Tom Selleck THE LAST OF THE BREED
True West|April 2021
The renowned film and television star reflects on his 50 years in Westerns and his hope that he will ride the range again on the silver screen.
HENRY C. PARKE
A 1969 episode of the Western series Lancer opened with an unmustachioed but unmistakable Tom Selleck cheerfully harassing a one-handed lawman. It was just a bit, but it was a start for an actor who would become nearly the lone standardbearer for Westerns in the 1990s and 2000s, much as Clint Eastwood had been in the decades before, and John Wayne had before him. Coincidentally, later a clean-shaved Sam Elliot appears just long enough to have his horse stolen. “Sam and I were already good friends,” Selleck says. “Fox had a new talent program, like the old studio system; were in it. I’ve always said Sam was more formed in those days, [knowing] exactly what he wanted. I was still learning the craft.

“Other than a Muriel Cigar commercial, where I got on a horse for about three seconds,” it would be a busy but Westernless decade before Selleck would saddle up again. A miniseries based on Louis L’Amour’s The Sacketts was in preparation, about three brothers uniting after the Civil War. Two brothers had already been cast: Sam Elliot and Jeff Osterhage. Writer/Producer Jim Byrnes recalls, “Director Robert Totten wanted Buck Taylor for the part. Tom came in five times to read, and Bob still wanted Buck. I said to Bob, ‘This guy is going to be a star.’”

“I’m glad I was honest with Bob because most actors lie,” admits Selleck. “He asked, can I ride a horse? I told him, ‘No, but I’m not afraid of them. I’m a good athlete, and I can learn.’ All of us finalists had our audition at the Randall Ranch. He had us get on a horse and ride over to the grandstand. And in the grandstand were Glenn Ford, Ben Johnson, Sam Elliott, Jeff Osterhage and Bob Totten.” Selleck won the role, and Taylor played a cowboy who made plans to kill Selleck’s character the moment they met.

“Bob Totten left a big impression on me. He commanded a lot of respect. He’d done more Gunsmokes than almost anybody. Totten assembled a Western stock company like John Ford had, people who did one-day bit parts: Slim Pickens, Pat Buttram and Jack Elam.” And then there were the stars. “Glenn Ford was an actor ahead of his time; his acting style was very naturalistic, like early Brando. Ben Johnson would be embarrassed if I called him a mentor, but he was—everybody looked up to Uncle Ben. He spent a lot of time with us, taught Jeff and me how to rope—and he was a world champion roper. I got to know Louis L’Amour well. Louie was on the set every day. I got hooked on Westerns with The Sacketts.”

The wrap party was memorable. Totten took off one of his boots, “poured Jack Daniel’s in it, said, ‘This is tradition: you need to drink out of this.’ But the big thing out of that party was Sam, Jeff, Ben and I all said if we ever get a chance to do this again, we’re there. And that was the germination of Shadow Riders.” In 1980, Selleck was cast in Magnum P.I., and became a major star, playing the Hawaiian-based detective for eight seasons. But he always made movies on hiatus, and in 1982, the three brothers and Ben were back, now called the Travens rather than the Sacketts, to avoid litigation. “Louis created a new book for us, the Travens, and it was such a thrill when the book came out, to see us— Sam, Jeff and I—pictured on the back.”

Magnum ended in 1988. “The script by John Hill, Quigley Down Under, had a bunch of fingerprints on it—Steve McQueen, Sean Connery—but it didn’t get made, and I absolutely loved it.”

Quigley is the story of an American cowboy, maybe the best long-range shot in the world, who comes to Australia to work for a rancher named Elliott Marston (Alan Rickman). Quigley rebels when Marston wants him to slaughter Aboriginal people, takes their side, and declares war on Marston. Helping him is Crazy Cora (Laura San Giacomo), who has some issues, hence her name, but rises powerfully to the occasion. San Giacomo recalls that it was her first Western, “a genre I’m not familiar with, but I’m going to dive in and do my best, and shoot guns and ride horses; things that I have never done before.”

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