Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

The Untold Truth Of Magnum P.I.

Correction 10/12/22: A previous version of this article stated that the Mangun, P.I., character Rick was portrayed by Zachary Knighton. Rick was actually portrayed by Larry Manetti. 

Tom Selleck has long been acknowledged to be one of television's most charismatic leading men; someone who combines the beefy good looks of a David Hasselhoff with the gravitas of Sean Connery. Selleck has been working in film and television for over half a century, but his breakthrough role was as the lead character on the CBS crime drama show "Magnum P.I." (1980-1988).

Selleck starred as Thomas Magnum, a private investigator who lives in an expensive beachfront estate called Robin's Nest in Hawaii. The house has been loaned to Magnum by Robin Masters, a mysterious former client who feels gratitude towards Magnum for a past favor. The estate is looked after by Jonathan Quayle Higgins III (John Hillerman), the Alfred to Magnum's Bruce Wayne.

With the help of Higgins and a few other allies, Magnum operates a private investigation business when he feels like it, and spends the rest of his time loafing around Robin's Nest, drinking beer, and canoodling with the many beautiful women who always seem to be on hand. "Magnum P.I." was one of the most popular shows of its time. Here are some facts about the series that fans might not know.  

Choosing Magnum over Indiana Jones

Hollywood is full of instances of near-misses when it comes to iconic roles. Tom Selleck had a particularly notable one just as he was getting ready to become Thomas Magnum. The actor discovered that he had been chosen to frontline a new movie by Steven Spielberg called "Raiders of the Lost Ark," in the role of an adventurous archeologist named Indiana Jones. 

The timing of the casting put Selleck in a pickle. On the one hand, he was finally getting to headline his own TV show after years of starring in rejected pilots. On the other hand, Steven frickin' Spielberg was personally looking to cast him as the lead in a movie. At first, the hope was that Selleck could finish filming "Magnum P.I." and still have time to star in Spielberg's movie.

Unfortunately, the dates did not end up working out. Selleck made the decision to stick with "Magnum P.I." instead of going for "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Harrison Ford was finalized for the role of Indy Jones instead, and the rest is cinematic history. It is interesting to speculate about how different Selleck's take on Indiana Jones would have been from Ford's. But hey, at least we got to see Selleck's much-loved portrayal of Thomas Magnum instead.

Quantum leaping into Thomas Magnum

Over the years, "Magnum P.I" had quite a few crossover episodes with other shows of a similar nature. Possibly the most bizarre of the lot was one that did not actually end up happening. There was a time when "Magnum P.I." was primed to cross over with the acclaimed sci-fi action show "Quantum Leap," both shows being created by TV legend Donald Bellisario.

The premise of "Quantum Leap" was that its lead character can "leap" into the bodies of different people using sci-fi tech and become those people for as long as needed to solve a case. In the early 1990s, "Magnum P.I" had already ended. Tom Selleck had moved on to other roles. "Quantum Leap" was struggling to get picked up for a fifth season. Bellisario conceived of a way to keep the show going by replacing Tom Selleck with Scott Bakula in a fresh series of "Magnum P.I" adventures.

Specifically, Bellisario's idea was to have Bakula's lead character from "Quantum Leap," Thomas Beckett, "leap" into the body of Thomas Magnum. Thus Beckett would become the new Magnum and keep the show running for a few more years. The idea did not go much further than some test footage being shot of Bakula wearing Magnum's iconic Hawaiian shirt. Instead, the fifth and final season of "Quantum Leap" had Beckett leaping into the body of Lee Harvey Oswald.   

A specially built Ferrari

One of the most iconic parts of Thomas Magnum's mythology was the red Ferrari he drove while chasing down suspects and/or beautiful women. The car had the glamour of a "James Bond" vehicle combined with the laid-back charisma of Selleck's character. Much like a "James Bond" car, the Ferrari was also specially designed for its dashing owner. 

At a height of 6 feet and 4 inches,  Selleck naturally towered over most people on the show. The actor's imposing physique made getting into a car on camera awkward, since he always seemed too big to fit into them. To get around this problem, Magnum's Ferrari had its padding removed so he would be placed lower on the seat. The seats were also bolted as far away from the steering wheel as possible to accommodate Selleck's long legs.    

A total of 3 Ferraris were used to film various scenes in "Magnum P.I." During the first season, the Ferrari model used was a 1978 308 GTS. For the second and third seasons, a 1980 308 GTSi model was used. The rest of the series saw Magnum driving a 1984 308 GTSi Quattrovalvole. Thanks to the popularity of the show, red Ferraris became a hot commodity on the buyer's market in the '80s and '90s.   

Backtracking on the series finale

By the time of the show's seventh season, "Magnum P.I." was running out of steam. Ratings were declining, and Tom Selleck was looking to stretch himself with other roles in films and on television. Thus, the decision was made to end the show after its seventh season, with the season finale "Limbo" serving as the end for the entire series.

