There were three absolutes in any episode of the television series "Magnum, P.I.," consistently one of the highest-rated shows during its eight-year run on CBS in the '80s: rolling Hawaiian surf; tall palm trees, and a Detroit Tigers "D" baseball cap perched on Tom Selleck's head.
Mr. Selleck, a Michigander and a lifelong Tigers fan, wears that cap everywhere. It's his calling card (as if the 6-foot-4, wavy-haired hunk needed one). Last week, he traded the Detroit "D" in for a Chunichi Dragons "D" cap, as he trotted out to the field to play first base for the Japanese baseball team in his latest movie, "Mr. Baseball," which opened over the weekend.
But why a film about a washed-up New York Yankee attempting a comeback in Japan who can't get along with anybody because of his ego and then finds romance with a Japanese girl? Why not a movie about an American team and American girl?
"I have been offered a lot of baseball scripts over the years and I didn't like any of them," said Mr. Selleck. "They were all stories where the macho-man hero hits a home run to win the World Series in the seventh game. I always wanted to do a baseball movie with a real emotional story line, something like 'The Pride of the Yankees' [about Lou Gehrig]."
He says with a wide smile that he had to play some baseball to get in shape for the movie (he did all of his own hitting and fielding in the film). When you're Tom Selleck, that means working out with a dozen major-league teams, sitting in the dugout during games and spending two entire weeks in spring training as a player with the Detroit Tigers.
"It was strictly business," he laughs. "Not fun. Fun to hang out with ballplayers for a guy who has idolized ballplayers all his life? No. No. Just business. Hard work."
Surprisingly, the simple little baseball film has raised as much fuss on both sides of the Pacific as a close call at the plate. During filming, Matsushita Inc. bought Universal Pictures, the film's producer, and critics immediately charged that Matsushita changed the script to eliminate any Japan-bashing. Mr. Selleck heatedly denies it. Then Japanese preview audiences complained bitterly about the interracial screen romance and steamy sex scenes between Mr. Selleck and actress Aya Takanashi. There was so much heat on the producers that they pushed back the Japanese opening from next week to February. Then, as soon as Mr. Selleck's press tour began, some writers began yet another chapter in the TV-Idol-Selleck-Can't-Cut-It-in-Movies campaign.
He bristles at this, but wants to talk about it: "I remember one time this TV anchor, I forget who, started in on this. It happens all the time. Right after he does this thing about how I haven't done well in movies, the show's entertainment segment comes on and the reporter does a piece on how my movie, "Three Men and a Baby," was the No. 1 box office film that week. So I don't get it."
After 11 movies, as diverse as "Quigley Down Under" (a cowboy film), "Three Men and a Baby" and a dark comedy, "Folks" (which debuted during the L.A. riots and bombed), Mr. Selleck is finally ready to give his fans their fondest wish -- he'll probably do a "Magnum, P.I." movie next year.
"Nothing is final, but it looks good. It will be a strong story line and the film can stand by itself. It's about what happened to Magnum and the others five years later. I think people will like it," he said.
If it is successful, he sees a series of movies about Thomas Magnum and his Hawaii.
But what Mr. Selleck really wants to do is play a villain.
"I want to be the evilest villain you can find," he says. "But no 'Hitlers.' There are truly evil people on this earth who act normal, look normal and talk normal and then blow away 20 people. That's the story I want to do -- the nice, unassuming, never-noticed run-of-the-mill guy who hates," he said.