Chilling with my BOO
Image by David Needleman for Forbes
Styling by Joseph DeAcetis
To hear Mark Harmon say it, there is no “I” in NCIS. “I’m not a big ‘me’ guy,” the 63-year-old star of the most successful television show in the world says. “I’m a ‘we’ guy. It’s the way I was raised. I know what works for me, I know who I am. At the same time, I’m much more interested in this as a whole than I am in anything singular.”
If that sounds an awful lot like his fictional alter ego, Leroy Jethro Gibbs, the Gary Cooper-esque lead investigator of Washington’s Naval Criminal Investigative Service, that’s because it’s hard to know at times where Gibbs ends and where Harmon begins. (In Gibbs’ famous rules, No. 15 is “Always work as a team.”) The epitome of the strong silent type onscreen and off, Harmon says it’s Gibbs’ rich “underbelly,” his past pain and suffering, that has made him such an attractive character to play for the past 12 years.
“I like that he’s not always right,” Harmon says. “And I like the fact that he doesn’t shoot everything he’s aiming at, there’s all kinds of flaws. He lives by a certain standard that is rare in this day and age, and that part has been fun. But my real job is to make it believable.”
There are certainly plenty of believers. NCIS is the third-most-watched show in America (with nearly 20 million viewers tuning in every week), and when you factor in the foreign audience, the number skyrockets to 57.6 million. That makes the drama No. 1 globally and Harmon (who earns $19 million a year) the world’s biggest TV star. Not that he’d ever admit it.
Harmon began his career in Hollywood later than many actors, at age 22, after graduating from UCLA as a Heisman Trophy-nominated quarterback. (His father, Tom, won the Heisman as Michigan’s running back in 1940.) His last job before taking on Hollywood was in a carpentry shop, which explains why Gibbs is always working alone on a wooden boat in his basement.
But acting didn’t come as easily as football for Harmon. “When I first started working here or trying to work, I was just trying to get on a set,” he recalls. “You go home and someone asks, ‘Why’d you do that role?’ I’d say, ‘Why’d I do that role? There was no choice. … I wanted to pay the gas bill.’ ”
After a few years of small roles on various television shows, Harmon became famous as Dr. Bobby Caldwell on St. Elsewhere in 1983. Three years later, he became the second person to be named People’ s “
Sexiest Man Alive.” But it was a modest two-episode arc on CBS’ JAG in 2003 that transformed his life with NCIS.
While other actors could grow complacent after a 12-year stint on such a successful series, Harmon–who has been married to actress Pam Dawber for 27 years and has two grown children–still finds it challenging, a fact he relishes. Not that he’s content to stick solely to his acting duties. In addition to adding executive producer to his NCIS duties, he is now producing a second spinoff, NCIS: New Orleans, which debuted to strong ratings in September.
“I don’t forget for a second where it started,” Harmon says, echoing Gibbs’ Rule No. 8 (“Never take anything for granted”). “I’m here to learn, I’m here to grow and try different things. Does that mean that I’ll step behind the camera just to do that? I hope to do it all, I hope to stay behind the camera, in front of the camera, whatever. I’m looking to do different things with different people, and I like what I do.”
As for following Gibbs’ rule No. 11 (“When the job is done, walk away”), Harmon is nowhere near ready to turn in his NCIS shield. “I’m trying to grow and I’m trying to change and I’m trying to get better all the time,” he says. “If it ever comes to the point where that’s of no interest–and that doesn’t make a lot of sense, not in life and not in this business–it’ll be time to say let’s move on, it’s time to do something else. Open a workshop and start making furniture–and that would be okay, too. But I’m not there yet.” — ALICIA ADAMCZYK