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There are few television stars to whom the word "iconic" applies as comfortably as it does to Tom Selleck. Since dominating the prime-time airwaves throughout the 1980s as the title character of "Magnum, P.I.," Selleck has appeared in a host of beloved roles — from his show-stealing part on "Friends" to his ongoing portrayal of the hard-driving Frank Reagan in "Blue Bloods."
Since 2005, he has been involved in one of the most interesting detective roles in television, appearing as author Robert Parker's troubled New England cop Jesse Stone in eight full-length films. We spoke to Selleck by phone about the release of the complete "Jesse Stone" collection on DVD, a life spent fighting crime, the Magnum legacy, and of course, the ever-present weight of bearing what is perhaps the world's most famous mustache.
1. Let's start with the inevitable question for the world's leading expert: What makes a great mustache?
Well, it means something about the success of "Magnum." Probably, if you look at the body of my work before "Magnum," and during, and me since birth, most of the time, I haven't had one. I just kind of grew it, and then, what happens is that it takes on a ridiculous amount of importance. When "Blue Bloods" started, I said, "You know, he's a New York City police commissioner. What do you guys think about me playing the character without a mustache because I'd like to change a little bit?" and they said, "Well, we think that's an interesting idea." I said, "You'd better check with CBS," and word came back within a day, "No way."
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2. Were they trying to hire the mustache?
I like to think that Frank Reagan on "Blue Bloods" is more than just a mustache. I also have to be very careful about speaking about my mustache because we had a falling out, and he's got his own agent now. He's with Facial Hair Unlimited, and he speaks for himself, and I can get in legal troubles.
Get a sneak peek of the next episode of "Blue Bloods":
3. So what makes a great detective?
You know, I'm not sure. A great detective, I think for novels and for films, is a character that's compelling and interesting enough that you want to see a story told through their eyes. Robert Parker created a terrific one with Jesse Stone. The first book of his that I read was "Stone Cold," and I just said, "I've got to play this guy." Robert Parker, like Elmore Leonard — their dialogue kind of lifts right off the page. Usually, you have to kind of redo it because it's a different medium, but I just really wanted to play Jesse from the moment I saw him, and I've been lucky enough in my career that the things I'm attracted to, the audience seems to want to see me in. That doesn't always happen that way.
4. Why do you think it is, though, that all the great detectives throughout history, going back to Sherlock Holmes, are generally very damaged people in some way?
Well, look — it was a fight when I started "Magnum." They wanted him to be perfect and have a woman on each arm. I think the better road to go is to play someone who's flawed. Magnum was a bit of a mess. He didn't own the Ferrari, and he couldn't pay his bills. He was the least successful of the four main characters on the show.
Those things are important, and with "Jesse Stone," we didn't want to do a show that was a lecture about drinking or had a message. The drinking is very much part of Jesse, and he has some rather toxic rules that he operates by, like it's OK, and he controls his drinking if he has two drinks a night alone. The trick, then, is to play a flawed character that the audience still wants to root for, and over the years, I've found that … I don't know why, but I can push characters pretty far out of line, and I knew that was kind of some accident-of-nature part of my instrument, and I could push the characters pretty far and still keep the audience with me.
5. Why is Jesse's relationship with Reggie, his dog, so important?
Well, Reggie the dog, played by Joe — who just passed away, by the way — had a sad moment. When we were casting a dog, we were in Halifax. There are not a lot of trained dogs, but I said, "I want a male dog." I know that sounds silly, but I think it's his roommate, and the dog quickly became Jesse's conscience. Somebody said to me at the hardware store, "You know, you never show any affection to the dog." This was early on, and it became a real key in the writing because, if you know golden retrievers, they're hungry for affection, but both of them had a huge problem with commitment. Jesse, even after three or four years with the dog, was still saying, "I'm just waiting to find a home for him … he's just here temporarily." He's one of the best dog actors I've ever had the pleasure to work with, and people attribute human thinking to this dog. He's a huge plus to the show. People love the dog, and he had his own character arc, and over the course from movie to movie, that relationship progressed and changed, and he'd even sit in on Jesse's shrink sessions and probably get some pointers for himself.
