Thursday, August 11, 2011

Magnum Gray in My Storytelling

I’ve been pondering the gray area in my storytelling, specifically where my ideas originated on social justice and the antiheroes who cross the line to administer it.

I grew up with wonderful, caring parents who doted on me, and I, in turn, loved them immensely. No rebellious years for me unless you count sneaking in a few Playboy magazines. Mom and Dad brought me up by The Golden Rule, and when they reached their late forties, they became Baptists. We went to church three times a week where I continued to be taught right from wrong. Jesus is good. Satan is evil. No middle ground. No gray area. At the same time, my mom loved old movies (Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, Ronald Coleman, etc.) and my dad watched westerns (Gunsmoke and The Rifleman were favorites). Most of these heroes were straight forward with little conflict. They were good and did the right thing. That made up my foundation.

Then along came Magnum, P.I. I wanted to be Tom Selleck’s Magnum. He was the good guy that men liked and women wanted. He lived on a rich estate. He drove a red Ferrari. What’s not to like, right? Other kids in school and church watched Magnum and none of our parents were bothered by the show--it seems silly to say these days, but to some straight-laced folks back then, bikinis and violence could corrupt a child’s mind. Yet, Magnum was considered safe, an all-American hero. Until the 1982 episode called “Did You See the Sunrise.”

The plot: It starts with Magnum and T.C. (another of the show’s regulars) meeting up with an old Army buddy named Nuzo who warns them that a former rival named Ivan is back to settle a score. Nuzo reminds them that they were the only three to escape Ivan’s prison camp in ‘Nam. SPOILER ALERT: Ivan is now a high-priced assassin who has come to Hawaii to kill a Japanese prince. Magnum and his buddies thwart the attempt, but, in the process, Magnum’s friend Mac is murdered by Ivan. Because of some political red tape, the government has to let Ivan go free. That doesn’t sit well with Magnum:

Holy crap! The next day, everyone I knew was talking about this final scene. Magnum, our hero, killed someone in cold blood! It was wrong! But it was ok! My mom said it was bad! My mom said it was right! I pondered this scene for weeks, coming to the realization that life is made up of gray areas that people don’t seem to like to talk or even think about.

It was this episode of Magnum that sparked it all for me, unwittingly creating the germ of my fictional antihero, Cash Laramie, the outlaw marshal. Though, as you can see by Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles, Cash goes beyond Magnum’s one-time, cold-blood rage and will often hunt down these monsters. His behavior gives him a sense of doubt at times, and eventually it leads him to a harsh reality in "Reflections in a Glass of Maryland Rye" (featured in the upcoming ADVENTURES Volume II).

Sorry to be so long winded and rambling on you, folks. I'm sure tracing the development of my character to one of my favorite television heroes interests me more than anyone else. But, it's not every day I have such an eye-opening moment.


Leah J. Utas said...

David it is interesting to see the genesis of a character. Good for you for knowing the defining moment.
I watched Magnum, but can't say as I recalled the ep. It was good to see that scene.
Gray areas are what make our characters, and ourselves, interesting.

Scott D. Parker said...

Thanks for the fascinating peek into the genesis of Cash Laramie. It's a cliche, but every experience we have as writers serve our writing. My love of history led to my joy in writing historical fiction. I sometimes joke with my parents that all the cash spent on my education served not to make me a history professor but a historical fiction writer.

Re: Magnum - Never watched it regularly back in the day, but loved every episode I caught. Here in Houston, a new local channel is broadcasting a wonderful threesome: Magnum, Rockford, and Star Trek. Better than lots of prime time. I may have to give Magnum some more looks.

Matthew P. Mayo said...

That's an interesting moment and a good bit to think on, David. I'm glad it sparked what it did in you.

Ron Scheer said...

Great post. You got an interesting thread started that I hope gets a big response from other writers. I had that same black-white upbringing, and the gray area opened up for me when I read Conrad's LORD JIM.

