Jim Jerome
May 03, 1982 12:00 PM

In the scene where my co-star Bess Armstrong meets me for the first time, it’s supposed to be warm, like in Cairo. Well, it was actually 20°, and Bess just had this antique chiffon flapper dress on, and the tea in my glass, which was supposed to look like whiskey, kept freezing. They stuffed ice cubes down our throats to keep vapor from pouring out of our mouths. After every take, they’d either throw coats around us or we’d run back to our campers. Audiences won’t see subtitles indicating it was 20°, but that’s what I like most about this business. You don’t get into a lot of excuse-making. It’s either good or it isn’t. The audiences either like it or they don’t. You just gotta be good.

The chilling effect Tom Selleck describes was not the result of a freak cold wave on Oahu, where he reigns as TV’s magnificent Magnum, P.I. Selleck, 37, his leading lady, Bess (The Four Seasons) Armstrong, 28, co-star Jack Weston, director Brian Hutton and more than 200 English, Italian and Yugoslav crew members have been filming a meticulously designed 1920s-period adventure epic titled High Road to China in the unlikely—and often unseasonably blustery—Adriatic resort town of Opatija (pronounced o-POT-ya) in northwest Yugoslavia.

Now between TV seasons, Selleck has boldly shorn his trademark curls, cultivated a grubby stubble and, among other things, learned to belch on cue as the boozing, roguish ex-World War I pilot Patrick O’Malley. The elegant Armstrong plays a snooty heiress/ aviatrix who hires him to help her locate her munitions inventor father. Based on Jon Cleary’s 1977 novel, the film sets their picaresque adventures in Turkey, Cairo, Afghanistan, India, Nepal and, climactically, China. All but a few London scenes, however, are being shot in or around drowsy Opatija—with Katmandu sequences about 200 miles down the coast in exotic Sibenik. After forfeiting Raiders of the Lost Ark to Harrison Ford two years ago because of his TV commitment, Selleck soon will give audiences a chance to see him in a very similar film. The flick could well mark Selleck’s Magnum cum laude graduation from TV into big-time feature stardom.

“I’m delighted somebody wanted me to do something else,” says Selleck with typical self-effacement. He sees High Road as his own hedge against the deflation which is all but inevitable under Nielsenomics. “It’s important that I’ll be seen as somebody different. Right now things are going pretty well. But next year the series can easily be canceled. I might get one more chance at a picture if this one flops. If two flop, then they start saying, ‘He can’t make money for us.’ A couple years ago they tended to say, ‘He’s in TV, he can’t do features.’ Evidently that’s changed.”

But can a TV star and a relative newcomer like Armstrong carry a $20 million epic? “It’s not a lock,” admits producer Fred Weintraub. “Sure it’s a risk, but an interesting one.” Director Hutton is more optimistic. “Tom has enormous range and comic depth,” he says. “He has to go to the absolute top, the Gable-Redford-Newman-McQueen stratosphere.” In Armstrong, he says, he’s got a “classy, Eastern feminine type, not your typical Hollywood TV bimbo with a huge set of jugs and a fat ass hanging out. Opposites attract. They’re dynamite together.”

Selleck and Armstrong had met only once before, seated side by side at last year’s People’s Choice Awards dinner. Tom says he was “too scared” to converse because he had to deliver an acceptance speech; Bess says she just “played with my drink.” Later, however, she checked out some Magnum episodes and “had this instinctive feeling we could work well together.” She soon learned Selleck’s not just another hunky airhead. “He’s that rare good-looking man with a sense of humor whose identity is not completely bound up with his appearance.”

Armstrong, a theater arts and classics grad of Brown University, calls her leading man a “generous colleague,” and indeed, between takes they frequently snuggle arm in arm, walk out of the lights together and discuss cues and upcoming sequences. “We’re in some hot scenes,” says Bess, “but they’re PG-hot. People forget the greatest heartthrob moments in cinema history showed no flesh and left a lot to the imagination. We’ve got some fabulous moments like that.”

If screen chemistry proved quick to master, geography and weather have been anything but. Producer Weintraub sniffles and stares out at the cold rain from his office. “Every day of shooting here costs us between $150,000 and $200,000,” he says. Noting that Selleck is due back on the Magnum set by early summer, he adds: “If we fall too far behind, we’ll be doing High Road to Hawaii.”

The Opatija region was chosen because its diverse terrain offered all the right locations within 200 miles—and because the price is right. Indeed, the low cost factor in Yugoslavia is leading to the Balkanization of Tinseltown. Meryl Streep will soon be filming Sophie’s Choice in Zagreb. (For similar reasons, Barbra Streisand is doing Yentl in Czechoslovakia.) Extras cost only $30 a day—about a third of their cost in the States. The crew headquarters is the comfortable Ambassador Hotel, where rooms with breathtaking vistas of the mountainous coastline go for less than $20. As for the delicious local cuisine, only a pair of thyroid cases could eat their way through a $25 meal.

