By Alex Strachan, Postmedia News - November 4, 2013 11:52 AM
I don’t think I could be doing this show after 11 years — I don’t think any of us could — if we weren’t enjoying it,’ says Mark Harmon.
Photograph by: CBS , Postmedia News
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Life is a mystery, and that goes double for hit TV series.
Mark Harmon, looking laid-back, casual and relaxed on an uncharacteristically warm November morning in southern California, still can’t wrap his head around the phenomenon that is NCIS, a police procedural that has lasted 11 seasons and is network television’s most-watched weekly drama — even in Canada, where a thriller focusing on the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps would not seem to be tailor-made for an audience more inclined to watch NHL hockey and The Big Bang Theory. More than two million Canadians watched the Oct. 21 episode, making NCIS the third most-watched program in Canada that week.
Harmon still hasn’t forgotten the early days — Nov. 23, 2003, to be exact — when NCIS couldn’t get arrested, no pun intended, when ER, Law & Order, Without a Trace and Cold Case led the drama ratings charts. Cold Case bowed in the same week as NCIS, also on CBS, and for a while Cold Case was the more popular program by far.
Cold Case left quietly in 2010; NCIS is still there.
NCIS has become a ratings phenomenon in its own right. The idea that a TV drama — any TV drama — could be more popular in its 11th year than at any other time during its run isn’t just unprecedented: It’s unthinkable.
Harmon, soft-spoken to the point of being shy, is confident in his abilities and in the work of his colleagues. He’s been an executive producer, after all, since 2008, in addition to acting.
Even so, what happened — and, more to the point, why — remains a mystery to him, a mystery possibly not even his onscreen character Leroy Jethro Gibbs could solve.
Eleven seasons, 241 episodes. What’s that all about? Yes, People magazine once named Harmon “the Sexiest Man Alive” — a source of acute embarrassment for him at the time — but that was back in 1986, for heaven’s sake.
Whatever’s going on, Harmon says, it’s not about him.
“To continue anything, and do it well, for 11 years takes a lot of effort from a lot of people,” he says quietly, after a long pause. “I’ve always thought this show looks easier to do than it is. And because of that you need to give a lot of people credit for it. There’s a large group of people who come to work every day on this show and do extraordinary work, and I’m part of that.
“I don’t think I could be doing this show after 11 years — I don’t think any of us could — if we weren’t enjoying it. It’s a gift to be able to come to work every day and work with friends who are there to help and protect you. ‘Oh, and by the way, its ratings are terrific’ — that’s a side note.
“There’s a lot to be thankful for. Here we are in year 11, still pushing new storylines, still pushing character development. Nobody’s bored. There’s nothing wrong with loving your job. I love my job.”
Cote de Pablo’s sudden departure at the outset of the season, after playing Israeli agent Ziva David for eight years from 2005 to 2013, has been keenly felt, Harmon admits. All long-running shows must deal with change at some point in their lives, though.
“We were all surprised by this,” Harmon said quietly, measuring his words. “It’s not like we knew it was coming. We didn’t. She was there for eight years. I mean, that’s high school and college. In this business you spend more time with your cast than you do your family. It was a pleasure to have her for eight years and now it’s time to move on, and I think it’s important for this show to move on as much as it is for me to move on, and the cast to move on.
“For me, this all happened back in June. Now we’re in November, nine shows in and moving forward. So far this year, our ratings are stronger than they’ve ever been. This show, over 11 years, has had many changes. So at some point you just have to give credit to the people who run the show.”
Harmon has played Gibbs for 11 years now — “Believe me, I’m aware,” he says dryly — but he has yet to tire of the character.
“I’ve always been attracted to the underbelly of this character. He’s an odd guy, in many ways. He’s an uneasy guy, even when he’s alone, by himself. And that’s always fun for an actor to play.
“After 11 years we’ve accumulated quite a backstory for all the characters. We have a whole ensemble of people who’ve returned from year four, year five, year seven. It’s become like a big theatre company in a lot of ways.”
“Our writers are wonderful about taking the initiative to search and push and change. In fairness, I couldn’t keep doing it if I didn’t feel I was coming to a different dance every day I go to work. As long as it stays that way, it’s a nice thing.”
As for NCIS’s continuing success, he says, “I don’t know that I know the answer to that any more than you do, and I don’t know I can shed any more light on it.
“I do know that, from the beginning, the show was pinned on these four characters, the original core group. I’ve always looked on that as the hub of the wheel.”
The beginning was a nightmare, Harmon admits.
“The first day on the set, filming was 21 hours. The second day was 20 hours. And it didn’t get better quickly.
“We didn’t have scripts. You’d come to work and they’d give you 10 pages of dialogue and say, ‘Do this.’ You couldn’t prepare, because there was nothing to prepare.
“I always said we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t want to be here. We believed. You have to change and you have to grow — or it kills you.”
NCIS airs Tuesdays on Global and CBS at 8 ET/PT, 9 MT.
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