Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Sellecked Group

What is it that keeps some actors trapped on the small screen only--stars of the medium, series television favorites for decades, skilled performers commanding respect from many and adulation from still more, yet blithely ignored by Hollywood?

Some varied examples... Clint Eastwood started in TV with not much future, but went to Europe to play a silent gunslinger and returned a triple-threat star (actor, director, composer of film music). Clint and the spaghetti Westerns were a perfect match, but most other "oater" actors rode no further than your living room; even wry and steady James Garner is remembered more for his series roles and TV movies than as a comic "Support" actor. Hugely popular sitcom stars like the Friends and Seinfeld casts basically just disappeared once their shows ground to a halt; only ginger-and-spicy Jennifer Anniston and wee, weaselly Jason Whosit could convince big-bucks film cameras to love them. And the daytime soaps' perennial lean and hungry villainess, Susan Lucci... ready for prime time and beyond, like, say, Joan "Conniving B." Collins? Nope... no chance.

Plum roles, or stereotyping that ignores skills; unexpected audience affection, or inexplicable rejection, or sudden smash-hit fame--these can make or break an actor regardless of talent. What, then, might be held to account for the major stardom and Hollywood credits denied sturdy, steadfast actor Tom Selleck--who just may have been television's top, quietly macho leading man for four decades, bigger and tougher than, say, fave male lead Harrison Ford, but denied the great plots and parts Lucas and Spielberg dreamed up for "IndyHana." Selleck arose from early defeats on The Dating Game, to his Hawaii/Ferrari/bachelor heyday as Magnum, P.I., and a subsequent recurring role in the Friends supporting cast. But he is probably best-known now for his latter-day triumphs in made-for-TV adaptations of Louis L'Amour's laconic Westerns and Robert B. Parker's bleak Jesse Stone "Easterns," and his current anchoring role as the conscientious NYC Police Commissioner, head of the multi-cop, multi-generation Reagan family, in the first-year hit series called Blue Bloods.

After a dozen big-screen, but mostly forgettable films in the Eighties and early Nineties, Selleck retreated to the screen size that seemed to favor his solidity and seriousness. Well, is this then a case for culture cop Marshall McLuhan of the C.S.I. (Canadian Superfluous Interpretations) to unravel? Something like this: our hero, a man of few words but always of his word, functions best in the cool medium where we viewers must do most of the work, fitting video picture itself together, as well as character bits, sketchy simplified sound, plot stories interrupted by commercials and children and telephones ringing, into a "unified" television picture and comprehendable image. No, it seems too doctrinaire an answer.

But there are odd bits to acknowledge here. Selleck actually scored a major movie hit in '87 with Three Men and a Baby, and used his subsequent "juice" (Tom's word) to get the green-light for his (also successful) Aussie Western called Quigley Down Under. And even before those... anomalies, maybe?... he supposedly was first choice to play Indiana Jones but, bound by his Magnum contract, had to turn it down. (If that's accurate, how did he then get to film, still during the Magnum run, Three Men plus The Shadow Riders and Lassiter and one or two other losers?)

Selleck back then was close to 6' 4' and in athletic trim, had played college basketball and then national-level volleyball, was handsome and tough, a tireless tower of strength (literally) who could also smolder in anger, becoming more dangerous the quieter he got. So why didn't moviegoers embrace his films? (Even his fun, mock-Indy movie, High Road to China, just barely got off the ground.) Poor project choices? Inadequate scripts? Too four-square a character and jaw?

The success of Quigley suggested a way forward--continue making Westerns, even if they were to premiere only on television--projects suited to his size and demeanor, his signature retro mustache and Second Amendment, gun-owner attitude. If dumbed-down, no-attention-span moviegoers had no use for all that Old School stuff, then, fine, he'd stick with the becouched and bemesmered older folks at home. And so, with Selleck starring and also serving as Executive Producer, there appeared at irregular intervals Ruby Jean and Joe, a fine modern-times story of rodeo and race (1996); Last Stand at Saber River, a tough tale dating from Elmore Leonard's early Western novels period (1997); Crossfire Trail, the third or fourth Louis L'Amour book that Tom took on (2001); and finally in 2003 his classy and superior remake of Monte Walsh, the classic aging-cowboy novel written by Jack Schaefer. Four excellent Westerns in eight years and each one better than the ones before. The man definitely could sit a horse...

During that same period Selleck also tried his hand at Broadway (a new production of A Thousand Clowns, lost in the post-9/11 malaise); took a close-to-villain part in the courtroom drama Reversible Errors; and portrayed a sexy politician in the romantic comedy Running Mates, with Tom the hens-pecked candidate surrounded by ex-lovers with personal and political agendas! Then Selleck shaved head and mustache both to become a credible General Dwight D. Eisenhower for the compact mini-series Ike: Countdown to D-Day.

