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Tom Selleck: The Spirit of a Cowboy
By Christie Craig

tom selleck
tom selleck
tom selleck
tom selleck

Tom Selleck is a convincing actor no matter what role he plays. Whether he’s paroling the beach doing sleuth work or trying to bribe someone to change a dirty diaper, Selleck knows how to captivate an audience. However, to his Western fans and most of his female admirers, Selleck is most convincing when he’s wearing boots and a cowboy hat, his faced slightly smudged with grit fro a hard days work, and straddling a horse. Perhaps the image is so convincing because Selleck himself is a fan of the cowboy lifestyle.

“I grew up on Westerns,” says Selleck. When asked about his favorite Western actor, he’s quick to reply, “Why, John Wayne, who else?” While he continues to name names such as Roy Rodgers, he admits that, “John Wayne was out there all on his own.”

tom selleck

As a kid, Selleck played cowboys and Indians. “I was always the cowboy. As a matter of fact I kept my Fanner 50 cap pistol past the age that it was cool to own one. So I played with the pistol in the privacy of my own room. At eight years old, you couldn’t be seen playing with a cap gun.”

Selleck grew up in Sherman Oaks, California, near Los Angeles. His father served as a president for Coldwell Banker and his mother was a homemaker. They didn’t live on a ranch and the closest Selleck got to horses was on a pony ride. “I remember being strapped in and bounced around as the pony went around in circles.”

He took only one theater arts class in junior college and his major at Southern California was business administration. He was also very active in sports during his college years. He played basketball, football, and baseball. “I wanted to be a baseball player when I grew up and I’m sure I dreamed of being a cowboy along the way. At some point I wondered what it would be like to be in the movies. Everyone living in California thinks about that at one point, but I never really gave it much thought,” says Selleck.

tom selleck His career in acting started with commercials. He accepted an assignment to appear in a Pepsi-Cola commercial that called for a basketball player. He also recalls doing a cologne commercial where he was filmed on a horse. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I remember feeling as if I was getting jolted around a lot. But after two days of filming they managed to get what they needed for a thirty second segment.”

Selleck’s first substantial role in a Western film was in the movie, “The Sacketts,” a popular television miniseries based on novels by Louis L’Amour. It was then that Selleck really learned to ride. “The director of “The Sacketts” was Bob Totten. He was the type of director that expected you to know your part. I didn’t want to let him down. So I had two weeks to learn. I have to give credit to Donna Hall and Jay Fishburn for teaching me. It was their job to make sure the actors knew how to work with the horses. I remember I kept telling Donna, ‘I want to gallop, to run.’

“She would just shake her head and say, ‘First you’ve got to learn how to get on, get off, start and stop and look like you know what you’re doing. Because that is what you’ll mostly be doing on camera.’ I didn’t realize it at the time but what she was really teaching me was good horsemanship. She also gave me lessons on how to rope. Of course I’m not some champion roper but I know enough to be believable on camera.”

Selleck went on to do other Westerns such as the “The Shadow Riders” another movie based on Louis L’Amour’s work. Then, in 1990 he was in “Quigley Down Under.” When asked about which Western he’s the most proud of, Selleck pauses then says, “Well, it’s hard to say. They’ve all been good roles, but “Quigley Down Under” comes to mind. It was a time when very few Westerns were being done, and here I was starring in a movie and playing a role of one of those Westerns guys, the kind of guy that John Wayne could have played much better.”

tom selleck Selleck also states that it was during the filming of “Quigley Down Under” that he came across “his favorite horse,” Spike. “The horse didn’t have movie experience, but there was something about him. First of all he fit me. Being as tall as I am, I have to have a 16-hand, or at least a 15 and 3/4-hand horse or, my feet dangle, and it just doesn’t work. But it wasn’t just about size. There seemed to be a sense of respect between us. I knew almost immediately that I wanted that horse.”

