‘NCIS’: Why Mark Harmon Believes His Role on the Series is Different Than His Other Characters

by John Jamison

Iconic as his character Gibbs is on “NCIS,” Mark Harmon has an acting career that spans nearly 40 years. In that time, he’s played dozens of different roles in everything from TV shows to feature films. His most consistent work, however, has come on the long-running show “NCIS.”

Harmon plays Special Agent Gibbs, who leads a Major Case Response Team. And if you asked him, the role is unlike much of the work he was known for throughout his career.

In an interview with the late Larry King in 2014, Harmon was asked if his character Gibbs was different from roles he played in the past.

“I think so. I think it’s a little less an ensemble,” he said. “Though, this is an ensemble show. It always has been. But there are less characters.”

Mark Harmon’s best-known roles before “NCIS” came in the shows “St. Elsewhere” and “Chicago Hope.” Both were medical dramas that lasted roughly six years, and Harmon played a different doctor in each. These were the two shows Larry King cited when he asked the “NCIS” star how different his current role is from those periods of his career.

The difference on the surface is clear to see. Special Agent Gibbs is a far cry from Dr. Jack McNeil and Dr. Robert Caldwell in their professions. But the real difference for Harmon was the format of the shows. His previous stops saw him as part of an ensemble cast done in a soap opera style. Whereas Gibbs is a clear leader, and therefore Harmon a true star on “NCIS.”

The ‘NCIS’ Star’s Prolific Acting Career

Overshadowed by the 18 years Mark Harmon has spent as Special Agent Gibbs on “NCIS,” are the 30 years that brought him there.

Starting in 1973, Harmon’s career began with a series of small parts on TV shows like “Laverne & Shirley” and “Police Woman.” Eventually, he landed a recurring role on “Sam” in 1977, appearing in seven episodes of the show. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw more roles like this for the eventual “NCIS” star. Then he landed his first tenured job on “St. Elsewhere.”

He was on the show from 1983-1986 and appeared in 64 episodes as Dr. Caldwell. Further, Harmon’s role as Dr. Caldwell was groundbreaking in that it was one of the first to portray a character with HIV on a hit show. And that was no small thing in the mid-1980s.

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw Harmon branch out into feature film roles, and he also starred as Det. Ricky Cobb on the short-lived “Reasonable Doubts.” Then came “Chicago Hope,” an Emmy-nominated arc on “The West Wing,” and finally “NCIS.”