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The untold truth of Tom Selleck

A familiar, friendly face of authority and assuredness on television for 40 years now, Tom Selleck is one of the small screen's most successful actors. From 1980 to 1988, he played the coolest guy on TV — Vietnam War veteran turned Hawaii-based private detective Thomas Magnum on Magnum, P.I. The show was a smash hit that earned Selleck an Emmy Award, and probably because of all the built-up goodwill from that series, Selleck is the rare actor with a second long-running hit show. Since 2010, he's played New York City's police commissioner on the CBS police drama Blue Bloods. 

In between, Selleck has headlined lots of TV movies and theatrical hits (including Three Men and a Baby), and he even co-starred on Friends for a while. And through it all, he's been known for one of the most glorious mustaches in Hollywood history. Selleck is in his 70s now and has lived a remarkable life, both on camera and off, and as a result, there's quite a bit to learn about the star. From his military history to his acting career, here are some things you might not know about Tom Selleck.

Tom Selleck enlisted to avoid the Vietnam War draft

As a college-aged, able-bodied man in the late 1960s, young Tom Selleck was very much eligible for the Selective Service — in other words, the military draft to build up a force to fight in the Vietnam War. Eventually, Selleck's number came up, and he was drafted. But in order to have some choice in how he served, he voluntarily joined the California National Guard, as part of the 160th Infantry Regiment from 1967 to 1973, during which time he served six months of active duty.

These days, Selleck remains eager to help out the American military, and he's served in multiple ways in the decades since his soldier days. He's appeared in many public service announcements and recruitment ads for the National Guard, and he's a spokesman for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. One of his first acting roles even has a service connection. While studying at USC, he starred in The Mental Aspects of Human Reliability, a training film for the U.S. Air Force.

Tom Selleck played The Dating Game

Everybody has to start somewhere, and for future television superstar Tom Selleck, his career began with an appearance in 1965 on the swinging series The Dating Game. "I really was just a scared student at USC," Selleck told The A.V. Club. "But all of my friends, my fraternity brothers, were going on, so I went on and did it. And I, uh, did not dominate." According to an interview with TV Guide, Selleck said his pals went on "with their girlfriends" and pretended not to know each other. Selleck didn't take that approach, and he felt "hopeless" and "very shy," and he didn't win the heart of the selecting bachelorette. Nevertheless, Selleck returned to the show's nighttime iteration two years later, and again, he didn't leave the best impression and didn't get to go out on the date.

However, Selleck did meet somebody as a result of The Dating Game who would prove pivotal to his life. A casting agent spotted him, suggested he try acting, and got him an audition with a 20th Century Fox talent search.

The guy who played Mr. Baseball was really Mr. Basketball

As a young adult, Tom Selleck had no aspirations of acting success or Hollywood stardom. He enrolled at the University of Southern California in the mid-1960s to study business and parlay that into a career at United Airlines. But his main extra-curricular activity was basketball. At 6'4", he was one of the tallest guys on the team, which meant he had to guard (and be guarded by) rival UCLA's 7'2" superstar Lew Alcindor, who'd change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and become of the NBA's best players of all time. Selleck was outmatched by Alcindor ... and most other opponents. In fact, he didn't contribute much to the so-so Trojans squad, and he was ranked as the 12th best player on the 12-man team.

When Selleck waded into acting, his basketball experience came in handy. "I did do a Pepsi commercial, but only because I could dunk a basketball with either hand," he told The A.V. Club. When he successfully auditioned for 20th Century Fox studio president (and UCLA super-fan) Richard Zanuck, he talked up his hoops days. "When I told him that I played against Kareem, that's probably why I got the job," Selleck told TV Guide.

It took him years to make it big

For millions who wanted to be him (or be with him), Tom Selleck was the definition of manliness in the '80s — cool, capable, and confident. But even though he became a masculine icon, it took him until he was a full-grown man (and then some) to find success as an actor. In the late 1960s, he landed a contract with 20th Century Fox that paid $35 a week and included acting training. Selleck appeared, briefly, in a handful of television roles in the '60s and '70s, including the Western Lancer, the soap The Young and the Restless, and the legal drama Judd for the Defense

"I'm convinced that, when I was 25, I looked 35 and sounded 16," Selleck told The A.V. Club. "And that wasn't working very well for me." Still, casting directors saw something in the young (but aging) actor, and Selleck secured prominent roles in several pilots for dramatic and action-adventure TV series. Unluckily, not one of those six pilots was picked up to become a real show. By the time Selleck finally starred in a pilot that a network ordered — Magnum, P.I., which would make him a star — he was 35 years old.

