So Long Higgins

I have studied Aristotle, Socrates, William Friedrich Hegel, Bertrand Russell. I have toured college campuses debating the virtues of dialectic versus symbolic syllogism. I have written scholarly articles on the need for a new, more dynamic logic. But nothing in my life has prepared me for the workings of the Thomas Magnum mind.

– Higgins from the Magnum P.I. episode Rapture (season 6, episode 10, 1985)

Undated production still, likely from the 1970s.

I opened my browser last night to a sad note.  Johnathan Hillerman just passed away at the age of 84 at his home in Houston.  Mr. Hillerman was the first real actor I remember getting to know as a person.  Meeting him was something of a eye-opening experience and a great piercing of the Hollywood-crafted illusion factory.


As a young kid I watched way too much TV and so was well acquainted with everything from the Wonderful World to Disney to Star Trek to Magnum P.I.  Some TV was a way to pass the time.  Some of it was actually interesting and thought-provoking.  I put Magnum P.I.–which starred Mr. Hillerman as the iconic Jonathan Quayle Higgins III–in that later category.

While my pre-teen self wouldn’t have articulated it this way at the time, Magnum P.I. was something of an aspirational narrative that resonated with me.  But not because it centered on a manly man who drove red Ferraris, was peppered with frequent bromance action sequences, or rote dude-saves-the-babe storylines.  Rather I think I saw the show as the classic American tale of the maverick/cowboy/rebel/pirate who bucked the system and conventional society, but did so with his own code of ethics and on his own terms (à la Indiana Jones, Captain Nemo, Ed Abbey, Easy Rawlins, or Lew Archer).  At its core it was the telling of an outsider who navigated his path in life as a quintessential individual.  While not exactly noir, it borrowed many of the genre’s motifs, placing them on the islands of Hawai’i at a time when my dad was spending about half the year in the archipelago selling his art and building a name for himself.  Most weekly installments of the whodunnit involved some variant on the theme of the relaxed, smiling, aloha shirt-clad private eye (Magnum) engaging in some kind of banter with the staid, buttoned-up, British-accented disdain of the housekeeper (Huggins).  Higgins was the perennial foil for the easy-going Private Investigator.


One warm spring day in early 1980s (we’ll call it 1982 for the sake of argument) while hanging out with my dad on Oahu and helping him with several of his art shows, he turned to me and said “How about we go say ‘hi’ to Johnathan this afternoon?”  I probably said something to the effect of “okay” or “fine” or “could we go to the beach instead” much as my son does now when I suggest such things (circle of life and all that…).  A few hours later we were in an elevator heading up to Mr. Hillerman’s penthouse at the apex of a gleaming new Waikiki high-rise.  I recall feeling the vague sense of mild dread universal to all kids “asked” to go meet one of their parent’s friends or to accompany them to yet another work-related event.

As we stepped into his home, Mr. Hillerman was the antithesis of Higgins.  Gone was all hint of pretentiousness.  Gone too was the stiffness.  Even the British accent was missing, replaced by a slight Texas drawl.  I quickly came to understand this ever-smiling Mr. Hillerman as a very well-read, well-spoken, kind, and quick-witted man.  He loved art and my dad’s paintings in particular (one of my dad’s 8-foot oils greeted us as we entered the penthouse).  I quickly came to see Mr. Hillerman as a genuine, warm person and stopped thinking of him as the aloof character from the boob tube.

The Magnum P.I. set around 1984. One of George Sumner‘s First Breath lithographs hangs on the right-hand wall. This production run was the first fine art sold to specifically raise money for an environmental advocacy group (Greenpeace) and soon ushered in the era of art as money maker for environmental NGOs.

George Sumner’s iconic oil painting First Breath (© 1984, George Sumner). While he produced earlier versions of this composition, this most famous and wildly popular lithograph edition can be seen hanging in Magnum’s guest house during the mid- and late-series episodes. Many artists would subsequently copy this image (and title!).

Reality vs. Illusion

Over the years I have thought many times of this first meeting with Mr. Hillerman.  This was an iconic memory for me, marking a key realization wherein I came to see that famous people were usually (although I’ve met my share of notable exceptions) much more complex and much more interesting than their one-dimensional portraits crafted by directors or publicists or other such image-makers.  I enjoyed the TV show and the character of Higgins.  But I really enjoyed the chance to meet the real person that knew so much and was such a kind human being.

Mr. Hillerman would go on to support art and environmental efforts in Hawai’i and elsewhere around the globe.  He did this quietly and mostly out of the public eye, preferring to see good deeds done more so than getting credit for them or his name in the paper (what we used to call a “true gentleman” in the best sense of that word).  For example, Mr. Hillerman and Tom Selleck would insist that my dad’s art adorn their TV set that served as Magnum’s home (the “guesthouse”) such that it was always there in the background, always giving my dad just a bit more PR and just a bit more help during the early years of his career.  Likewise Mr. Hillerman supported various marine conservation efforts and arts organizations from Honolulu to Lake Arrowhead to Houston.

image: Imago/Teutopress

Thank you for being a gentleman, Mr. Hillerman.  While most saw you as Higgins, we know you really were Robin Masters (the whole Orson Welles voice thing was merely a plot device).

Rest in peace.

Comments 1

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    Great recall from your young life and a wonderful tribute to a great gentleman. I remember the shows, seeing Dad’s picture and you calling me from Jonathan’s home. He invited me to visit as well but sadly I never took the offer.
    Thank you for sharing. Love you Mom

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