As a young actor, Tom Selleck had a problem. He was, according to a small item published in a 1981 edition of Weekly World News, simply “too good looking” to land lead roles – producers deemed him unrealistically hunky. He covered the middle of his face with a moustache, but it had the effect of making him look even more ruggedly masculine, even more swoonsome. When he finally got the main part in a major TV series, Magnum, PI, in 1980, he proved his doubters both wrong (he was capable of carrying a show) and right (his handsomeness was utterly implausible).
Selleck was so alpha that unless you, too, were a “6ft 4in man of muscle and sex appeal” – as the US tabloids described him – you’d probably have found it hard to identify with him. But only the dullest stars truly resemble us ordinary people; the ones who matter are, more often than not, archetypes who exaggerate aspects of our personalities or reflect our aspirations. In her book Recurring Dream Symbols, the counsellor Kathleen Sullivan probes ten dreams that a woman called Janice had about Selleck, whom she knew only from his appearances on screen. “It’s as if I was considering a masculine energy that was independent, intuitive, self-directed and determined to enjoy life,” Janice tells Sullivan. Selleck, to her, is Platonic Man: moustachioed, macho, motivated.
His was a kind of unabashed virility well suited to the 1980s. In Leonard Nimoy’s Three Men and a Baby (1987), Selleck plays a playboy architect called Peter Mitchell who lives in an absurdly spacious bachelor pad with the actor Jack Holden (Ted Danson) and the cartoonist Michael Kellam (Steve Guttenberg). While Jack is in Turkey working on a B-movie, his daughter – Mary, who he never knew existed – is abandoned at the boys’ front door by her mother. Peter and Michael are appalled at this all-shitting, all-puking disruption to their hedonistic existence, but they soon learn how to care for her while they wait for Jack, still oblivious to his status as a father, to come home. Meanwhile, another package has arrived at the apartment containing a large quantity of heroin. (You were allowed to have drug deals in PG-rated family movies in the 1980s.)
Three Men and a Baby was the most commercially successful picture of 1987, a year not short on far classier mainstream films: The Untouchables, Moonstruck, Lethal Weapon, and so on. It’s surprisingly ropey. The drugs subplot – a legacy of the film’s French source material, Coline Serreau’s Trois hommes et un couffin – feels entirely out of place. The extended first act, which luxuriates in the trio’s sexed-up lives, is as distasteful as the sleazy bedroom montage in the 2005 Frat Pack movie Wedding Crashers. Yet Spock’s first non-Star Trek feature as director grossed more than $170m in the US alone. It also spawned a 1990 sequel, as well as a spooky urban myth involving the ghost of a small boy who can just about be made out in the background of a scene. Three Men and a Baby, endlessly repeated on TV and parodied on comedy shows, somehow entered our culture and made a lasting impression.
Its premise was as much a gimmick as Ivan Reitman’s decision to cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as an unlikely father figure in Kindergarten Cop (1990). Peter Mitchell is a cuddlier version of Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark, forced by circumstance to set aside hollow self-gratification and to truly love another human being. “I’m an architect for Christ sake,” he snaps at one point. “I build 50-storey skyscrapers, I assemble cities of the future. I can certainly put together a goddamn diaper!” If Selleck’s performance as Peter works – and I think it does – it’s because cooing over a baby is so at odds with what we expect of a broad-shouldered male pin-up in the land of Reaganite conservatism. Peter’s conversion to the joys of (surrogate) fatherhood is as charming as it is predictable, and the same goes for that of Jack and Michael.
Three Men and a Baby is a product of its time and, in some respects, it has aged very badly. There is nothing remarkable today about men looking after a baby: it’s entirely normal. Even in the 1980s, attitudes were changing for a variety of reasons. More women were joining the workforce, while the radical feminism of the 1970s entered the mainstream public discourse, challenging the assumption that mothers had an exclusive duty to raise their children. Recession in the early part of the decade forced jobless fathers to spend more time at home, and the increasing acceptance of gay culture saw a questioning of long-held notions of masculinity in men’s magazines. In the UK, Athena Posters stumbled on an unexpected hit when it sold five million posters of a shirtless male model holding a baby. The New Man had arrived – not that Peter and co knew it.
When I watched the movie again recently, I was preparing for the birth of our first child, attending antenatal classes at Homerton University Hospital in London, learning about childbirth and worrying about the cost of nappies. Our son’s arrival was less of a terrifying trial by fire than a confirmation of the warnings hurled at us by our parents and friends who had already gone through it all: we knew parenthood would be all consuming, all day, all night. We knew it would be hard, and we knew, too, that it would be wonderful. But some of the bachelor trio’s caveman lines still rang true. “How can something so small create so much of something so disgusting?” wonders Michael, staring at a turd in a diaper. I wondered the same thing as Kurt Taylor Zushi shat in my hand.