Tom Selleck didn't care for Magnum, P.I. at first

Magnum, P.I. was a professional breakthrough for Tom Selleck, and it was one of many shows about quirky private detectives of the early 1980s. It was similar to a contemporary show, The Rockford Files, and Selleck only agreed to star on Magnum, P.I. after taking some advice from that show's star.

Selleck initially wanted to turn down Magnum, P.I. because Thomas Magnum was "this perfect James Bond guy with air hostesses on each arm," as the actor told Broadcasting and Cable. In other words, he was superficial and didn't look to invite any acting challenging. The Rockford Files star James Garner served as Selleck's mentor, and he offered some advice. "I'm not gonna tell you what to do," Garner said to Selleck, "but I can tell you this. If they want you, you'll never have more power than you do right now. If you feel like making a stand, this is your chance." Emboldened, Selleck approached the show's producers, and they worked to retool the character into one that was a little more complex and flawed.

Tom Selleck could've been Indiana Jones

Tom Selleck wasn't a super famous actor circa 1980. He'd starred in a bunch of pilots, landed supporting roles in movies, and appeared in several single episodes of many television dramas. Still, he landed an extremely promising audition with powerful filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to star as archaeologist and treasure hunter Indiana Jones in their action-adventure throwback Raiders of the Lost Ark. 

Selleck filmed a screen test, and he did such a good job that he clinched the role. "Steven Spielberg and George Lucas said, 'You got the part,'" Selleck recalled on The Rachael Ray Show. What should've been a major career breakthrough wasn't meant to be, however. "I said, 'Well, I've done this pilot, and I don't know whether it's a conflict.'" The network for whom he'd shot the show, CBS, disallowed Selleck from doing both the film and the series, even though production schedules ultimately didn't overlap. Spielberg and Lucas went with Harrison Ford, instead, but Selleck came out of the mess okay — the pilot in question was for Magnum, P.I.

Batman wants to be Tom Selleck

When a big-budget, big-screen version of Batman was in the works at Warner Bros. in the late 1980s, Michael Keaton landed the role of the Dark Knight, beating out seemingly every major actor of the time, including Bill Murray, Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, and Tom Selleck, who'd just completed an eight-year run as mystery solver Thomas Magnum on Magnum, P.I. More than 30 years later, however, Selleck did get to be part of the Batman franchise, in an inspirational, roundabout kind of way. 

In 2019, the comic book Batman #79, drawn by artist Clay Mann, found Bruce Wayne hiding out under his Matches Malone persona on a tropical beach vacation with Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman). Wayne's look seems extremely familiar here, particularly the bushy mustache and a blue baseball cap that makes his hair wing out the sides. In other words, he looks like Thomas Magnum, with his facial hair and Detroit Tigers hat. And that was all on purpose. "I like Tom Selleck, and I like Magnum, P.I., and it doesn't go further than that," Mann told Entertainment Weekly. "I like Three Men and a Baby, but Magnum, P.I. is why I like him."

He doesn't see dead people

Once upon a time, Tom Selleck starred in Three Men and a Baby, and it became the top-grossing movie of 1987. In the film, he played one of three carefree bachelors, along with Steve Guttenberg and Ted Danson, forced to care for a baby suddenly left in their possession. As popular as the film was, it entered movie history for supposedly including a ghost. In a scene where Ted Danson's on-screen mother (Celeste Holm) comes to see the baby, a human figure of short build and with dark hair peeks out from behind a wispy curtain. That unsettling being apparently resembles a teenage boy who died in the house where Three Men and a Baby was filmed. And that's how a ghost story spreads.

For three decades, the legend persisted, until Selleck personally put it all to rest."The story was that this kid died in the house where we shot the movie," Selleck said on The Tonight Show in 2017. "Well, we shot on a sound stage." Fine, but what about the figure? Well, Danson's character plays an actor in Three Men, and the dark-haired boy is actually a cardboard cutout of Danson wearing a black top hat, which is seen throughout the movie. The legend of the ghost took off after the movie hit VHS (where people could rewind and pause), and the film sold well, perhaps in part due to the ghost-hunting, Selleck suggested. "This was a big deal for video sales. Maybe [production studio] Disney made it up," the actor quipped.

