Mixing action-packed thrills, heartfelt characters, and even a wicked sense of humor, NCIS is one of the best network TV dramas going. Ready to find out some of the behind-the-scenes stories?
Be careful: They might hit you like a Gibbs smack to the head.
It started as a spinoff from JAG
NCIS did not emerge fully formed. It started on another show.
In season eight of JAG, a CBS Naval legal procedural, we were given two episodes, “Ice Queen” and “Meltdown,” that introduced the team and served as backdoor pilots for NCIS.
These episodes introduced iconic characters like Leroy Jethro Gibbs and Tony DiNozzo, and had them help solve a case. The JAG filmmakers even radically changed the opening titles and filmmaking style of their show to better introduce potential viewers to what NCIS would offer.
Its original title was a bit silly
When the NCIS idea finally got its own time slot to shine, it was originally titled Navy NCIS. Why the extra word? Because CBS didn’t think viewers would know what the acronym meant, and wanted them to have as much information as possible.
A noble intention. Here’s the issue.
NCIS stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service. So, the original title was: Navy Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Which is quite redundant and, well, quite silly.
CBS wisely allowed the showrunners to drop the “Navy.” To paraphrase Justin Timberlake, it’s cleaner.
Mark Harmon feuded with the show creator
The show was created by TV crime drama mastermind Donald P. Bellisario, who also created Magnum, P.I. and JAG. According to Harmon, he had a bonkers management style that resulted in last minute script changes and 16-hour work days. And Harmon had enough.
While Harmon publicly said, “It’s not as big a deal as people make it sound,” he did complain to CBS, and got Bellisario to retire. Bellisario is still an executive producer, but doesn’t work on the show day-to-day. He recently sued CBS for making NCIS: Los Angeles without his input.
The pilot was radical for CBS in many ways
CBS’ bread and butter was crime procedurals, where standalone cases wrap up by the hour. But producers of NCIS knew they wanted to focus more on character development, requiring more of a season-long arc. Also, filmmakers knew they wanted a super-different shooting style, using fast cuts and mini-montages.
The title of the pilot, “Yankee White,” comes from a nickname government workers give the process of background checking potential employees of the President and/or Vice President. It also features sneaky, self-aware references to Air Force One, the classic Harrison Ford action flick.
Mark Harmon is quite the athlete
Before getting into acting, Harmon was a renowned college football player. He was a starting quarterback for the UCLA Bruins, and was inducted into the Pierce College Athletic Hall of Fame. He also owned a minor league baseball team for a time, using their field in the movie Stealing Home.
If nobody has given Harmon the nickname “Hands,” they should.
Because in addition to his football career, he also worked as a carpenter before becoming an actor. To pay tribute to this, his NCIS character builds boats as a hobby, even naming some after his ex-wives.
Mark Harmon is also quite the real life hero
In 1996, a 16-year-old named Colin Specht was riding shotgun in a car driven by his friend, when the car got into a fiery accident outside of Harmon’s Los Angeles home. Pinned and burning, Specht thought he was a goner.
Harmon smashed a sledgehammer through a window and pulled Specht out of the car. Specht suffered third-degree burns, but was eternally grateful to the actor: “There’s no way I can repay him, except for pay it forward, and I try to do that in my life.”
It took some convincing to cast Harmon
Bellisario did not originally think Harmon would be a good choice for lead Leroy Jethro Gibbs, knowing him from his younger, more conventionally charismatic work in St. Elsewhere and Chicago Hope. But one acclaimed guest starring arc on The West Wing convinced Bellisario.
After watching Harmon’s work on the Aaron Sorkin show, executive producer Charles Floyd Johnson said, “We all looked at that work. And everybody said, ‘He’s Gibbs.’” Bellisario later said, “I am so lucky to have Mark Harmon as the lead. You have no idea.”
One of Gibbs’ trademarks was improvised
When you think of Agent Gibbs, you think of him playfully (or maybe not so playfully) smacking someone upside the head. It’s embedded into his character. Heck, they even sell merchandise saying “Don’t make me Gibbs-smack you.”
And Harmon completely made it up.
