By Roni Toldanes
Tom Selleck still remembers the shotgun; its brand and gauge. But he wouldn’t tell anybody anything else. When Selleck was a young boy, his father used a shotgun to demonstrate important lessons on gun safety. Yet when reporters recently asked the actor what type of shotgun it was, he politely declined to provide details, saying; “That’s something I’d like to keep between Dad and me.”
Mutual love of guns apparently tightened Selleck’s close bond with his father, Robert, a real-estate investor. This can be gleaned from his answers to sensitive questions. Asked on a TV talk show about what he would rescue first if his house were burning down and his family were safe, Selleck replied, “The shotgun my father gave me.”
At 6 feet 4 inches, with his familiar chiseled face, deep dimples that come with his frequent smiles and raven-black hair, Selleck is still recognized in public as the star of the ’80s television drama Magnum, P.I., the private investigator and Vietnam veteran who looks good in khaki shorts and Hawaiian shirts. In the past few years, Tom Selleck is back in the limelight, portraying other TV and movie characters, and taking a new role as a hero for America’s responsible gun owners.
In October 1997, Selleck hosted the grand opening of a Sporting Clays course through a Ducks Unlimited fundraiser tournament in Lanai, one of the smallest of the Hawaiian islands. Just about everyone of the 80 competitors had a chance to chat with the star. As affable and easygoing as his TV character Thomas Magnum, Selleck graciously posed for pictures and talked briefly about his experiences in the shooting sports and his feelings about gun politics.
Selleck, 53, described Sporting Clays as a very relaxing and family-oriented activity. He said he knew of many celebrities who participate with “borrowed” guns at the Charlton Heston shooting tournaments and other charity events. They have a great time but aren’t willing to stand up and be recognized like Heston because of the negative ramifications to their entertainment careers. Many are also concerned about being misquoted.
Having eight years and an Emmy behind him as the star of Magnum, PI., Selleck has also often been misquoted and misrepresented. In 1996, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reported that Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger were trying to persuade Selleck to challenge Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Selleck denied the story, saying Dowd should have done a better job of investigating. “There’s no truth to it,” said Selleck. “She was just dead wrong, and she ought to be ashamed of herself.”
In his public appearances, Selleck, a registered independent with libertarian leanings, has not exactly described himself as apolitical. “I’m not politically active. I’m politically-minded.” Translation? He has appeared on Nightline, The McLaughlin Group, and Larry King. He has attended the White House correspondents’ dinner the last few years, smoking cigars and looking quite at home.
Selleck, with his masculine and sweet image, has been compared to other popular presidents. But Selleck shrugs off those comparisons, saying he resigned in disgrace from his only elected office — president of his ninth-grade class — because of poor grades. “For the record, I have never in my life had a serious conversation about running for public office,” Selleck said in a press statement.
But rumors that Selleck has political ambitions have been cropping up for years. His role as a gay TV newsman in the film In and Out didn’t help quell those rumors. Some movie columnists asserted that his scene-stealing lip lock with co-star Kevin Kline was a bid to woo gay voters. Selleck again dismissed those speculations. “I don’t want what the movie says about honesty and intolerance to get lost in some goofy little kiss,” he said.
That kissing scene, which shocked many Magnum P.I. fans, including the policeman who held traffic while Kline and Selleck gave each other a smooch, was in fact Selleck’s way of preparing himself for real comedy. His roles in his past films can be classified as “romantic comedy.”
Several years ago, Selleck fielded a question about whether he believed he could graduate from television to film. “At the time, I’d done four films,” he said, “three of which had made quite a lot of money, and Three Men and a Baby had been the No. 1 movie in the world. I thought then, ‘Oh, this is going to be with me for a long time.”’
But with his CBS sitcom, The Closer, Selleck got to test his comedic talent. He played Jack McLaren, once a red hot advertising executive with a legendary ability to close the deal who suddenly found himself jobless, facing divorce and at odds with his teenage daughter.
In the years since Magnum P.I., the cigarsmoking rancher has been striving to be considered for less conventional roles. It hasn’t come easily. He has made some less than critically acclaimed films, including Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, where he portrayed King Ferdinand; Folks, and Mr. Baseball, all in 1992.
Despite his shrewd ability to perform any role, Selleck has never felt bigger than life. He remains humble and unpretentious. “I’ve always had trouble with the sex-symbol thing, but it doesn’t necessarily mean better work, and it isn’t better for your life,” he says. “You’ll lose more jobs than you’ll get, and you’ll lose some of the most interesting ones.”
Because of Selleck’s amiable personality, many influential Hollywood executives continue to support him. In and Out executive producer Adam Schroeder says Selleck easily fits any character: “There is something about Tom that is almost a throwback to old Hollywood. He’s like Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. He has … sophistication and innate charm.”
Though it may surprise his Magnum fans, Selleck has always felt more at home in comedy than drama. Persuading others to see him that way has been a tough battle he has waged for years, in part because of his action-star looks.
Initially, Tom Selleck turned down the Magnum series even though he was a contract player, nearing 35, who had never had a steady paycheck in the business and had absolutely no leverage. “I needed the job desperately, but I said no,” Selleck recalls. “It was this very perfect guy who owned a Ferrari, who had fabulous babes all over this estate. I said, ‘I’m not doing this guy; I don’t like him.’ “
He was under contract to Universal Studios at the time and was threatened with a lawsuit, but Selleck stuck to his position until the part was rewritten to create the flawed character of Thomas Magnum.
Away from klieg lights and cameras, Selleck has also taken a new role that is tailor-made for his appeal. By actively participating in fundraiser shooting tournaments, he hopes to put a stop to the “demonizing” of gunowners in America. “There are 70 million legal guns in this country,” Selleck says, “most of which are owned by people who aren’t felons, who don’t do drugs, et cetera.”
Those who’ve shot a tournament with Selleck describe him as very friendly and charming. He was funny and he looked like Magnum P.I. without being cocky about it.
World English Sporting Clays champion Linda Joy, who was on the same squad with Selleck at a recent tournament, says the actor “was an easy-going and likeable man. He was a pretty good shot and he didn’t flaunt his celebrity status.”
Sandy Abrams, organizer of the Hollywood Celebrity Shoot, also recalls seeing the actor disembark from a helicopter on his way to a shooting tournament. “Selleck must have had 20 to 30 guns with him (on board the helicopter),” Abrams says. “He took down a gun case and pulled out a shotgun that must be worth more than the car you drive.”
Michael Shea, Fiocchi’s director of ammunition sales, confirms Selleck’s love affair with museum-quality shotguns. In one shooting tournament, Shea was on the same squad with Selleck, who shot the match with a gold-inlayed Beretta S05 shotgun “worth at least $20,000.” The actor also brought with him a Colt .45 semi-auto with pearl grips.
“What probably impressed me most was when I found out that Tom Selleck was really a nice guy,” Shea says. “He was not like some of the Hollywood guys who will just blow you off. He is really down-to-earth. “
For many of his new shooting buddies, Tom Selleck is still Magnum Pl., with a good heart, with neatly-trimmed mustache, without the Ferrari.
He is Thomas Magnum with a handsome sporting shotgun.
(Roni Toldanes was managing editor of Gun World, the oldest firearms magazine in the United States; group managing editor of Knives Illustrated, and editor of Gun Games, America’s shooting sports magazine. He also worked as editor-in-chief of weekly newspapers; news editor, senior copy editor, assignment editor and editorial board member of major daily newspapers in California, Texas, New Jersey, Florida and Georgia. He covered southeast Asia as a foreign correspondent and chief editor of an international news agency.)