Watch a clip of Jesse and Reggie:
6. In your life and your career, you're a bit of an iconoclast in Hollywood.
I try to be. I don't think you should do something just to prove to an audience that you can do it, that's way out of your wheelhouse. Good parts should always scare you a little bit, and good parts … you might not get advice to do them. The professional advice I got when they asked me to appear on "Friends" was "Don't do that! You can't guest on someone else's show! They'll say you're crawling back to television," because I had a four-picture deal with Disney and all sorts of stuff. I said, "Why? It kind of scares me. I haven't done a sitcom since 'Taxi,' and I love the show."
Of course, the same thing with "In & Out" ... it was "What's your audience going to think?" I said, "I don't care what they're going to think." I was one of the last guys they cast in that show, and I said, "Look at this ensemble. This is the kind of work I've been trying to do for a long time. Frank Oz is a great director. Paul Rudnick's a great writer. I'm going to do it." My dad always said risk is the price you pay for opportunities, so I've tried to take risks, but not risks for risk's sake.
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7. On a personal level, politically, you stand apart from much of Hollywood. How did you become a conservative? And why do you think so few of your peers in Hollywood are?
Oh, I don't want to get into that stuff. I haven't made a political statement in quite a long time because, frankly, they get repeated, changed. First of all, I'm a registered Independent, and I've been that for two decades. I've given money to both parties, people in both parties … not huge sums, just what was legally available, and I don't fit in the box that people put me in.
Look, I live in Hollywood. I don't always agree with all my peers, but here's what I learned: When you have opinions that may not absolutely fit the mainstream, and you realize the people that you know are still friends. They have kids. They care about what they do. You may have different beliefs, but you tend not to demonize. Because there's a preponderance of a particular point of view in Hollywood, it's ironic that you see tremendously intolerant and demonizing dialogue about people who don't agree with them. If you hang out with people you agree with all the time, that is the trap, and I wish people would work a little harder, realizing the concept that the whole basis of our country is that reasonable people can disagree, and I think they should disagree actually.
8. What's the ratio of bad to good scripts that you read?
Huge. I don't know whether they're bad. They're bad for me, and I don't know. I can think back, and there are very few things I've turned down that I didn't think I turned down for good reason. I don't have a lot of regrets. Everybody always brings up the "Raiders" thing, but my only problem when they bring it up is it's indelibly Harrison Ford's role, and secondly, I did not turn it down. I had done the pilot for "Magnum," and CBS wouldn't let me do it.
9. You have a working avocado farm. What do you like about farming?
Well, the whole ranch life — it's kind of real. We have a lot of native oaks where I live in California. There's an artist that I collected in the days when I didn't have to look at the right side of the menu, named Robert Clark. He paints these magnificent things of California fields with oaks, so I've planted a lot of native oaks. We're going to premiere "Blue Bloods," and people will argue whether the episode was any good, and it's a big abstraction, this business, that can drive you nuts. If I dig a hole and plant a tree and kind of watch it grow, that's a terrific counterpoint. You know, my life right now is I commute to New York and work for about half the month on "Blue Bloods," and then I come home to California, and other than the commute, which I hate, I get to be with my family, and I have a very, very different life. After I get off the phone, I'm going outside. I'm planting an oak tree, actually.
10. Will we ever see another "Magnum?
It's been a weird progression with "Magnum." Tom Clancy is a huge "Magnum" fan. In the early '90s, he'd done a couple of wildly successful movie adaptations of his books. We got together, and I went to Universal, and I said "It's time we could do a series of feature films." They were very interested, and I had Tom, who wanted to do the story, and I had this package put together, but Universal's the only studio that could make it, and they went through three ownership changes in the '90s, and I think that was the real window for "Magnum." If they did a "Magnum" movie, I think it's been pretty clear — because I've heard rumors there were scripts and all — I don't think they see me doing it.
11. How is that possible?
Well, that's up to them, but I do know that Hollywood and feature films has a tendency to buy a TV title, spend $150 million on it, and put big explosions in it and make fun of it, and that will not work with "Magnum." We still have a huge following. The only other aspect is, if we're ever going to see a reunion show, I think that a "Magnum" movie would have a reunion aspect, but reunion TV movies are simply to see how everybody's aged. That seems to be why people tune in, and the show was so good to me. It's in the Smithsonian … my silly little Hawaiian shirt and my Detroit Tigers hat, and we were recognized by the Smithsonian as the first show that recognized Vietnam veterans in a positive light. But he'd be fun to revisit.
"Jesse Stone: The Collection" (Sony Home Entertainment) is available now; "Blue Bloods" airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on CBS.