While it’s best remembered today for its signature theme, iconic red Ferrari and Tom Selleck’s mustache, Magnum, P.I. was much more than an ephemeral bit of escapist 1980s television.
Unlike its ’80s brethren (The A Team, Miami Vice and Knight Rider), Magnum still holds up to this day on repeated viewings. Although dated at times (clothes and hairstyles, most notably), Magnum’s themes, solid writing, and excellent cast were of the highest quality and resulted in a meaningful series that far exceeded the sum of its parts.
A consistent team of writers, producers and directors under the steady guidance of creator and television veteran Donald P. Bellisario (creator of Airwolf, Quantum Leap, JAG and NCIS) developed fully fleshed-out characters that carried the program.
Thomas Sullivan Magnum IV (Tom Selleck) was a deeply flawed individual. Though extremely competent as a private investigator (an irony is that the show had “P.I” in the title but Magnum detested being called a “P.I.” or a “private detective”), he was an overgrown toddler in many respects: emotional, childish, occasionally manipulative and more than a little immature. However, he was also intensely loyal to his friends, decent, honorable and he possessed integrity and strong values.
What formed the true and lasting bedrock of the series was the camaraderie and deep bond between Magnum and his closest friends: Theodore Calvin (Roger E. Mosley), aka “T.C.”, and Orville Wilbur Wright III (Larry Manetti), aka “Rick”– a nickname he adopted from his favorite movie, Casablanca, as a coping mechanism following his return from Vietnam. T.C. was a helicopter pilot and owner-operator of his own charter service, “Island Hoppers.” He was a richly-developed character and a true renaissance man: a gentleman who loved the ballet, poetry, literature, coached kids’ sports teams and, oh, yeah, he was a gold glove boxer and was not to be trifled with. Rick was the manager of a private country club, The King Kamehameha Club, liked the ladies, flashy clothes, and had connections to just about every underworld figure between Chicago and Honolulu. Their friendships were sealed during shared service in Vietnam, a harrowing time for each of them, which was a constant theme in the series. (It is interesting to note that during its run on CBS, Magnum receive accolades for respectfully and positively portraying Vietnam veterans, a relatively rare stance just five years after the last US troops evacuated Saigon in 1975.)
Magnum had cajoled absent and reclusive mystery writer, Robin Masters, into letting him live rent-free in the guesthouse of his Hawaii estate, allowing unfettered access to Robin’s immaculate red 1979 Ferrari 308 GTS. (It would be remiss not to mention that Robin was voiced–though never seen–by none other than Orson Welles!)
The estate’s self-professed major domo, Jonathan Quayle Higgins III (John Hillerman) aka “Higgins” (or “Higgie-Baby” to T.C.) was a retired British Sergeant Major and was often adversarial towards and resentful of Magnum. (The stiff-lipped Englishman used the word “interloper” on more than one occasion). Eventually, though, the two came to respect and care for one another, and T.C. and Rick also developed friendships with Higgins.
The series was a great deal of fun with whimsical moments aplenty. Yes, fist fights and car chases were plentiful, but what grounded the show in reality and makes it immensely watchable 34 years after its premiere is the strong and pervasive undercurrent of humor. The comedy and laughs were organic and one senses that these actors genuinely loved each other and were dedicated to producing good quality work.
Being shot on location in Hawaii, it’s no surprise that there were very few Christmas-themed episodes. After all, Hawaii doesn’t exactly jump to mind when one thinks of winter. “Operation: Silent Night” (season 4, episode 10) aired on December 14, 1983 and was one of only two Christmas-themed episodes in the series’ eight seasons. But it represents not only an appropriately seasonal introduction to Magnum but it wonderfully encapsulates the strongest and most lasting elements of the series.
The episode begins with the four main characters (Magnum, Higgins, TC and Rick) inside T.C.’s helicopter, each with a different destination to which T.C. is begrudgingly ferrying them in “Captain Calvin’s Charity Chopper.” As T.C. tells his comrades, “you get what you paid for and none of you paid!” But that doesn’t stop the guys from complaining anyway … some people are just never satisfied.
