Magnum, P.I.: Investigating the Man Behind the Mustache

Magnum talks to a man in uniform as they walk around a marina

Magnum, P.I. ran for eight seasons from 1980 to 1988. The show followed the adventures of Thomas Sullivan Magnum (Tom Selleck) as he solved cases in a Hawaiian paradise on Oahu. He lived in Robin’s Nest—one of acclaimed novelist Robin Masters’s many luxurious estates—alongside majordomo Jonathan Quayle Higgins (John Hillerman), whom he tended to annoy daily. Nonetheless, the two roommates shared a good bond despite their constant bickering.

Thomas Rick and TC up to their knees in the water staring at something off into the distance

Magnum looks like he has an easy life, residing on a beautiful estate in Oahu, driving a red Ferrari, working when he feels like it, and having a seemingly endless bar tab at the King Kamehameha Club. At first glance, it looks like he has it all. He gets to hang out with his best friends, Rick (Larry Manetti) and T.C. (Roger Mosley). Magnum usually ropes them in on his cases, given that T.C. has a helicopter handy and Rick seems to be a walking phone book, knowing pretty much everyone and calling in favors left and right.

Despite all these perks, Magnum had his darker times, too. Even reality crashed his Hawaiian paradise. Magnum appears to be an easygoing character on the surface, but digging deeper, there’s a whole lot more to Magnum than meets the eye. Behind the mustache, the Detroit Tigers cap, and the Hawaiian shirt lies a complicated man that truly made an impact in pop culture, and whose character is one of the best to ever be created, in my humble opinion.

Defying the Stereotype

At the time, there was a stereotype surrounding soldiers who had returned from the Vietnam War. They were thought to be killers, insane, disheveled, and unable to reintegrate themselves into society. They were avoided for those reasons, perhaps even lingering reasons given so many protested the Vietnam War. Thought too broken to be a part of society, they were sadly cast aside.

Tom Selleck’s portrayal of Magnum changed all that. Donald Bellisario, the show’s creator, was determined to create a character that defied the stereotype, and he did just that. Magnum was fun, easygoing, and happy. He wore colorful Hawaiian shirts and was able to interact in society with no problem. On occasion he had flashbacks to his time serving in the Vietnam War, even nightmares, but it never kept him down for long. Magnum always managed to bounce back, and by conducting his work, he helped a lot of people and changed so many lives for the better. He even helped a fellow Vietnam vet who was down on his luck and accused of murder in “Wave Goodbye.” Magnum acknowledged that not all vets were as lucky as he was, which was another important message.

A veteran that was fully functional, even doing good for the world, was something audiences needed to see at the time. Breaking a stereotype is no easy feat, but creating a character that does it for you is a remarkable accomplishment—one that Bellisario has continued into his long-running police procedural NCIS, with Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette) portrayed as a happy, bubbly Goth.

Abby smiling, looking ahead of her, wearing headphones with sparkly skulls on them in NCIS

Bellisario carried on his not-what-they-seem characterization technique from Magnum to Abby, who also made an impact. A functioning Vietnam vet and a happy-go-lucky Goth seem unlikely, but Bellisario (and Tom Selleck and Pauley Perrette by extension) made the characters work, leaving behind a great impact in defying stereotypes in their wake. I’d like to write my own shows someday,  and I’m all about defying the stereotypes. Donald Bellisario has given me the best instruction and inspiration on how to do so.

The Hard Times

One may think Magnum’s life is easy: Hawaii, endless bar tab, red Ferrari to drive whenever he wants…Sign us all up! The thing is, Magnum has gone through his fair share of tragedy—perhaps more than his fair share. He lost his father when he was young (his father was also military), his relationship with his stepfather is strained at best, and he lost his wife Michelle (Marta DuBois) while in Vietnam (at least until she made a surprise reappearance in “Memories Are Forever,” where it was shown that she was alive and reunited with Magnum briefly).

Even though Michelle was alive, she bid Magnum farewell by the end of “Memories Are Forever,” choosing to remain with her husband. She and Magnum clearly loved each other, but it seemed they were never meant to be together. It’s obviously torture each time Magnum has to say goodbye. Perhaps it was easier for him to do so because he believed he’d see Michelle again. He did see her a few more times before she was killed in an explosion, which naturally proved to be agonizing for Magnum. Not only was she killed, but Magnum believed their daughter Lily (who is later discovered to be alive) to have perished also. He goes out seeking revenge, but with surprising strength, walks away, knowing it isn’t what Michelle and Lily would have wanted.

Magnum smiling while holding onto his daughter Lily, who smiles directly at the camera

Magnum must also deal with the fallout when Rick’s younger sister is killed while on Magnum’s watch. She managed to slip away while the two were at a club (when Magnum was supposed to be her chaperone), and Rick was furious with his best friend upon finding out his beloved sister was gone. It was by no means Magnum’s fault, as he couldn’t have known what was going on, but he took the blame for it anyway, doing everything he could to set things right.

