‘NCIS’ Star Gary Cole Speaks on Helping the Show Thrive as the ‘New Guy’

by Suzanne Halliburton

For the first time in NCIS history, the series featured two characters who basically lived a Gibbs-free life. Yet the show survived and thrived and now is in production for season 20.

The showrunners certainly were taking a risk this time last year when they hired Gary Cole and elevated Katrina Law to the permanent cast. The first four episodes said the goodbye to Leroy Jethro Gibbs, the special agent in charge. Mark Harmon played Gibbs. And his icy blue stare during any interrogation along with his bevy of personal rules were a key part of the show since its inception in 2003. But Harmon wanted off the series. CBS could either cancel or continue.

Law portrayed Jess Knight for the final two episodes of season 18, while Gibbs was serving a suspension for assaulting a dog killer. He was tracking a serial killer when season 19 started, so Jess didn’t get to absorb much Gibbs greatness.

Mark Harmon and Gary Cole from NCIS episode “Road to Nowhere.” (Michael Yarish/CBS)

NCIS also hired Cole to play Alden Parker, Gibbs’ replacement. Parker, an FBI agent, worked with Gibbs for three episodes to kick off NCIS. The two weren’t exactly friendly to each other as they chased said hitman. Gibbs left Parker on the side of the road. But Parker defied a direct order from his boss to arrest Gibbs in Alaska. And, Gibbs’ good friend Tobias Fornell vouched for Parker for the new special agent in charge job.

What was the key to success? A fun set.

Post-Gibbs, it definitely was a different kind of NCIS season, although the story lines still evolved around Naval crimes. The show looked the same, but it needed to establish chemistry between the new folks and the ones who have been around awhile.

Cast members provided some behind-the-scenes details for a bonus feature provided with the DVD release of NCIS season 19. And a chunk of it was about handling the transition from Harmon to Cole.

“I guess I qualify as the new guy, although Katrina is almost as new as I am, but we have a good time,” Cole said in the interview. “I think we found the right balance of being able to be loose and fun and joke around with each other and then get down to it when we have to get down to it. (And) I think you need both, especially with a season as long as ours.

“You have to release some of the pent-up anxiety or whatever you call it,” Cole said. “I think we’ve achieved that. It’s a fun place to come to work. Let’s put it that way.”

NCIS agents from the season 19 finale. (Robert Voets/CBS)

The cast and crew started production for season 20 last month. And the season 19 finale showed us how much the agents liked their new boss. Someone is setting up Parker for murder and as the finale ended, Parker leaves with his ex-wife to clear his name. He told the agents that his problems weren’t theirs. He didn’t want them to risk their careers to save his. Fortunately, they ignored him.

NCIS will do a two-hour crossover with NCIS: Hawai’i on Sept. 19 to mark the season premieres of both shows. And from the plot tease CBS released, the crew does work together for their boss. That’s similar to how the agents reacted with Gibbs when he found himself in certain predicaments.

So even with Gibbs off the show and living in Alaska, NCIS still has that same vibe, albeit with a different look. Plus, there’s fun on the set.