Tom Selleck has starred in dozens of TV shows and feature films, notably Three Men and a Baby, the original Magnum P.I. series, the Jesse Stone franchise, and he had a recurring guest role on Friends. For the past nine years, he has played New York City Police Commissioner Frank Reagan on Blue Bloods. Frank not only commands 38,000 men and women in blue, but he is also the patriarch of a family dedicated to law enforcement. His two sons are on the force and his daughter is an assistant district attorney. Selleck talks to World Screen about crafting his character, the level of quality of episodic television and those famous Reagan family dinners scenes.
WS: I have a colleague at work whose husband is a New York cop, and he says that Blue Bloods is the only show that depicts police work correctly.
SELLECK: We get that a lot. It’s drama, so it’s a heightened reality. What do they say, “Art isn’t the truth; it’s a lie that enables us to see the truth”? We’re not doing a commercial for the NYPD, we’re showing the good and the bad, but cops seem to really respect it, which means a lot to me.
WS: Do you have consultants on the show?
SELLECK: Yeah, Jimmy Nuciforo is a former NYPD detective. He’s now an associate producer. We do a lot of research. [Former New York City Police Commissioner] Bill Bratton was very helpful to me because my job is a little different. I’m not shooting people or putting cuffs on them or tackling people. I love the challenge. I’m kind of dealing with an abstraction. How do you lead people? More importantly, if you’re in command, you don’t show weakness or fear or anxiety, and yet the audience has to see that. [Bratton’s] book Turnaround: How America’s Top Cop Reversed the Crime Epidemic helped me a lot, especially with the politics too, with the mayor. Commissioner [Raymond] Kelly, who was the commissioner at the time, was way too busy being a real commissioner. Bill Bratton calls me the acting commissioner! [Laughs]
WS: To what do you attribute the continued success of the show?
SELLECK: When I read the script for the pilot it moved me. I’d been shown a lot of series opportunities and I didn’t want to do them. I didn’t want to do a procedural. Increasingly, they wanted me to play the boss of something. I guess that’s flattering. And there was some of that in the first episode or two of Blue Bloods. We had some sit-downs and I said, If I play the boss, that’s what you hired me for, but I don’t want just to bark orders. I want to see what the world of command is like.
I did a motion picture—and I never thought I’d get asked to do that kind of role—called Ike: Countdown to D-Day, where I play General Eisenhower. I’m very proud of it. It was scary. When my good friend and agent, Bettye McCartt, sent it to me, she said, They want you to play General Eisenhower in the lead-up to D-Day. I said, What are they thinking? The only thing I knew was that the audience would say the same thing, and that might make them want to watch. When I read the script written by Lionel Chetwynd it made me cry even though you know the ending. I said, I must get this, so I took the risk. But I learned so much about the abstraction of command, about the weight of the responsibility. He had millions of men under his command. Frank on Blue Bloods has 38,000, so I’m not playing General Eisenhower, but I have drawn on that a lot. And that’s where I wanted the show to go with my character—not walk into a room and give orders.
The interesting thing for me about Frank is that he’s one of the most famous people in New York City. He travels in different circles, whether he likes it or not. That’s not his roots. He was a beat cop in the NYPD. But he travels in some incredible circles and when that door to that office closes, things are talked about in a whole different way, and when he walks out the mask comes up. To me, that was the most interesting thing.
WS: Tell us about the wonderful family meal scenes.
SELLECK: I loved the family scenes in the pilot script, and I said to [executive producer] Leonard Goldberg, this is an eight-page scene with the family having dinner. I know something about television networks. They’re going to try and cut that out, right? He said, No, it’s going to stay the way it is and it’s going to be a set-piece. Leonard thought of that and made that contribution from day one. And now most people say it’s their favorite part of the show.
The benefit of a seven- or eight- or nine-year character-driven show is the audience walks in your shoes. There are episodes that we couldn’t do in the first season, but we can do now because the audience has this cumulative narrative in their head, we don’t have to do a lot of explaining. And you have the wonderful thing where the audience knows a secret at the family dinners. They had a secret on Magnum P.I. and Magnum shared it with the audience in the narration. If he lied to somebody and was running a con on somebody, he would get in his car and say to the audience, I know what you’re thinking, I lied. I shouldn’t have lied. Magnum had a conversation with viewers. [Blue Bloods] has that in the form of the audience knowing a secret at family dinners that even the characters aren’t aware of because the audience has seen—usually, it’s the third or fourth act—what all of the characters are going through.
The source of jeopardy for our show, as much as the audience worries about it, is in the relationships. They know it’s a contentious family; they know they all have opinions. You have to fight to get attention at the Reagan table or to get a word in. They don’t want their relationships going south.
WS: What’s the atmosphere like on set?
SELLECK: [Shooting a TV series] can be miserable. I’ve been on those sets—usually, as a guest, thank god. It made me work harder than when I had my own shows because you’re walking on eggshells. I’m not coming out of my dressing room until they’re coming out. We don’t have that. We have really good people, who happen to be good actors. We’ve got two families now. And it shows. On an hour television show with a big ensemble, you could go two, three, four weeks without seeing somebody. In our show, we shoot [an episode] in eight days. Once every eight days, the whole family [gets together at the dinners]. And there’s a family of actors, too. Sometimes the directors have to remind us we’re shooting a scene because we’re catching up and kidding around and doing all sorts of stuff!
WS: How have you seen the quality of television series increase over the years?
SELLECK: You have to fight for it. I had some very serious meetings at the beginning of the show about Frank’s character: Are we doing a procedural or are we doing a character-driven show? It had to be settled once and for all. We weren’t going to evolve once we were on the air. If the network is allowed to executive produce every show, you know what, there’s going to be a sameness, and I think our show is a little different. The production values have increased. Technically, now I’m an executive producer in an unofficial way. I won’t take a credit for it; there are too many executive producers. But I know episodic TV; I ran the show for the last two years on Magnum. I couldn’t do that now. I’m too old. [Laughs] But I do spend a lot of time on my character and everybody seems to welcome it.
A character-driven show is very hard. You’ve got to find the comedy in the tragedy and the tragedy in the comedy in a character-driven show. Finding moments takes a lot of time. The editors don’t have enough time. So, I’ll spend a day in the editing room just working on moments for the characters. And I make notes, like, Why is the character crying? You can’t pander to emotion. I’m not saying we do. You can say, Let’s do a scene like that, that will be emotional. No, it won’t. Not unless the characters are compelling and the journey is good. It’s almost a trap because our show, more often than not, will have a moment that sneaks up on the audience and moves them. And most shows don’t do that. To find that stuff takes time, so I usually spend a day in the editing room.
I think that’s a big contribution that’s helped. But look, I’m only improving an already well-done form. [Take] the photography and the fact that New York is a [central character in the show]. We’ve learned how to do that. We have to do it on budget. How do you get more production value out of less money and still get outside and show the city? You get better at it and it makes the show better. But the only real question to ask always, on any changes is, is it better?