By Scot Haller
March 12, 1984 12:00 PM

As the sun sets over Oahu on this Tuesday afternoon, our hero sits kin a rock garden beside the blue Pacific. He is telling the tale of the Magnum Mug, which is one of the silliest episodes in the Selling of Tom Selleck. According to our hero, the merchandising department at Universal, seeing one more new product possibility in Selleck, had a mug designed in his likeness and dispatched a drawing of it to the star, who was amused if not approving. As he recalls, “The top cut off my face in the middle of my forehead, and there was a bamboo handle coming out of my ear.” On paper, the mug looked too hideous to be sold and too hilarious to be stopped. “I couldn’t resist. I told them, ‘Well, it looks good, but I can’t be certain until I see the real thing. Could you make up just one for me first?’ ” In certain offices in Hawaii and Hollywood, there are photos of Tom mugging with the first and only Magnum Mug. The would-be merchandisers were the same folks, according to the show business underground, once fired for marketing a line of E.T underwear.

Tom Selleck, 39, recounts that incident with relish, but in a sense it’s a serious story. That’s the trouble with Tom: Although audiences consider him a heaven-sent package of devilish charm, some high-powered Hollywood circles still see him primarily as the inspiration for mai tai tumblers—a tropical treat to be either retailed or reviled. Since the premiere of Magnum, P.I. in December 1980, television has not created another series star of his magnitude. But with that accomplishment comes a career cliff-hanger. Can Tom Selleck accomplish what Henry Winkler, Lee Majors, Carroll O’Connor, Mario Thomas and all of Charlie’s Angels could not? Can he transform success as a TV phenomenon into a sustained movie career? “Let’s face it,” says Tom with characteristic candor, “I’m still having trouble being taken seriously.”

Perhaps now more than ever. While fans have blessed Lassiter, his second major feature, with a $9-million box-office gross thus far, critics dubbed it Lassitude. Although the caper film casts Tom as a dapper ’30s jewel thief, reviewers have accused him of recycling his Magnum persona. Observed the Boston Globe, “Tom Selleck always looks big on the small screen and small on the big one…. He should stick to what he does best—posing for posters.”

That kind of condescension isn’t new to Selleck. Even though his first major vehicle, High Road to China, grossed more than $50 million worldwide last year, it has been labeled a loser by the press and the industry. “A lot of critics are lying in wait for me to fail in features just because I came out of TV,” he says. “But when you look at old television, you see Robert Redford on The Twilight Zone and Clint Eastwood on Rawhide.”

For Selleck, however, television and movies have been on a collision course since the genesis of Magnum. Just after he signed for the series in 1979, Steven Spielberg tapped him for Raiders of the Lost Ark. When CBS wouldn’t postpone the start-up of Magnum to accommodate Spielberg’s shooting schedule, Selleck forfeited the role. At the time, he believed that missing Lost Ark made his movie career a lost cause. “When Magnum sold,” he says, “I thought, ‘Now I am a TV actor.’ In this business, they don’t hire TV actors to do movies.”

To make High Road to China, Selleck turned down the James Garner role in Victor/Victoria. And more recently director Taylor (An Officer and a Gentleman) Hackford, a college chum, approached him about the Jeff Bridges role in Against All Odds. But Selleck was already verbally committed to Lassiter, which was being backed by the same company that produced High Road. “When no one would give him a movie,” says Hackford, “these people took a chance on him, and Tommy has stayed loyal. The one thing he’s always had is a basic honesty.”

Nor is Selleck a turncoat to television, even with the prospect of a full-scale film career. In fact, Selleck predicts a run of “at least seven years” for Magnum, which pays him a reported $50,000 per episode. “I’m not going to back out of everything just because I think now I might be able to go in a different direction,” he says. “I’ve come to make peace with the fact that I’m going to do the show.” And sandwich a feature into each summer hiatus.

“If I took a break,” admits Selleck, “I’d be a better person.” Nevertheless, in May he segues into his next film, Runaway, an adventure-mystery written and directed by Michael (Coma) Crichton. “Right now, I feel that I can’t not do movies.”

Making movies has already yielded one important payoff: a new romantic interest. While shooting Lassiter in London last summer, Selleck met British actress Jillie Mack, 25, who was then appearing in Cats. Jane Seymour, his Lassiter co-star, recalls, “He kept telling me how great Cats was. I thought it was good, but I couldn’t see going back a dozen times.” Although Mack recently joined him in Hawaii, the couple has consciously maintained a low profile. “I’ve found it very difficult to expose my private life and live with it,” observes Selleck. “There are certain things I’m just not comfortable with.” For him, maintaining perspective is essential. “Tom doesn’t take the hype personally or seriously,” says Carol Burnett. “He can separate himself from that persona.” For encouragement, he looks to a no-nonsense actor of an earlier era. Tom notes, “Spencer Tracy said once, ‘You know, in the big scheme of things, I’m not really that important. You know what’s important. Plumbing is important.’ Well, that’s how I feel.”

