TV Flashback: Magnum, P.I.

May 11, 2013 | 2013 Articles, Deborah Harter Williams, Mysteryrat's Maze, TV

by Deborah Harter Williams

A Ferrari 308GTS revs past scenes of ocean and tropical forest, a Detroit Tigers baseball cap, Hawaiian shirts, Higgins and “the lads”. T.C. pilots the chopper, Rick serves drinks at the King Kamehameha Club, the luxury of Robin’s Nest. For eight years, Thomas Magnum was on the case.

Hawaii has long been production gold for movies and television. Both exotic and American, it offers a rich mix of possibilities for mystery and adventure. Detecting Hawaiian style was a hit from Hawaiian Eye (1959-1963) to Hawaii 5-O (1968-1980). As 5-O prepared to sign off, CBS had two problems. First of all, no replacement for the 9 p.m. on Thursday slot and second, they had invested a lot of money in production facilities on Oahu.

Enter Glenn Larson, Donald Bellasario and Tom Selleck.

Glen A. Larson started his career as a songwriter (26 Miles Across the Sea) and member of The Four Preps. After working for Quinn Martin Sr. on projects such as The Fugitive he discovered his talent as a developer of show ideas, not all of them original, but remarkably sellable.

His first hit was Alias Smith and Jones, a Western a la Butch and Sundance. He was also involved in development of The Six Million Dollar Man and continued with Quincy, M.E., Battlestar Gallactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Donald Bellasario, graduated from Penn State and joined the Marines (where he served along side Lee Harvey Oswald) rising to the rank of sergeant. After a career in advertising, he took on Hollywood and landed a writing opportunity on Switch where he worked with Glen Larson.

He was a producer on Stephen Cannell’s Black Sheep Squadron, and wrote for Kojak before getting his first executive producer credit on Quincy, M.E. (Note to mystery fans: Elvis Cole/Joe Pike creator Robert Crais was a writer on Quincy.)

Tom Selleck was at the University of Southern California on a basketball scholarship studying business in 1965 when he made his first TV appearance on The Dating Game. Small roles followed and led to a two-episode part on The Rockford Files. His Lance White character was the anti-Rockford–a lucky, trusting nice guy. Where Rockford gets knocked down and scuffed up, White stumbles blithely into clues.

He did help catch the murderer in that episode–a character played by Larry Manetti (destined to be Orville “Rick” Wilbur Wright). In another Rockford episode Roger Mosely played loan shark, Electric Larry. Roger, of course, would be Magnum’s Theodore “T.C.” Calvin.

And so it was that when CBS needed a solution to their two problems, fate converged to bring all the elements together for another long running series set in Hawaii. On December 11, 1980 Magnum P.I. debuted.

In this series can be found many answers to the perpetual question–what makes a good TV series? Action, scenery, camaraderie, humor, stories of war, honor, loyalty, chivalry and occasional high silliness.

Interesting that this stellar example of male bonding should have two strong female writers. Chris Abbott started her career writing for Little House on the Prairie and Cagney and Lacey. Afterwards she worked on Quantum Leap, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman and Diagnosis: Murder.

Jeri Taylor also wrote for Little House and The Incredible Hulk and was producer and director on Quincy, M.E. Post-Magnum she would go to Jake and the Fatman (also set in Hawaii) and Star Trek: The Next Generation also helping to create Star Trek: Voyager.

Insuring authenticity of Viet Nam references was writer Chris Bunch. Decorated veteran, and member of the Long Range Reconnaissance commandos, his television work included Quincy, Hulk, and post Magnum, Walker, Texas Ranger.

Did you remember?

At the end of the seventh season Magnum dies. The show was cancelled and the “series finale” already filmed, with Magnum killed by gangsters. Fan pressure got the show renewed for another season, so when the eighth season started, Thomas was a ghost until it was explained that his “death” was a dream.

Crossovers. Magnum’s pilot show references Hawaii 5-O’s McGarrett and in the current Hawaii 5-0 the team sings the Magnum theme song during a helicopter ride.

Magnum episode “Tigers Fan” has guest characters talk about “Last night’s Rockford Files (and)… this Lance White character.” Joe Santos (Dennis Becker on Rockford) was Police Lt. Nolan Page on the episode.

Jessica Fletcher made a guest appearance, as well as the sleuths from Simon and Simon.

Worth seeing. Some of the early episodes with the original theme song and where the characters are introduced. Episodes with Orson Welles as the voice of Robin Masters, and those where Higgins’ siblings show up and he gets to play a dual role. Look for elements that will later be incorporated into NCIS.

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.

Deborah Harter Williams works as a mystery scout, seeking novels that could be made into television. She blogs at Clue Sisters and was formerly a mystery bookstore owner.

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  1. I’d forgotten or didn’t know a lot of this – great article. I’ll have to go back and watch the episodes again. There’s no such thing as too much Tom Selleck, after all.

  2. Just to clarify, Tom Magnum’s death in the 7th season was not a dream. He really was attacked, and apparently walking off to Heaven in the last scene. When the 8th season began, it was revealed to be a “near-death” experience.

    • You’re right. They intended his death to be a permanent condition until they got renewed.


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