The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Tom Selleck

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

Last week, we took a look at the career of Marvel's Black Widow, the great Scarlett Johansson. This week's icon is someone from a wholly different area, but one we could easily see playing in the Marvel arena had he been active in another era…

Tom Selleck

tom selleck magnum pi

This actually started as a Twitter joke between's editor & chief Paul Shirey, Eric Walkuski and myself on Twitter. I was busting their balls about their super-positive CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR reviews while they, in turn, were mocking my (moderate) appreciation of BATMAN V SUPERMAN. To break it up, I posted a still of Tom Selleck in Michael Crichton's RUNAWAY, and both went-on about how, despite its cheesiness, it's a movie they both like. Of course, I had to admit that not only do I feel the same way, but Selleck has always been a hero of mine.

tom selleck cynthia rhodes runaway

If you came of age in the eighties, Tom Selleck was everywhere. His run as Magnum P.I was wildly popular, to the extent that I don't think any contemporary TV stars approach the level of super-stardom he had. Granted, TV was a different beast back then. The Walking Dead is the most popular show on TV now, and it rakes in about twelve million viewers a week. Magnum P.I routinely pulled in over eighteen million, and it wasn't even in the top ten most watched shows! And that's not counting how many people watched it in re-reruns, with it having been in syndication for over thirty years now. It was on pretty-much every day when I was growing up, so Selleck became part of my life, just like he was to a lot of us eighties kids. He felt like part of the family.

tom selleck quigley down under alan rickman

Oddly, that's the very reason Selleck's career on the big-screen never hit the stratosphere. To his credit, he made lots of good movies. While RUNAWAY is cheesy fun (Gene Simmons is a cool villain and the bullet's eye view cam is really great), his other vehicles were legitimately good. HIGH ROAD TO CHINA, LASSITER, AN INNOCENT MAN and especially QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER were all rock-solid action-adventure flicks. But, Selleck's own familiarity worked against him as people wouldn't shell out money to see a guy they could see for free every night in their living room, even if they did love him (it's worth noting his movies always did OK business and cleaned-up in the video rental days). His only big box-office bonanza was THREE MEN AND A BABY, which was the highest grossing movie of 1987, and inspired a lesser (but still successful) sequel, THREE MEN AND A LITTLE LADY.

tom selleck courtney cox friends

After Magnum P.I ended, Selleck stayed away from TV, until a buzzed-about run as Monica's older love interest, Richard, on Friends introduced him to a new generation of fans, along with a daring (for the time) turn as a gay reporter opposite Kevin Kline in the widely praised IN & OUT. While he never did quite make it as a movie star, Selleck's success on the small screen has continued unabated, to the point that his long-running show Blue Bloods is one of the most-watched shows on network TV, while his series of TV movies, JESSE STONE are consistent draws. Truly, the man is a legend and an enduring pop culture icon.

His Best Work

tom selleck magnum pi

As much as Selleck may bristle at the fact that he was never quite able to escape Magnum P.I's shadow, the fact is he was damn good on it. Tailor-made to his talents, Selleck was an unusual TV hero. While extremely burly, he was just as good as talking his way out of trouble as fighting, making him a fun-loving guy you rooted for each and every week. Accompanied by his nemesis/best-friend/manservant Higgins (who was unmasked as his billionaire employer in the finale – in a twist that still makes no sense), and NAM buddies T.C and Larry, Magnum was the coolest TV action hero of the era, with maybe only Don Johnson's Sonny Crockett from Miami Vice or Richard Dean Anderson's MacGuyver even coming close to his magnetism. There's often been talk about rebooting Magnum P.I as a big-screen feature, but in polls taken by the studio as to who should play the lead, Selleck, at seventy-one, still comes out on top. Damn right.

His Most Overrated Film

I have no problem with THREE MEN AND A BABY. People often slam it as a prototypical, “high-concept” eighties studio comedy, but hey – there's a reason it made so much money. That said, it's pretty damn dated, with a crazy cocaine-subplot that made no sense whatsoever, and a weird ending where the mom, who abandoned her child on the doorstep of strangers with a big bottle full of blow, shows up and all is forgiven. It's pretty dopey, but again, it also makes you feel pretty good. Sigh, did I say this was “overrated?” Well, maybe not – heck, i dunno. It helps that Spock directed it I guess.

His Most Underrated Film

tom selleck high road to china bess armstrong

Most of you reading this probably know that Tom Selleck was the original choice to play Indiana Jones in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. His screen-test is readily available, and if he hadn't been locked-into his Magnum P.I contract, he would have been the star. No doubt, this was a bitter pill for Selleck to swallow, and he would have been good in the part – if not quite as iconic as Harrison Ford. As a consolation prize, Selleck got to make his own “high-adventure” movie, HIGH ROAD TO CHINA, where he plays a boozy WWI pilot hired by a heiress (Bess Armstrong) to find her missing father (Wilford Brimley!). This is an unusual Indy clone, as the hero is more of a good-natured screw-up than a full-fledged man of action (there are no fist-fights!), but Selleck is ideal in the part, and well-matched by Armstrong. It's a movie that's unjustly forgotten these days, even though it's aged quite well, with great aerial photography and a fantastic musical score by John Barry. If you've never seen it and are curious about how Selleck might have fared as Indy, you should check it out.

His Best Scene

Simon Wincer's QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER should be regarded as a classic. Originally written for Steve McQueen, Selleck is well-cast as an American gunfighter hired by a nefarious Australian cattle baron (the late Alan Rickman). When he realizes he's been hired to murder Aboriginals, he turns against his employer and wages a one-man war on him and his thugs. The final showdown between him and Rickman is especially memorable, as throughout we've been led to believe that Quigley only really knows how to shoot using his specially modified rifle. This turns out to be the wrong assumption…

His Five Best Films

4. IN & OUT

Up Next

Selleck is as busy as ever, with Blue Bloods still going-strong and another Jesse Stone movie (his tenth) in the pipeline. I’d also love to see Selleck as Thomas Magnum one last time. Anyone with me?


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.