It’s 10:30 on a Thursday morning at the Fort Street Mall in downtown Honolulu, and the crowd is engaged in typical Tomfoolery. As Selleck walks up the promenade before shooting a location sequence for Magnum, windows fly open and invitations fly out. “Come on up and have some coffee,” shouts a middle-aged blonde leaning on a second-story sill. Several hundred onlookers gather on the sidelines. Even guest star Chuck Mangione isn’t immune to the mania: He has brought along a list of some 15 female relatives and admirers who want autographed pictures.

In the midst of this commotion stands Hawaii’s most chiseled tourist attraction. “The first year, we shot on Waikiki Beach,” he recalls. “There’s no way we could ever do that now unless we spent a lot of money and got a lot of police.” Between takes Selleck continues an ongoing game of poker with his makeup man, Lon Bentley, and his ever present “security coordinator,” Mike Tyner. Waiting for the next take, bouncing on the balls of his feet, Selleck checks his cards, waves to a female fan, cracks an off-color joke about WASPs. But when he scans the crowd, he looks out and over it, like a Secret Service agent—accessible but on guard. “It’s weird,” he says, “somebody can be 50 feet away and the only person out of 100 with a camera, and I know it’s pointed at me.”

Despite his caution, Selleck is both responsible and responsive to his public. “Tom did not spring forth as an instant sensation,” says Taylor Hackford, and it appears Selleck never forgets that. Shooting at a beach location, he ambles over to the roped-off onlookers and lets them snap close-up photos. With his hands snug in beige shorts, the obligatory Detroit Tigers baseball cap and the distinctive saunter, he is the essence of nonchalance. In looks and demeanor, Selleck is an orchestration of opposites. The high-pitched voice, for instance, clashes with the statuesque frame. “I don’t have a six-foot-four voice,” says Selleck. “Directors used to tell me to either study voice or get out of the business.” The open vulnerability doesn’t jibe with the gung ho handsomeness. The self-deprecating humor counterbalances the sex appeal. Perhaps the most incongruous twist of all is that this assortment of improbabilities should emerge as America’s he-man hero.

“To be willing to show himself that way,” says Carol Burnett, “a man must be very secure in his masculinity.” But long before Magnum, Selleck cut an idiosyncratic figure. As a teenager in California, he abstained from alcohol until his 21st birthday and consequently received a gold watch from his investment executive father, as did his sister and two brothers in turn. As a basketball scholarship player and business administration major at the University of Southern California, “Tommy didn’t trade on or take advantage of his good looks,” recalls Hackford. “He never had any problems getting dates, but he was nowhere near the kind of playboy that his brother Bob [an L.A. real estate executive] was.” The public exposure of Magnum hasn’t altered his personal code of ethics. “When we were in London,” says Jane Seymour, “he made sure whenever we were photographed together that my husband was in the picture. He didn’t want the tabloids making up a romance.”

His nude scene in Lassiter might contradict that code, but Selleck vigorously defends it as consistent with his beliefs and image. “I mean, I took my mom and dad to the movie,” he says. “It’s not like Warner Bros. is going to put out a postage stamp.” The bit of beefcake was necessary for a comic payoff, he says, railing against a kind of false modesty in films. “If you’re going to show a couple in bed and they’re in love and have a sexual relationship they’d better look like it. Most people after they’ve had sex don’t wrap themselves up in sheets so they don’t come in body contact with the other person. That drives me nuts in movies.” But he adds, “If people go just for my nude scene, they’re going to be real disappointed. Don’t blink because it’s real fast.” Having delivered his formal speech on the subject, Selleck the spokesman switches back to the regular guy. “How was that?” he asks of his spiel and cackles an infectious laugh.

During the Saturday afternoon lunch break on Magnum, Tom is sliding around the floor of Gymnasium No. 1 at the University of Hawaii. Towering over the five other members of the Outrigger Canoe Club senior (over 35) men’s volleyball team, he spikes his way through the game. An ankle injury has been bothering Selleck, but he doesn’t hold back. For him, the sport is both relaxation and sanctuary. Among the stragglers on the sidelines, no one pays undue attention to No. 15.

Not surprisingly, Selleck’s sidelight has also been pulled into his spotlight. With Tom as the star attraction at a Honolulu benefit last January, 4,500 fans showed. Says team captain Dave Shoji, “We’re now all has-beens in the limelight thanks to Tom.” According to his colleagues, the only thing keeping Selleck from being a first-class player is his hit series. Because of Magnum’s schedule, he makes on average just half the practices. “His only weakness is lack of experience,” says team member Randy Shaw. But Selleck was sufficiently strong at last year’s national tournament to receive honorable mention on the All-America team. And the Outrigger team took the title. As honorary captain of the men’s U.S.A. Olympic team, Selleck even did something he hates to do: He posed shirtless for a just-released $4.95 poster whose proceeds benefit the team. An earlier poster for the Olympic hopefuls sold more than 100,000 units.

