NCIS’s Mark Harmon is a seriousri guy – both in real life and as his character Gibbs.
It’s been over a decade since NCIS first brought us the crime-fighting naval team, headed by stern, serious Leroy Jethro Gibbs. It’s become the mostwatched series in the US and thrust its lead star Mark Harmon into the spotlight. Mark is now the highest-paid actor on a US drama series, pocketing over $500 000 (R5.3 million) per episode – and the show was just renewed for season 12, so there’s more money coming his way. But it turns out that way back in season 1 in 2003, the series struggled to get off the ground…
You’ve been playing Gibbs for so long. How do you still find him interesting?
I’ve always been attracted to the character’s underbelly. He is an odd guy in many ways. I’m constantly handed pieces of info about his character. He’s an uneasy guy, even when he’s alone, and that’s always fun for an actor. After so many years, we’ve attracted quite a backstory on all these characters. The real thing that keeps me coming back is that the writers challenge me to introduce new things and as long as that continues, I’ll want to come to the dance every day.
And can you explain the longevity of the show?
From the beginning there were certain pinnings to the four main characters from the original group, and I’ve looked at that as the hub of the wheel. The first day on set was 21 hours, the second was 20. It didn’t get rapidly better quickly. We didn’t have scripts. We’d come to work and have 10 pages of dialogue. You couldn’t prepare. We shot in Santa Clarita, 50 miles from LA. We weren’t good enough to get attention from the press. I don’t know that anyone thought that of the 17 shows that debuted that year, that we’d be “the one”. All we did every day for a long time was just try to do the best work we were handed. That was the only control we had.
How did that affect the team? We had to bind together. We were so far from LA that the network didn’t want to drive out and that gave us the chance to develop. We had the chance to get to know each other, to work really hard. People leave and then you use the replacement to try to get better and grow, or it kills you. There’s no one person doing it all. We all get better collectively; it’s been that way from the beginning.
So what’s the hardest part of doing the show?
I’ve always felt that it looks easier to do than it is – you need to give a lot of people credit for it. There’s huge professional group who come to work every day and do extraordinary work. I couldn’t be doing this show every day for as long as we have if we weren’t enjoying it. We’re still pushing character development and storylines. That’s why the show is a success.
The naval crime-fighting agency really exists. How important is that in the show?
We have a technical advisor, a 30-year NCIS Special Agent who was a Marine Major before that. The writers listen to him to get everything right. We’re not doing a documentary, but in terms of representing the agency, it’s the form of the show and we don’t always get it right, but there’s a real effort to do it right.
Your son Sean’s played a younger version of your character in various episodes across seasons 6, 7 and 9 (2008-2012). What was the experience like of having a family member on the cast?
He came in and obviously had certain qualities that made him right for the role, but he earned it. I’m more proud of that than anything. As a child he was on this set a lot, so he had the great fortune to have this be his first set ever. He was surrounded by friends. We’re all a product of the set we were on and who we worked with – that effects things later.
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Margaret Gardiner is a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Born in SA, the former Miss Universe winner now lives in LA. She’s written two books and regularly interviews showbiz’s biggest stars.
Mark’s son Sean played young Gibbs
on the show.
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