David Cranmer said...

That they do, Leah. Very true or else we would have very boring characters and real life bios. Conflict equals attention-grabbing.

Scott, I love TREK but they should have tossed Mannix on the end of Magnum and Rockford. Still a great line up of television. And history was my favorite subject in school. Other kids hated that period and rolled their eyes but that was the only subject that came alive for me.

Thanks, Matt.

Ron, I'm not sure why I’m thinking this but I wondered what sparked Conrad’s imagination? Do we know? That was a dark, dark writer.

wayne d. dundee said...

I've always seen shades of gray in my life and I suppose that comes through in my writing ... now you've got me wondering WHY, David. Thanks a bunch --- like my cobwebby old brain needed something more to ponder.
As for the episode of Magnum you mention, I too remember that vividly. Up until then I never watched the show regularly and thought it to be a bit too light-handed in its approach to crime, murder, etc. But after the "Did You See The Sunrise" episode I never quite looked at it that way again.

Nigel Bird said...

powerful memory you have there, David. my theory is that trauma sticks in the mind, and that sounds like a traumatic awakening of sorts. think I had a similar thing with Kojak when he said 'if you come near me or my fam-i-ly, i'm gonna scatter your brains from hear to white plains'. course i had no idea where white plains was, but i loved him for stepping over the line.

Brad Green said...

I wish sometimes that things were simple and easily delineated, but they're not. They never have been. The best fiction works in this gray area. Your's certainly does and that's one reason I like it.

Thanks for the offering this glimpse into your thought process.

David Cranmer said...

"..cobwebby old brain." Ha. Glad to help, Wayne. But I bet if you go back far enough you can find the spark that ignited your hardboiled writing. Btw I just started THE GRAVE OF MARCUS PAULY. Sharp story, sir.

Nigel, "Who loves ya, baby?" Kojak was another earlier favorite of mine. I don’t remember that particular line but I can see where it would leave an impact.

Brad, I’m glad you liked my ramblings here. I was a little apprehensive about sending it over. Thanks for stopping by and, once again, thanks for the super review for ADVENTURES.

Matthew Pizzolato said...

David, great post. I too was raised with the same black/white, no gray area upbringing. I had a similar moment when I watched UNFORGIVEN. When Eastwood's character shot the saloon keeper and said, "Well, he should have armed himself if he's going to decorate his saloon with my friend." And then the monologue he gave at the end, "I'll come back and kill every one of you...." I was like WOW!

G. B. Miller said...

Interesting, and I mean that in a good way.

My defining moment came onto me gradually in my later years, in which it wasn't a t.v. show, but a specific event in my life.

While it took me quite a few years to unravel and assimilate that particular event comfortably, the end result was that it made me more observant and studious of the people that I surrounded myself with as friends.

Most, if not all, of my friends have become the many layers of the various characters I write into my stories and my stories themselves.

I'm normally not a student of human nature, but the people in my small tidy circle of friends are such nuanced and complex individuals, that they are the perfect inkwell for me to dip my pen into for writing.

And for that, I am extremely grateful.

David Cranmer said...

Matt, UNFORGIVEN was such a smashing conclusion to Eastwood's westerns. Best scene for me: Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have. The Schofield Kid: Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming. Will Munny: We all got it coming, kid.

G, "... such nuanced and complex individuals, that they are the perfect inkwell for me to dip my pen into for writing." Well said, amigo. That's where some of the best writing originates from. Thanks for sharing, sir.

Richard Prosch said...

Terrific post. I do think pinning down those eye-opening moments is somewhat essential. Knowing why you write something is just as important as what you write.

Along the good/bad lines you're writing about, nothing has influenced my convictions more than becoming a parent. It's refreshingly straight-forward as to what is right and what is wrong (as far as I'm concerned).

Selleck is marvelous as Magnum, and that scene really shows the actor's talent blossoming. Love him in QUIGLEY..., love him as Jesse Stone.

