Pretty boy. Those were the two words that came to Don Bellisario’s mind when he first considered hiring Mark Harmon as the star of his naval-themed CBS crime drama NCIS. How on earth, he wondered, could the six-foot-tall, salt-and-pepper-haired sex symbol who’d stolen hearts as a scamp in St. Elsewhere and Chicago Hope play tough-as-nails agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs from the Navy’s elite crime investigative unit?
The answer came when Bellisario saw Harmon’s Emmy-nominated 2002 arc as Agent Simon Donovan on The West Wing. ”What I saw was a very controlled presence, a quiet strength,” says Bellisario. ”That’s what I was looking for. Leroy is Mark’s kind of guy. Mark has that jock mentality — you tough it out no matter how tough it is.” And thanks in no small part to the 54-year-old Harmon’s charismatic performance, NCIS — written off as just another CBS procedural when it premiered in 2003 — is now one of TV’s fastest-growing dramas. It also may be the only American Idol-proof show on TV: Even though it faces Fox’s unstoppable hit for five months every season, NCIS’ ratings are up 10 percent from last year, with a weekly average of 15.6 million viewers.
Because Harmon’s 31-year TV career has been populated by just as many failures (anyone remember 240-Robert?) as it has hits, the actor maintains a humble attitude. ”I have a bit of a ‘play me, trade me’ attitude [with roles],” he says. ”I’ve never done any job for the security or the money. I believe in trying to find an area to get better, to learn more about why I’m here.” We asked Harmon to look back on his varied TV projects, from enduring a celebrity-studded obstacle course from hell to reporting for duty on NCIS.
ST. ELSEWHERE NBC, 1983-1986
Harmon was acting in plays and roofing houses to make ends meet when his agent suggested he read for the Steven Bochco drama Bay City Blues. Fortuitously, the audition took place in the same building where St. Elsewhere executive producer Bruce Paltrow was casting the new role of Dr. Bobby Caldwell for the drama’s second season. Harmon moseyed down the hall and wound up nabbing the part. Caldwell, a plastic surgeon, later contracted HIV.
”The character changed dramatically in the third season. He went from caring surgeon to womanizing sleazeball. Originally, I was going to get Lou Gehrig’s disease. But Paltrow changed it to AIDS. Bill Daniels’ character said to Bobby, ‘I didn’t even know you preferred guys.’ And I said, ‘I don’t.’ That was an important piece of information to get out because there was a consensus at the time that AIDS was the result of a certain lifestyle, and that was dead wrong. If NBC hadn’t been in such rough shape, I don’t think St. Elsewhere would have survived. Everybody knew that if [NBC’s then chairman] Grant Tinker had something better, he would have put it on.”
BATTLE OF THE NETWORK STARS ABC, 1984
Harmon had just finished his first season on St. Elsewhere when he was asked to appear on the popular Howard Cosell-hosted sweatfest for the third time (the first two were in 1981 and 1982). In all, he appeared four times on the long-running special, competing against the likes of Joan Collins and Heather Locklear.
”I remember [St. Elsewhere costar] Denzel Washington and I getting a call on a Friday, which means two people bailed out on a Thursday. We were both building our own houses, and I said, ‘Well, I can build a wall in front of my house or they can give me $10,000 just for showing up.’ So I went. The bizarre thing is that [the NBC team] ended up winning the whole thing, which was $20,000 for a day and a half of work. You had to be in pretty good shape to survive. The first day we did lame stuff like paddling a boat in the pool and a dunk booth, but the next day they tried to kill us with an obstacle course and a bike race. It was bizarre, but I don’t find it embarrassing.”