The episode sees Magnum caught in a shootout inside a warehouse. He gets mortally wounded and winds up in the hospital fighting for his life. After going into a coma, Magnum becomes conscious as a ghost-like figure. He spends the rest of the episode trying to keep his client safe from a group of killers, and also saying goodbye individually to his old friends and allies before moving on to the afterlife.

Although the episode appears to end with Magnum entering heaven, parts of the story were later re-edited to make Magnum's end less definitive after it transpired that the show had been picked up for one more season. Season 8 thus begins with Magnum waking up from his coma after his near-death experience and getting back to work.     

A shared universe

The MCU has popularized the concept of a shared cinematic universe around the world, but the concept of different movies/shows existing in the same universe and occasionally crossing over is not a new one. Television shows in particular are often willing to have crossover episodes between different properties belonging to the same studio. 

"Magnum P.I." had many such crossovers. The show takes place in Hawaii, which also happens to be the setting of the original "Hawaii Five-O" that ran from 1968 to 1980. Since "Magnum P.I." was just starting out when "Hawaii Five-O" ended, many scenes for the former show were filmed on the soundstage left over from "Hawaii Five-O." There is also an episode where Magnum identifies himself as "McGarrett" of Five-O, confirming that Selleck's character is aware of the lead character Steve McGarrett from "Hawaii Five-O" played by Jack Lord.

While that particular crossover was pretty indirect, "Magnum P.I." had an easier time crossing over with "Murder, She Wrote" in its third season in the episode "Novel Connection." There was another show about a pair of unconventional detective brothers called "Simon & Simon," which featured an appearance by Thomas Magnum in the episode "Emeralds Are Not a Girl's Best Friend."  

The real Robin Masters

Despite solving so many mysteries across his show, the one mystery Thomas Magnum could never solve was the identity of his mysterious benefactor Robin Masters. Even though Masters was on friendly enough terms with Magnum to allow the latter to have free use of his estate and car, Magnum never meets Masters face-to-face.

This led to a lively debate among fans as to the identity of Robin Masters. Many fans, and Magnum himself, believed Higgins had been Masters all along. But the voice of Robin Masters as heard on the show does not resemble Higgins' voice. In fact, the voice of Masters was provided by cinema legend Orson Welles. 

"Robin Masters was never Higgins," the show's creator Donald Bellisario declared in an interview while relating how Welles needed to be carried in using an ambulance to record his lines for Masters. Perhaps someday, Welles could have appeared on the show in person as the character he voiced for so long. Unfortunately, the actor's death prevented that from happening, and Robin Masters' true identity remained forever shrouded in mystery.  

The Cross of Lorraine

One of the most iconic parts of the mythology of "Magnum P.I." was the special ring that Thomas Magnum and his allies T.C. (Roger Mosley) and Rick (Larry Manetti) wore. The ring was a memento from their time spent together during the Vietnam war. The ring was not an official part of the military unit they belonged to, but something much more personal.

The two crosses at the center of the ring are a reference to The Cross of Lorraine. The symbol is closely associated with incidents of resistance against oppression in France. The Cross of Lorraine was originally used in the middle ages by the Knights Templar. Joan of Arc's final resting place is also marked using a giant Cross of Lorraine visible from all directions across great distances.  

The ring's history is never detailed on the show, but it clearly holds a special significance for Magnum and his crew. Today you can see one of the original rings used on the show on display at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., or get a custom-made ring delivered to your home by Amazon

Showing veterans in a positive light

"Magnum P.I" never tried to hide the fact that its charismatic and heroic lead was a Vietnam war veteran. This might not seem like a big deal today, but back when the show originally aired, the Vietnam war was a subject of great controversy. Veterans of the war were regularly depicted as shell-shocked and unstable men who could go on a rampage at any moment. 

Tom Selleck served in the military before becoming an actor, and he strongly disagreed with the portrayal of veterans in pop culture at the time. The creator of "Magnum P.I." Donald Bellisario had also previously served in the U.S. Marine Corps. Together, Selleck and Bellisario were determined to make Thomas Magnum into an example of a Vietnam war veteran character who is actually heroic instead of simply being damaged goods. 

"I don't want to get too emotional, but I am very proud of this," Selleck said in an interview with AARP. "Magnum was recognized as the first show to portray Vietnam veterans in a positive way. My silly Hawaiian shirt and Detroit Tigers cap are in [the Smithsonian] collection." In the hands of Selleck and Bellisario, Magnum's past as a vet became something to be acknowledged with respect instead of censure.   

Not trying to be James Bond

We can all agree that Tom Selleck would have made one heck of a James Bond in his prime. The actor's towering height, rugged physique, military background, and good looks all seem tailor-made for the role of the super spy. And yet, not only was Selleck never interested in playing James Bond, but he also went out of his way to ensure Thomas Magnum never turned into a Bond-like character.

When "Magnum P.I." was first being developed, the plan was for the main character to be just like Bond: a suave, hard-drinking, and womanizing man of action that men would want to be like. But this characterization did not sit well with Selleck, even though he was perfectly aware he could easily carry such a role based on his natural charisma alone. "I just don't want to play what I look like," Selleck explained to the show's creator Donald Bellisario. "I really wanna do something with humor." 