Todd Mason said...

It's a real pity that MAGNUM P.I. really started rolling downhill after that season. Glad it was pivotal in helping shape a more nuanced view of drama, literary art and the world...

Chris said...

This is a great post, David. Magnum was always, and remains, one of my favorites. Selleck has been pretty solid across the board.

Oscar Case said...

Great explanation, David. I can't think of anything that inspired me from TV as I look on it as a necessary evil in the modern day, that is, most of it is fiction - not reality. I enjoyed watching some of the Magnums and other shows, though.

David Cranmer said...

Rich, Tom Selleck has only gotten better with age. His performances in all those TNT westerns are top notch but Quigley may be his finest hour to date.

Todd, Since I was a teen watching I didn't have such a critical eye and thought Magnum was good for several more seasons. Maybe someday I will take another look.

Chris, I thought he was a good role model for our generation. There was a moral lesson in the majority of the episodes.

Oscar, Because of the day job, editing, and writing TV isn't a big priority anymore. But at one time...

Todd Mason said...

Selleck started throwing some weight around in the next season or so, and the series went the way of most such when the actors start believing they are writers, too. I was living in Hawaii when the series started, and it was one of the relatively few good series on broadcast networks ca. 1980...I was a (perhaps slightly older) teen, too, and seeing some of my thespian acquaintances of the same age getting some supporting roles in the early seasons.

But Selleck remains a good actor, I'll agree.

Barbara Martin said...

Daivd, an interesting point in character development. There are always those hidden traits that pop out once in awhile. I recall that episode as I was an avid Magnum PI fan: going so far as to tape a photo of him on my truck's sunvisor to look at when I pulled it down. A friend got the schock of her life when she borrowed the truck and pulled the visor down to sheild those sun rays.

C Collins said...

Really enjoyed your post and the comments. In my own writing, I think of a character's internal motivation (of which the character isn't always aware) as growing from a traumatic moment in his/her past, typically childhood, and this inevitably leads to later choices in the "gray area."

Currently reading one of Parker's last books (Painted Ladies) where the PI Spenser tells about one of his gray choices (this broke the "show don't tell" but it was a powerful retelling for me, the reader).

Don't recall the Magnum episode you mentioned, and wracking my brain to remember if Rockford ever went into the gray area. Although he woulda had to pull his gun out of the cookie jar, first.

P.S. Love Selleck in the Jesse Stone series, several of which he's co-written.

Dave King said...

All this resonated with me. I was brought up church-going,though my parents were not regular - until my dad was confirmed by a forces chaplin in Lubeck sfter seeing something of Belsen. Later I became a Methodist and for many years a local preacher. One minister who influenced me greatly would say that there was more religion in a good "Gunlaw" than a bad sermon.

David Barber said...

Magnum was what every bloke wanted to be. A great favorite of mine. We used to watch it as a family, as well as Kojak, The Streets of San Fran, McCloud, Vegas, the list goes on.

Great to get an insight into how Cash came about and how his mind works through yours. ( if that makes sense)

Great post, my friend.

Chris said...

All this Magnum talk has me wanting to watch the show again. May need to try and find it online somewhere.

What's funny is another writer I really like referenced this very scene in a blog post this week as well.

David Cranmer said...

Todd, On another related note, I read that some of the same crew that worked on HAWAII FIVE-O also worked on Magnum. Selleck was very conscious of that when he brought the series to a close that folks would be out of work.

Barbara, That's a fun story. Thanks for sharing and I bet she didn't mind the surprise in the least. :)

C Collins, I'm saving the last couple of Parker books. I know it sounds silly but I don't want them to end. And I think Selleck has done an excellent job with the Stone films.

Dave, I may never forget "there was more religion in a good "Gunlaw" than a bad sermon." Great quote.

David, My family enjoyed The Streets of San Fran. I wonder how that has held up?

Chris, I think a recent episode of ARCHER may have reminded us.