June 2010

The Real Deal

TOM SELLECK always oozed western cred—now that rep is cemented with an induction into the Cowboy Hall of Fame
by MARY MURPHY / photographs by KURT MARKUS

Tom Selleck had a rude awakening the first time he played a cowboy. The actor, in his pre-Magnum days as a contract player at 20th Century Fox, was in pilot hell until he got a small part in a TV western called Lancer. He took on the role of a drunken cowboy who picked a fight with a guy who had a hook for one hand and a mean-looking German shepherd by his side. The dog was supposed to pin Selleck to a wall, but he was not really cooperating.

“The director said, ‘The dog doesn’t look vicious enough,’ and ‘You don’t look scared,’” recalls Selleck. So the dog trainer suggested Selleck hide a piece of steak in his fist and hold his hand near his throat. “I have done a lot of stupid things as an actor where I could have been harmed,” he says. “Let’s just say I had no trouble looking terrified in that next take.”

Welcome to the Wild West, Hollywood style. For more than three decades, Selleck has been part of the Industry’s rugged cowboy terrain, starring in westerns both on TV and on the big screen—The Sacketts, The Shadow Riders, Lassiter, Quigley Down Under, Ruby Jean and Joe, Last Stand at Saber River, Crossfire Trail and Monte Walsh.

The cowboy lifestyle has always appealed to Selleck outside of work as well. He takes on everything from tending horses and mending fences on his 63-acre ranch in Ventura County, where he lives with his wife of 22 years, actress Jillie Mack, and his 21-year-old daughter, Hannah, who is already a championship jumper. “She’ll jump, clear five-foot fences and give her dad a heart attack,” he says with a laugh.

To reward his dedication to the genre, Selleck was inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum (formerly the Cowboy Hall of Fame) in Oklahoma City on April 17. “I have an Emmy and a Golden Globe and a lot of other stuff,” says Selleck, “but I don’t think for an actor who works in westerns there is a bigger thrill.”

To get the nod, he didn’t have to make any donations, send out screeners or take out advertisements. “It’s not like a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame,” Selleck says. “It is something they bestow for a body of work. I have done a lot of westerns—a lot of successful westerns—so this is a big, big honor.”

The 65-year-old actor—with his chiseled features, twinkling hazel eyes and iconic robust mustache—has mesmerized audiences for decades, starting with his portrayal of Ferrari-driving private detective Thomas Magnum in the 1980s CBS series Magnum, P.I. That Magnum charm gave Detroit-born Selleck the juice to star in and produce westerns, which he says are typically hard to get off the ground because of costs.

Selleck’s love of everything equestrian began with the classic TV westerns of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, and he is inspired by John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, Steve McQueen and Ben Johnson. “Ben was a great influence on my life,” he says of the actor he met on the set of the 1979 TV movie The Sacketts. “He was the real deal—he taught me how to rope and ride.”

“Fame is vapor, and popularity is an accident. If I had gotten Magnum when I was 18 instead of 35, I honestly don’t know if I could have survived it.”

It was Clint Eastwood who showed him the most about being an authentic western star. “It wasn’t the sit-me-down-and-talk kind of teaching, but he had an affinity for an accurate depiction of real gear,” says Selleck. “Clint was a stickler for that kind of stuff. So when I started having some control over my movies, I began building my own props, including rifles and saddles of the period. I got that from Clint.”

Selleck is a man of diverse political issues. He is well known as a gun proponent and a board member of the NRA, but he proposes fewer guns rather than more in modern westerns. “I don’t want to beat up anybody who makes a western,” he says, “but I heard somebody say, ‘Who wants to make a movie where they just fire bullets one at a time?’ I think they miss the essential element—to me, the land is the central character. All of us who are environmentalists like the idea of protecting our wide-open spaces.”

He works constantly these days, and many of the young stars he works with often pull him aside to ask how to deal with fame. “I tell them fame is vapor, and popularity is an accident. If I had gotten Magnum when I was 18 instead of 35, I honestly don’t know if I could have survived it.”

Selleck can currently be seen on the big screen with Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl in Killers. “I kept waiting for Ashton to put me on that stupid show [Punk’d],” he says. “I would have gotten angry, but he didn’t pull any of those kinds of things. He was Twitter crazy.” As for Heigl, he says don’t believe anything you might have seen in the tabloids. “I have read stuff,” he says, “but I found her to be totally professional and quite a gifted actress. And I am not blowing smoke because I did a movie with her.”

Selleck recently returned to CBS as the titular tormented Massachusetts police chief in Jesse Stone: No Remorse, the sixth installment—he cowrote the three most recent—in the TV adaptations of the late Robert B. Parker’s detective series. And he has just wrapped Blue Bloods, a pilot for a CBS series that debuts this fall, in which he plays a New York City chief of police.

As our conversation ends and Selleck tells me he’s headed out for the rest of the day to clear brush, I ask if he thinks he would have become a cowboy if he hadn’t become an actor.

“I don’t know which love came first,” he says. “I always felt I would like to live on a ranch and in a more real environment. I like to think I would have found my way to the love of a western lifestyle anyway. But you know I had a leg up working every day on such wonderful sets with such wonderful actors—just about every actor who was in the western stock company. They showed up even for small parts and passed on their loyalty and love of westerns to me—and I was just hooked.”

MARY MURPHY is an adjunct professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism and a news producer at Entertainment Tonight. She is a longtime fan of Tom Selleck’s mustache.