As Willingboro High School grad Stephen Hill makes his debut Monday night in the CBS reboot of Magnum P.I., he knows exactly what it's taken to land a regular gig on a major network: "Years and years and years of very hard work."
After more than a decade of mostly indie films and TV guest shots that included several appearances on Boardwalk Empire and a small role on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the opportunity to join the cast as former Marine helicopter pilot Theodore "TC" Calvin came about very quickly, Hill said last month after a CBS session for the show in Beverly Hills.
He said he'd already booked a part on another show when he got a call for an audition and figured it would be worth going to "meet a casting director I hadn't met. And I got that call at 11 o'clock in the morning [to] be ready for the audition at 5. And at 11 o'clock at night, I got the call to pack my bags because I'm going to Hawaii."
Hill — who also has a small recurring role in Maniac, the new Cary Fukunaga series for Netflix — has had at least one other shot at a big break. In the spring of 2015, he was cast in Lewis and Clark, a miniseries Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, and Ed Norton were producing for HBO, where he played York, a slave who was the only African American member of the explorers' expedition. Production on that project was halted in the summer of 2015, and months later it was reported that a new writer had been brought on and that the episodes already filmed might be scrapped.
Hill's focus now is on Magnum P.I., where Jay Hernandez plays Thomas Magnum, a Navy SEAL-turned-private investigator; Hill's character runs a helicopter tour business. He told reporters that he'd reached out to Roger E. Mosley, who played the role in the 1980s original, and that Mosley had urged him to "make it your own."
He decided to become an actor shortly after graduating from Virginia's Hampton University. "My mother passed away," he said. "She had pancreatic cancer. I just felt like she never got to do something that she loved. And at the time I was selling copiers for Xerox, and I didn't really love it so much. And I said, why don't I try something that I might actually enjoy?"
He'd modeled in college and a friend suggested acting classes. He ended up studying with Susan Batson, "who is Nicole Kidman's coach, she's Oprah's coach, Juliette Binoche — she's like an awesome, awesome acting teacher. And I've been going ever since."
As recently as two years ago, he was working as a waiter and runner at Carmine's in New York. "That was the last survival gig I had," said Hill, who was used to juggling more than one job. As a kid, he had two paper routes, delivering both the Burlington County Times and the Trenton Times. Later, he worked at Great Adventure. "I would leave the water rides in the morning and change my clothes and go to the McDonald's in the park," he said.
"The only job I've loved, outside of acting, was landscaping. … I did landscaping in Willingboro for years."