Still, the logistical problems have been enormous. Period trains had to be rolled in at a snail’s pace the 78 miles from Ljubljana; period cars were flown in from Rome. Three vintage French biplanes had to be dismantled for shipment, then reassembled in-country so that a MIG-trained Yugoslav Air Force fighter pilot could test them for airworthiness. Caravans of 125 trucks were needed to transport material. The government kept maddeningly tight control over guns and explosives needed for battle scenes. Local seamstresses in makeshift factories produced thousands of costumes. All laundry had to be done by hand. Instructions on the set had to be given in three languages. And for the big finale, 4,000 Italian-speaking Chinese and Vietnamese émigrés will be flown in from Rome to be extras.

Weather has clearly been the worst enemy of capitalist progress, with frigid winds wrecking sets and causing an epidemic of colds. Selleck “was very sick when I got here. My blood must have thinned out from Hawaii. I was eating five meals a day and burning it all.” Armstrong had it worse. After not smoking for three years, she had to start up again “because it was so period.” Then she had a bout with conjunctivitis that “shut us down a week, but I was professional enough to get laryngitis on days off. Antibiotics here knock you out,” Bess says. “I took Yugoslav aspirin for a headache and saw God on the set for three hours.”

And there have been some quaint culture shocks, like the local energy-saving blackouts, and batteries so weak that juicier ones have to be flown in from England. For one ritzy party scene, some of the local female extras in sleeveless flapper gowns had to have their armpits shaved or were relegated to the background.

After work, recreation is limited. Selleck and Armstrong sometimes join crew chums for drinks in the hotel lounge, where they are entertained by a tireless Slavic-pop trio mangling such Beatles hits as “Jesterday” and “A Hard Dess Knot.” Most evenings, says Tom, “I wait for my call to check in with L.A., which can take an hour, then have dinner and go to the room by 10 or 10:30 to go over lines. Sometimes I just go to my room to read. Time by yourself is hard to come by.” One advantage for Selleck: “People here don’t know me from anything. I can walk anywhere. I miss Hawaii a lot, but there people see me on the street and say, ‘Hey, Magnum.’ ”

Family and friends from home started showing up last month for welcome visits. Armstrong’s 20-year-old sister, Carrie, took off from her studies in Paris for a three-week stay. Selleck’s friend and co-star in TV’s recent Divorce Wars, Mimi Rogers, flew in not long ago, and his parents and Magnum buddy John Hillerman may come soon. Tom’s estranged wife, Jacquelyn, from whom he has been separated for nearly three years, jetted in from L.A. with her son by a previous marriage, Kevin, 14. “Kevin missed four or five days of school, but it was real important,” says Tom. “Maybe he’ll write a report about the trip and his teachers will let him off the hook. You need to show the kid that continuity, that his father is there.” Tom remains very close to his stepson—”I fly him in to Hawaii as much as possible”—and for his sake wants his separation from Kevin’s mother to be an amicable one. “I’m trying to avoid that adversarial thing,” he says, “but it’s so easy when friends take sides and lawyers have a financial interest in that happening.”

It’s the end of another long, dreary, cold day. Selleck and Armstrong have filmed one small chunk of dialogue over and over again. In this scene, they squawk at each other: She accuses him of drinking too much, of working only for her money. After yawning repeatedly to give his eyes the moisture and redness of a drunk’s, he snaps back that he doesn’t need anyone telling him how much to drink, that “all you rich bitches are alike.” She says she’ll be leaving in the morning “with or without you” and storms off. Selleck stares into his tea-as-whiskey, puffs on a cigar, and unloads yet another burp-on-cue. Armstrong wheels, seething: “You’re disgusting.” The scene is wrapped. In accomplishing that simple sequence, nonsmoker Selleck has puffed the equivalent of a dozen cigars and sipped what must be two gallons of tea for the numerous takes—and he’s so belched out that director Hutton has become an audio stand-in, offering backup belching on cue.

Selleck retires finally to the warmth of his camper, strips down to his thermal undershirt, wiggles through his suspenders, pulls off his knee-high boots, and puts his feet up on a table. His green eyes are bloodshot, his forehead furrowed. Improbably, but genuinely, he is cordial, a graceful man still capable of a weary smile or two. He says he wants some rest back in Hawaii before Magnum, but he has a CBS Western, Shadow Riders, to film after leaving Yugoslavia. If he were more dedicated, he says, he’d get up an hour early for the workouts he’s always given his perfectly sculpted 6’4″ jock superstructure. And he doesn’t hesitate to admit: “This is a lot more burden than has ever been put on my shoulders.” No one has to tell him the influence of the star on location. “If I have a positive attitude, it can be infectious. I can also drag down the whole cast. I do have my moments. I’m just trying not to develop a chip on my shoulder.”

“People buy what I do on Magnum,” he says. “But that’s a little screen. This screen will be 50 feet high. What if they see right through me? What if I don’t fool ’em? I know this is a big-budget movie. A lot rides on it. People will call it my first feature. I had a lot of trouble being taken seriously in my career, being whatever type I am.” After that euphemistic reference to his strapping good looks, he cannot suppress a grin. “Those are the kinds of things you try not to think about when you get out to the set.”

What exactly does run through his mind, between the lines of dialogue? “One day,” he recalls, “I walked out and saw all those extras escaping from the ‘Afghanistani’ village, those tents set up right in the middle of a mountain, the biplanes buzzing over. I said to myself, ‘Hey, you’re in a spectacle.’ It was really thrilling. I once thought Magnum might work out, but I never expected this. It’s something I only dreamed of doing.”

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