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Mark Harmon on NCIS: ‘You change and you grow, or it kills you’
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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