Magnum, P.I

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Magnum, P.I.

The 1980s CBS television series Magnum, P.I. was created to take advantage of the Hawaiian facilities built by CBS to produce Hawaii 5-0. On the surface, Magnum was a standard private eye drama, starring preternaturally handsome Tom Selleck as Thomas Magnum. The series' early success started a boomlet of crime dramas with good-looking male leads. However, it was the underlying subtext that set Magnum apart—the Vietnam veteran as hero. While Magnum was not the first series to feature Vietnam vets, it was the first to have Vietnam as a subtext, and the show set off a mid-1980s trend of heroes with Vietnam backgrounds, including The A-Team, Riptide, Stingray, and Miami Vice. Previously portrayed mostly as victims of post-traumatic stress, the success of these series changed the way Vietnam was viewed, at least in popular culture.

In the pilot, which aired December 11, 1980, former Navy lieutenant Thomas Magnum was hired by mysterious millionaire pulp writer Robin Masters to test the security of his Hawaiian estate, Robin's Nest. Magnum successfully evaded the Dobermans, Zeus and Apollo, and the estate's major domo, Higgins, and thus became the estate's new security chief, living in its guesthouse. Magnum's presence rankled Jonathan Quayle Higgins (John Hillerman), the very British former military commando, to no end. Higgins, forever writing his memoirs of years in military service in Africa and Asia, regarded Magnum as a nuisance. Eventually, however, they bonded through their experiences in war.

The Masters estate became the base of Magnum's struggling private investigation operation. Magnum was often aided in his investigations, usually unwillingly, by two of his fellow vets—Marines Theodore "T.C." Calvin (Roger E. Mosley) and Orville "Rick" Wright (Larry Manetti). Magnum continually "borrowed" T.C.'s chopper, Rick's underworld contacts, and Robin Masters's red Ferrari to solve crimes and protect people on the estate. Higgins eventually became another unwilling helper in Magnum's investigations.

Magnum became much more than a standard-issue action drama due to co-creator Donald Bellisario, himself a former Marine (who would later create Quantum Leap and JAG). Bellisario turned the series into a meditation on Vietnam and friendship. Glen Larson had created Magnum as an ex-CIA agent, a playboy freeloading on the estate, much in the mold of his other successful action series, Knight Rider. Bellisario was brought in when Selleck objected. Bellisario changed Magnum into the Vietnam veteran of Naval intelligence and added Rick and T.C.

In the first six years of Magnum, Vietnam was practically another character. The pilot tied smuggled gold to a member of Magnum's commando team in Vietnam, and introduced Rick and T.C. as members of that team, all marked by their croix de guerre rings (the symbol of the French Resistance). In the second season Magnum's long lost wife Michele (who wears her croix on a pendant) returned from Vietnam, then went back as a spy. In various episodes, Magnum had Vietnam flashbacks, which usually tied the past into the present day plot. These cinematic flashbacks, the other Vietnam references, the sometimes psychic flashes of Magnum, marked Magnum as different, as did Selleck's voiceovers of Magnum's thoughts, one of the few times this has been done in series television. Within those monologues, Magnum often referred to his "little voice," a variation on his conscience, that warned him of danger. The little voice was always counseling him and making the leaps of intuition he needed to escape or solve the crime.

Once Bellisario left during the sixth season and Selleck and other producers took over, Magnum became a more traditional detective show. The series was to end in 1987, and the finale depicted Magnum dying and going to heaven, complete with cameos by all the recurring characters. However, the series came back for one more year and the death became near-death. The two-hour series finale airing May 1, 1988 was highly rated and wrapped up the series: Magnum gained custody of Lily (his daughter with Michele), abruptly quit the private eye business, and rejoined the Navy. Rick married, and it was implied that Higgins might be in reality the unseen Robin Masters. Since the series' end, there have been rumors it may be revived in movie form.

—Michele Lellouche

Further Reading:

Carson, Tom. "Magnum's America: "Nam and Apple Pie." Village Voice. 19 October 1982, 65.

Kuehler, Mary Kay. "Point Man for the Vietnam Presence on Magnum P.I." Los Angeles Times, 1 August 1981, Sec. II, 10.

Manetti, Larry, with Chip Silverman Aloha Magnum: Larry Manetti's Magnum, P.I. Memories. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Newcomb, Horace M. "Magnum: The Champagne of TV?" Channels. May/June 1985.