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Tom Selleck has been playing novelist Robert B. Parker’s fictional creation Jesse Stone – the flawed, disgraced big city cop who struggles to redeem himself as a small town lawman – through eight CBS TV movies since 2005, roughly one per year, equivalent in duration, if not the quantity of mysteries, to his iconic eight season stint on “Magnum, P.I.”
“Jesse Stone: Benefit of the Doubt,” the latest in the series (which in recent years has followed original stories in part concocted by Selleck) became yet another ratings sensation for its network last May as the most viewed program of its air date. As the telepic makes its bow on home video, the “Blue Bloods” star, 67, chatted exclusively with PopcornBiz and reflected on the pleasures of playing his second-most popular sleuth.
What has this character come to mean to you after so many of these TV movies?
Well, after eight films, I never got tired of him and I always look forward to playing him. But when I read the first one we did – although in the order of airing them we did a prequel after that to show how we got to paradise – I read 'Stone Cold' and I said, 'I have to play this guy.' I knew Bob Parker, and the character was just so wonderfully flawed. Yet, you seemed to root for him and that was a big challenge for me as an actor, to play a guy that made so many mistakes and had so many kind of toxic habits, and yet the audience had to identify with him. I certainly did. I don't have quite as many toxic habits as Jesse, but it's fun playing him.
What were some of the key insights that Jesse’s creator Robert Parker gave in terms of your portrayal?
Bob has passed away now and he was a friend. First of all, he loved the movie, and Bob doesn't heap on praise. He's kind of unsentimental and everything else. He has said – and I won’t say which ones – but not all of his characters, the way that they were adopted to film, has he been pleased with. I don't think that I'm doing anything that he didn't say. He said it kind of brought to tears to his eyes when he saw the show because he thought captured the spirit of it, and while the movies…He was the first to say that movies and books are different. He said, 'My books are 300 and something pages. A script is ninety-some pages. It has to change,' but he felt that we captured the spirit of Jesse and that meant so much to me. But Bob didn't say that Jesse had a sense of humor; he said that he had a sense of irony. That was a huge help for me. Jesse tended not to feel sorry for himself, but was aware of the irony of the situations that he sometimes got himself in.
Are you glad that it's remained a series of films, rather than morphing into an ongoing series or something along those lines?
Yeah. After the first 'Jesse,' [CBC president] Les Moonves called me and asked me if I'd like to do a series. I said, 'Don't get mad at me, but...’ – he's my boss – ‘I signed on to do some movies and I'd like to play that out for a while.' He was happy. Maybe not just as happy, but happy because they were performing rather astoundingly. Then they revisited it again. Somewhere in the middle they said, 'Would you consider an hour,' and I said, 'Well, let me look real hard at it.' The harder I looked the more I realized that we couldn't tell the same kinds of stories if I was doing an hour series of 'Jesse Stone.' Jesse is in almost every shot of the 'Jesse Stone' movies. The show is told from his point of view, and I always felt that if I wanted to have a family and see them, to take something like that on for 22 weeks, it becomes your life and you don't have anything else.
Story wise, you've struck out on your own a bit, away from the Parker novels, and blazed some new trails for him. How many more do you envision and do you think you'll keep re-inventing his tale, or will you occasionally dip back into Parker's novels?
Well, right now CBS hasn't ordered another one. That's nothing new. They always seem to order them one at a time even though we kind of hit home runs, which is frustrating. So I'm not sure whether this is the last 'Jesse' or not. I don't think it will be, because there are so many other markets, cable and everything, that I think would want the series. Where it goes, really, is kind of based on where we finish the last one. That's always our starting point. Every 'Jesse Stone' an audience can see having not seen any others and enjoy them. Those who've seen one or more of them get this benefit of an accumulative narrative. We try to make sure that the movies play unto themselves for new audiences, but the cumulative narrative has increasingly hooked people in this universe of characters that recur, interesting characters, all kind of damaged incidentally, including his roommate and conscious, his dog Reggie, which is very big with people. All those things, I think, add up to obviously an enormous want to see. We've averaged over the eight movies over 14 million viewers, which nowadays is pretty big and against really heavy competition because we've always aired in the sweeps period against usually season finales.
Are you already back to work on 'Blue Bloods'?
Yeah. Back on 'Blue Bloods' for a third season and I've found another really interesting character that I just can't wait to go to work to play because he's very complex, and now I'm playing a dad to grownups and that's kind of interesting because your kids never really grow up. I just am obviously attracted to character driven pieces and you couldn't get more character driven than 'Jesse Stone.' These movies are really about the people. Yeah, we have plots, we have histories, but often for the first ten or 15 minutes in any 'Jesse Stone' movie the mystery is really Jesse and where he's at and what he's thinking and what he's going to do until the actual case or mystery takes over. So it seems to be very watchable.
Who have been some of your favorite film and television detectives and crime-solvers over the years?
I was a big fan of 'Rockford' just before 'Magnum.' I'm a big [James] Garner fan. I got to know Jim: I did two 'Rockfords' that heavily influenced me when they were trying to develop the Magnum character, so obviously 'Rockford.' David Janssen had a series a long time ago called 'Harry O' – I really liked that. I thought of, in a weird way, because of the long-term potential of 'Jesse,' 'Columbo.' I don't see Jesse and Columbo as very much alike and I'm not equating myself with Peter Falk's wonderful character. I just thought that it had that – that it could land in that ballpark for viewers. I think Garner's Rockford was, to me, my favorite. I liked 'Peter Gunn' years ago. And I'm aging myself, but Craig Stevens’ Peter Gunn was pretty cool.