Recalling the star of Magnum PI and more… who had a special place in my heart…
Remembering An American who brought some English gravitas to a 1980s TV show.
MAGNUM, P.I. Theme HD, AMB Production TV, http://www.youtube.com
I was sad to hear of the recent passing of a much-loved American actor from my 1980s childhood. This actor who for years, no decades, I mistakenly thought was as British as his character Higgins in the crime show Magnum PI (1980-88). That was until the illusion was shattered a few years ago as I watched Chinatown (1974) for the first time with Darlin’ Husband pointing out Hillerman in this Jack Nicholson movie. In his scenes Hillerman shattered this illusion every time he spoke. As only later I read Hillerman was born and bred in Texas.
So Hillerman’s Higgins was one of more than a few characters that I remember fondly from way back then in this iconic role. His character Higgins was one of my dad’s favourites from the wee screen. At the time there were a number of 1980s film and TV characters that my father called his heroes. Primarily, for their fabulously written roles and laughed with constantly for their more comic moments. Higgins was one of those. Other notables including Larry Hagman’s JR Ewing in Dallas (1978-91), Del Boy (David Jason) from Only Fools and Horses (1981-2003) and Windsor Davies as Battery Sergeant-Major ‘Shut Up’ Williams in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974-81). And now for more on that Emmy Award and Golden Globe nominated (and once winning) role from Hillerman…
Magnum PI of course is more likely to be remembered by your mother for the man in the titular lead. As he was then heart-throb, Tom Selleck. Selleck the later star of 3 Men and a Little Lady (1990) and its predecessor and the man who could have been Indiana Jones. Here playing Thomas Magnum, a Private Investigator based in Hawaii. With a penchant for pretty ladies, Hawaiian shirts and solving cases. And a beloved red Ferrari. A kinda more British equivalent being Jersey based Bergerac (1981-91) But without that trademark moustache, charisma and probably the sun. And played by the attractive to thinking woman of a certain age, John Nettles. The guest star list for Magnum PI is amazing including Ernest Borgnine, Frank Sinatra, Ian McShane and Sharon Stone.
Keeping an eye on all the proceedings was Magnum’s foil, the terribly British Higgins played by Hillerman. Or to be exact Johnathan Quayle Hiiggins III. Higgins, a British man claiming to be the Baron of Perth (Scotland) and an accomplished war veteran who studied at Eton and Sandhurst. Often casting his sardonic eye on Magnum’s shenanigans and assisting him with his combat knowledge. Higgins was the Estate Manager for the mysteriously never seen, but only heard. millionaire author Robin Masters. Higgins worked alongside Magnum as Masters’ Head of Security. It was often implied in the series, Higgins was Robin Masters. And this was heavily suggested in the show after the man who played him – to my surprise – Orson Wells passed away.
Higgins had a wonderfully snobby British accent which Hillerman reportedly used as he worked on theatre productions. With Hillerman saying this characteristic came easily to him, and was a perfect addition as he used it in an arrogant manner for his Higgins’ role. This coming to the fore as Higgins often added some British cynicism to events. Higgins was played with that oft weary and dry humour found in 80s leads be it Rickman in Die Hard (1988) or Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991). These in combination to Hillerman’s spot on English accent built up easily our picture of Higgins in a credible manner. As we learn more of his prestigious British past including being awarded the Victoria Cross and degrees at Cambridge and involvement in many wars. And his previous war role as a Sergeant Major with his barking of orders to his pair of Doberman Pinchers, Zeus and Apollo.
At times during the series Higgins’ half brother was introduced to us. To my father’s delight these roles also played just as wonderfully by Hillerman. Higgins’ half brothers were South American, Texan and Irish and different personalities to their half brother. Hillerman reprised the role in two further series with his appearances in Murder She Wrote (1984-96) and Simon and Simon (1981-89). Hillerman also played homage to the role in a series of adverts during the series run and after this.
And as for Robin Masters? With his possible unseen additional role for Hillerman left up for debate as the Magnum series ended one thing is clear. For the entire series, Hillerman fooled me and probably many more viewers into believing he was an Englishman. His performances in this show also comically portraying his half brothers from many nations. These attributes along with Higgins reportedly working for M16 – workplace of Bond. James Bond (see Spectre (2015)) and those Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) lads – easily convince us of the many possibilities of this Englishman’s possible double life. Leaving us with Hillerman’s Higgins as one of Eighties enigmatic Englishmen…