Rick is off to Maui to judge the first annual Santa’s Little Helper Beauty Contest; Higgins has been dispatched by Robin Masters to Molokai to pay the Christmas bonuses to the staff of Robin’s banana plantation; Magnum is headed to the Big Island to pitch woo to Cheryl, an unmarried teacher, while ostensibly serving as a Santa suit-wearing chaperone for her students’ class trip (replete with belly pad); And T.C. plans a red-eye to visit his family in New Orleans for the first time in six years, just in time for Kwanzaa. But mechanical trouble in the chopper forces them to land on an uninhabited island that is used for naval gunnery practice and that is modeled after the real island of Kahoolawe (which, believe it or not, really was a naval gunnery target until the early 1990s).
The characters’ base personalities emerge while on the island, alternately showing their best and least favorable traits in the course of just one episode.
Magnum swings from juvenile yet positive and blithe to insubordinate and then back again to his good-natured self. Rick is terrified of all things on the island that could or do go bump in the night: lizards, pirates, cannibals and quicksand. He is at first pessimistic and convinced they’re going to die (he even imagines his own hilarious funeral!) and then calms down after his scrappy loyalty and devotion to his friends kicks in once again, like clockwork.
T.C. is annoyed and grumpy at his generosity being taken advantage of but he is a big softie at heart and his thoughtful and sensitive demeanor soon shines through. Higgins is animated and as a giddy as a schoolboy at the prospect of a fun island adventure; his stoic and steady nature prevails and the Magnum ecosystem returns to the status quo.
There are some great bits of comedy, including practical jokes at Rick’s expense that poke fun at his fears of bugs and pirates; general mockery of Higgins’ attempts to build a boat out of remnants of plane wreckage found on the island; Rick and Magnum catching T.C. enjoying a private moment in a beautiful renditions of “Under the Boardwalk” and, later, “Chain Gang”; and Higgins’ dubious Christmas dinner concoction. (Magnum: “I’m trying to cut back on my intake of roots and berries”).
As was often the case in most Magnum episodes, “Silent Night” deftly and seamlessly transitions from lighthearted to poignant when the guys stumble on a Japanese plane wreckage and discover the pilot’s remains. Magnum thoughtfully searches for evidence of the pilot’s serial number, in the hopes of somehow informing the next of kin of their brother or son’s final resting place.
“He might have been on the other side but he was just a soldier doing his job…it could have been any one of us,” Magnum says. The camera pans over the men’s faces and each one clearly dwelling on the gravity of this truth. These fellow war veterans proceed to respectfully bury the pilot’s remains with heads bowed before resuming their efforts to get off the island.
Despite’s Higgins having briefly turned into “an overgrown boy scout trying to earn his survival merit badge,” in the words of Magnum, his initial excitement at an opportunity for adventure fades after his dispiriting failure to re-purpose the downed plan. Higgins is despondent that his survival skills have dulled with age and is so convinced that they will die on the island that he begins to write his will.
This self-reflection and expression of emotion was typical of Magnum, P.I. and is why the series resonates to this day: the collective character studies explore the depths of the bonds of friendship.
Even the often-uneasy relationship between Magnum and Higgins dissolves in one telling scene: Magnum apologizes for a prior burst of insubordination and Higgins graciously accepts it, proceeding to reminisce about all the Christmases he spent away from home during his time in the British army. Higgins wonders aloud if military service makes Christmas more bittersweet– inasmuch as the confrontational and violent nature of such a profession conflicts with the peace on Earth and goodwill toward men aspects of the holiday season. He is grateful for their time on the island, not because of his adventures but because he realizes that he’d spent so much time focusing on the mundane tasks in his life that he’d ignored the spirit of the Christmas season.
Magnum reverts to type and injects some needed levity by donning his Santa suit, creating a Christmas tree worthy of Charlie Brown, and singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
Just as T.C. finally gets the chopper working, the naval bombs begin to shell the island and they escape just in time.
The isolation of the island setting highlights the strength of the writing and the acting. With no Ferrari, no fist fights, and no recurring characters to lean on, the four actors are on their own and they dutifully rise to the occasion.
It’s little wonder that actors Roger E. Mosley (T.C.) and Larry Manetti (Rick) consider this episode their favorite of the entire series.
Watch the entire episode online: