When Tom Selleck's Hawaiian TV series Magnum, P.I. debuted on CBS last season, the tremors hardly rocked the Nielsen scale. But as the show's Vietnam veteran turned island private investigator, the 6'4", 200-pound actor presented from the first that perennially explosive combination of man's man and lady's dream. This year his Magnum
opus has blasted with volcanic force into the Top 10 repeatedly, unleashing on its star a weekly landslide of mail from female fans. During Magnum
's Oahu filming, legions of leiladen leilanis flock to every location where Selleck is expected to appear. The critics are scarcely less effusive, comparing Selleck to the likes of Reynolds and Gable. Indisputably, the green-eyed, mustachioed and modestly macho Selleck, 37, the epicenter of all this hula-baloo, has become show-biz's newest hot-as-lava hero.
Hollywood executives have been quick to note Tom's knockout Hawaiian punch. He was offered the lead in director Steven Spielberg's box office bonanza Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the job went to Harrison Ford because of Tom's Magnum
commitment. He got another chance to show his range as an actor when he starred with Jane (Saturday Night Live) Curtin in ABC's affecting Divorce Wars: A Love Story, airing this week. Last month he flew to Yugoslavia to begin filming his first major movie, a $20 million cliff-hanger called High Road to China, in which he stars with Bess (The Four Seasons) Armstrong as a 1920s aviator-adventurer. Not bad for a guy who once was so self-effacing about his credits that he didn't even consider himself an actor. Then, he notes, "I got a letter from the Screen Actors Guild informing me that I'd been a member for 10 years and was eligible for a pension."
So now he's got it all, right? "On a happiness scale of one to 10, I'm about a five," he figures. "Some days are 10s, but some are ones. I guess I'm going through too many changes to see my way clearly." Part of it is the predictable celebrity whiplash. "Within about three weeks of going on the air [in December 1980]," says Selleck, "my whole life did a flip-flop." But the real problem lies elsewhere: He and his wife of 10 years, actress-model Jacquelyn Ray, 34, have been separated since 1979, and they can't figure out what to do next. "It's one of the great sorrows of my life that we can't be together—I'd always planned to be married for the rest of my life," says Selleck. "We're still very close, still on good terms. We've worked out an agreement to live separately, but we haven't made any moves toward divorce." He frets about being away from Kevin, 14, his wife's son from a previous marriage, whom he calls "the only child I have." And he bridles at a report that he left his wife when Magnum popped. "That's the cliché, that's the meaty story," steams Selleck. "Spouse Dumps Spouse After She Gives Him the Best Years of Her Life. But it's not true, and it's not nice, or fair, or kind. We separated a full six months before I even shot the pilot of Magnum."
He admits that his own dilemma provided grist for Divorce Wars, in which he plays a lawyer caught up in a painful split. "What with my private life, I was inhibited by the story. You draw on all that stuff," allows Selleck, "but it wasn't any catharsis for me." Nor does dating help; Selleck says his confusion keeps him from getting serious. "I'm self-protective. One of my nightmares would be to get heavily involved with somebody while I'm still trying to figure out what's going on in my life," he says. "I've told a couple of people I've gone out with, 'If I don't call you for five or six days, it's not because I didn't have a good time. It's because I'm a flake.' "
His other Divorce co-star, Mimi Rogers, has been one date, but he denies tabloid tales of a romance or reports linking him with everyone from Goldie Hawn to unnamed beach bunnies. Don Bellisario, Magnum's executive producer, can confirm that Tom is more pursued than pursuer. Flying to Hawaii, he reports, "Two stewardesses independently slipped me bottles of champagne and whispered seductively, 'Make sure you share it with Tom.' How do you think it made me feel? Like chopped liver." Co-star Larry Manetti, who plays Magnum's club manager sidekick Rick, says: "The average guy would be a monster if he looked like that, but Tom isn't deceived by his looks. He is not a womanizer. If he were, his affairs would have caught up with him by now, and he would have ended belly-up in the Pacific."
Even if there were a will, Selleck agrees, there's no way. "There aren't enough hours in the day to conduct relationships," says Selleck, who worked six-day, 80-hour weeks his first season before using his clout to lighten his load. "I've been able to rationalize [shortening his hours] by thinking, well, if they get me so run-down that I end up sick for a month—no show," says Selleck. "I don't relish being a public person—I almost break out if I have to speak in public," Tom adds. "It's very fatiguing to know that everything you do, all day, is being photographed. I'm not saying it's a cross to bear, it's just not a very easy adjustment."
If Selleck seems well adjusted, the credit probably goes to his father, Bob, an investment executive, and his mother, Martha, a housewife, who moved their family from Detroit to Sherman Oaks, Calif. when Tom was 4. Like his sister and two brothers, Selleck received a gold watch from his father for not drinking, smoking or swearing before his 21st birthday. "My parents raised us by example, but I wouldn't say they were strict," says Selleck. "And I wasn't a totally square high school kid. I was in a pretty crazy club called the High Hats, which had an initiation ceremony where you got the hell beaten out of you with paddles. They used to drink at parties and kid me. But I never had any problems getting along."
A gifted athlete, he won a four-year basketball scholarship to USC and had "a couple of successful seasons" there as a forward. Acting was almost an accident. He fell into his first job, a Pepsi commercial that required a basketball player. Intrigued, he appeared on The Dating Game ("I was Bachelor No. 2—I didn't get the girl") and in 1967 signed a contract with 20th Century-Fox, which ended his college career three classes shy of a degree in business administration. "I decided if I didn't try acting," Selleck says, "I'd wonder 10 years later how I would have done."
But that day came and went and he was still wondering, though things slowly picked up. One memorable professional moment was an invitation from Mae West to "come up and see me sometime"—specifically, at 8 p.m. in her dressing room. "I thought it was kind of eerie, but it turned out she just didn't get up till late," says Selleck, whom West cast in a small part as a young stud in 1970's Myra Breckinridge. He appeared on the soap The Young and the Restless and in five films he'll admit to (like Daughters of Satan and Midway) and some awful ones he won't. Before Magnum, one of his flop TV pilots was 1978's Bunco with pal Robert (Vega$) Urich. "The network," Selleck now grins, "said we didn't have enough presence between the two of us to carry a series." His least favorite role was as the face that launched a thousand Salem billboards. "It was a way of supplementing my income," he observes. "But they were up for four years, and I don't even smoke."
Nowadays he seems genuinely surprised that female fans are smoldering. John Hillerman, who plays major domo Higgins on Magnum, says, "Tom gets mash notes from women at restaurants, and it embarrasses him. I've seen women literally palpitate when they look at him, and that astounds him. He doesn't understand it at all." How does Tom see himself? "Most people consider me pretty laid back, but obviously there's some intensity in there somewhere," says Selleck. "I'm not overly ambitious, but I'm very competitive." Especially in sports. A volleyball fanatic, he plays alongside ex-Olympians at Oahu's exclusive Outrigger Canoe Club and on its team that placed second in last year's Senior (over 35) National Championships in Arlington, Texas. "No one cares if I'm on TV—I'm off the team if I don't perform," Selleck says happily. "It's nice to get away from business, and it's a neat way to get stuff out of your system."
Selleck's other main getaway is his $500,000 home in a Honolulu beach-side community. He often flies in his parents and siblings for visits. There will be little time for R&R, though; shortly after Magnum went on hiatus, he began High Road to China, and he clearly intends to give it all he's got. "I might fall flat on my face, but I'm very lucky to get the script," says Selleck, who is aware that his erupting success could cool down as rapidly as it heated up. "I'm realistic. In TV it's when you're going to be canceled. Not if."