Monday, March 23, 2015

Tom Selleck's Late Career Surprise


I don't want any swingers out there to get the wrong impression. Hunks and studs don't turn me on, but I thought this shot might get your attention. I assume it's not a constructed photo (placing the head on a body--a little trick you see now sometimes on the web), since Tom Selleck was one of Hollywood's most attractive and well-constructed male lead actors, known primarily for his Magnum P.I. television series. Female fans undoubtedly found him irresistible, but I'm sure he generated interest on both sides of the aisle. 

Fair warning: I'm not a fan of Tom Selleck The Man. And this isn't a political piece. We can have disagreements about what people think about entertainers "in their real lives" but that doesn't, in my opinion, have any affect on what we may or should think about their artistic accomplishments. 

Back in the day when Magnum P.I. was on television (the series ran from 1980-1988, and was Selleck's "breakthrough" role), I must admit to not have been impressed with his acting skills, or indeed the show itself, which I regarded as an exploitation production--exploiting the star's good looks, the character's laid-back life-style, exploiting the tropical scenic values of Hawaii, and generally providing the sort of low-grade pop entertainment typical of television shows of that time--one part surfer dude cruising the island beach scene, and one part dumb crime solving. Not a formula destined to achieve immortality.   



Nonetheless, actors can occasionally "grow up"--not just in the sort of roles they are likely to play, but in the skills they hone over the length of a career. As an early middle-aged heart-throb playboy (Selleck was 35 when he began his Magnum run), his acting skills were pretty limited. He could smile, he could frown, he could show mild irony, and he could run athletically across the beach sand. But that was just about his full range. 

Imagine my surprise, when, just a few years back, I saw the first installment of the Jesse Stone franchise, based on the novels of the late Robert Parker. Jesse Stone is a complicated man, unlike the earlier Magnum character. He carries a load of trouble from his past, and is a depressed loner with a private code of honor. He doesn't get close to people, and spends a lot of time alone. You might think that this sort of character would be beyond Selleck's range as an actor, but you'd be wrong. Something happened between the end of the Magnum period (1988) , and the first Jesse Stone TV movie in 2005: Tom Selleck the actor grew up. 



You always figured that Selleck's career would go the way of similar kinds of TV actors. He'd do another private eye or "soldier of fortune" series or two, and age out gracefully in his early Sixties. He certainly didn't need the money. But Selleck wasn't done. He had more to do. 

Most straight Hollywood heavies over the last 30 years have been smaller men, intense, quirky and unpredictable: actors like Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Tom Cruise, Robert De Niro,  Sean Penn, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris. These actors could carry a heavy load in a movie, but they tended to turn straight acting tasks into complex, eccentric versions of themselves, often at the expense of the narrative thematic material they used. They were all good, but they weren't the classic "big jacket" types who could fill out a powerful character with subtlety and understated technique (like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, George C. Scott, Charlton Heston, Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper). 

Selleck might be compared to actors such as Sean Connery, Russell Crowe, or Clint Eastwood. Or even perhaps Tom Hanks. But we wouldn't be making this comparison, if Selleck hadn't upped the ante. Selleck's Jesse Stone is a brooding, thoughtful, emotionally subtle persona, with real depth. He's able to convey delicate shades of sensibility with small, economic gestures and movements and intonations of voice. Like Parker's deft dialogue scenes, he transmits irony and frustration and amusement with deft pacing and queues. Physically, Selleck is big, but fit, but there's no attempt to make him seem physically dominating. 

It isn't easy to bring life to a character who speaks little, and thinks a lot. Private investigators in fiction tend to speculate and calculate--they're figuring out plots and uncovering secrets. But cinema is about action. The Jesse Stone franchise doesn't rely on action, or violence, or big slushy romantic entanglements. It's all about poise and negotiation and authenticity. Stone can wrestle and even kill when he has to, but he's a little like Richard Boone in Have Gun Will Travel, who would "prefer to avoid violence" but is fully prepared to engage in it, should the need be.

Sellect communicates this sense of fortitude and smoldering resentment barely held in check. Frustrated in not being able to make it to the big leagues as a pro ball player, betrayed by his x-wife, fired from his job as a police investigator, he's a refugee from fate, without self-pity, and without excuses, too crusty to admit weakness, but smart enough to know when he's wrong, and still committed to getting the bad guys, while not allowing himself to be seduced into bureaucratic corruption, no matter how petty. 

Alone with his depression, sipping scotch and talking with Reggie, his Golden Retriever, isolated on a little islet house connected to land with a narrow-walkway, he perseveres in his campaign against his own hopelessness and the evil that threatens to eat away at the picturesque idyllic little seaside community he watches over. 

Now, in the television series Blue Bloods [2010- ], in which he plays New York City Police Commissioner, he's expanded his new range with an even larger character, one not only with a difficult past, but with complex, public, and significant issue-driven tests. He's as good here, as he is in the Jesse Stone pictures, but perhaps a bit less attractive, since he's playing a high-profile urban executive, instead of a common man in a small place. It's no secret that some of Selleck's personal political points of view have found their way into these important dramatic productions. Self-reliance, shouldering tough burdens without giving up, and without compromising personal values--are clearly on the agenda. Selleck now produces the Jesse Stone series, so presumably it carries a fair load of his input.



Selleck is officially a political conservative, something of an anomaly in Hollywood. A case could certainly be made that Blue Bloods is about supporting your local police department. But the Jesse Stone franchise--currently on its ninth iteration--is just very good entertainment, with very good acting. It's quietly raised the standard for the generic noir whodunit. It's easy to get hooked on, so embark at your peril. You might fall in love with this guy.   

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