John Hillerman, a Texan who played Higgins on 'Magnum P.I.', dies

LOS ANGELES -- John Hillerman, a Texan who played stuffed-shirt Higgins to Tom Selleck's freewheeling detective Thomas Magnum in the 1980s TV series Magnum, P.I. has died, his nephew said Thursday. Hillerman was 84.

Hillerman, who had been in declining health, died Thursday of natural causes at his home in Houston, nephew Chris Tritico said.

Besides playing manager of the Hawaiian estate that Magnum used as home base, Hillerman was known for his 1970s roles as arrogant radio show detective Simon Brimmer on the Ellery Queen series and the difficult boss on the sitcom One Day at a Time.

When Hillerman decided to retire about 17 years ago, the Denison-born actor returned to his native state and was content leaving Hollywood behind, said his nephew. He remembered his uncle, an Air Force veteran, fondly.

"He had an outstanding sense of humor and was one of the most well-read people I ever met. You couldn't play Scrabble with him," Tritico said.

As for that quasi-British accent that Hillerman used on Magnum and elsewhere, his nephew said that was honed during several decades of playing varied roles on the New York stage before he turned to TV and movies.

Hillerman used something closer to his own voice in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, playing Howard Johnson, one of the comic Western's many Johnsons. He appeared in a number of TV series, including Valerie, The Love Boat and The Betty White Show, and in films including The Last Picture Show and High Plains Drifter.

His last credits included 1996's A Very Brady Sequel and an early '90s appearance on Murder, She Wrote.

The role of Higgins was his favorite, Tritico said.

"The reason he didn't take another big role is he refused to take a sitcom after 'Magnum,"' he said. "He wanted to continue doing the serious work that he felt 'Magnum' was."

In an interview with Orange Coast magazine in 1988, Hillerman said he discovered opera when he was 10 years old, taking the train to Dallas to see Metropolitan Opera performances. He later attended the University of Texas at Austin as a journalism major, but he told the magazine that he was never a serious student.

During the Korean War, Hillerman joined the Air Force and was deployed as a maintenance officer in a B-36 wing in the Strategic Air Command.

"It was during that period I discovered acting," Hillerman told the magazine. He joined a community theater group in Fort Worth because he was "bored with barracks life," he said.
"I got into it to meet people in town. A light went on."

Hillerman's survivors include a sister, Jo Ann Tritico, and seven nieces and nephews including Chris Tritico, a Houston attorney.

At his request no services will be held, Chris Tritico said.

Staff writer Tommy Cummings contributed to this story.

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