A quiet evening in suburban Brentwood ended when a car driven by two teenagers missed a turn, hit a tree, flipped over, and burst into flames. A neighbor ran to the car and with the swing of a sledgehammer shattered the front windshield. He dragged the driver out of the car. Then he reached back in through the flames and broken glass to rescue the trapped passenger before the car exploded. Both boys survived, thanks to the good Samaritan.
The Samaritan was a hometown boy made good. Born and raised in Los Angeles (well, Burbank), he was a standout quarterback for the UCLA Bruins, then had a long, successful career in television that continues to this day. His name is Mark Harmon.
To say Harmon is blessed with a good gene pool only partly explains his success at life. As for the genes, they came from his father Tom Harmon and his mother Elyse Knox. The elder Harmon was a standout football player for the Michigan Wolverines. Affectionately nicknamed “Ole 98”, the versatile Harmon played offense and defense. Running, passing, kicking the football and scoring touchdowns won Harmon the Heisman Trophy his senior year (1940).
Tom majored in English and Speech and began a career in broadcasting. Then he met Elyse Knox, a fashion designer beautiful enough to model her own creations and have a side career as an actress. The two became engaged, but broke off the relationship when Harmon enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942. Harmon survived two plane crashes and being lost in Japanese occupied China, returning to America in 1944 with a wedding gift for his fiancée. The silk parachute that saved Tom’s life became the material for Elyse’s wedding dress.
Tom and Elyse settled in Los Angeles and raised a family. Kristin was born in 1945, Kelly in 1948, and Mark in 1951. Mark’s given name is Thomas Mark Harmon, but no one ever called him Thomas, or even Tom. It was always Mark – or Marko, or Burr, or Clyde, or Flake – never Tom. And the elder Harmon, for some obscure reason, was called Sam by his family. Elyse was just “Boss,” probably because she raised the three children mostly on her own, as Tom Harmon’s career as a sports announcer required him to travel all over the country.
Mark was raised in a female environment, and he missed his father. But when dad was home he put Mark through the wringer. “He raised me hard, and when I say hard, I mean hard,” Mark Harmon told People magazine. “I was taught to fight for everything.”
He ended up playing football too: first at junior college, then under the bright lights of UCLA stadium. Mark had to extend himself to get out from his father’s considerable shadow. He was not as successful as ‘Ole 98’, which is no disgrace: few have matched Tom Harmon’s Heisman Trophy season. But through hard work Mark established himself as a quality college quarterback and received the National Collegiate Football Foundation Award for All-Around Excellence.
Harmon’s major was communications, but he wanted to be either a doctor or a lawyer. Law school didn’t work out, and he bounced around from working at an ad agency to selling shoes to practicing carpentry. That last profession became a lifelong hobby for Mark Harmon. Leroy Jethro Gibb’s basement boat building in NCIS is a tongue in cheek reference to Harmon’s carpentry skills.
After following his father’s footsteps in sports, Mark now followed his mother’s footsteps into acting. His first mentor was Jack Webb, the taciturn detective of Dragnet (“Just the facts, ma’am”). Webb told young Harmon to get a shave and a haircut and he might have a part for him in a TV series Webb was producing called Adam-12.
A string of short roles in different television series over the next several years culminated in Harmon’s first breakout performance in the movie Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years, which received an Emmy Award nomination.
But his acting career was still hit and miss. Between jobs Harmon did manual labor jobs (carpentry, roofing) and worked on his acting skills in local Los Angeles theater productions. In 1981 he was cast as a married politician in the steamy prime time soap opera Flamingo Road. Cristina Raines played the love interest on screen, and off screen too. Harmon and Raines continued as an item after Flamingo Road was canceled in 1982. In 1984 the relationship ended, an event that was difficult for Mark to accept.
Perhaps the breakup made more sense to him after he met actress and former fashion model Pam Dawber. Best known for co-starring with Robin Williams in the hit comedy Mork and Mindy, Dawber and Harmon fell in love and in 1987 were married in a private ceremony. Internet rumors to the contrary, the Harmon’s are still married and have raised two sons, Sean Thomas and Ty Christian. Sean is an actor who has appeared several times in NCIS in flashbacks playing Mark Harmon’s character as a young man.
In 1986 People magazine declared Mark Harmon “The Sexiest Man Alive.” With his mother’s classic facial features and a flashing, boyish smile, Harmon tended to be typecast as a heartthrob and hero, like his three year role on St. Elsewhere as Dr. Bobby Caldwell. Harmon gained valuable experience in the series, being part of an ensemble acting cast that included Denzel Washington, Howie Mandel, and Ed Begley Jr.
To counteract typecasting Harmon occasionally took roles that went against the grain, like Dillinger, and in particular, his suave and sinister portrayal of serial murderer Ted Bundy in Deliberate Stranger.
Despite his popularity and acting skills, Harmon had many years of small parts, series that were canceled, and movies that didn’t catch on. He kept working, sometimes taking small roles just to keep his acting skills sharp. For a time he was the commercial spokesman for Coors beer. Harmon became noted for his down to earth personality and willingness to share the spotlight with his fellow actors. In 1996 Harmon caught a role playing Dr. Jack McNeil in the popular television series Chicago Hope, which provided steady work for four years.
Harmon’s next break occurred in 2002, when he was cast as White House secret service agent Simon Donovan in the television series The West Wing. Harmon portrayed his character so effectively there was a public outcry when Donovan was killed after four episodes. Harmon received an Emmy Award nomination for this role.
Now fifty-one, Mark Harmon may have thought the best of his career was behind him. He was surprised when a bit role he had as Leroy Jethro Gibbs in the series JAG was spun off into a television series called NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service). Leroy Jethro Gibbs was NCIS’s lead investigator, the main character of the show. At age fifty-three Mark Harmon’s career really took off.
It was Harmon’s acting in The West Wing that attracted the attention of NCIS producer Don Bellisario: “What I saw was a very controlled presence, a quiet strength. That’s what I was looking for. Leroy is Mark’s kind of guy. Mark has that jock mentality—you tough it out no matter how tough it is.”
NCIS is a military crime procedural drama with an ensemble cast. In addition to Gibbs, the NCIS team includes Agent Tony Dinozzo (Michael Weatherly), Agent Timothy McGee (Sean Murray), Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard (David McCallum) and Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette). This has been the consistent lineup for twelve years.
NCIS was an instant critical and commercial success. Over twenty million people tune into NCIS every Tuesday night. For many years it has been the number one watched network TV show. Even more remarkable is the consistently high quality the show has maintained for twelve years and counting.
Its success has created spinoff shows: NCIS: Los Angeles, and this year NCIS: New Orleans. In addition to acting and directing, Mark Harmon has become a producer as well. He holds the show together week after week, year after year. And people keep tuning in every Tuesday night to catch the latest saga. Leroy Jethro Gibbs is a very different character than Mark Harmon, who explains:
“Gibbs is really good at his job…but so much of his life is really tormented and dark, and I don’t know if he’ll ever recover from it. I think he would be an uncomfortable guy to have dinner with.”
Gibbs has also been divorced three times. The inside joke on this factoid is that Gibbs is modeled after Don Bellisario, who has had his share of marriages and divorces. Over the years Gibb’s character has changed, often in unpredictable ways. Life has a way of making us react: it either softens us or hardens us. Harmon’s portrayal of Gibbs shows him maintaining his hard professional edge while softening in his personal life: forgiving himself for not being able to save his family, and a realization of the consequences of living a tortured, solitary life.
NCIS has the unique ability to make audiences laugh, sit on the edge of their seat, participate in a whodunit with many twists and turns, and cry at the pathos, warmth, and heartbreak. It is a remarkable series, and the credit for its success goes primarily to one man: Mark Harmon.
Harmon doesn’t see it this way. He credits the ensemble and some remarkable writers for keeping stories fresh and interesting year after year. True enough. But Leroy Jethro Gibbs is the backbone of the show, and the backbone is strong and durable; a little like “Ole 98”, just in a different arena.
It took Mark Harmon decades to finally “make it” in Hollywood. He lives a quiet, private life with his family, is funny and down to earth in interviews, and although he exudes a masculine, distinguished presence, remains remarkably unfazed by success. And that is called victory.
Life Magazine, November 10 1972, “The Son of ‘Ole 98’”