Magnum, P.I.

1980 - United States

Another polished and glossy entry in the much mined Private Eye genre so beloved by television producers the world over, Magnum, P.I. hit the CBS network in the US on 11 December 1980, and continued to be a firm audience favourite until it's final episode on 1 May 1988.

The genesis of the series came from the prolific mind of veteran writer/producer Donald P. Bellisario in 1979. However, although Bellisario's original script for a new TV series about an easy-going Private Investigator contained what would become the familiar Magnum elements of a central character living in a guest house and driving the red Ferrari of the house owner for his investigation jobs, the actual location for the adventures was the exclusive money drenched area of LA known as Bel Air.

The potential of Bellisario's concept was immediately apparent to the legendary action series producer Glen A. Larson, who succeeded in interesting CBS executives in commissioning a series. The pitch paid off, but to get the go ahead, a number of key changes had to be made to the idea. Changes that ultimately, not only benefited CBS, but also helped ensure that Magnum, P.I. became one of eighties television's greatest worldwide success stories. The first of these changes was the relocation of the central setting from the sophisticated Bel Air to the equally sun-drenched, breath-taking tropical beauty of Hawaii.

At the time, following a sensationally influential twelve-year run, which had helped transform the face of the police drama series and produced a genuinely iconic character in the form of Jack Lord's Steve McGarrett, Hawaii Five-O had finally reached the end of its televisual life and CBS wanted an immediate replacement series which could continue to use the extensive, and expensive, custom-built Hawaiian production facilities which the network had constructed in the mid seventies for the out-going series.

Magnum, P.I.

The second key element was that of the selection of lead actor for the show. CBS had had the tall, dark, handsome and very personable actor Tom Selleck under contract for a TV series lead for some time. The actor, who had previously appeared in cigarette and cologne commercials had filmed six previous TV pilots that were never sold and had made do with a number of small roles in other shows, such as the smug gumshoe Lance White in The Rockford Files.

With this new property, CBS executive's finally felt that they had the perfect vehicle for him. They were right. With the approval of both Larson and Bellisario, Selleck was handed a role that fit him from the outset as snugly as a well-tailored glove, and a pilot, "Don't Eat the Snow in Hawaii" proved successful enough for a series to enter full production.


The same canny casting extended to the other regular characters with the key role of Jonathan Quayle Higgins III, the arch and regimented English Major-domo at the beachfront estate, Robin's Nest, of wealthy reclusive writer Robin Masters, going to veteran Texan character actor, John Hillerman, whilst the roles of Thomas Sullivan, Magnum's old army buddies Rick "Orville" Wright and Theodore "T.C." Calvin, were handled with wit and style by Larry Manetti and Roger E. Mosley respectively, and between 1981-1985 the voice of screen legend Orson Welles breathed telephonic life into the character of the oft-mentioned, but never seen estate owner.

The chemistry between the core characters was another winning aspect to a series that could switch effortlessly between high comedy and surprisingly serious and thoughtful drama. Indeed, the consistently high standard of performance amongst the leads was reflected by both Selleck and Hillerman receiving Emmy Awards for their work on the series. This may have compensated Selleck, whose contract commitment to the series famously cost him the role of Indiana Jones in the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, which went to Harrison Ford. Selleck later commented: "I made a deal with Magnum, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I'm proud that I lived up to my contract."

Magnum, P.I. was a prime example of the successfully glossy product being produced at the time. It's legacy was such that in 2018, CBS ordered a reboot. The new series cast Jay Hernandez in the lead role. Whilst this series was not a hit with critics it acheived an 84% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. It which was cancelled in early 2024. Magnum, P.I. - the original, blended action, humour and camaraderie, making it a beloved classic in television history.

Published on January 25th, 2019. Written by Robin Humar for Television Heaven.

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