Tom Selleck: Built to Last
With 'Blue Bloods,' his popularity endures — along with his determination to live a life apart from the fame factory
Tom Selleck is motoring up a paved road on his ranch in Hidden Valley, California, his ride a dusty Kawasaki ATV with a camouflage paint job and a seat custom-built to accommodate his 6-foot-4 frame. First stop today is a wooden covered bridge that arches over a thin, burbling creek in the gully below. "This is my rehab bridge," says Selleck, 70, who stars in both the CBS hit drama Blue Bloods and the top-rated Jesse Stone series of TV movies. After a hip replacement two years ago, Selleck threw himself into the construction of this crossing, moving beams and bolting trusses as an unconventional form of physical therapy.
Since buying Dean Martin's 65-acre estate back in 1988, Selleck has found that maintaining the hilly, wooded property does wonders for his body, his psyche and his wallet. "I work this ranch every day," he says. "I do the grunt jobs because it saves me money. And it's good for my head." For someone who enjoys his professional success but bristles at the ambiguity of fame, Selleck's home and its attendant concerns ground him: "This ranch is a great counterpoint to the acting business, which is an abstraction. You do something, it's up on a piece of film, and everybody argues whether it is good or bad. You dig a hole and plant an oak tree — and I've probably planted a thousand of them — it's real. It's there, and you can watch it grow. It's a lot different from being famous, and it keeps me sane."
Selleck's clear-eyed outlook made him a perfect fit for the role of Frank Reagan — a taciturn police commissioner and the head of a noisy Irish clan — in Blue Bloods. Though taking the job meant commuting to New York, where the series is filmed, Selleck was drawn to the show because of an extended scene in the pilot script depicting a Sunday meal shared by four generations of Reagans. That spirited confab became a staple of the show. "The best thing about family dinner was that it wasn't The Waltons," says Selleck, a family man with two grown children. "The characters argue and are at each other's throats."
According to Bridget Moynahan, who plays Reagan's daughter, even on the first day of shooting, Selleck took the paternal aspects of his character to heart. "He fell into that dad role immediately," says Moynahan, who noticed that her TV father took pains to set an example by being punctual, professional and as ready to hash out a scene with his costars as he was to keep the mood light: "He's the one at the table telling silly jokes. There's a playful side to him as well."
But laid-back charm and a face that the camera loves cannot define Selleck's staying power. Now in his fifth decade of show business, he has won an Emmy and a Golden Globe, and had starring roles in a handful of blockbuster films such as Three Men and a Baby and its sequel. But acting wasn't a given when he was growing up in the San Fernando Valley. "I never did school plays. I had no interest," says Selleck, who aspired to become a professional athlete. He considers it a life triumph that in his last year at the University of Southern California, he landed a basketball scholarship; he was ultimately dwarfed, though, by his taller, heavier teammates. "I was pretty good, but I wasn't good enough," Selleck recalls.
Selleck had a backup plan, however. To help pay his tuition, he did a couple of TV commercials and made a pair of appearances on The Dating Game. "Humiliating and embarrassing," he says, wincing at his game show debacle. "I lost. Twice. I wasn't particularly funny or glib." Yet he was offered a spot in the 20th Century Fox New Talent Program and began to pick up the tools of his future trade. Nearly two years into the program, he took a leave to spend six months of active duty in the California Army National Guard. When he returned, he was dropped from the Fox program. It was too late for the rejection to register as an omen: He'd committed himself to an acting career.
(Video) Tom Selleck: Reflections on His Personal and Professional Life: The acclaimed actor explains the values of risk and talks about how his family keeps him grounded in the life of entertainment.
When Selleck talks about landing his breakthrough role in Magnum, P.I. as a Vietnam vet piecing together a career as a private investigator in Honolulu, he takes pains to mention that he was in his mid-30s and had by then had his hopes for a regular gig repeatedly dashed: He had starred in six TV pilots that didn't sell. When Magnum premiered in 1980, what looked to many like overnight success was, in Selleck's mind, a long-fought struggle. But in truth, it came at the right time. "The luckiest thing that happened was that I didn't get a real job until I was 35," says Selleck, noting that during the 10-year stretch between going nowhere and becoming a hot property he constantly took acting classes. "When I was 25, I looked 35 but sounded 15. There are a lot of very good actors who make it as younger leading men but don't graduate — because the audience won't accept them as grown up."
Thomas Magnum would have been a very different character had Selleck just accepted what was handed to him. As conceived, Magnum was a flashier figure, one that Selleck calls "very James Bond–like." Though Selleck knew how easily a Hollywood opportunity can vanish, he pushed back, campaigning to turn his leading role into an Everyman who favored ocean kayaking, Hawaiian shirts and bottles of cold beer. He wanted Magnum to come off more like James Garner's laid-back detective on The Rockford Files (on which Selleck had a recurring role). "I said, 'I don't want to be Rockford, but I want to do something like that, where the guy is fallible.'" The studio had also rejected the idea that Magnum's Navy SEAL history be referenced throughout the series, yet Selleck prevailed on that point, too. Ultimately it was this character detail that landed Magnum in the Smithsonian. "I don't want to get too emotional, but I am very proud of this," Selleck says, suddenly choking up, his eyes pooling with tears. "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 their collection."