It was a point that Selleck echoed when talking about his character to AARP. "[I told the producers] 'I want to do something like that, where the guy is fallible.'" Keeping Selleck's demands in mind, Thomas Magnum became a much more laidback character, more likely to fight crime in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt than in a tuxedo. Selleck's instincts proved correct, and his take on Thomas Magnum became an iconic figure in pop culture in its own right, instead of being seen as a James Bond knockoff.   

The movie that never came to be

In a sea of crime shows, "Magnum P.I." soon established its own identity. The show is today seen as a cult classic, but even when it was on the air, "Magnum P.I." frequently brought in big viewing numbers and had a host of distinguished fans. One such fan was Tom Clancy, author of such classics as "The Hunt for Red October" and the "Jack Ryan" series of books.

Despite being mainly known for writing about serious men and women in uniform saving the day, it seems Clancy also had a soft spot for Thomas Magnum's more laid-back and breezy approach to fighting evil. Tom Selleck revealed that Clancy had expressed his love for "Magnum P.I." to the actor, and even wanted to make a full-length movie about the character with Selleck in the lead.

"Tom Clancy is a huge 'Magnum' fan," Selleck revealed to Yahoo! during an interview. "We got together, and I went to Universal, and I said 'It's time we could do a series of feature films.' They were very interested, and I had Tom, who wanted to do the story." Unfortunately, the studio's leadership was in a state of flux in the '90s, and the "Magnum P.I." movie plans got lost in the constant reshuffling going on behind the scenes at Universal at the time. As late as 2009, Selleck was still willing to come back as Thomas Magnum for a movie that was in development at the time.    

Higgins used a fake accent

Despite being a crime drama show, "Magnum P.I." also featured plenty of comedic moments. Most such scenes took place between Thomas Magnum and the caretaker of the house he lived in, Higgins. Higgins was one of the few characters who could be reliably counted upon to cut the brash Magnum down to size with his dry wit time and again.

One of the first things you notice about Higgins is that he is very, very British. From his fastidious clothing style to his posh London accent, everything about Higgins screams "Snooty Brit," which served to further emphasize the clash of personalities whenever Higgins interacted with Magnum. So convincing was Hillerman's portrayal that fans would write to him under the impression that the actor himself is British. "I hate to disappoint you," he would reply, "but I'm a hick from Texas."

Hillerman was born and raised in Texas, and came to develop his British accent while playing characters on stage. The actor was so good at it that even British fans of "Magnum P.I." thought Hillerman was one of them. "I would go around London in a cab, and [fans would] ask, "Where's the Brit, John Hillerman, from on your show?" Tom Selleck told THR. "and I'd tell them he was from Denison, Texas."  

Quitting Magnum

In the late 1980s, Tom Selleck did the one thing that television stars often have a hard time doing: He decided to walk away from the show while it was still very popular. Selleck's name was the biggest thing about the show, but the actor was filled with the desire to explore other avenues of creativity while also easing some of the workload that came with playing Thomas Magnum.

"Magnum never was canceled," Selleck declared in an interview with CBS. "God knows how many episodes we could've done, with the No. 1 show on the air." In 1987, Selleck starred in the now-iconic "Three Men and a Baby." The movie was a huge hit with audiences and critics, taking Selleck's career to undreamed-of heights, and making it even more difficult for the actor to keep a solo commitment to "Magnum P.I."

"I was tired from [Magnum] because I was doing 90-hour weeks for eight years," Selleck continues in the CBS interview. "I wasn't tired of it. So, it was time. What a nice way to go off. What a nice way to pay homage to the show. It was still so popular." Despite choosing to walk away from the role, Selleck has shown nothing but love for the character of Thomas Magnum over the years, declaring he was lucky to have landed such a memorable role in a show that continues to find new fans worldwide.

Thoughts on the reboot

If there is one thing the television industry hates, it's saying goodbye to a genuine hit show in a sea of flopping pilots and middling viewership. "Magnum P.I" was one such genuine hit that the studio would have happily kept producing for years if Tom Selleck had not chosen to walk away from the main role.

After it ended, Selleck's show continued to find new audiences and fandoms during reruns. Naturally, CBS tried to cash in on the popularity of "Magnum P.I." by rebooting the show for modern audiences. The new "Magnum P.I." debuted in 2018, starring Jay Hernandez in the role of the new Thomas Magnum. While the show has seen moderate success, fans have often wondered what Selleck thinks about the new Magnum, and whether he would ever appear in the reboot.

"[The studio] asked [if I wanted to be involved in the reboot] and I said, 'Absolutely not,'" Selleck told TV Insider. "It will never be what in my fantasy world, I would make it to be." According to Selleck, while he does not wish to stand in the way of the success of the reboot, his own ideas for what Thomas Magnum's story should be in present times are so different from the reboot that he would not feel comfortable being a part of the new "Magnum P.I." Fortunately, fans of the actor have plenty of other memorable film and television roles they can watch Selleck in.