"My father said, 'Risk is the price you pay for opportunity.' " So asserts television icon Tom Selleck, who suggests that at almost every step of his career, he has taken risks. Among these: reshaping his hit series Magnum, P.I. to become what he calls a "character-driven detective show and the first cumulative narrative on TV that was not a soap"; making his Broadway debut in the 2001 revival of A Thousand Clowns, despite, he says, "never having appeared in any play"; and even his seemingly foolproof current project, the fourth installment of the Jesse Stone made-for-TV movies on CBS, based on the novels of Robert B. Parker.
In Jesse Stone: Sea Change, airing May 22, Selleck reprises his role as the brooding police chief of a small New England town, still in love with his ex-wife and waging a constant battle with the bottle. He is the classic antihero, awash in personal demons, yet always adhering to a higher moral code.
The actor also serves as executive producer on the movie and was determined from the outset to be faithful to the literary spirit of the novels, despite the naysayers. "We made an anti–TV movie," says Selleck. "And initially the executives were not happy. They said nothing much was happening when in fact a lot was happening. But it was happening in Jesse's mind. They also wanted us to do an eight-act TV movie with lots of explosive noises. I wanted to do a three-act movie, not unlike a feature, a film noir."
The 62-year-old Detroit native was clearly in tune with the audience. Last year's Jesse Stone: Death in Paradise (the third installment of the series) was a top-rated TV movie of the 2005–06 season. But then again, Selleck has a track record for being in tune with the Zeitgeist. Magnum, P.I. (1980–88) was one of the most successful gumshoe series of all time, earning the actor an Emmy and a Golden Globe. Magnum's ring, aloha shirt, and Detroit Tigers baseball hat now enjoy a spot at the Smithsonian.
Selleck's other television credits include recurring roles on Friends (garnering him another Emmy nomination) and Boston Legal, the TV movie Scott Turow's Reversible Errors, and a host of other TV movies, guest appearances, and feature films, including the popular Three Men and a Baby and its sequel, Three Men and a Little Lady. During his nearly four-decade career, Selleck has rolled up more than 70 credits on television and film.
Still, until he was 35 and cast in Magnum, he had spent 11 years struggling, appearing in six unsold pilots. A guest performance on The Rockford Files was the turning point, revealing Selleck's comic flair with a hint of self-parody. "I was able to play against type and spoof the kind of virile roles that I would be cast in," he recalls.
His performance generated interest among Magnum's creators, who believed they had found their lead. Though Selleck was less than enthusiastic about the script (Magnum was far too heroic for his taste), he was cast in the role, which evolved over the years from a "James Bond type to a more quirky and flawed figure," says Selleck. "I was very influenced by James Garner's work in The Rockford Files."
Selleck still takes nothing for granted, continuing to grapple with the artistic pitfalls he faces with each project. Of Jesse Stone, he says, "Jesse is such a flawed character, yet the audiences are rooting for him. He lives alone, drinks alone, and has a keen sense of irony. The challenge is to avoid playing self-pity. It can turn an audience off. My other challenge is wearing two hats in the same film. It's tricky being a producer and actor, but when I'm on the set, the director is the director even though I've hired him. Look, I'm frequently offered the job of producer as a way to get me to take the acting job."
Selleck will soon be joining the cast of NBC's Las Vegas as an enigmatic self-made billionaire who becomes the new owner of the Montecito Resort & Casino (replacing James Caan). And although he never wanted to do another series because, he says, "it takes too much time away from my family," on Vegas he will shoot only three days per week.
Selleck's early ambitions included being a fireman and a baseball player. He achieved neither goal but earned a basketball scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he studied business. A course in the history of theatre changed his life. The professor noticed Selleck and believed, on the basis of his student's striking good looks, that he had a shot at a film and television career. He introduced him to a commercial agent who in short order was sending Selleck out on commercial auditions, one exposure leading to another, including an appearance on The Dating Game and ultimately a contract with Fox.
"It was the tail end of the studio system, and I was there for a year and a half before they fired me," says Selleck. "Still, I had a chance to study acting formally. As part of the studio system, actors were sent to its on-site acting school. It was there that I got steeped in Actors Studio stuff. That's why years later I was not afraid to come to Broadway and do a play." He adds, "There are lots of tricks to acting and a million ways to go. If I instinctively understand a character, I work from the inside out. If I don't get him, I'll work from the outside in. Art isn't the truth. It's a lie that gets you to the truth. We're all fakers. But there are good fakers and bad fakers."
After his Fox tenure ended, Selleck "collected unemployment, sold clothes, and did commercials when they came along," he admits frankly. "I always felt I'd rather do a silly commercial than a bad acting job; though after Magnum I stopped doing commercials because I didn't want to be in the position of endorsing a product."
But he wanted to test new waters. Indeed, a central reason he was drawn to playing the eccentric yet ultimately sad Murray Burns in A Thousand Clowns was that it was such an unlikely role for him. "In acting class, it was my favorite play," the actor says. "My acting teacher said, 'Why do you always pick parts that you're never going to be cast in?' and when [playwright] Herb Gardner approached me, he said, 'This is a risk.' But it was a risk I was willing to take. I got excellent reviews with the exception of The New York Times, who felt I shouldn't have been born."
Selleck has no regrets about his career, insisting he wouldn't do anything differently and grateful he's taken the challenges he has. For Selleck, risk is the key to success as an actor. "It's hard, because you're not selling a widget but yourself," he says. "You've got to learn to view each failure as a learning experience, develop an appetite for failure, and realize that you've got to risk being very bad in order to be very good."