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Horatio Alger Award
Class Year: 2000
"Risk is the price you pay for opportunity."
When Tom Selleck was born in Detroit in 1945, his father was in the Army working as a mechanic on B-29 bombers. Selleck, his older brother, and his mother lived with his grandparents until his father returned two years later. A carpenter by trade, Selleck's father dreamed of starting a new life in California. In 1949, the dream became a reality when the Sellecks moved with nothing more than what they could fit into the family car. With the help of the GI Bill, they made a down payment on a small house in Sherman Oaks, near Los Angeles.
Selleck's father worked on straight commission as a real estate agent, earning money only when he sold a house. Looking back, Selleck realizes the family's financial situation was precarious, but he says he was not aware of the stress and hardships his parents faced. "I could go into analysis for 20 years and never blame my parents for anything," he says. "They lived a life of strong moral values and taught us that you are judged by your last worst act. They didn't lecture us about how to be good; they just set a good example. They walked their talk."
Selleck enjoyed school, but mostly because it was a way to play sports. Athletically built and exceptionally coordinated, Selleck did well in high school basketball and baseball. He was offered a basketball scholarship to Montana State University, but turned it down because he had always dreamed of attending the University of Southern California (USC). Unfortunately, even though he had the grades to attend USC, the school had not offered him a scholarship and his parents could not afford to send him. Instead, he went to Valley Junior College, enabling him to live at home and save money. He worked part time at a clothing store.
During his junior year, Selleck transferred to USC, where he majored in business. He got a new job working as a USC campus representative for United Airlines. During his last semester at USC, Selleck's fraternity brothers talked him into appearing on a popular television show, The Dating Game. The exposure earned him an interview for a Pepsi-Cola commercial, which he landed mainly because the ad called for an actor who could stuff a basketball. "I drank about a case of Pepsi making that commercial," he says. This exposure led to an offer by Twentieth Century Fox to join their new talent program. Selleck jumped at the opportunity and was soon balancing school in the morning with Fox's training classes in the afternoon.
Six months later, Selleck was out of school and training with Fox when he received his physical notice for the draft. To have some control over his situation, Selleck entered the National Guard and served in the infantry. A natural leader, Selleck entered officer candidate school and earned the rank of sergeant.
Every six months, Selleck's contract with Fox was renewed, but after his fourth option, he was fired. During his time with Fox, he had gotten no real acting jobs, but he was not yet ready to give up on his dream. He moved in with his brother and worked at a clothing store. He became committed to acting, going for training at night and working in the store during the day. He made a sporadic living off commercials and eventually began to make progress toward lead roles. He made a pilot for a series, but that also became a test of patience and perseverance. When the pilot did not sell, Selleck had to go on and look for his next job. In fact, Selleck made six unsold pilots. Life was a struggle and his determination was beginning to waiver. He was in his early 30s and had a wife and stepson. "I knew that pretty soon I was going to reach a stage when I would either have to make it or walk away and try something else," he says. That is when he made the pilot for a television series called Magnum, P. I. From 1980-1988, Magnum, P. I. was a top-rated television series. "Our show was first to depict Vietnam vets in a positive light," says Selleck. "Our characters had served their country and were able to adjust later in life." The Smithsonian Institution recognized the importance of these portrayals and displayed Selleck's ring, hat, and Hawaiian shirt he wore as Thomas Magnum.
"Clearly, I was not an overnight success," says Selleck. It had been 11 years from the time Fox had dropped his contract until the pilot for Magnum was sold. "My road to success was complicated. It was not a straight shot. There were many failures along the way, but I believe one of the privileges we have in this country is the right to fail. In the entertainment business, failure is heightened. I've taken some huge risks with my career, which doesn't mean I've always been right, but it does mean I've never second guessed myself."
Selleck was used to handling failure, but success was another story. "Magnum changed my life for the better and worse," he says. "There are huge consequences to being a public person." Rather than run from his fame, however, Selleck says he has tried to put the access it has given him to good use. He served, with Barbara Jordan, as co-national spokesperson for the Character Counts Coalition, which works to improve the ethical quality of society. He has also served as the spokesman for the Los Angeles Missions for the Homeless, as well as the National Fatherhood Initiative.
Selleck says his Horatio Alger Award is a great honor. "I have a typical American success story," he says. "My life has had its challenges. Certainly, nothing was handed to me. But with hard work and perseverance, I was able to achieve my dream. I was lucky to have parents who may not have been able to help me financially, but from whom I drew great strength. They set a good example for me to follow. I've lived in nearly all strata of financial situations, but through all those stages I've kept the same core values they instilled in me."