For Selleck, playing top-flight volleyball is just one of paradise’s perks. Hawaii is also a refuge from industry pressures. “The way I’m made up,” he says, “it’s mostly a plus to be here because I’m away from the hype.” There are no studio screenings, no Hollywood parties (or wives) to entertain. In fact, Tom doesn’t even read the trade papers, and he watches “very little” TV. With a six-day shooting schedule “most of my life is centered around work,” says Selleck. “Any day that’s not work is spent puttering around.”

The isolation is terrific for an established TV star, but might cause problems for an up-and-coming film star. “Some of the best things in this business happen spur of the moment,” he says, “and I’m not that available.” Nor is he always available to his stepson, Kevin, 15, the only child of Selleck’s wife, model-actress Jacquelyn Ray. They divorced in 1982 after 11 years of marriage. “Any time Kevin gets a vacation,” says Selleck, “he wants to come over, which makes me feel good.” During a visit last August, the pair escaped serious injury when Selleck’s jeep (with Kevin at the wheel) fell off the top floor of a three-story parking garage. Both the accident and their good fortune shook up Selleck. He says, “All I did for a few weeks was shake my head and wonder why I was so lucky.”

He may live out-of-the-way, but that doesn’t mean he is out of it, insists Selleck. Although his self-proclaimed “right-of-whoopee” life-style has alienated some Hollywood types, his right-of-center politics have prompted the Republican Party to approach him about publicly supporting their candidate. “I think President Reagan has done a good job,” says Selleck. But the request remains unanswered. “Flat out from a business point of view, I don’t think it’s a good idea to get involved,” he says. “Yet at the same time you don’t want to compromise. I want my opinion to mean something, just like any citizen. If I have a public forum, so much the better.”

Seesawing on that betwixt-and-between dilemma, Selleck sounds like his alter ego, Thomas Magnum, on just about anything. Indeed, that line between character and creator is frequently blurred, say Selleck’s friends. Recalls Carol Burnett of her Magnum stint, “Sometimes I wasn’t sure if Tom was saying a line as the character or just talking to me.” Taylor Hackford concurs: “The camera never lies. He is the guy he is on the screen.”

The volleyball game ends at noon, and Tom Selleck must return to Thomas Magnum. Already, he is analyzing his performance at the net, fine tuning for the next outing. “It’s dangerous to only half warm up and go play full force,” he says. “I was falling all over the place.” He changes his shirt in the parking lot, slides into his sports car, and goes back to work.

Seven hours later the exercise room of a Honolulu health club is empty, except for an out-of-towner who has no better options for a Saturday night. Unexpectedly, Selleck shows up and soon is twisting his frame on a stretch pole. Although this week he has finished one Magnum episode with Burnett, started another with Leslie Uggams, spent time with his visiting brother Dan and sister-in-law Kirby, monitored publicity for Lassiter, and cavorted on the volleyball court earlier in the day, Selleck is putting himself through a workout. “My heart isn’t really in it tonight,” he says, “but I haven’t been here in a week. I started thinking about TV cameras and videotape cameras and this volleyball tournament I’m playing in next week, and I thought I’d better get over here.” Soon Jillie appears in a leotard and oversized Detroit Tigers T-shirt, and the pair retire to the sit-up slant boards for mutual encouragement.

Forget the Magnum Mugs. Tom Selleck is his own best businessman. After 16 years in the business, a hit show, and a faithful following, he is still in training for the Big Break, the Next Stop, the Championship Season. “People get hot, they cool down. Sometimes your talent sustains you. Sometimes you run out of tricks,” he says matter-of-factly. “You don’t want to hold a news conference to announce your retirement and have everybody say, ‘Great, glad to hear it,’ ” he observes. “Or even worse, have nobody show up at all.”

The coast is not clear. Standing in the Universal parking lot in the shadow of Diamond Head, Selleck is getting ready to head home for an afternoon off. Just across the street from the studio gates stands a group of tourists. Through the trees, Selleck can see them, and they him. The scene looks like a stakeout that is about to turn into a face-off. As if on cue, the crowd starts to cross the street and come closer. “Uh-oh,” says Tom. But it is a false alarm. Without ever acknowledging the star in their sight, these folks turn their backs on Tom. They have been waiting not for him but for a bus, which they now board. Back behind the studio gates, the smile on Tom Selleck’s face is suspended between relief and regret.