During one magical, syndicated summer I was fortunate to have one channel spending a couple of hours every afternoon playing Magnum PI and Simon & Simon back-to-back. Talk about a lucky kid.
One day I’ll revisit latter, but for now, let’s talk about the former.
As the story goes, the 1980 series partially got the green light because they wanted to capitalize on the Hawaii production that Hawaii Five-O was leaving behind after ending a successful twelve year run in April of that year. And capitalize they did with a successful eight year run of Magnum PI (as another story goes, Jake and the Fatman was saved from cancellation by relocating the show to Hawaii in order to save CBS from leasing an empty studio; when the lease was up, the show moved back to LA). It was hinted that the shows shared a universe, as there were a few McGarrett references in the early seasons, though Jack Lord declined to cameo as he’d retired. From a slick, be-suited state police task force to an aloha shirt wearing private dick.
Thomas Magnum (Tom Selleck) is a former Navy special ops and NIA intelligence officer making his living as a private investigator and living at the estate of Robin Masters, much to the annoyance of major domo Jonathan Higgins (John Hillerman) and his lads, dobermans Zeus and Apollo. Magnum is aided in his cases (and in his life) by his besties and fellow Vietnam vets, chopper pilot Theodore “TC” Calvin (Roger E. Mosley) and gunner-turned-club-manager Orville “Rick” Wright (Larry Manetti). Magnum also cons favors from NIA computer expert Lt. “Mac” MacReynolds (Jeff MacKay, who later returns as Mac’s doppleganger Jim Bonnick in later seasons); assistant district attorney Carol Baldwin (Kathleen Lloyd), though she cons him just as often; Lt. Maggie Poole (Jean Bruce Scott), Mac’s replacement; Francis “Ice Pick” Hofstetler (Elisha Cook Jr.), though those favors were usually asked for by Rick; Doc Ibold (Glenn Cannon); and on rare occasion, Higgins’s fellow Brit Agatha Chumley (Gillian Dobb). Magnum is frequently bedeviled/assisted by HPD Lt. Yoshi Tanaka (Kwan Hi Lim) and he has a major hate hardon for Col. Buck Greene (Lance LeGault), who he holds responsible for keeping him apart from the love of his life, Michelle Hue (Marta DuBois).
Other recurring characters include: Gwen Verdon as Magnum’s mom Katherine Peterson; Eugene Roche as St. Louis PI Luther Gillis (probably my least favorite character because he is so damned annoying, but Eugene Roche is fantastic in the role; he can’t help it that my personality clashes with his character); Clyde Kusatsu as the John Wayne-obsessed HPD Detective Lt. Gordon Katsumoto (he also played a few other characters throughout the show’s run, but I love him unconditionally); Joe Santos as HPD Police Lt. Nolan Page; in later seasons, TC suddenly acquired two mainland children, Martina Stringer as Melody, and Shavar Ross as Bryant, the latter staying with TC for multiple episodes; Fay Hauser as TC’s ex-wife Tina; Deborah Pratt as TC’s girlfriend Gloria; Patrick Bishop as Keoki and Remi Abellira as Moki, two King Kamehameha Club employees; and Phyllis Davis as Rick’s eventual fiancée Cleo Mitchell.
Very much an ’80s action show in most respects, what with the crime-solving and fighting and shootouts and fast cars and witty banter and bedding babes and women characters written by men who didn’t actually know any women, but were just regurgitating the caricatures of women already established by men who’d never met a woman in their lives (yes, this is a sticking point with me because the women tend to be either helpless, annoying, or duplicitous and it’s grating), however, the show was also not afraid to stray from the mundane and into the supernatural (with ghosts, psychics, past lives, and trips to the other side) and didn’t shy away from landing emotional punches.
When it comes to the latter, most people are going to cite “Did You See the Sun Rise?” which saw Magnum and TC revisited by an old friend, Nuzo, who was imprisoned with them in Vietnam by an evil Russian named Ivan (Bo Svenson). The episode put Magnum through the ringer, killing off a friend, putting another one in jeopardy, and forcing both him and TC to relive an incredibly traumatic experience in their lives. The episode ends with Magnum doing something considered morally questionable, but honestly, I was fine with it and on the contrary, thought he could have gone even farther. But that’s just me and my preference for vengeance talking.
This wouldn’t be the only episode to reflect on their Vietnam service and their traumas of war, a daring thing at the time given that the actual war had only ended a few years before the show began, the pain and controversy of it hardly a forgotten thing. Higgins would also recall his times of service in many, many, many stories, however even he gets to face some experiences he’d rather have forgotten.
Personally, “Home from the Sea” kicks my ass the most as Magnum fights for survival while stranded in the ocean during the Fourth of July. He flashes back and forth between the present and his childhood leading up to his father’s death in Korea while TC, Rick, and Higgins have persistent feelings that Magnum is in trouble. The way everything weaves together is so well done and Magnum’s narration of “I made it, Dad. Why didn’t you?” never fails to punch me in the chest and bring tears to my eyes.
