‘Maverick’ Star James Garner Was Set to Portray Gibbs Father on ‘NCIS’ Before Tragedy Struck

by Suzanne Halliburton

With Mark Harmon saying farewell to NCIS this week, we’re feeling nostalgic for all things Gibbs.

Harmon, as Gibbs, mentioned his father in the final scene of Great Wide Open. The two spent years not speaking to each other. NCIS added Ralph Waites to play Jackson Gibbs as a recurring character starting in season six.

But the show very nearly hired another TV and movie legend who Mark Harmon considered a mentor. James Garner was supposed to play Jackson. He’d already read the script for Heartland, the NCIS episode where Jackson was introduced.

But Garner suffered a severe stroke a few days later. When he died in July 2014, Jesse Stern, an NCIS producer and writer, tweeted about how Garner very nearly joined the cast.

Stern said: “James Garner suffered a stroke after the NCIS Heartland table read 6 years ago. Ralph Waite was cast the next day. We never spoke of it.”

NCIS Star Considered Garner a Mentor In His Life

Harmon considered Garner as his most significant mentor in life. Three years after Garner died, Harmon talked about his relationship with the Maverick and Rockford Files star. In an interview with TVInsider, Harmon said he gives young actors the same advice Garner provided him.

“Choose your mentors carefully,” Harmon said. “A big one for me was James Garner. That was the kind of career I wanted. Jim would always say, ‘I don’t care who’s the No. 1 guy in the business right now. That doesn’t last. I just want to be in that Top 10 for 30 years!’ For him, it was all about the long haul. I never forgot that.”

CBS ©2021

Harmon Was Just Starting Acting Career When Garner Starred in Rockford Files

Harmon was just starting his acting career in the mid-1970s when Garner was starring in The Rockford Files.

So in 2008, Waite became Jackson Gibbs on NCIS. Starting in season six, Waite made seven appearances as Gibbs’ dad. He’d already become one of America’s favorite dads in the 1970s with The Waltons. So it made sense he would play a father on NCIS, one of the most popular shows in the country.

Waite, like Garner, died in 2014. NCIS had time to give Jackson the appropriate sendoff. On the show, he died of a stroke. Waite passed away Feb. 13, 2014. And Harmon received a call about his death before it was even announced. NCIS executive producer Gary Glasberg said Harmon immediately came to his office to explore ideas on how they could honor Waite on the show.

Glasberg wrote a guest column about Waite and NCIS for Entertainment Weekly.

“We considered adding a simple In Memoriam card to the end of the next episode that was about to air,” Glasberg said. “It didn’t feel like enough of a gesture. We contemplated re-running Better Angels, his last wonderful storyline with us. It felt redundant. Ralph deserved more. He would have wanted us to stretch, to push the story envelope, to leave people feeling the loss of Jackson Gibbs, not just reflecting on it.”

The show devoted its season finale of 2014 to Jackson Gibbs and his son’s relationship. And Gibbs mentioned him again in his final scene this season.