It took Selleck a while to discover who owned the horse. Eventually, he learned that Spike belonged to two stunt men. “I’d never had any experience at horse-buying so it took a lot to approach them. When I did, they said we’d talk about it over dinner sometime. Later, when that time came, I was so nervous. The dinner was almost over and I hadn’t brought it up.” Selleck’s wife finally prodded him on and he asked.

“They just shook their heads and mentioned something about good news and bad news. ‘The bad news is that the horse isn’t for sale,’ they told me. They let me think about it a few minutes and then added, ‘The good news is that we’re giving him to you.”

Of course, getting Spike all the way from Australia to his ranch which is located halfway between L.A. and Santa Barbara, wasn’t cheap. But Selleck doesn’t regret it. In addition to his affection for the horse, it seems Spike has earned his keep. The horse has appeared with Selleck in movies, one of which was “Last Stand at Saber River.” When asked how often he rides, Selleck admits that it occurs in spurts.

“Depending on what’s going on in my life. I might go for a month without riding, and then there will be a period where I ride every day.” Right now Selleck has six horses and two “babies,” as he calls them, “one of which is our first foal. That’s been a lot of fun.”

tom selleck When not on a horse or acting, you might find this very dedicated father watching his ten-year-old daughter, Hannah, ride. “She rides English,” he tells us.

No doubt when Selleck has a Western in the works he’s probably spending more time on top of a horse. To ensure believability in a film, Selleck prefers to perform most of his own stunts. “Hollywood has given away so many of film-making tricks that the audience is really watching,” states Selleck. “However, I can’t let my ego get in the way either. If I get hurt, there’s a hundred and fifty other people who can’t work.”

When asked about his most challenging stunt, Selleck, with a touch of cowboy pride in his voice, recalls practicing for a pony express mount for a scene in “High Road To China.” He had gotten fairly good at the stunt and was actually looking forward to it but then that part of the scene got cut before it was filmed. He also recalls the scene in “Last Stand on Saber River,” where he chased the horse-drawn wagon and rescued the little girl.

“Last Stand on Saber River” is another film on Selleck’s “proud-of “ list and rightfully so. The National Cowboy Hall of Fame awarded him the “Wrangler” award for his role in the TNT series. In addition to starring in the film, Selleck also served as executive producer. Selleck states that he was drawn to the film “Saber River” by the characters themselves. He is attracted to Western films in general, because he says, “I like the moral dilemma that most good Westerns contain. I’ve read somewhere that they show us at our best, our most noble and our worst. ‘Us’, I assume, meaning mankind. I’d say womankind, but I’ve gotten in trouble trying to speak for women.” Joking aside, Selleck adds, “I believe Western films are a part of our mythology, a part of our history, our heritage.”

tom selleck

So what’s next for Selleck? “I hope to announce something soon. I might go back to TNT.”

Movie-making and riding aren’t the things Selleck enjoys about the western lifestyle. “When I filmed “Ruby Jean and Joe,” the story of a washed-up rodeo star, I met a lot of the guys in rodeo. So for the last two years, I’ve attended the NFR, National Finals Rodeo.” When asked what event he enjoys most, he says, “I enjoy the rough stocks, but truthfully all the events are interesting and they all require skills. Personally, I think rodeo is one of the better spectator sports.”

Asked if he’d ever competed in any rodeo sports, he answers, “I’m too big to ride saddle bronc. But to be completely honest, I get watched enough in my life. I ride for pleasure, not for show.”

Obviously, he does a good job of riding, even if it’s just for pleasure. For Rudy Ugland, a great veteran of Westerns and the horse wrangler for the movie, “Saber River” was quoted saying, “Mr. Selleck is a good horseman, and if he wasn’t an actor, he’d probably be a cowboy.”

When confronted with Ugland’s quote, Selleck said, “That’s a compliment. I guess it just goes to show that you don’t have to be raised on a ranch to be a cowboy. Being a cowboy is all about spirit.”

And that cowboy spirit is definitely a part of Selleck’s demeanor. So from all the Selleck fan’s — we tip our hat to you, Tom.

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