‘NCIS’ Fans Ponder When Gibbs Was Given Such a Sad Backstory

by Suzanne Halliburton

The TV world received their first glimpse of Leroy Jethro Gibbs in two episodes of JAG, which served as a back door pilot for NCIS.

This was back in April, 2003, when Mark Harmon first started playing one of the longest-running characters on network TV. The first official NCIS episode premiered Sept. 23, 2003, with Gibbs called on to investigate the death of a Naval officer flying aboard Air Force One.

But as the episodes played out, NCIS fans gleaned more details about the special agent in charge. Gibbs had his rules and he lived by himself in a home he never locked. He’d been married before, lots of time (try four). There also was this aching loneliness about him. There was a reason Gibbs could be emotionally distant. In season three, writers revealed that Gibbs’ first wife and his only child were murdered more than a decade before. Gibbs was deployed in the Middle East. And he was wounded right after he learned about Kelly and Shannon and spent 19 days in a coma.

And there’s more sadness to his backstory. Gibbs’ mother committed suicide when Gibbs was 14. She’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer and took her own life. Gibbs was estranged from his father for years, but they reconnected a few years before Jackson Gibbs died.

Gibbs was estranged from his father, Jackson (played by Ralph Waites). But they reunited on an NCIS episode. (Monty Brinton/CBS)

Did NCIS Writers Intend From the Start to Make Gibbs So Sad?

Gibbs backstory is so sad that NCIS fans wondered if writers created the character with such baggage. Or did they decide to gradually give Gibbs these details.

There’s a long thread on Reddit that discusses Gibbs’ family situation. One NCIS fan wrote: “I can’t tell if his wife and daughter were planned as part of the character’s background from episode 1. Or was it character development/a new writer’s idea that was revealed as “new” idea?

“I can’t work out if the character matched someone with this tragic past so it became a writer’s idea later on to explain some of his character and personality,” the fan wrote. “Or (Harmon) played the character like that because from day one he knew he had this dark secret. What came first, the chicken or the egg?”

Gena Rowlands portrayed Gibbs” first mother-in-law (Michael Yarish/CBS)

Fans Found Clues of Gibbs’ Dead Family in Season One

One NCIS recalled a scene in a church during the first season. Gibbs was with Kate and he lit two candles. Kate asked why. Gibbs never answered.

“The candles feel like yes they always planned that he had some kind of family that died. Whether it was siblings, his parents or a wife and child and how was perhaps not figured out until needed for (the) plot.”

The agents who worked on Gibbs’ team were like his children. (Eric McCandless/CBS)

Another NCIS fan posed this theory: “It was never planned from the start, like most of these shows. Every season, new writers come on board, others leave, and every hiatus … the writers have a brainstorm where the next season will go. So Gibb’s story line started as a seasoned but functional mute NCIS investigator, developed into being married 4 times, going to divorced only 3 times and then the drama developed from there.”

Still another NCIS fan wrote: “I think it was planned from the beginning, but they didn’t tell Mark Harmon until later on, because yeah I think there’s definitely a change in beginning Gibbs to what we know and love.”

With all the sadness in his life, no wonder Gibbs decided to stay in Alaska and fish in the fourth episode of season 19. He needed the emotional break.

NCIS season 20 premieres Sept. 19.