Perhaps among the most tragic events, alongside Michelle’s death and losing his father, are when Magnum lost his close friend Mac and later Diane (Sharon Stone). Diane was a former client of Magnum’s who hired him as she believed her sister intended her harm. Turns out, Diane’s “sister” was really a second personality of hers, and by the time Magnum figured that out, it was too late. Diane committed suicide before Magnum’s eyes, despite his declaration of love for her.

Diane’s death brought back haunting memories for Magnum as he reflected on those he’d lost, and he was clearly in bad shape. The episode following Diane’s death found Magnum scruffy with bloodshot eyes, his outlook on the world darkened by his experience. Everything had caught up with him, but he found solace when he discovered a look-alike to Mac, whom Magnum initially believed to be the real Mac, much to the concern of his friends.

The thing is, having everything catch up to Magnum made things all the more real. Even among the sunshine and palm trees, real life lurks, striking individuals at any given time. Magnum was not protected by paradise; real life happens in Hawaii, too. Though it may have looked crazy for Magnum to be chasing down Mac’s look-alike, it made sense. Sometimes we need things to hang onto to get us through the hard times. Though it may look insane to others, if it makes sense and helps you, then who cares what the world thinks? Magnum obviously followed that train of thought if his actions in any given episode are anything to go by.

The Good Times & Friendships

For the most part, Magnum, P.I. remains a relatively lighthearted show. Magnum and his buddies joked around and gave one another a hard time, and Magnum and Higgins were always bickering and bugging one another, much to the audience’s amusement.

Magnum, TC, Higgins and Rick take a break in a tennis match to confer

One of my favorite episodes between Higgins and Magnum has to be “Paper War.” After Higgins accidentally caused Magnum to wipe an expensive computer game loaned to him by T.C., and Magnum erased a portion of Higgins’s memoir (also by accident), the two engaged in a battle of wills trying to out-do the other. Even those around them, like T.C. and Rick, noted how out-of-hand things were getting between the two feuding parties.

Magnum and Higgins were forced to deal with one another when they became trapped in an elevator in a building scheduled to be demolished. Racing against the clock, the two fought while trying to find a way out, which they managed, but not before Magnum brought up his theory that Higgins was really Robin Masters.

It was an ongoing thing between Magnum and Higgins as to the real identity of Robin Masters, given he was never seen. It’s not resolved until the series’s final episode, in which Higgins said he is Robin Masters, much to Magnum’s delight—that is until Higgins snickered later on and confessed he lied. The mystery of Robin Masters remains, but it was a fun dynamic/guessing game between Higgins and Magnum while it lasted.

Magnum was a good friend, too. He may have asked for a lot of favors and failed to repay debts (particularly monetary ones), but he was loyal and would do anything for his friends. He got Rick and T.C. out of scrapes a time or two, and he helped Higgins, too, showing concern where needed. He shared a special bond with Rick and T.C., given they all served together in Vietnam. There’s a strong sense of trust and respect between the three given all they went through and saw in Vietnam, their bond unbreakable because of it. Magnum and Higgins put up with one another, but beneath their bickering was a genuine sense of friendship and caring for one another.

Magnum and Carol against a stormy background, Magnum stands behind Carol who has an i-told-you-so face while Magnum looks more serious

Magnum also had a good friend in A.D.A Carol Baldwin (Kathleen Lloyd). Carol usually helped him out with cases and vice versa. She made several guest appearances and helped Magnum get out of some jams. She was not always direct, and Magnum noted on more than one occasion that she didn’t have to play games with him. He did care for her, though, protecting her from psychos and helping her when she discovered that she was the product of her father’s affair with another woman and that the woman who raised her was not her mother but her father’s wife. Magnum was there through thick and thin for his friends, and that was evident from the very first episode, “Don’t Eat the Snow in Hawaii,” when he set off to prove the innocence of his recently deceased friend from the military.

Magnum is one-of-a-kind. He’ll help you out of any scrape regardless of mortal danger and he’ll always be there when you need him the most. You can kick back and share a few beers with him, so you get an even balance. Though, you should expect that Magnum will cash in more favors than not, and he’ll probably forget to pay you back for beers and meals on occasion.

“The Little Voice” & the Fourth Wall

The way Magnum described it, he got “these feelings” and referred to them as his “little voice.” His little voice would alert him to danger, provide him with a conscience, or just act as a means to tell himself how he feels about something deep down, in Magnum’s own words. He believed everyone has such a thing, and I’ve always thought he was right.

Magnum and TC stand outside looking at something

Magnum’s character stands out because he narrates throughout each episode. You know what he’s doing, feeling, and thinking at all times. You get to know his character better as a result, getting on board his train of thought and understanding it completely. He’s one of the few characters, especially in television, to ever really do that, and it works well. It gets audiences to better understand why he does what he does and just how philosophical Magnum can be at times. It’s even better if you think in a manner similar to Magnum’s, in which you find yourself reflecting on certain subjects but never really say them aloud.

