Magnum Farce: How Tom Selleck Burned to Play Burns

Magnum Farce: How Tom Selleck Burned to Play Burns “This is your neighbor speaking. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say that something must be done about your garbage cans in the alley here. It is definitely second-rate garbage! Now, by next week, I want to see a better class of garbage. I want to see champagne bottles and caviar cans. I’m sure you’re all behind me on this, so let’s snap it up and get on the ball.”
Sandra Markowitz and Tom Selleck in A Thousand Clowns.
Sandra Markowitz and Tom Selleck in A Thousand Clowns.

“This is your neighbor speaking. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say that something must be done about your garbage cans in the alley here. It is definitely second-rate garbage! Now, by next week, I want to see a better class of garbage. I want to see champagne bottles and caviar cans. I’m sure you’re all behind me on this, so let’s snap it up and get on the ball.”

Yes, neighbors, The Voice of the Miscreant is once again heard in the land of Broadway. Murray Burns, the out-of-work but never out-of-wit gag writer for TV’s “Chuckles the Chipmunk” kiddie show in Herb Gardner’s 1962 A Thousand Clowns, is issuing his fortissimo wake-up call to humanity (or at least to anyone within immediate earshot) from his tenement-apartment window, announcing a new day of irresponsibility at hand.

This time Murray comes in the charismatic form of Tom Selleck (a.k.a., for eight years, five Emmy nominations and one win, “Magnum, P.I.”), and if that strikes you as strange casting, you don’t know how long Burns has smoldered inside Selleck or how the character rubbed off on his Hawaiian private investigator, Thomas Sullivan Magnum.

The actor leans forward with the real skinny: “Here’s the background on A Thousand Clowns. This play is my favorite play”—only, truth to tell, Selleck never actually saw the play. “I never got out of L.A. as a kid. I saw the movie, and it just affected me deeply, emotionally. And it was always with me, long before I ever thought I’d be an actor.”

He stumbled into acting—and, conversely, out of business school at USC—when, “because I grew up in the city where the [entertainment] business is,” somebody sent him to a commercial agent, who in turn got him into the talent program at 20th Century-Fox. “All through every acting class—and, believe me, I was in a lot of them—I kept going to A Thousand Clowns, and I kept getting the same critique whenever I would start it up: ‘Why are you doing this play? You should be doing The Rainmaker. You should be doing Tennessee Williams guys.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t want to do them. I want to do this guy.’”

Murray Burns is pied piper for The Unemployed, Nonconformist, Antiestablishment Band—a mesmerizer with a way with wisecracks, free and unfettered from workaday drones like his brother Arnold. Which—in the prying, sympathetic eyes of social worker Sandra Markowitz—makes him seem an unfit uncle for his precocious nephew Nick.

“This guy is more me than any character I know of,” insists Selleck. “Whoever I am, there’s somebody different inside”—and he strongly suspects it’s Murray Burns, so much so that, in his acting classes, he took any role in A Thousand Clowns just to do the play.

“I did Arnold Burns. I did Chuckles. I never played Sandra or Nick, but I’ve always—even if I look like the big tall leading man—enjoyed playing every role I could. When I finally got to work with William Daniels, I bored him to death, reciting lines from this play.”

Selleck says Murray Burns also figured in the “Magnum” mix. “Originally, Magnum was much more James Bond-like, much more Perfect Detective. He owned a Ferrari, he had beautiful stewardesses flying in all the time, he was somewhat of a womanizer. I said, ‘I won’t do it,’ even though Universal technically had the right to assign it to me. ‘I want to play a much more flawed guy.’ I didn’t quote Murray Burns, but it was those instincts that were culled from doing this play. I went to the wall with Universal on that, and, as a result, they got a new writer and re-created a show about a very flawed TV detective. I think it had a lot to do with my exposure to this play and the way it resonated with me. So to do this play at this time in my life—with Herb’s blessing—is scary, but a dream.”

It’s a dream he made happen. He got Gardner’s telephone number years ago from Amy Irving when she was doing Gardner’s Tony-winning I’m Not Rappaport—but was too chicken to use it. In 1996, when he heard Roundabout was planning to revive A Thousand Clowns, he broke down and called Gardner. “I think I said, ‘Have you ever thought of a 6 foot-4 goy playing Murray Burns?’ He said, ‘Well, goys have done pretty well with Murray. Jason [Robards], for one.’” The problem was that Gardner had already contacted Judd Hirsch for the lead, and that, for all practical purposes, was that.

Then, last year, when Selleck was pitched a play to do on Broadway, he declined—with an asterisk: “I said, ‘I don’t want to do this play, but, if you ever want to do A Thousand Clowns, I’m your guy.’” Somehow, the word got back to Gardner—and voila!—here he is.

So, in a sense, Selleck has backed himself into a Broadway debut, but he’s giving this new medium his best shot in his favorite role. “What a privilege! God knows what people will say about me doing it. Perception, everywhere, is sometimes more important than reality. I don’t really care about that stuff because I can’t control it. I can do good work, and I hope people will think I’m doing good work.”

—Harry Haun