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Friday, April 05, 2013

Magnum P.I.

In the world of Hollywood, it can be considered a success if you even land a bit part as an extra, or have one of your script ideas turned into a sitcom episode. I don't know much about the acting/screenwriting industry myself, but having a couple of friends who live in the Los Angeles area, I know that everything they tell me about making it big in the film industry is the truth. The film and television industry is one of the harshest and most fickle ones to break into. And, sometimes real talent can be hard to spot amidst the sea of stretch limos, sparkly evening gowns, and golden stars placed into sidewalks honouring the legends of Hollywood both living and deceased.

Yet, some people seem to find a way to get their talent and skill out there for public consumption. A good producer will have at least one success story...perhaps having a sitcom picked up for a couple of years, or having a dramatic series last more than thirteen episodes. But for someone to have a name in the industry, they'll have to have several success stories. They'll have to have their name attached to some of the longest running series in history, and the more credits they have attached to their resume, the better the chance they have of being offered more projects.

(Of course, that's not unique to the film's like this no matter what your job is.)

Certainly, one of the biggest producers to come out of Hollywood over the last three decades is Donald P. Bellisario. The 77-year-old producer/screenwriter from Pennsylvania has made a huge name for himself since beginning his career in the film and television industry in the mid-1970s. His name has been attached to some of the longest running, critically acclaimed, and most talked about dramatic series ever created. As of 2013, his most recent creation, “NCIS”, has been at the top of the Nielsen ratings for several years, and with the show currently in its tenth season, it shows no sign of slowing down. “NCIS” could also be considered Bellisario's longest running series, easily surpassing the other shows that he had a hand in creating and producing.

That's not to say that his other projects were failures, of course. Some people might not know this, but “NCIS” is a spin-off from another Bellisario project, “JAG”, which ran from 1995-2005. He was also the creator of “Quantum Leap”, “Airwolf”, and the lesser-known series “First Monday”.

But what about the project that got Donald P. Bellisario noticed in Hollywood? What was the one show that helped get his reputation of a successful producer/screenwriter started?

Well, that show happens to be the subject of today's blog.

The year was 1980, and Bellisario (along with his writing partner Glen A. Larson), went to work creating a crime drama that was set in the beautiful state of Hawaii. It certainly wasn't the first time that a series shot entirely in Hawaii. The long running original series of “Hawaii Five-0” ran for twelve seasons, ending its run in 1980.

But, this series would be quite a bit different.

The main character of this new series would be a private investigator who resides in the guest cottage of wealthy novelist Robin Masters. It is suggested that the arrangement between Masters and the investigator is one of quid pro quo. Many people speculated as the show aired that the investigator once did Masters a favour, and to repay him, he let him live on his estate while providing his expertise in security. Of course, he has to deal with the fact that the majordomo of the estate happens to be the one person who is the complete opposite of him personality wise. The clashes between the two are legendary, and probably aided in the success of the show.

But, what can you expect from Jonathan Quayle Higgins III and Thomas Magnum IV, the two main characters in the long running television series “Magnum P.I.”?

Magnum P.I.” was Bellisario's first creation, and considering that it aired from December 11, 1980 until May 8, 1988, I would say that he struck gold. The star of the show was Tom Selleck, who played the title character, and not only did the program make Bellisario a respected producer, but it aided Tom Selleck in becoming a well-known actor (as well as one of the biggest male sex symbols of the 1980s). Texas-born John Hillerman put on his best British accent to assume the role of Jonathan Quincy Higgins III, the majordomo of the “Robin's Nest” estate in which he and Magnum reside. The rest of the cast was rounded out by Roger E. Mosley (who played the owner of “Island Hoppers” helicopter chartering service, Theodore “TC” Calvin), and Larry Manetti (who played Orville Wilbur Richard “Rick” Wright, the owner of the Kamehameha Club).

What was very interesting about the series was that all four of the show's main characters had been involved in serving in the military at some point during their lives (a common Bellisario trademark). Magnum, Rick, and TC all served during the Vietnam War (Magnum was in the U.S. Navy, while Rick and TC were former Marines), and Higgins served in the British Army as a Sergeant Major. The show was actually praised by former servicemen, who were happy to see Vietnam veterans portrayed as human beings and not just “shell-shocked killers”.

What was also interesting about the show was the fact that the viewer never really did find out who Robin Masters really was, as his identity was concealed. Many viewers actually had the hypothesis that Higgins was really Robin Masters, as Higgins was always opening up Robin's mail, and how he calls Robin's Ferrari (that Magnum always drives in every episode) “his car”. Higgins even tells Magnum in the series finale that he is actually Robin Masters, but he ends up admitting before the episode airs that he made up the whole story.

The real truth was that there was a plan to actually introduce Robin Masters into the series at the very end...but the actor who was intended to portray him died just before the plan could come to fruition. Astute ears might recall hearing Robin Masters speaking over the speakerphone (similar to that of Charlie on “Charlie's Angels”), and believing that he sounded an awful lot like film legend Orson Welles. Truth be told, Orson Welles did provide the voice of Robin Masters throughout the show's run, and plans were made to bring him into the show for a cameo appearance. Unfortunately, his death in October 1985 prevented that from happening. His voice was heard one final time after Welles died, this time being provided by Reid Crandell.

It's interesting the trivia that you find out about television, isn't it?

Actually, Orson Welles wasn't the only famous name to be associated with the series. Until it was dethroned by NBC's “The Cosby Show” in the mid-1980s, “Magnum P.I.” was once the top-rated television series to air on Thursday nights at 8:00pm. This meant that the show attracted some huge names, as well as a couple of crossovers.

For instance, “Magnum P.I.” had a crossover episode with the CBS series “Simon & Simon”, which starred Jameson Parker and Gerald McRaney. Magnum also appeared in an episode of “Murder...She Wrote” alongside Angela Lansbury.

And, while we're on the subject of famous faces, did you know that the late Frank Sinatra made an appearance during the penultimate season of “Magnum P.I.”? He not only had a guest-starring role, but he got to choose the script of the episode that he could appear in. I remember seeing that episode years ago, but cannot remember what the plot of the episode was. I do remember that this song was playing in the first few minutes of the show though. Maybe that'll narrow it down.

(Heh...I can't remember plot details, but can remember the music playing in the episodes. I'm so weird!!!)

For what it's worth, other celebrities who have made appearances on “Magnum P.I.” while the show was in its prime (and who in some cases were up and coming actors and actresses themselves) were Carol Channing, Ted Danson, Dana Delaney, Shannen Doherty, Ernest Borgnine, Morgan Fairchild, Norman Fell, Phil Hartman, Pat Morita, John Ratzenberger, Mimi Rogers, and Sharon Stone.

There's just one more thing that I need to discuss before I close the chapter on “Magnum P.I.”, and that thing is how the show could have ended.

Initially, the episode that aired on April 15, 1987, “Limbo”, was supposed to be the final episode of the entire series. After seven seasons, the show was beginning to dip even lower in the ratings, and the decision was made to end the series after season seven. But the way that the show was initially planned to end outraged fans so much that Bellisario and his writing staff were forced to extend the series an additional season, and thirteen more episodes were produced, stretching the life of the series until May 1988.

But why would the original ending of the series cause such backlash and nasty comments from fans?

Well, if you knew that the main character of the series was going to be shot to death, I would imagine some of you would likely be perfecting your best “Comic Book Guy” voice and declaring the show to have the “worst series finale ever”. Well, that's exactly what happened. In the last episode of season seven, Magnum is critically injured in a gunfight at a warehouse, and becomes comatose. In the episode, he's caught in the place between life and death, and Magnum makes peace with the fact that he won't be coming back alive. He says his goodbyes, and heads off towards the light as a John Denver song plays.

Well, needless to say, killing off Magnum was not the way that fans wanted him to go, and they were very vocal with their displeasure of what had happened...which lead to the creation of one more season. In the season eight opener, “Infinity and Jelly Donuts”, which aired on October 7, 1987, Magnum awakes from his coma following the near-death experience he dreamed of while comatose.

I don't know...what do you all think? Do you think the show should have ended with “Limbo”, or were they right to go on with one more season? I leave the ball in your court!

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