Selleck traces his enterprising streak back to his father, Robert, a onetime World War II B-29 mechanic who moved his family from Detroit to Los Angeles, hoping to make his way in real estate. "He worked for his realtor brother on straight commission and bought a 1,000-square-foot house for $10,000 on the GI Bill," says Selleck. His father, who ended up as a vice president of Coldwell Banker, and Selleck's mother, Martha, taught their four children that bettering oneself meant being willing to take risks: "They walked their talk. I don't have any tragic stories of parental rejection. They taught me everything I know."
His parents also passed along to their son the importance of giving back. Selleck is currently the spokesperson for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. (An advocate for gun rights, the politically conservative Selleck is also a board member of the National Rifle Association.) In an office in his 100-year-old hunting lodge-turned-guesthouse, a small bust of 19th-century author Horatio Alger shares space with antique rifles and wall-mounted antlers. It is Selleck's most beloved trophy, he says, bestowed upon him in 2000 by the association named for the storytelling dean of the American Dream — a group that gives college scholarships to young people across the country who have excelled academically despite facing great adversity.
When it came to true love, Selleck's parents, happily wed until his father's death in 2001, served as his role models, too.
Although his first marriage, in 1971, to model Jacqueline Ray (whose son, Kevin, now 50, Selleck adopted) ended 10 years later, Selleck didn't give up on his search for a soul mate. In 1984 he was in London starring in a caper film when he went to see his pal Brian Blessed in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Cats. While backstage, he spotted in a throng of actors dressed in whiskers, face paint and furry tails his future wife, the British actress Jillie Mack. "She looked pretty good in a leotard," jokes Selleck, adding that it took him several visits to Cats before he could screw up the courage to call her on a theater phone. "She had to go on," he says. "I was hemming and hawing, and she finally asked, 'Do you want to meet for a cocktail?' "
Mack was unfazed by Selleck's star power. "My television had been stolen three months before," she admits. "I'd never heard of him."
When the pair exchanged vows three years later, the wedding was held in a secret location: a tiny chapel in Lake Tahoe. A month passed before the press caught wind of the nuptials. "We wanted some dignity," says Selleck, adding that the day was documented only by Polaroid snapshots. "People who seek out fame? I don't get them," he says, tracing his personal aversion to a promotional event in Paris for his 1983 film, High Road to China, during which he and his costar Bess Armstrong were nearly trampled by a "hysterical" crowd. Selleck recalls looking over at the French promoter on the sidelines of the crush. "He was just delighted," the actor says. "He had created an event. Afterward I called my agent and said, 'I don't know whether I can do this unless I find a way to do it on my terms.' "
Selleck decided he needed to move his family some 50 miles from Hollywood. Mack, who'd just given birth to their daughter, Hannah, now 26, wasn't wild about the idea but sees it differently today. "It's the best place to raise a child," she says, adding that she not only loves the ranch, she rarely leaves it. "It was such the wisdom of Tom. He knew he needed to buy back his anonymity, to replenish the soul."
Almost 27 years later, when his wife turns up along a ranch road wearing shorts and running shoes while speed-walking with one of their five dogs, Selleck instantly brightens and bellows out "Macksy!" — his nickname for her. He credits the sprawl of their property — an eight-bedroom Spanish Colonial ranch house, a swimming pool, stables and 20 acres of avocado trees — for his and Jillie's long, happy union. When Selleck isn't on location, the two head off in the morning to different corners of the ranch and often bump into each other midday. "We're both independent," he says. "There's a lot of yin and yang in us. I'm kind of quiet. She's got this joie de vivre. I don't know what our secret is, but I'm happy."
Yet in recent years, Selleck's state of perfect harmony has been threatened by California's drought, one so epic that it has forced him to abandon his once-verdant orchard of avocado trees. When he drives past the grove, he says, he averts his gaze. "I don't want to look at them because they're all dying. I feel like they're going, 'Tom, just a little water and we can make it,' " he says, grimly. "Basically I'm a small businessman who is going out of business." Recently he made national headlines after being sued by an adjacent county for illegally transporting public water to his ranch in 2013. His attorney contends that the water was legally obtained and paid for as far as Selleck knew, and the suit was settled after the actor agreed to reimburse the county for its investigation expenses.
The controversy must have been especially painful for Selleck, whose name recognition guaranteed that the story lingered in the news. Naturally, he fell back on his time-tested strategy for coping with the glare of fame, today's decidedly unglamorous task being no exception. Climbing onto his ATV, bound for a remote corner of his property, Selleck declares with a smile, "I'm waging a war with the tumbleweeds," then rides away in a cloud of dust.