Thomas Magnum drove into the world when Magnum, P.I. debuted Dec. 11, 1980 on CBS. And he did it behind the wheel of a cherry-red Ferrari 308 GTS wearing a Hawaiian shirt, wry grin and mustache that would make Ron Swanson deeply proud.

Back in 1979, CBS executives wanted to find a way to keep their Hawaiian studios open after the epic 12-season run of Hawaii 5-0 came to an end. They hit on the idea about an ne'er′-do-well-with-a-heart-of-gold private eye living the high life after a decade in the service as a Naval Intelligence Officer. But they couldn’t have imagined they were on the brink of creating an iconic eight-season series that defined ’80s cool, dove into the epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder hurting Vietnam veterans, and made a million teens want cars, houses and helicopters they could never afford.

Television aces Donald P. Bellisario and Glen A. Larson combined pilots each were working on for the bones of the series. Bellisario would go on to become a titan of TV writing, directing and producing, creating Airwolf, Quantum Leap, Jag and NCIS. However at the time he was an unproven creative force, while Larson was the veteran (having worked on The Virginian, The Six Million Dollar Man, Quincy, M.E. and more). The two seemed to have a bit of high-gloss magic just right for the zeitgeist. They simply needed the right leading man and sell to CBS.

At this point, Tom Selleck was under contract at CBS, but the network couldn’t turn him into a star. He'd landed pilot after pilot only to see them fail one after another. “There were six of them,” Selleck said on the Tonight Show. “I counted it up once, when I was in a masochistic mood.” But Selleck had everything the creative team wanted: rugged good looks, impish playfulness, big screen gravitas and (surprisingly) acting chops.

Watch the Opening Sequence from 'Magnum P.I.'

By early 1980, Bellisario and Larson had a script for “Don't Eat the Snow in Hawaii,” a TV movie that would serve as the series’ pilot (and would later be divided into two episodes for syndication). The pair rounded out the cast with actors ideally suited for their roles. Texan John Hillerman played the unflappable (and often insufferable) Higgins — a ex-British Sergeant Major and the caretaker of Robin’s Nest, the fictional Oahu beachfront estate of author Robin Master (never seen but voiced by Orson Welles) where he lives with Magnum. Larry Manetti portrayed Rick, an old Navy buddy of Magnum’s and a kind of mishmash of Jimmy Buffet and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Roger E. Mosley stepped into the role of T.C., a helicopter pilot who served with Magnum and Rick.

The show runners tweaked the characters’ backstories in future episodes, but it remains pretty astonishing how fully formed the concept is in “Don't Eat the Snow in Hawaii.” They jump into the two-hour pilot with Magnum already the head of security at Robin’s Nest and butting heads with Higgins. Despite the P.I.'s attempt to live the carefree life of the 23-year-old he never got to be because of his time in Vietnam, Magnum always finds a little darkness — or it finds him. When an old friend from the Navy turns up dead with burst bags of cocaine in his stomach, Magnum has to clear his name, wade waste deep into the drug smuggling underworld and go after a crime boss he came across during his tours in Vietnam. It's a mix of palm trees, playful banter, intense war flashbacks, typical detective tropes and inverted cliches (Thomas Magnum’s internal monologue both nods to and pokes fun at Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade).

Magnum P.I. would swing from serious to hokey but the debut exemplified how, at its best, the show could play both sides. Magnum could be a Lothario in loud shirts and short shorts,  and he could struggle with his ugly, bloody, complicated past in the Navy — a subject most American network TV wouldn’t deal with.

The debut didn’t impress everyone. For instance, the Washington Post's Tom Shales tore into “Don't Eat the Snow in Hawaii”: “Tom Selleck plays a very hairy private eye who takes up … the feeble excuse for a mystery plot and for generous ganders at acres of magnificent scenery. To make matters worse, the producers (including Glen A. Larson, maestro of the mundane) thought it would be cute to have Selleck doing a voice-over narration in the style of an old detective movie. ... Selleck looks like he just stepped out of an ad for Polo or Chaps or maybe even Jontue. He should step right back in again.”

When Thomas Magnum Broke the Fourth Wall

Shales didn’t like Magnum, P.I., but nearly everybody else did. During the 1980-81 season, the show found an immense audience of more than 16 million viewers, beating out such hits as Happy Days, Fantasy Island and Monday Night Football. The success was enough to propel Magnum, P.I. to seven more seasons and 162 total episodes.

As much as any other ’80s show, the series became a vehicle to promote young stars and veteran actors. Ernest Borgnine, Carol Burnett, Ted Danson, Sharon Stone, John Ratzenberger, James Doohan, Morgan Fairchild, Robert Loggia and Frank Sinatra are among the impressive list of guest stars to appear on the show. Magnum, P.I. also helped other series get off the ground, as CBS produced crossover episodes with Simon & Simon and Murder, She Wrote.

Magnum P.I. featured a parade of familiar faces (and ex-playmates and supermodels). It showed off the world’s most beautiful beaches and had action sequences to rival blockbusters of the day. It indulged in an almost gratuitous amount of shots featuring the famed Ferrari blazing around curves, and (eventually) it earned a theme song to rival Miami Vice’s opening music. The instantly-recognizable Magnum theme penned by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter didn’t open the show until halfway through season one, but from then on it became embedded in a generation’s brain and hit No. 25 on the charts when released as a single in 1982.

But despite all the chase scenes and kisses, it was the character of Magnum that made the show great. Selleck’s ability to play a ham or a heartbroken sap, a suave cat or goofy guy, kept viewers coming back — no wonder Steven Spielberg wanted Selleck for the role of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (the part went to Harrison Ford when Selleck couldn’t get the time from the network because of his obligations to Magnum P.I.). Whether getting the girl or losing her, dueling with thugs or Higgins (or Higgins’ “lads,” guard dogs Zeus and Apollo), Selleck had a charm and range hard to find on ’80s TV.

 

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