, Rick (Larry Manetti) and T.C. (Roger E. Mosley), who he served with.
Rick and T.C. are also out of the service, the former managing a club, while the latter has started his own flying chopper business (a relatively early case of a show highlighting a veteran using military skills to launch a successful civilian career).
Magnum is a bit of a slacker – perhaps he's just trying to figure out what to do in the wake of his service like many fellow veterans. He provides security consulting for novelist Robin Masters, who has allowed him the use of his guest house and a Ferrari.
One of the times this has paid off was in the episode “J. ‘Digger’ Doyle” which featured Erin Gray (Wilma Deering in "Buck Rogers") as a fellow investigator. Magnum uses his skills to head off the plot to steal the manuscript of Robin Masters’s latest novel – about technology transfer to the Soviets –which predated the 1987 Toshiba scandal involving milling machines being sold to the Soviets.
Magnum also shows that he is much smarter than his laid-back appearance would indicate – he outwits the would-be thieves by hiding the tapes with the manuscript amidst his music collection.
Although he is skilled with a M1911, Magnum is also not very quick on the trigger. In one early episode, he is held at gunpoint by an IRA assassin trying to kill a British officer. When one of the guards shoots the assassin, Magnum argues, “She wasn’t going to shoot!” However, he is willing to use deadly force to protect himself and others – as he does in “China Doll” when facing a Chinese mafia enforcer.
He does prefer to talk down those he is facing off with, even a Nazi – as shown in “Never Again, Never Again.”
Selleck’s ability to shatter the stereotype of the Vietnam veteran stands as a testament to the actor's skill. It’s no surprise he was the first choice to play the swashbuckling Indiana Jones, but Selleck passed it up to honor his television contract.
He went on to enjoy a solid movie career ("Three Men and a Baby") but nothing like what he could have had as Indiana Jones.
In 1999, Selleck’s real-life character shone through when he was famously ambushed by Rosie O’Donnell in the wake of the tragic Columbine shooting. Selleck remained civil despite the shrill interrogation. In one sense, the honor Magnum had was more a reflection of the actor’s character than just a portrayal.
Hollywood still depicts those who serve in a questionable light. One can only look at the spate of box-office flops like "In the Valley of Elah," "Stop-Loss," "Brothers" and "Redacted" in recent years that were jeremiads against the War on Terror and wonder why Hollywood hasn’t been willing to do more shows – or movies – with "Magnum, P.I.'s" light but respectful tone.