The continuing saga of Tom Selleck's mustache

As the star of Magnum, P.I., Tom Selleck came to fame in the 1980s, a time period in which it was acceptable and even preferable for an adult man to sport a mustache. (Just look at other era icons like John Oates, Alex Trebek, "Weird Al" Yankovic, and Simon and Simon star Gerald McRaney.) But Selleck is the unofficial, undisputed mustache champion of the world, rocking a hairy upper lip in various forms through his career, and he told GQ (via People) that while he's never nicknamed his furry facial resident, he doesn't mind being a "godfather" of 'staches either. 

He still sports a bushy one on Blue Bloods, which he almost shaved, doubting that a police commissioner would be allowed to have it. CBS brass explicitly prevented the actor from removing his most famous feature. Of course, Selleck occasionally does take a razor to his meal ticket every now and then, such as for roles in the movies Folks! and In & Out.

Selleck isn't above poking fun at his grooming choice, either. In 2003, he participated in a sketch on Late Night with Conan O'Brien where he was reunited with his first mustache, jealous of the star's present-day mustache.

Tom Selleck was unsure about making Friends

In 1996, Friends was the hottest show on TV, and Tom Selleck was asked to play a prominent recurring role on the hit sitcom. In the series, the actor portrays Dr. Richard Burke, the Geller family ophthalmologist with whom Monica Geller (Courteney Cox) strikes up a passionate romance despite the age gap and the strangeness of him knowing her since she was a child. Selleck was unsure if he even wanted the part, advised by Hollywood professionals to pass. "They said, 'It's a TV show! You can't guest on someone else's TV show. They'll say you're crawling back to television!'" Selleck explained to The A.V. Club, as he hadn't acted in a television sitcom since a single episode of Taxi back in 1978. 

However, he also thought it would work out because he knew he had chemistry with Cox, who he'd screen-tested with for the 1992 movie Folks! And Selleck was right. His initial three-episode deal ultimately bloomed into ten, and it even landed him and Cox on the cover of TV Guide. Selleck was one of Friends' biggest secondary stars, and now, he's ready for a revival. However, he wasn't asked to participate in the show's HBO Max reunion special. "But if the opportunity came up, I'd do it again!" he told People.

Tom Selleck vs. Rosie O'Donnell

Like a lot of prominent actors and celebrities, Tom Selleck has a lot of political thoughts and opinions, and he's able to articulate them. However, he's not really a write-an-editorial or tweet-about-causes kind of guy, preferring the old-school approach of devoting his time to the causes and ideologies he supports. He tends to come down on the right-wing side of the spectrum. Selleck introduced First Lady Nancy Reagan at the 1984 Republican National Convention, donated money to staunch conservative Pat Buchanan, and was once recruited by a Republican strategist to run for a senate seat representing California. "I certainly lean toward being a conservative civil libertarian, but I have given money to Democrats," Selleck told TV Guide, adding that he once served on the board of directors for the bipartisan Josephson Institute of Ethics.

However, his political leanings have caused him to butt heads with other stars. For example, in May 1999, Selleck booked an appearance on The Rosie O'Donnell Show to promote the film The Love Letter. Instead of talking about the movie, O'Donnell surprised Selleck with a series of tough questions about gun control. Selleck had made print and television ads for the National Rifle Association, and O'Donnell wanted the actor to justify the organization's anti-firearm restrictions stances, particularly in the wake of the deadly shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. "I didn't come on your show to have a debate," a flummoxed Selleck said. "I came on your show to plug a movie."

Blue blood flows through Tom Selleck

Despite a couple of big movie successes, Tom Selleck is firmly a TV guy. In fact, he's one of the most notable small-screen stars of all time, thanks to his work on Magnum, P.I. and Blue Bloods. The latter series — on which Selleck has portrayed New York City police commissioner Frank Reagan, member of a multi-generational law enforcement family — has been extremely successful, ranking in the top ten most-watched broadcast network shows as recently as its ninth season.

That success didn't come easy, and it almost didn't come at all. When the show was in production on its first handful of episodes and hadn't yet aired, Selleck clashed with show leaders over the nature of his character. "There were a couple of early scripts when I would be barking out orders. 'Send eight cars there! Do this! Do that!' I said to producers, 'I don't have to prove I'm the boss. I am the boss, or you wouldn't have hired me,'" Selleck told TV Guide. 

That kind of disagreement, along with differing creative visions, led to CBS' choice of showrunner, Ken Sanzel leaving the show, according to Deadline. In fact, some behind-the-scenes negotiating between CBS executives and Blue Bloods staff led to the network siding with Selleck and letting Sanzel walk away. CBS then brought in new producer Kevin Wade, who more closely agreed with Selleck's ideas for the series.