Of course, there are lighter episodes, too, and quite a bit of humor in the show, which I love. Poor Rick catches a lot of the comic relief burden. I mean, he got punched by a nun once. Two of my favorite eps are “Operation: Silent Night” and “I, Witness”. Higgins is also blessed with a father who can’t keep it in his pants, which results in multiple half-siblings, three of which we get to meet: Elmo Ziller, Father Paddy McGuinness, and Don Luis Mongueo (all played by John Hillerman). Naturally, the siblings are nothing like the proper Higgins and hilarity tends to ensue. Father Paddy is my favorite.
The series wasn’t afraid to experiment, doing an episode set in 1936, a noir murder mystery episode, an episode that inter-cut Magnum’s investigation of insurance fraud with the novel of a struggling writer, and a send-up of Indiana Jones, a role that Tom Selleck couldn’t take due to the show. And while Selleck was splitting time with the show and movies during the fourth season, we were treated to Rick, TC, and Higgins-centric episodes, including one humorous, yet heartbreaking episode in which Higgins is obsessed with recounting in his memoir the story of his dear friend David Worth (Patrick Macnee) who thought he was Sherlock Holmes. The show also crossed over with two other popular CBS shows during its run: Murder, She Wrote and Simon & Simon.
The eight seasons were star studded when it came to guest stars. Here are a few, except not really : Robert Pine (as Magnum’s dad, further proving he’ll always be cooler than his son Chris), Carol Burnett, Frank Sinatra, Robert Loggia, Vera Miles, Celeste Holm, Ernest Borgnine, Darren McGavin; Hawaii Five-O regulars Zulu, Herman Wedemeyer, Harry Endo, Moe Keale, and Kam Fong, as well as Kam’s son Dennis Chun and frequent flyers Douglas Mossman, Tommy Fujiwara, and Josie Over; Robert Forster, Richard Narita, Gregory Sierra, Pat Hingle, Soon-Tek Oh, Nancy Lee Grahn; ’80s ladies Annie Potts, Dana Delany, Tyne Daly, and Erin Gray; Dustin Nguyen, Alfonso Ribeira, Sharon Stone, Morgan Fairchild, Dick Butkus, James Hong, Christine Belford; darlings Shannon Doherty and Kim Richards; Donnelly Rhodes, William Lucking, Keye Luke; Joe Santos’s fellow Rockford Files vets Gretchen Corbett, Stuart Margolin, and Noah Beery Jr.; William Schallert, Robert Ito, Denise Nichols, Sheree North, Leslie Uggams, Roscoe Lee Browne, Jenny Agutter; Return of the Living Dead duo Clu Gulager and James Karen; France Nuyen, Wings Hauser, Beulah Quo, Brock Peters; Cheers alums Ted Danson and John Ratzenberger; Jessica Walter, Dennis Weaver, Mako; Rerun Junkie faves Kenneth Tigar, Robert F. Lyons, Denny Miller, Nehemiah Persoff, and John Saxon; Cameron Mitchell, Scatman Crothers, Pat Morita, Burr DeBenning; ’60s icons James Doohan, Cesare Romero, Henry Gibson,and Alan Hale Jr.; and in my favorite bit of casting ever, Anne Lockhart and Miguel Ferrer playing younger versions of their parents June Lockhart and José Ferrer.
One controversial aspect of the series lies in one particular character: Robin Masters. In the early seasons, he was played (or at least voiced) by Orson Welles. However, in the later seasons, it was supposed that Higgins was actually the never-there owner of Robin’s Nest. Magnum’s reasoning was that Higgins was always working on his memoirs, but was never done, and some of his writing was similar to that of Masters. Plus he was really possessive of the estate. I don’t know what the reasoning was by the actual show writers, though, since it was established in early seasons that Robin Masters was Orson Welles. Yes, Orson Welles died during the series, but they could have worked around it. I mean, Robin was never there. But, in the end, it resulted in a debate among some fans about who Robin Masters really is. In my personal canon, it was Orson Welles. I like Higgins being the idiosyncratic human that he is.
At any rate, it was played like a dangling carrot for Magnum right up until the last episode of the show. Now, if I have the story straight, the show was supposed to end in the seventh season with the episode “Limbo”, but they ended up being renewed for a shorter eighth season which ended with “Resolutions”. My controversial opinion is that I like the idea of the show ending with “Limbo” better, even if it is kind of a downer. But I like “Resolutions” as well. It’s a good high note to go out on.
The show earned itself a reboot in 2018, diversifying the cast with Jay Hernandez taking over the role of Magnum and Perdita Weeks as Higgins (sadly, opposite sex leads mean that the show has taken the well-worn will-they-or-won’t-they path because heteronormativity is a helluva drug); Zachary Knighton as Rick and Stephen Hill as TC (this was the casting that stressed me the most because TC is my guy; they did a fab job, though); and rounding out the main cast is Tim Kang as Gordon Katsumoto (sans John Wayne obsession) and Amy Hill as Kumu, an original character for the series and my role model. I enjoy the reboot despite its flaws, the biggest one being that none of the guys ever wear short-shorts a la the ’80s series. If I’m going to be subjected to Moonlighting-redux, then I should at least get a huge side of guy thighs.
Obviously, though, the ’80 series captured my heart first and I’ve got some happy memories with it, watching it while hanging out in my grandma’s air conditioned den after lunch.
It’s a classic.
Like an aloha shirt, it never goes out of style.