‘NCIS’: How Mark Harmon’s Role on ‘St. Elsewhere’ Made TV History

by Madison Miller

Mark Harmon certainly made TV history, and became a longstanding iconic character, when he decided to take on his role as Gibbs back in 2003. Little did he know that “NCIS” would be his home for nearly two decades and that he would eventually also become an executive producer.

Although he was iconic on “NCIS,” Harmon’s first major role certainly was not the popular procedural drama.

Before he could run (gun in hand) as Leroy Jethro Gibbs, he first had to walk in the shoes of Dr. Robert Caldwell on the medical drama St. Elsewhere.

Why Was Harmon’s Role in ‘St. Elsewhere’ So Important?

The “NCIS” star had no shortage of roles before he appeared in “St. Elsewhere.”

That includes appearances in projects like “Flamingo Road,” “Wyatt Earp,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “The Deliberate Stranger,” and “Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years.” When 1983 rolled around, Harmon started portraying Caldwell.

According to Variety, his character made primetime TV history. This is because his character was the first one ever to die after contracting HIV from unprotected sex. He played a rather promiscuous plastic surgeon and was killed off the screen after appearing in the show for three seasons. This moment and his character remain one of the most popular from the show. The show was on for a total of six seasons, from 1982 to 1988.

It was not only a dramatic twist for the series, but it was a bold and sadly realistic portrayal of some real-world events. After his role, Harmon spoke to People in 1986 about what it all meant in the grand scheme of things.

“At the time it was really risky, but years later it was something people talk about and remember. What they were saying about that character was simply not being done at that time,” Harmon said at the time.

‘NCIS’ Star Talks to Earlier Self

Mark Harmon has come a long way. From a very, very small role in the sitcom “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” to a nearly two-decade-long gig on “NCIS,” Harmon has adapted a lot in front and behind the camera.

Before he was an actor, the “NCIS” star was playing football seriously. He gave that up to be a star. For him, a part of that jock mindset really stuck around.

It was actually something he would need to work around in the coming years.

“I was a jock, so I came from a place where all you were trying to do was play the game and play it well—most of that is about not letting people know what you’re thinking or doing. In the beginning of this chase, you try very hard to control everything. As an actor you control none of it. That’s sometimes important—stepping away from it and not putting so much focus on it. Sometimes [that is] a better tactic than trying to throw the ball through the tire more times than the next guy,” he said during an interview with Men’s Journal.