When we think of celebrities at the peak of their careers, it’s difficult to picture their lives before they entered the spotlight. But at some point, every single world-famous actor and musician was just a regular person with a regular job – and, sometimes, that job was in the military. Just like one particularly well-known Hollywood icon who, years before he broke onto the global film and television scene, served in the Vietnam War.
The man in question grew up in Detroit, Michigan, the son of a housewife and realtor. While his distinctive features are famous now, he’s almost unrecognizable in the photo above, from his days at the University of Southern California. He attended the college on a basketball scholarship, playing for the USC Trojans while also juggling part-time work as a model.
Eventually, however, he majored in business administration – yet his career would take another wild turn when he was prompted towards acting by a drama coach. He gained work in small roles on TV shows and commercials, but it was only the start of things to come. In fact, he couldn’t possibly have imagined the successes that lay ahead.
Those successes would go on to make him instantly recognizable – and not just because of his mustache. Indeed, the smart young man you see above is in fact the legendary Tom Selleck, star of Magnum P.I. and Blue Bloods. But while you may be familiar with his extensive filmography, his military past is far less well known.
Selleck was first issued his draft orders for military service in the Vietnam War. He went on to form part of the California National Guard, serving in the 160th infantry regiment.
From 1967 through to 1973, then, Selleck served as a sergeant in his regiment, looking ever the sharply dressed man. His infamous ’stache was a few years away yet – long after his early modeling career had made him the ideal candidate for appearing on National Guard recruitment posters.
For Selleck, his military service is a prominent part of his personal history that he remembers with pride. In fact, while talking with Military.com he said, “I am a veteran, I’m proud of it. I was a sergeant in the U.S. Army infantry, National Guard, Vietnam era. We’re all brothers and sisters in that sense.”
However, Selleck’s time in the military came at an awkward time for his acting career. Indeed, he’d left for the army while on a rolling six-month contract at 20th Century Fox – and when he returned, the studio let him go.
Undeterred from realizing his dream as a successful actor, though, Selleck continued to audition for – and win – roles in a number of television pilots. He was earning a wage but, with none of the six pilots being picked up, was yet to make an impact.
One of his early roles post-Fox was as a recurring character in detective drama The Rockford Files. His character, Lance White, was imbued with limitless luck – a metaphor, perhaps, for Selleck’s later success.
Indeed, in 1980 – when Selleck was already 35 – his career really began to take off when he got his big break on Magnum P.I.. As it would turn out, the mustachioed detective Thomas Magnum went on to become one of his most iconic roles.
By now, then, it was a whole 11 years since Fox had let him go from his contract after he returned from active duty. The studio would soon realize what it had missed out on, however, as Magnum P.I. was quickly propelling Selleck to stardom.
Indeed, Selleck was actually offered the role of Indiana Jones in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark ahead of Harrison Ford. Unfortunately, Magnum P.I.’s producers refused to allow time out of his schedule to shoot the movie, and so he had to forfeit the role to the Star Wars actor. Ironically enough, though, a writers’ strike delayed the filming of Magnum P.I. in the end.
Nevertheless, Selleck still managed to land multiple film roles in the early 1980s – from another detective in Runaway to a sharpshooter in Quigley Down Under, a 19th-century Western. Just as with his military service, Selleck is proud of his early roles, having called the latter one of his greatest films to date.
Certainly, most of Selleck’s early movie work took in a lot of Westerns, with films like The Sacketts, The Shadow Riders and Last Stand at Saber River. This was no coincidence, however, with his own interests in the outdoors and firearms giving him a natural proclivity towards the genre.
Selleck continued to play the titular role in Magnum P.I. for the show’s entire run of 162 episodes, covering eight seasons. In 1984, meanwhile, he won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, bringing him even greater exposure.
It’s little surprise, then, that he would later star in another hugely popular TV show – the inimitable Friends. Joining in the show’s second season as Richard Burke, boyfriend of Monica Geller, Selleck continued to make guest appearances throughout the show’s ten seasons.
And after following that up with a string of appearances in direct-to-TV movies, including a recurring role in the Jesse Stone series, Selleck landed the lead role in the CBS procedural drama Blue Bloods, where he plays a police commissioner. Indeed, it seems as if Selleck is never too far away from a legal role.
And though his military service may now be decades behind him, Selleck has still been known to express great support for his fellow servicemen, past and present. As he told Military.com, “We learned a lesson as a country over time, that we need to welcome our troops home regardless of whether you have political problems with whatever mission they’re on; they just served and we need to thank them for it.”
What’s more, Selleck still supports the military with his time, presence and star power, too. As well as contributing to public service announcements concerning the National Guard, he’s also a spokesman for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. And yet, even with all that, so few people know that there’s more to Tom Selleck than just his acclaimed acting chops and that famous facial hair.