John Hillerman, who won an Emmy for playing Tom Selleck’s foil Jonathan Higgins on the long-running CBS hit Magnum, P.I., died today at his Houston home. He was 84. His rep Lori De Waal confirmed the news on social media, adding that a cause of death has not been determined.
Born on December 20, 1932, in Denison, TX, north of Dallas, Hillerman was in his late 30s when he began to score bit roles in such high-profile films as They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970), The Last Picture Show (1971) and What’s Up, Doc? (1972), High Plains Drifter and Paper Moon (both 1973). He then landed a small but memorable role as Howard Johnson in Mel Brooks’ 1974 classic Western spoof Blazing Saddles. He’s the one who was charged by the people of Rock Ridge to welcome their newly appointed sheriff (Cleavon Little). Who can forget his brief speech? “As honorary chairman of the welcoming committee, it’s my privilege to present a laurel and hearty handshake to our new…” — well, you probably know the rest. He re-teamed with Brooks for the underappreciated 1981 yarn History of the World, Part I, playing a rich Frenchman.
Hillerman continued to work in film and TV throughout the decade, including Roland Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and John Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust (1975) and recurring roles on Ellery Queen, The Betty White Show and One Day at a Time. But everything changed in 1979, when he landed the role of his career.
CBS’ venerable Hawaii Five-O was heading into its final season, and the network already had a crew working on the islands, so many of them were recruited for a new crime drama set on Oahu. Selleck starred in Magnum P.I. as Thomas Magnum, a quirky, multilingual ex-jock who solved crimes out of his beachfront villa called Robin’s Nest. Sounds idyllic, right? Enter Hillerman as Jonathan Quayle Higgins III, a British Army vet who was caretaker of the estate. Often accompanied by the menacing Dobermans he called his “lads,” Higgins was stuffy, stubborn, argumentative — and, ultimately, lovable.
Alongside co-stars Roger E. Mosely and Larry Manetti, Selleck and Hillerman continued their characters’ back-and-forth shenanigans through the series’ entire eight-year, 158-episode run, Premiering in December 1980 — in Five-O‘s old time slot — Magnum P.I. was an out-of-the-box hit. It ranked among the top 20 programs in its first two seasons, before catapulting up to No. 3 for the 1982-83 season (tied with fellow CBS hit M*A*S*H)..While the series never equaled its peak audience as NBC’s Must-See TV lineup began dominating Thursday nights, the lighthearted crime drama remained popular until its run ended in 1988.
Hillerman earned four consecutive Emmy nominations for the role from 1984-87, finally winning the last time. He also won a Golden Globe on his first nom for the role in 1982 and followed it with nominations the next four straight years.
After Magnum ended in 1988, Hillerman appeared in the 1989 miniseries Around the World in 80 Days and recurred on sitcom Valerie. His final credit was the 1996 feature A Very Brady Sequel. He also appeared in a trio of short-lived Broadway shows in the late 1950s and early ’60s.