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From 'Magnum, P.I.' to dancing with royalty, Tom Selleck shares his journey in new memoir

(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE POST AND PETE CARPENTER'S "THEME FROM MAGNUM P.I.")

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tom Selleck's been a Hollywood star for more than 40 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE POST AND PETE CARPENTER'S "THEME FROM MAGNUM P.I.")

SIMON: The mustachioed hunk - and we still say that in 2024 - in "Magnum P.I."...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAGNUM P.I.")

TOM SELLECK: (As Thomas Magnum) I know what you're thinking.

SIMON: ...The sensitive architect in "Three Men And A Baby"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THREE MEN AND A BABY")

SELLECK: (As Peter Mitchell) I'm an architect, for Christ's sakes. I build 50-story skyscrapers. I assemble cities of the future. I can certainly put together a diaper.

SIMON: ...Monica's much older guy in "Friends"...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRIENDS")

SELLECK: (As Richard Burke) Since the divorce, when anybody asks me how I am, it's always with a sympathetic head tilt. How are you doing? You OK?

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Tom Selleck has had lots of Emmy nominations and a win, several People's Choice Awards, even a Golden Raspberry.

SELLECK: (Laughter).

SIMON: His new memoir, "You Never Know," is about the steps he took to get there, what he learned along the way and some of the great projects that never quite made it to the screen. Tom Selleck joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

SELLECK: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Look, we can't see each other. Are you wearing a Hawaiian shirt?

SELLECK: No. I had to kind of give them up when the show ended. They're a bit like wearing a flag, or you get a remark like, Tom, it's over.

SIMON: (Laughter).

SELLECK: I have some, though. I'm happy to say I auctioned quite a few up - off for charities so...

SIMON: Aww.

SELLECK: ...Somebody has them.

SIMON: All right, well, that's good. Before I forget, can you remember a line you had in your first role in an Air Force training film?

SELLECK: Yeah. (As Airman Pickens) I don't know what his problem is, sir, but I think something's bugging him.

SIMON: Wait, hold on - (applause).

SELLECK: Thank you. That's - as you probably remember, since you probably have it in your film library - that's Airman Pickens in "The Mental Aspects Of Human Reliability." That was the name of the title. It was for their psychiatrists.

SIMON: And that was the start of your career?

SELLECK: That was the accidental start of my career, yeah. It just happened at SC, and I just - I was in the business school, but this job came up (laughter). The interesting part about it - they shot it at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson. And when I got home, I told my dad that I had this job, and he said, well, that's where I was stationed in World War II. He was a B-29 mechanic, and he said, that's the last place I served before I came home to meet you when you were 2 years old...

SIMON: Oh, boy.

SELLECK: ...In Detroit. Yeah.

SIMON: Boy. No, that must have been nice. Were you in a lot of shows you can't remember?

SELLECK: I've been in some. I'll sometimes look at a list of credits, and I don't really remember them (laughter), shows like "Mannix" and a couple of others they list. I may have done a bit part. I don't know. There were a lot of parts I would have liked to forget. That's a different story.

SIMON: Tell us about "Magnum P.I." You weren't initially real excited about it, but how did you make Thomas Magnum a character you wanted to play?

SELLECK: Well, I had signed a two-picture deal for a series development at Universal, and I had done two pilots with Steve Cannell, so the deal was over. And I got assigned a show called "Magnum." And I was doing much better. I had done a Western called "The Sacketts" and done "Rockford Files" by then.

SIMON: That was a series where James Garner played a private eye.

SELLECK: And suddenly, they assigned a show to me in a contract that had expired. And I have to say this - Glen Larson wrote it. And Glen was a really good guy and became a friend and was a gentleman all his life to me. But I really didn't like his shows. I hated it. It was very "James Bond"-like. You could say that word in the day. There were stewardesses on both arms. And look, I had done six unsold pilots, Scott, by then, and nothing had ever been on the air. And I just said I won't do it, which was kind of a big risk 'cause if something hadn't worked out, I think that would have been the end of my acting career. The studios would have seen to it.

SIMON: Well, what did you want to put into Thomas Magnum?

SELLECK: Flaws. And that's what I always look for in a character. One of "The Rockfords" I did, I played a perfect detective that drove Jim Rockford nuts. And I spouted every cliche in the book in that, and I had a great time 'cause it was really funny. But it was funny because of Jim Garner's reaction. And my appetites have never kind of been as a 6-foot-4 bully or Vic Virile (ph) walking in the room. I just - my appetites leaned a little more towards maybe being quirky even though I was 6'4. It turned out OK. It was just a little scary for a year, year and a half.

SIMON: You developed a theory in series television about the lead character. I wonder if you can share that.

SELLECK: I had seen so much television. I was aware of every cliche, and one of the cliches on a weekly drama series was, oh, my God, the hero is in danger. He could get killed. Well, frankly (laughter), the average working guy is home watching TV, and he says, Mabel (ph), he's not going to die. It's a series. So get me a beer. It's OK. And I think it's a fact. You can have momentary jeopardy to a character, and that is effective dramatically, but, oh, my God, he's going to die is - you know, it's not effective, and it's used all the time.

SIMON: Tom, what does it mean to be a star?

SELLECK: It means a large loss of privacy. I rejected the term for an awful long time, which was easier to do 'cause I was in Hawaii, and in those days, the media wasn't pouring all over you. And at 35, you know, frankly, I knew I was about the same actor I was a year before I got "Magnum" than when "Magnum" went on the air. So I knew some of it was just a perception that you were going to have to deal with. I don't know. They just made it bigger than life and all this hunky stuff and everything else. It was not something I was ever that comfortable with. But it's OK. People say it goes with the territory, and it does. But the people who usually say that haven't been in the territory (laughter).

SIMON: I'm sorry I called you a mustachioed hunk.

SELLECK: No, you didn't. Somebody else did, and you only quoted them. But you can call me that. I'm not really a mustachioed hunk anymore. I'm a mustachioed ex-hunk (laughter).

SIMON: Is it still fun for you?

SELLECK: Yes. I love the work. The business will drive you nuts. The changes in the business - I'm not thrilled with a lot of it. But the very essence of the work I love and plan on keeping going as long as they'll have me.

SIMON: Tom Selleck's memoir, "You Never Know." Thank you so much for being with us.

SELLECK: Oh, thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Melissa Gray is a senior producer for All Things Considered.