My own “little voice” comes in handy in all kinds of situations: doing new things, meeting new people, learning a lesson, or just observing life in general. As a writer, my “little voice” shouts at me all the time, making me notice the little things to write about later, finding a way to connect with audiences through my words, hoping it makes them happy, teaches them something, or gives them something to connect with and relate to. As soon as Magnum referenced his “little voice,” I knew he was one of my favorite characters of all time.

Magnum had all kinds of observations, from what dreams are supposed to be to the “hypnotic” climate of Hawaii when he reflected on The Kona Winds. The Kona Winds observation is one of my favorites, because not only does he note the weather, but also how those winds affect humanity, as they “stir the blood and tear the emotions, thrusting even temperate men into destinies they may later regret.” Magnum truly is a deep thinker, and that’s something you’d never really know without his narration.

Magnum’s “little voice” came in handy on more than one occasion and was part of what makes him such a great private investigator. He had good instincts, and he was good at reading people. He’s human, so he’s not perfect, but he learned from his mistakes and kept moving forward.

Another favorite I have to mention is Magnum’s reflection on karma. In an earlier season, Magnum began conducting chores around Robin’s Nest, explaining to Higgins that he was doing it to repay some of his debts, and he intended to continue settling debts he owed to those around him. Realizing he’d been lucky lately, he wanted to maintain his good karma and restore a balance in the universe. I found this to be interesting and noteworthy, because I grew up believing in the power of karma as well. It’s the first time I saw something on television that reflected my karma beliefs, and it gave me even more to be able to connect with Magnum over.

Magnum breaking the fourth wall by staring directly at the camera with a smile wearing a red Hawaiian shirt

My other favorite thing that Magnum does is when he occasionally breaks the fourth wall, looking directly at the camera as though acknowledging the audience. He’ll usually offer some kind of smile or look just before the episode ends, reflecting his feelings over whatever happened in the episode’s final moments. It always stuck with me, given so few characters do that, and it always makes me laugh because the facial expression is just so perfect for the situation at hand. I applaud Selleck’s ability to capture it in such a subtle manner.

Final Notes

Magnum, P.I. lasted eight seasons which, coupled with Magnum’s narration, allowed us to get to know him quite well. He’s made a lasting impression on pop culture, the Ferrari forever known as the “Magnum, P.I.” car. The Detroit Tigers cap and Hawaiian shirt combo will forever be Magnum’s trademark wardrobe, and only Tom Selleck can wear the mustache the way he does.

Magnum may have appeared manipulative given that he used his friends for favors a lot, but he cared deeply for them and proved again and again the lengths he’d go to in order to help them out. He had his little quirks, like the fact that his voice turned into a high whine when he was stressed or pleading with someone (usually Higgins) for something, or the fact that he hated to be called anything other than a “Private Investigator.” He spent every Fourth of July alone to remember his dad, and though he continuously had to bid farewell to Michelle, the love of his life, Magnum got his happy ending when he got to keep Lily after Michelle’s tragic death in the series finale. He returned to the military to give Lily a more stable household. Though I never really thought it suited Magnum’s fun and easygoing nature to return to the military, I understood he did it in his daughter’s best interests.

Magnum has been through a lot in his life, but he never let it keep him down. That’s saying a lot since he’s had more than his fair share of tragedy. He’s a perfect example that it’s a choice whether or not you stay down or get back up again. He continuously proved to be a character worth looking up to, admirable for his strength, his loyalty, and his sense of humor. He got back at a prankster who, as a joke, left Magnum a fortune, after all. Magnum knew how to settle a score.

Magnum wouldn’t stand for being insulted, being used, or being lied to—all good standards and boundaries to have. He didn’t like games, and once you engaged him in a prank war, he wouldn’t give up. He might even blow up your model bridge (poor Higgins!).

Nonetheless, we love Magnum, quirks, flaws, and all. Magnum’s intentions came from a good place: looking out for his friends and family, and doing the right thing. He might have played a few tricks, but it was usually a means to an end, and it’s a part of the private investigator business when you go about seeking information, especially when it’s sensitive in nature.

Magnum and TC are riding in TC's helicopter and laughing

Magnum was a hero in more ways than one. He served in Vietnam and continued that service, in a manner of speaking, helping those in Oahu find missing family members, acquire justice, or take criminals off the sunny, palm-tree-lined streets. He was really an everyday guy, a Tigers fan just living life. It just so happens he had a tendency to attract strange characters and extraordinary situations, which he handled tactfully—and sometimes not so gracefully, as Higgins loved to point out. While he may have messed up, he never gave up, and the fact that he kept on trying is forever an inspiration to us all.

Written by Kacie Lillejord

Kacie is a freelance writer versed in various forms. She loves pop culture, screenwriting, novels, and poetry. She has previously written for The Daily Wildcat, Harness Magazine, Cultured Vultures, and Screen Rant, with 25YL being her newest writing venture.

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  1. I really enjoyed your article about the original Magnum PI.

    Very well thought out and I agree with a great deal of your assessment.

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