Breaking Bread With the Reagans: Inside the 'Blue Bloods' Sunday Dinners

Ileane Rudolph
Preview John Filo/CBS

I arrive at Blue Bloods' Brooklyn set, and the show's lead, Tom Selleck, greets me with a macabre bit of news appropriate for today, October 31.

"I have a scoop for you," he says solemnly. "A couple of episodes from now, one of the Reagans chokes to death while eating Sunday dinner." Before I can react, a "Gotcha!" smile spreads across his face — he's clearly taken at least part of "trick or treat" to heart.

It was another holiday that famously inspired the CBS drama circa 2008. Norman Rockwell's iconic Saturday Evening Post illustration of a big family around the Thanksgiving table motivated veteran producer Leonard Goldberg to create (with writers Mitchell Burgess and Robin Green) a different kind of procedural about a clan of cops whose relationships were as key as crime-solving. Goldberg predicted that weekly dinner scenes with everyone in attendance would attract an audience — a pretty tasty play, considering the show is in its 10th hit season.

Over 209 episodes, the cast has spent more than 800 hours — 35 days! — shooting those scenes, which are at turns heartwarming, adversarial, and comic. Three generations of Reagan peace officers dominate the dining room: Henry (Len Cariou), a retired New York City police commissioner; his son Frank (Selleck), the current PC; and Frank's two sons, detective Danny (Donnie Wahlberg) and sergeant Jamie (Will Estes), whose wife, Eddie (Vanessa Ray), is also a police officer.

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Sole daughter Erin (Bridget Moynahan) is an assistant district attorney and provides much of the dissent at the table now that her twentysomething daughter, Nicky (Sami Gayle), is working for a human-rights group in San Francisco. It's not clear yet where Danny's sons, Jack and Sean (real-life brothers Tony and Andrew Terraciano, respectively), will land, but younger bro Sean usually sides with his relatives in blue, and Jack is at fictional Hadleigh College, out of the fray.

Despite its production challenges, Sunday dinner is still beloved by the cast. "We have to shoot everybody not just in a wide shot but in close-ups, but it's still my favorite part of the show," Selleck notes. "I sound like the fans, but it's mainly because I get to see my friends. The Reagans are close, and we're close. With a cast this big, I might not see Donnie for a month. This format is like a weekly reunion."

Tom Selleck in Season 3 (Jojo Whilden/CBS)

TV Guide Magazine has a seat at the table (so to speak) for the episode airing December 6. Under discussion: the proper way to say grace. After one family member delivers it in a let's-speed-through-so-we-can-eat rush, Henry kindly suggests a redo, but with feeling: "This is the time we should have a little more grace in our grace." As the offender finally begins to understand, the table breaks into "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas." Then Frank chimes in, perhaps for the 200th time over the show's duration, "Pass the potatoes."

The real fun typically begins while the camera reloads. "We drive directors nuts because they want to get the shot done and we're joking around…a lot," Selleck admits. Today, the big-time movie buff announces he's seeing the critically acclaimed South Korean thriller Parasite that weekend. When the discussion turns to his own 1972 horror flick, Daughters of Satan, he dryly asserts, "I always try to rise above the material." Then Wahlberg quietly starts in on "Feliz Navidad," which instigates a brief sing-along. "Donnie can turn any situation into a positive, fun moment," observes an admiring Moynahan.

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He can also turn any plateful of food into an empty one. Everyone, even the actor himself, agrees he eats the most — "especially when it's pork chops and apple sauce," he reports. When I ask the cast to award some other superlatives, Wahlberg votes Selleck Funniest at the Table for his "50-year-old jokes." Estes takes Best Fake Chewer, according to Ray. Moynahan, Ray, and Wahlberg are all named Most Likely to Be Texting, and Estes is deemed Most Likely to Get Grouchy by Wahlberg, who adds, "It's because of his placement at the table — his close-ups are the last to be shot. Not that he complains, but I can tell."

What’s on the menu? Since Frank is a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy, "a typical meal is American comfort food," says prop master Jim Lillis. That means meat, a vegetable, potatoes, and a salad, with tomatoes and cucumbers on offer. The production does occasionally break from routine, ergo the stone crabs flown in from Miami for the milestone 10th season premiere.

Vanessa Ray and Will Estes in Season 8 (John Paul Filo/CBS)

Ray is partial to the cukes. "They're easy to cut into small pieces, and they're not super loud to chew," she explains. "You don't want to eat chicken Parmesan for four hours; you can manage a cucumber."

Selleck reveals he "only eats when [cameras are] cutting to me." Estes, the resident vegetarian, says he answers the fans who ask — often — "Yes, the food is as good as it looks. However, anything you eat for six hours can get tough at the end. And no, we don't receive stunt pay for dinner scenes."

And lest anyone worry about leftovers ending up in the trash, "food that's still good is shared with the crew to take home," assures Lillis. "Nothing goes to waste."

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Let's talk turkey for a moment. Even though Blue Bloods won't have a Thanksgiving episode this season, the bird on the table for today's cover shoot stirs memories of the holiday. Here's what several of the actors are planning.

For years, Selleck held the big meal for his parents, his two children and grandkids and his siblings, their kids and grandkids at a 1910 hunting lodge on his California ranch. Now his parents are gone, he says, "and everyone's spread out, so [wife] Jillie [Mack] and I and our daughter, Hannah, tend to go to one of [our relatives'] houses."

Moynahan, who cowrote 2015's The Blue Bloods Cookbook, will host and roast (turkey, of course), but the traditional menu is a "team effort," she says, which includes her mom's cranberry sauce and her dad's apple pie.

Bridget Moynahan in Season 4 (John Paul Filo/CBS)

In 2018, when Ray and husband Landon Beard hosted their first Thanksgiving at their new Los Angeles home, a friend recommended a kosher turkey. Having flown in just the night before, Ray took her first peek at the poultry Thursday morning. "It was covered in feathers!" she exclaims. "It took me hours to pluck, and we wound up eating at 10:30. This year I ordered some honey-baked ham as well as [a prepared] turkey."

Another Thanksgiving convention nationwide: family conflict. Among the Reagans, heated conversations are a regular — and realistic — occurrence. "Frank and Granddad have an unwritten rule that you show up for dinner, check your guns [and phones] at the door and don't get up to leave," says Moynahan. "But that doesn't mean you won't have disagreements. It's important to show flaws."

Donnie Wahlberg in Season 9 (John Paul Filo/CBS)

As one of nine kids, Wahlberg says Selleck reminds him of his own dad seated at the head.

This is an abbreviated version of TV Guide Magazine's latest cover story. For more, pick up the issue, on newsstands Thursday, November 21.

Blue BloodsFridays, 10/9c, CBS