As some of those roles suggest, the inescapable aging had begun. Tom was some thicker and some weighted down by time and circumstance. It was time to get down off the horses... and just then came the right circumstance too. CBS proposed that Selleck do a TV film or two based on the on-going Jesse Stone novels by Robert B. Parker, best known as author of the wiseass private eye series about Spenser and Susan and Hawk. His new character Stone was an older, tireder, hard-drinking ex-cop transplanted from Southern California to coastal Massachusetts--to a small town misnamed Paradise.

As the wry and cranky, too-often-silent police chief, Selleck was--not to put too fine a point on it--perfect. Still handsome but starting to go to seed, cagily mentoring his quirky deputies, surviving the prying town council and the dogs that adopt him and the lovely women who drift through and, oh yeah, solving the crimes and mysteries that show up even in Paradise. Jesse/Tom is clearly a flawed but decent man making the best he can of his private sorrows and his unkempt life.

The first film, Stone Cold, proved a welcome success, so the network ordered a second, then a third, and so on; the Stone series has continued right up to the present, one film per year more or less, with Selleck also Executive Producing (lately co-scripting too) and the audience growing exponentially. The seventh film, an original script titled Innocents Lost, will be broadcast on May 22, and I'll be tuned in as always...

Just as I was every Friday night these past several months, savoring Selleck as Police Commissioner Frank Reagan, overseeing the massive New York City Police in the new high-ranking series Blue Bloods. The man at age 60 or so exudes decency, dignity, gravitas, ethical strength, perhaps greatness, and the actor portrays as well Frank's expansive love for, and careful attention to, the extended Reagan family, four generations of policemen, lawyers, spouses, grandchildren and others, that come to his house for dinner every Sunday--a Norman Rockwell scene that may be comical or argumentative or saddened by events. Meanwhile, back on the job, pater familias Tom is by turns witty, sometimes cagey, briskly all-business, cautious about political matters--but when his family or his men or his city are threatened or harmed, he may suddenly become steely angry, but still holding himself back from shouting out orders. A complex guy, our Frank.

Commissioner Reagan is a hell of a part, and the repeating role of Stone a career-maker. Good thing they've been entrusted to quietly extraordinary Tom Selleck... who maybe should stick with television roles after all.


Steve Provizer said...

Selleck doesn't have a big screen (& big PA system) voice-too squeaky.

I Witness said...

Spoken like a true basso profundo with a falsett o' complaints! But the tenor of your argument strikes me as open to debate. You may represent an important subset of listeners (with proverbial big ears), but I hear an ordinary voice pitched in mid-range and seldom "raised" in anger or otherwise. Chacun a son ecoute. (And if you really want squeaks, try going up against The Sopranos. They've been known to resolve arguments without any hearing.)

Steve Provizer said...

I seldom represent an important subset-especially of listeners-and I note that the man is struggling along with a-what-8 figure income, while you can move the decimal point 5 places over for me. Nonetheless, I maintain that a snarl or a mumble seems to work better on the big screen.

I Witness said...

No snarls or mumbles over at Su-Provizer Steve's excellent blog, suitably titled Brilliant Corners--enlightening, entertaining, enterprising, enthralling, entrepreneurial, and other en-crowd descriptives (but not encluding ensipid or enjurious). We'll just have to agree to disagree on this matter of Natural (Steve might ensist it's Un-Natural) Sellecktion; he says "Tomato," and I say "Tom matters." So who's got the juice?

D.M. McGowan said...

Too squeaky? Absolutely not.
Will only kiss so much a.. to get the part? You bet.
He's a little bit too old for the part now, but I bet he could still do a great job of the "Tom Brash" character in my "Partners" novel. Make the character about 10 years older than he is in the book and Selleck could handle it just great.

I Witness said...

You've certainly piqued my curiosity; I'll check out your site and novel. Two things: Tom is certainly not known for being Brash (oh no, another pun); and Jesse Stone in Parker's early novels is late 30s, I believe, yet Selleck has no trouble convincing us of his "rightness" for the character and part. So a Tom Brash? Why not?

Anonymous said...

I think that Tom should continue concentrating on tv roles. We get to see him every week in Blue Bloods and that's good for us TS fans who just can't get enough of him. We can also look forward to another Jesse movie even though it's only one per year. After all, we fell in love with his Thomas Magnum character when we got to see him once a week for eight years.