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It's a new stage for Tom Selleck

There is a way to impress Tom Selleck. Guess his T-shirt size.

Backlit last week against a panoramic view of Times Square in an office 36 floors above the Longacre Theatre, where the 56-year-old made his Broadway debut Wednesday, he held up a souvenir T-shirt for A Thousand Clowns that his producer had just given him.

The guess: XXL.

"How did you know my size? That's amazing!"

It helps to know that he is 6 feet 4, towering above most other actors, who tend toward the shorter-than-expected side.

But Selleck isn't most actors.

Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns, which is ending a national tryout tour with a 15-week New York run, is his first stage engagement.

And most actors don't have brothers who are both 6 feet 7.

"I was always the shrimp," said Selleck, whose investment-banker father moved the family from Detroit to Los Angeles not long after Tom was born.

"Part of me is this little guy. It's why I never liked great big bullies. I'm always trying to find the everyman in my characters."

He often mentions his take on Thomas Sullivan Magnum, the role that made him a superstar, as an example.

"When Magnum P.I. was first assigned to me," he said, "on an old (studio) technicality, Magnum was a very perfect character, with stewardesses on each arm. And I said, "No, that isn't right' " for a traumatized Vietnam vet, a "flawed, real guy. I risked my whole future to make that point."

Now he's risking a dunking at the hands of the Broadway critics to play Murray Burns, the grumpy TV writer and aggressively free spirit who takes on the system to maintain custody of his 10-year-old nephew in Gardner's 1962 work.

"You can't tell what's going to happen in this town," he said. "But there are no excuses, and there shouldn't be. The thing I love about our business is that people just come and say, "Okay, entertain me.' That's the realest thing about a business that often is too unreal."

He agreed to break his celluloid-only streak, he said, "Because A Thousand Clowns is my favorite play _ and Herb Gardner asked me. It has been since I saw the movie version _ three times, the week it came out _ in 1965. Part of it is Murray, part of it is his relationship with the kid, which I identify with."

Selleck remains close to his stepson, Kevin, from an earlier marriage, and obviously dotes on his daughter, Hannah, 12, whose mother is actor-dancer Jillie Mack. The couple and their daughter live on a 120-acre avocado ranch in Ventura County, Calif.

"Just the fact that the movie made me cry as well as laugh," he added, remembering seeing it as a 20-year-old San Fernando Valley jock, a business major at the University of Southern California looking to join United Airlines when he graduated. He left for a new-talent contract at 20th Century Fox and acting lessons at the Beverly Hills Playhouse instead.

"And, yeah, I like Murray. He's a complex guy. He's selfish, he's irascible, he's ruthless when he goes after somebody, and he's a real human being. He doesn't come out 100 percent on the plus side, but in terms of self-pity, he just doesn't go there _ the kind of character I love. He's very flawed. I happen to be flawed. We all do things we don't like."

By that, Selleck is not referring to the cigarette commercials he did at the start of his career, or his television debut as Bachelor No. 2 on a 1968 Dating Game episode, or such flops as High Road to China, Her Alibi, Quigley Down Under and Mr. Baseball, let alone wearing a kilt in his clan tartan _ his mother is a McDuff _ on The Tonight Show on a dare from Jay Leno.

"I have a horrible temper," he said. "Mainly because I never lose it. I'm very big when I do."

The last time, he admitted, "was sometime during this production. I don't want to say when. But that's normal for the acting process. If you're passionate about it, you're not going to agree with everybody all the time."

Even the gossip items at the height of his Magnum celebrity that probed into his private life didn't send him reaching for a baseball bat but prompted an involvement with "a lot of ethics and journalism stuff," he recalled.

"I had trouble with certain elements of the press," he said, "but I'm a First Amendment absolutist, so I gave some money to USC for a program dealing with ethical responsibility when it comes to that. It was, and remains, an important part of my life."

He doesn't mean to suggest he's headed for politics. "I don't think being an actor should count as more or less," he said. "What does is being responsible. These days, you have to be either rich or famous to mount an insurgent campaign. That's a sad thing and speaks to the state of our culture."

A one-time Republican who has appeared in National Rifle Association commercials, "I'm now a registered Independent."

In other words, he half-jokes, "When this play is done, I'll just be another unemployed actor. I'll do a movie. Something always turns up. It's all the same craft. I would never say that the theater is the only pure form of acting. Because the heart and soul of our work is our work."