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Tom Selleck Was a Young Contestant on ‘The Dating Game’ — and Wasn't Chosen!

The ‘Magnum P.I.’ star’s humbling story is among the gems in his new memoir, ‘You Never Know’

spinner image Selleck in Blue Bloods; You Never Know, Selleck's new memoir
John Paul Filo/CBS; Harper Collins

You know Tom Selleck, 79, as the handsome, mustachioed private investigator (and Hawaii beach bum) Thomas Magnum on the 1980s series Magnum, P.I., and its spinoffs, as well as his starring roles in loads of other shows (including Blue Bloods) and films (Three Men and a Baby).

spinner image Tom Selleck sitting on his red sports car in 'Magnum, P.I.'
Selleck, starring in 'Magnum, P.I.' (1984)
CBS via Getty Images

Now he’s written a frank and appealing new memoir, You Never Know (May 7), where he spins tales from his long career — including his friendships with legends like Mae West, Frank Sinatra and Carol Burnett; the challenges that come with A-list fame; and, before all that, his big break in showbiz. Selleck, still in a frat and playing basketball at the University of Southern California, was a contestant on The Dating Game when he caught the eye of some talent scouts, including a Fox casting director — even though he was apparently not charming enough to be chosen for a date! (To be fair, he was terrified.) But he later managed to charm 20th Century-Fox studio head Richard Zanuck with some banter about college basketball and was selected for the studio’s training program for new actors.

spinner image Tom Selleck and Mae West starred in 'Myra Breckinridge'
Young Selleck had a small role in the 1970s comedy 'Myra Breckinridge' with Mae West.
Courtesy: Selleck

Selleck describes that humbling (but fortuitous) experience in this excerpt from his entertaining new book, written with Ellis Henican.

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Word went around the Sigma Chi house that it was easy to get on The Dating Game. Someone in the house knew a guy who was in charge of casting the contestants.

“We’re going down to be interviewed,” one of my buddies said. “You wanna come?”

“Okay,” I said, shrugging.

I got chosen. A couple of us did.

Every so often, The Dating Game had a segment with a reunion angle. The girl had previously dated one of the three bachelors and then broken up with him. Now she and the ex were on the show together, and the audience was left to wonder: Would she give him another shot?

Students being students, my fraternity brothers had figured out how to rig the game. They’d go on with their real girlfriends and let ABC pick up the tab for an all-expenses-paid date. They’d also have a friend in the studio audience who’d signal the girl in case she needed any help on which chair her boyfriend was in.

The show didn’t seem to have a clue, or maybe they did, and it didn’t matter to them.

I didn’t have a girlfriend. Also, somehow it didn’t seem entirely kosher to me.

I was Bachelor Number 2. As showtime neared, I sat on my stool, getting progressively more terrified. The assistant director took one look at my grim expression and suggested helpfully, “When the revolve turns around, be sure to smile.”

Be sure to smile. Got it!

I was in the dark with the other two contestants. My heart was pounding so hard I could almost hear it. Then Jim Lange’s deep baritone came booming through the studio: “It’s time to meet our three eligible bachelors . . . and heeeere they are!

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The revolve began to turn. As we came around to where I could see the audience, the lights went up. I remembered what the assistant director had told me: Smile!

By then my heart was pounding so ferociously that when I smiled, my upper lip started twitching in perfect sync with my thumping heartbeat. If you look real closely at the old video, you can actually see the twitch. It’s not like I had a mustache to cover it up.

The girl asked the risqué questions The Dating Game was famous for. I had lame answers, and I lost. I wasn’t funny. I didn’t enjoy it. I was scared to death every second I was up there.

Over my time at USC, Don would occasionally send me out on interviews for commercials. Not that I was really in danger of getting one; I had no idea what I was doing. So I gotta say, I was somewhat stunned when Don said, “You got the Pepsi commercial.”

“I did?”

I kinda knew it couldn’t possibly have been my acting ability. Much more likely, it was my basketball ability.

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In the commercial, my character — excuse me, I didn’t think in those terms back then — the guy in the basketball game fakes to the right, shifts the ball to his left hand, leaves his defender with his jockstrap on the floor, drives to the basket, and stuffs the ball with his left hand. That was easy. I was undeniably well qualified. Even after an insane number of takes, I proudly delivered. Our basketball season had just ended, and I was in basketball shape.

The company moved to the set in the locker room. I hadn’t considered that this was “the money shot” in the commercial, but it was. In the scene, I am sitting in front of my locker, getting slapped on the back (this was before the high-five cliché) and ecstatically chugalugging a delicious Pepsi. Honestly, I was unprepared for all the repetition. And the director didn’t bother to explain why I had to do the scene over and over. In hindsight, I’m sure he thought, Why bother to explain to this obviously untrained refugee from USC basketball when he won’t have a clue anyway? I did my best to act ecstatically each and every time, consuming a whole lot of Pepsi. Then the director came over to me, and of course I thought I had done something wrong.

He said to me that “the client” thought the color of the real Pepsi was photographing too dark, and we would have to start over. My stomach was more than full. But hey, it wasn’t my fault, and I was getting paid. So we began again. Once they’d watered down the Pepsi, it tasted like something that came out of the north end of a southbound cow. The truth is, I had always preferred Pepsi to Coke.

Never again.

For some bizarre reason, they asked me back for the nighttime edition of The Dating Game, where the winners got to go on fancier dates.

And for some bizarre reason, I went back. I was still terrified, I still wasn’t funny, and I lost again.

At that time of life, some guys will do anything to impress a girl. Any girl. I know I would have. I guess going on The Dating Game was a tiny prestige kind of thing, something the girls might notice. Like my doing a commercial. I guess I liked it when someone said, “Oh, he’s an actor.” I wasn’t really an actor. It was just something that made me stand out a little, something girls might notice. The whole thing is stunning when you think about it.

A kid goes on The Dating Game and, through the machinations of a clever agent, two of the biggest studios in Hollywood each think the other is interested in him. This kid, who has no real acting experience and no real desire to become an actor, ends up bullshitting with the president of 20th Century-Fox and is promptly invited into the studio’s New Talent program. And what seals the deal is college basketball. Go figure . . . You never know.

From You Never Know by Tom Selleck. Copyright © 2024 by Thomas Selleck. Excerpted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Excerpts have been edited for length.

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