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Tom Selleck is now `The Closer'

According to Tom Selleck, the fact that he is starring in the new CBS sitcom "The Closer" is sort of an accident. Well, at least somewhat unexpected.

This despite the fact that, two seasons back, he had a very successful recurring role on "Friends" playing Courteney Cox's much-older boyfriend."I wasn't testing the waters or anything," Selleck recently told TV critics. "They offered me this part and a chance to work with Courteney Cox. And it kind of scared me, because I hadn't done a sitcom since, I think (a guest appearance on) `Taxi.' I think that's why actors should do things, so I did it.

"If you had asked me . . . a year and a half ago, right after the last `Friends' episode, if I was honestly considering doing a series, the answer would have been, `Absolutely not!' But quite honestly, (CBS President) Les (Moonves) kind of made me an offer I couldn't refuse."

And set off what "The Closer" executive producer Ed Decter called "the great Tom Selleck derby."

CBS made a deal with Selleck for him to star in a half-hour comedy. Then Selleck set about finding a show he wanted to do - a process that took a year and a half and delayed his debut, which was originally supposed to have been this past September.

"It took me that long to find a piece of material that I liked," Selleck said.

The CBS-Selleck pact is not unlike a number of star deals that have been worked by various networks in recent years. And the success ratio has not been great - for every Bill Cosby or Michael J. Fox there seem to be three or four people like Ted Danson, Tony Danza, Gregory Hines, Rhea Perlman and Jenny McCarthy.

"The problem with our business in general is the deals are preceding the material," Selleck said. "In spite of the fact that it's a good deal for me, it's kind of being driven backwards.

"As an actor, I'm used to getting sent a piece of material and saying, `Yeah, I can fit in here.' When you're dealing with a deal that says, `Now we're going to tailor something to this guy,' that's trickier.' '

Still, "The Closer" could turn out to be one of the successes. Selleck is completely charming as Jack McClaren, a super-successful advertising executive who is expert at closing the deal. As a co-worker explains in Monday's premiere (8 p.m., Ch. 2), "This enormous and handsome man is the Closer. Why? Because he knows how to go out there, win accounts and keep each and every client happy."

But there's also Jack's first rule of advertising - "Never let them see you're human."

This approach to life has made him successful at work but a failure at home. His marriage has fallen apart and he's struggling to connect with his college-age daughter (Hedy Burress of "Boston Common").

In the pilot, Jack loses his job after he loses his firm's biggest account - the U.S. Army. His competitive nature gets the best of him during a golf match with the president of the United States and he crushes the commander in chief.

Jack, of course, immediately gets a huge offer from a competitor, but when that company doesn't want him to bring his team along he opens his own fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants firm.

His team includes crusty creative director Dobbs (Edward Asner), nebbishy young copywriter Bruno (David Krumholtz of "Chicago Sons"), smart-mouth assistant Suzy (Beverly Andolini) and naive young accountant Erica (Penelope Ann Miller).

"The Closer" was just one of dozens of ideas that were pitched at Selleck by various producers after his deal with CBS was announced.

"I met with an awful lot of talented people," Selleck said. And he had only two absolute requirements for the show:

- He wanted a romantic-comedy element, but one that developed over time.

- He didn't want to do "a completely family-at-home-oriented show."

"I was in the enviable position to end up looking at a piece of material and saying, `Yes or no, let's bet the farm on this,' " Selleck said. "Because it is a risk, although risk is the price you pay for opportunity.

"But the problem is, if everybody makes phone calls all around you trying to take your temperature - seeing what's going to make him happy - that's the wrong question. The answer is - let's just writing something good and hopefully he'll like it."

Which is what he told Decter and his partner, John J. Strauss.

"When we met with him, he said, `Go off and write a character that you want to write, that's something from your gut," Strauss said. "And that's really what we did. And we hoped that he would respond to it, which he did, so it was an interesting process."

According to Decter, Selleck instructions were, " `If you write me as the most likable, nicest guy in the world, I will hate the script.' He said, `I want somebody that when they come out, another actor may play it in a way that might be unlikable, but I will play it likable. But I want somebody who's not pretty and not beautiful even around the edges. I want somebody who has some rough edges.'

"And so we were sort of snickering in the writing room together, saying, `Oh yeah, he wants somebody out there. We'll give him edge," Decter said. "And we write this very selfish guy . . . and he is able to pull it off so charmingly and so well that you're with him anyway."

"As an actor, all of us like to play flawed people," Selleck said. "It's a lot more fun than playing perfect people."

And it's a lot more fun for the viewers as well.

The premiere episode of "The Closer" picks up steam as it rolls along - a good sign. The first half is pleasant but not particularly funny, while the second half remains enjoyable and is loaded with laughs.

And Selleck is smart enough to realize that he can't carry the show by himself. That success depends on the supporting characters.

"I'm much more comfortable playing characters. . . . Let me just say the strength of this show will be the ensemble, and I'm just part of that," Selleck said.

"That's one of the big surprises for me," Asner deadpanned, "because I had heard so many stories about his selfishness.

"And signing on and finding he's one of the most generous stars and he is totally dedicated to the idea of an ensemble - that's very comforting and relaxing to encounter, let me tell you."