December 20, 1932 – John Hillerman
Magnum, P.I. is a crime dramady television series starring Tom Selleck as Thomas Magnum, a private investigator living on Oahu, Hawaii. The series ran from 1980 to 1988 on CBS that ranked in the Top 20 series for its run.
Thomas Magnum IV is played by Selleck, he of the ultimate porn stache. He lives in the guest house of a beachfront estate called “Robin’s Nest” at the invitation of its owner, Robin Masters, the celebrated, but never-seen, author of dozens of lurid novels. The first few seasons suggest that Magnum had owed Masters some sort of favor, possibly when Masters hired him for a case. The voice of Masters was provided by Orson Welles.
Selleck’s contract commitment to the Magnum, P.I. series cost him the role of Indiana Jones in the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, which went instead to Harrison Ford. Because to the 1980 AFTRA/Screen Actors Guild strike, production of Magnum, P.I. was delayed, which would have allowed Selleck to play Jones, as it turns out. Oh, well.
Magnum lives a luxurious life on the estate and operates as a P.I. on cases that interest him. His nemesis is Jonathan Quayle Higgins III, played by John Hillerman. An ex-British Army Sergeant Major, he is, on the surface, a stern caretaker of Robin’s Nest, whose strict ways often conflict with Magnum’s easy-going personality. He patrols Robin’s Nest with his two highly-trained Doberman Pinschers. Magnum has free use of the guest house and the car, a Ferrari, but in various episodes, he often has to bargain with Higgins for use of the tennis courts, wine cellar and expensive cameras in the estate.
The relationship between Magnum and Higgins is prickly, but as the series progressed, an unspoken respect and fondness grew between the pair. Many episodes dedicated more screen time to their relationship after it proved popular with fans. Magnum has a sneaking suspicion that Higgins is actually Masters. This suspicion is neither proved or disproved, although in one episode, Higgins is shown alone in a room, picking up a ringing phone and talking to Masters.
Higgins: Sometimes you amaze me, Magnum, truly. Your intuitive grasp of human nature is so…so…
Many of us gay Boomers were keen on Magnum, P.I. because of Selleck, who was often shirtless, plus there was that mustache. As hot as he was, I was more interested in Higgins, an ex-British army officer, with his army khakis that seemed swiped from the costume department of 1957 film The Bridge On The River Kwai, and his riding crop which he used to commanded the two Dobermans. The priggish Higgins was meant to be a foil to the carefree Magnum who he repeatedly outsmarted. But as played by Hillerman with a steely sense of dignity, Higgins was no joke. He lived in a world of order and rules-following, and Higgins could deliver a dry barb that cut Magnum down to size.
Yet, Hillerman wasn’t British at all. He was born and he died in Texas. It was a testament to his acting that most viewers would never guess his origins, or that he wasn’t playing some variation of himself. Hillerman actually spoke with a Texas drawl, like his character Howard Johnson in Mel Brooks‘ Blazing Saddles (1974).
Magnum, P.I. was the height of his career. Hillerman had four Emmy Award nominations, with one win for his role, plus five Golden Globe nominations.
In 1957, after serving in the U.S. Air Force for four years, he moved to New York City where he worked onstage. Even after more than 100 stage roles, Hillerman had trouble making a living, and he moved to Los Angeles, where he had better luck being cast in films and television.
Director Peter Bogdanovich, who worked with Hillerman during his stage career, cast Hillerman in his films The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up, Doc? (1972), and Paper Moon (1973).
Hillerman worked steadily in films, but like many character actors, he rarely had enough screen time to shape an indelible character, but he served the role and the work, and never brought undue attention to himself. Yet, he did shine as water inspector Russ Yelburton in Chinatown (1974), a perfect portrait of the ultimate bureaucrat willing to look the other way; and in the one of my favorites, Paper Moon, Hillerman playing two roles, a menacing bootlegger and his twin brother, a corrupt sheriff.
He was also in High Plains Drifter (1973), The Day Of The Locust (1975) and the Liza Minnelli vehicle, Lucky Lady (1975). Then the television success of his role on the series Ellery Queen (1976-79) as a detective who hosts a radio show and tried to outsmart the title character (Jim Hutton), brought him more series work. From 1976 to 1980, he had a recurring role on the sitcom One Day At A Time as Bonnie Franklin’s icy boss, and he co-starred as Betty White‘s estranged husband on The Betty White Show (1977-1978).
Magnum, P.I. finally made him rich and famous, and after the show ended, Hillerman wanted more serious work, but found himself being offered mostly sitcoms. In 1990, he played Dr. Watson to Edward Woodward‘s Sherlock Holmes in Hands Of A Murderer; but an actor has to eat, so joined the final year of Valerie Harper’s sitcom, retitled The Hogan Family. His final appearance was in A Very Brady Sequel (1996), a Brady Bunch reunion show.
Hillerman was taken by cardiovascular disease at his home in Texas 13 months ago.
I feel that he had to be gay, although my research brings me nothing about his personal life. But he did love opera and he never married, or even dated anyone publicly. He told an interviewer: ”I’m a dyed-in-the-wool bachelor”. Still, intentionally or not, Hillerman brought a note of campy haughtiness to Higgins. At least to this gay guy in his 30s, he read as a queer, old fashioned queen.