MARK HARMON IS TV’S MOST WATCHED MAN
A New Orleans setting is the perfect fit for a spinoff of a classic TV series
MARK Harmon, arguably the best-known actor in the world right now and star of the world’s most watched television program, is an unlikely superstar. In a rare interview with First Watch he reveals himself to be self-effacing, charming and in his often droll way as determined as Special Agent Gibbs, the character he plays in the long-running military series NCIS.
At one time a big-screen leading man in films such as Summer School and The Presidio in the 1980s, he became a fixture on primetime dramas with runs in popular series such as Chicago Hope and St Elsewhere, grabbed an Emmy nomination for his four-episode arc on The West Wing, and has been at the centre of NCIS since 2003.
A spin-off from military series JAG, NCIS spent a not particularly auspicious pilot season under the name Navy CIS, presumably due to the then-legitimate concern that non-navy personnel would have no idea what the acronym “NCIS” meant. Harmon jokes that it was “a show that wasn’t good enough to get all that noticed and wasn’t bad enough to get cancelled.”
If you’ve never watched — more than a million Australians remain devoted viewers — heart-throb 63-year-old Harmon stars as Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, with jurisdiction over crimes connected to members of the Navy and Marine Corps. Gibbs’s team includes former homicide detective Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly), computer specialist Tim McGee (Sean Murray) and oddly literary coroner Dr Donald “Ducky” Mallard (David McCallum). And then there’s Goth-punk-nerd pin-up Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette), the least likely forensic specialist in the history of crime shows.
Officer Ziva David (Cote de Pablo) on loan from Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, recently left the series (mysteriously), to Harmon’s paternal disappointment. “Ah well, these things do happen to casts in long-running shows,” he says. “We like each other and there’s a lot of respect between us which has been there for a long while but I always think that that’s a really nice thing to have along with the work, if you’ve got it, and we have it on this one. It’s rare.” Like Gibbs, he’s clipped and a little terse, considered but capable of letting the words flow when he feels he really has something to say. Otherwise, he lets the silences hold. Occasionally a smile seems to edge into his voice, softening it a little.
NCIS is a show that’s easy to dismiss as a numbers mystery-of-the-week procedural, lovely to look but leaving no lasting impression. But that glib assertion would belie the storytelling professionalism that propels the show. Over 11 seasons the characters have gained emotional depth, complex backstories have evolved and the series cleverly delivers long plot arcs, often picking up on storylines from past seasons and bringing them back into focus. But strategically it still delivers stand-alone episodes that allow new viewers to enter its world and the cosmology of its characters without the need to know of past events.
NCIS started a little uneasily as a gently ironic parody of most of the formularised patterns and riffs of murder-mystery, crime investigation and inside-government thrillers. The background stories were varied: clever takes on serial killers and arms dealers, with a dash of terrorism and espionage hysteria. But it wasn’t until series four, when new producers introduced the complex backstories of the characters, unpeeling them one by one, that the NCIS juggernaut took off.
The program became one of the most agreeable, intelligent and playful commercial shows around, with, as Harmon says, the emphasis on character and humour. These days the show presents basically a kind of comic universe in which the protagonists and action are constructed to continually reassure us that things will ultimately work out happily, even as they encompass a considerable degree of disorder and danger.
He’s obviously proud of the show’s longevity. “The only other show that’s still on the air from that class we came in on is Two And A Half Men and they’re leaving this year,” he says.
“There were 14 new shows on the network that year, and this show has gotten stronger over the years and was probably found and formatted quicker in foreign distribution than even at home in the States. The international audience for this show is huge and it took the US longer to get on board.”
He has a new show too, NCIS: New Orleans,
BEING THERE IT’S HARD NOT TO GET CAUGHT UP IN THE PROCESS OF THE CITY
the much-anticipated spin-off series starting this week, and coming to us, as they say, “direct from the US”. It features Scott Bakula (a Harmon look-alike) as Special Agent Duane Pride, the head of a dedicated team of navy investigators in the Big Easy with its rich setting of music, drinking and wickedness.
Harmon is co-executive producer with Gary Glasberg, the NCIS showrunner and creative coordinator, the series to feature crossovers with the original series, Harmon, Weatherly, Perrette and McCallum all appearing in the first season. With a history of more than 250 episodes of the original show coming before the new one, there’s room for a great deal of creative pollination, something hard-core NCIS fans love.
Harmon says the new show’s inception can be traced back to a conversation between himself and Glasberg in 2013 when they sat down to discuss ideas for the coming season.
“There was always a New Orleans NCIS office and sometimes we do two-part episodes in order to pay more attention to one thing or another,” he says. “Gary started talking about New Orleans and the office there and as we talked it just seemed to be really plain that this was more than just two episodes.”
Suddenly excited, they pushed together a couple of storylines and got in early and pitched it to the network, “and did it particularly with the character of New Orleans being every bit as important as any character in the piece”. Harmon says they actually played music during their submission to the CBS executives pitching a full-scale spin-off, Glasberg playing Louis Armstrong on his iPad.
From the very beginning, he says, they were determined to not only footprint the new series on their successful NCIS show but give it its own identity through the music.
I wonder if it’s a military version of David Simon’s Treme, his series about the Crescent City a year after Katrina, the first season having dealt with the terrible immediate aftermath. Treme, pronounced “Truh-may” (still showing on Foxtel’s SoHo), takes its title from the name of one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, a historically important source of African American music and culture. It’s about people facing loss and dealing with shock and the way that their music heals their psychic wounds.
Harmon laughs at the suggestion and says, “I hope there’s a lot more New Orleans in it than that. We’ve been sampling all kinds of different sounds and there’s certainly a cacophony of sounds when you go down there to shoot. You can’t stop it. You don’t try to stop it.”
The biggest difference he suggests is that NCIS: New Orleans, based in that office in the famous French Quarter, encompasses all of Louisiana, imbued not only with the DNA of the city but the whole Gulf Coast.
“There’s a tremendous very obvious naval presence in New Orleans, shipyards on one coast and Marine Corps as well — a lot of people with liberty trying to get into a lot of trouble in a very short time,” he says. “It’s a place that’s been around for a long time; there are established routes and underground happenings there that the presence of NCIS has always been part of. Their obvious path is to protect the Marine Corps but being there it’s hard not to get caught up in the process of the city, and at the same time keep it clean.”
At the end of our chat Harmon sighs, and then laughs slightly.
“It’s been an interesting travel,” he says of NCIS. “We’ve had many changes over the years and this New Orleans part of that is an aligned footprint to our show and hopefully, we’ve set it right and they’ll make it their own.”
NCIS: New Orleans, Tuesday, 9.30pm, Ten
Mark Harmon, above, in a scene from NCIS; and, left, with Scott Bakula