You can only pull off loud Hawaiian shirts and an outrageous mustache if your name is Tom Selleck. The rest of us can only sit back in awe and wonderment, gazing longingly at that grooming/clothing combination that shouldn’t work but does. Somehow. These unorthodox stylings were on weekly display in the 80s, thanks to the enormously popular CBS series, Magnum P.I.
After wrapping up Hawaii Five-O, the CBS network was left with a lot of expensive sets that were languishing unused in the tropical island state. Producers recruited Selleck, a guest actor on The Rockford Files, for the role of Thomas Magnum, brainchild of prolific writer Donald Bellisario. Magnum P.I. debuted in 1980 and quickly rose to a Top-20 spot on the Nielson ratings, where it would reside for five of the next eight years.
In the series, Magnum made his living as a private investigator in Oahu. He also happened to be a Vietnam vet who served with distinction as a Navy SEAL. Disillusioned, but not particularly haunted, by the war experience, Magnum fell into a dream situation when an author named Robin Masters (never seen on camera but voiced by Orson Welles) hired him to keep an eye on his sprawling estate, Robin’s Nest.
The ex-Navy man did such a good job at exposing security flaws on the estate grounds that the author allowed him to stay on the property rent-free, enjoy a never-ending supply of beer and use the boss’s bright red Ferrari any time. Life was tough, but somehow Magnum managed to survive.
Masters was always absent but Magnum still had to share the acres of walled-in tropical paradise with Higgins, the estate’s prim and proper caretaker. With a cultured British accent and impeccable appearance, Higgins was the exact opposite of the lackadaisical Magnum. The two of them maintained a running banter, bickering and annoying each other throughout every episode.
Truth be told, Higgins often came out on top as he had at his beck and call two vicious Doberman dogs that guarded the grounds and answered to the pants-wetting names of Zeus and Apollo. Though the two characters butted heads frequently, there was no real malice between them and they counted on each other as much as anyone else when there was trouble afoot. Magnum’s other buddies included T.C., a fellow veteran who ran a charter helicopter service on the island, and Rick, a Humphrey Bogart fanatic who fashioned his bar after Rick’s Café from the movie Casablanca.
For inexplicable reasons Magnum kept his job as a private investigator, even though he lived in the lap of luxury with Higgins fanning him and feeding him grapes. His cases provided the fast-paced action for the show, balanced by a good dose of comedy and Magnum’s ubiquitous voiceover narration. Television audiences latched on to the series like they had never seen a mustachioed man drive a Ferrari before and made Magnum, P.I. one of the highest rated programs ever broadcast. After eight glorious seasons, the show went off the air but lives on through DVD and the magic of syndication, much to the relief of his significant fan base.