Tom Selleck: The Real Deal

The lasting appeal of Tom Selleck is undeniable.

By Sondra Barr

Tom Selleck is no one-hit wonder. His enduring and much beloved leading man presence on television screens has spanned over four decades.

Larger-than-life, the 6 foot 4 star strikes a commanding, no-nonsense presence. Mix that with a rancher’s work ethic, more than a dash of old school charm, and a rugged visage that only gets better with age, and you have the key to Selleck’s lasting appeal.

It’s this reliable everyman persona that permeates his two most enduring starring roles, most recently as Frank Reagan, the New York police commissioner in the long-running Blue Bloods, which wrapped up its 10th season in May, and in the 80s smash hit Magnum, P.I.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that both roles encompass a strong code of ethics, something that Selleck, 75, embraces in his private life. Rather than take his prolonged success for granted, he’s nurtured it at arm’s length, while prioritizing his family, their 65-acre California ranch, and the causes nearest his heart.

“I’m a fairly private person,” he told People Magazine’s Aili Nahas this year. “And I’ve always treasured the balance between work and time with my family. It’s always about them.”

When Magnum, P.I. went on the air on Dec. 11, 1980, Selleck was a relative unknown. He had gotten into acting while a student and basketball player at the University of Southern California. After appearing in some commercials and on The Dating Game twice (surprisingly, he didn’t get the girl), 20th Century Fox tapped him for a $35-a-week paycheck in their selective “New Talent” program, according to Parade.

A short while later, the military called Selleck up for his Vietnam commitment. He didn’t balk and signed on for a six-year commitment. “I am a veteran, I am proud of it. I was a sergeant in the U.S. Army infantry, National Guard, Vietnam era,” he’s said. “We’re all brothers and sisters in that sense.”

When Selleck’s service came to an end, he returned to California ready to start where he left off. According to, after six months of active duty, there was a uniform that Selleck kept in his car so he’d be ready to serve at a moment’s notice. “It wasn’t the best thing for acting, especially when you had to get a military haircut, and no one was wearing their hair that way. You looked a little geeky for most parts,” he recalled.

Yet, parts he earned, in soaps, forgettable movies, and pilots that didn’t sell.

At 35, he found himself in Hawaii to take on yet another TV pilot, but this show was different. The day after Magnum, P.I. premiered, Selleck was a star. The private-eye series depicted Selleck as Thomas Magnum, a Vietnam vet working as a private investigator in Honolulu, who operated out of the sprawling estate of a famous author who was never home. Viewers couldn’t get enough of Selleck, the hot cars, stunning women, and luxe Hawaiian setting.

“The key to Magnum was that he woke up one day at 33 and realized he had never been 23,” said Selleck to writer Mary McNamara for the Los Angeles Times in 2011.

What appeared to many like overnight success for Selleck was a long time in the making. “The luckiest thing that happened was that I didn’t get a real job until I was 35,” said Selleck to AARP in 2015. During the years of ho hum roles, he sought out acting classes to hone his craft.

“When I was 25, I looked 35 but sounded 15. There are a lot of very good actors who make it as younger leading men but don’t graduate––because the audience won’t accept them as grown up.”

Accept Selleck as a grown up, the public did. At the peak of his Magnum popularity, Selleck was earning well over $1 million annually, an astronomical sum in the 80s. Meanwhile, he made Oahu the destination du jour of that decade.

According to a 1985 Chicago Tribune article by Ron Miller, “One can’t land on Oahu without knowing that this is Tom Selleck’s island. He grins from posters everywhere––in the airport souvenir shops, in the booths at fast-food joints, on the sides of hot-dog stands. The tourist brochures given away in boxes along Waikiki Beach rank him up there with King Kamehameha.”

At the height of the show’s popularity and his fame, Selleck abruptly stepped away from the spotlight and retreated to his ranch in Hidden Valley, California, with his wife and daughter. He wanted a quieter life away from the prying eyes of the media and obsessive fans.

“I knew intellectually what it would mean in terms of being a public person, but until you’ve lived it, there’s no way to understand it. I had a feeling of, ‘I don’t think I’m cut out for this,’” he said.

According to the People interview, Selleck’s self-imposed hiatus from Hollywood was extended by the disappointing scripts that would come his way. “I put up with the articles that said, ‘he’s disappeared, he’s done.’ And you do get done, I’m well aware of that. It was a big lull, but it put a lot of things in perspective.”

He spent the ensuing time tending to his ranch and horses, while he and his wife raised their daughter, Hannah.

His wife, actress Jillie Mack, whom he’d met in 1984 after spying her backstage after her performance in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats, initially wasn’t keen on moving the family to a ranch. But, according the 2015 AARP article, she views it differently in hindsight. “It’s the best place to raise a child,” she said. “It was such the wisdom of Tom. He knew he needed to buy back his anonymity, to replenish the soul.”

The wide open spaces also helped to strengthen the pair’s happy union, which is 33 years strong. “There’s a lot of yin and yang in us. I’m kind of quiet. She’s got this joie de vivre. I don’t know what our secret is, but I’m happy,” he said.

After recharging his star wattage, Selleck was back for more success. He starred in the 1987 movie 3 Men and a Baby and its sequel, 3 Men and a Little Lady. He also had a recurring role as Courteney Cox’s older love interest on Friends and he’s also starred in the popular Jesse Stone series television movies.

Yet, it’s his character in Blue Bloods that has provided Selleck another act to his lengthly career. The role of Police Commissioner Frank Reagan is tailor made for Selleck’s unique brand of no nonsense reliability. Reagan is a man who commands respect at both City Hall and the Sunday night dinner table, where he anchors a three-generation NYPD family, according to Parade. The show premiered in 2010 and has consistently drawn in over 11 million viewers per episode. It was recently announced the show will be back for the 2020/2021 season.

“The show has lasted because the characters have been allowed to grow and change. The potential is limitless in my opinion,” he told TV Insider. “Everybody’s very much aware that this is maybe a once in a lifetime opportunity––a show that’s found its way and is welcomed by an audience. I’m ready to go back when it’s okay to start again.”

While we can’t wait for Selleck to be back, he’s been quarantining with his wife on their ranch. A place that he’s said works magic on his body and mind. “This ranch is a great counterpoint to the acting business, which is an abstraction,” he told AARP. “You do something, it’s up on a piece of film, and everybody argues whether it is good or bad. You dig a hole and plant an oak tree––and I’ve probably planted a thousand of them––it’s real. It’s there and you can watch it grow. It’s a lot different than being famous, and it keeps me sane.”

Tom Selleck
Quick Takes

  • He auditioned with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas for the lead in Indiana Jones
  • He had a hip replacement in 2013. To recover, he built a bridge on his ranch as an unconventional form of physical therapy
  • He sometimes gets saluted by real NYPD officers when walking down the street
  • He’s a veteran of the California Army National Guard
  • One of his earliest roles was on The Young and the Restless
  • He earned an Emmy nomination for his role on Friends