When they rehearsed a scene in an early episode, Harmon wasn’t doing the smack. Then, when they started shooting, he added it in, surprising everyone with delight.
Harmon has a history of pranking: he has also added lots of weights to props people have to pick up right before shooting.
Harmon is a true joy on set
You’ve heard stories about Hollywood divas. Harmon ain’t like that.
He helps no-name actors playing corpses off the ground, and lets them eat lunch before him. “He made it very clear from the beginning: We are all the same,” said Cote de Pablo, who plays Ziva David.
“Harmon has that very strong kind of presence that’s quiet but speaks volumes,” said Johnson.
However, crew members are quick to point out that Harmon is much friendlier than Gibbs. And, unlike Gibbs, he ain’t addicted to coffee — every cup he has on screen is just tea.
Cast members can’t do normal things anymore
The research is in: America loves NCIS. It routinely is the most-watched show in the country. And it has ruined cast members’ lives.
David McCallum, who plays Donald “Ducky” Mallard, says that on flights, “I get smiles and nods and somebody says, ‘Hi, Ducky. Nice to see you.’”
Harmon agrees: “It’s fun to go out there. It’s hard to walk through an airport now.” And Michael Weatherly, whose Anthony DiNozzo Jr. is often the brunt of Gibbs’ slaps, now gets thwacked by strangers “when he’s picking out oranges in the supermarket.”
Everyone views Harmon as a dad — sometimes literally
Harmon’s professional, courteous behavior on set has earned him quite the nickname. We’ll let Sean Murray, who plays Tim McGee, describe it: “We’re fond of calling him Papa Smurf. I’m not sure how fond he is to be called Papa Smurf, but we love it.”
In one case, Harmon was an actual papa on set. Mark Harmon’s son, film student Sean, has played a young Gibbs in NCIS flashbacks. How’d he do capturing his dad’s likeness?
Mark put it simply: “He did a nice job.”
One series regular wasn’t supposed to be
Brian Dietzen got the job for Dr. Jimmy Palmer, a neurotic medical examiner, in a season one episode of NCIS. It was supposed to be one day of work. So Dietzen thought to himself, “I’ll wear glasses, hunch over and stammer a bit.”
Easy money, right?
Everyone loved Dietzen, and he started appearing more and more on the show. Finally, in season ten, he appeared in the show’s opening credits as a series regular, earning applause and congratulations from his castmates (who viewed him as a member of the family the entire time).
Some actors have started to act like their characters
McCallum once said, “The scary part of that is, I find that Ducky and David have combined.” Many of his castmates agree. De Pablo once gave a friend a half-hearted hug, and realized it was because Ziva is not as emotionally present as the real life de Pablo.
Conversely, Pauley Perrette, who plays goth forensic scientist Abby Sciuto, says if their lives were to mix, the balance would be upset. Rocky Carroll, who plays NCIS director Leon Vance, compared it to “that shopping cart with the wheels that lock when you take it past the yellow line.”
One character had a surprising inspiration
Bellisario told Perrette, who plays Abby, that the goal was to defy stereotypes we usually assign to “goths.” They wanted the character to be “someone who is happy, totally put together and successful… She thinks she looks pretty and never calls herself anything other than happy.”
Perrette had a surprising amount of relevant experience. She went to the John Jay School of Criminal Science “studying human behavior through psychology, sociology, and criminal science.” She either wanted to “be in a rock ‘n’ roll band, or be an FBI agent.”
This role kinda gives her both!
One actor needed some coaxing to take her role
After Kate Todd was killed on the show, allowing Sasha Alexander to leave, producers knew they needed a new female lead. They had their eye on Cote de Pablo, who was working in New York as a stage actor.
She just, like, wasn’t interested.
De Pablo was ready to lead a Broadway adaptation of 1992’s The Mambo Kings. She had turned down other TV and film roles to stay in it. However, when the production was abruptly cancelled, de Pablo was invited to audition just two days later, and the rest is TV history.
De Pablo does her own stunts and improvises all the time
In the audition for Ziva, de Pablo screen tested with Weatherly. He went off-script, starting to hit on her. And de Pablo just eviscerated him, causing the entire room to erupt in laughter. Everyone knew she was the one for her willingness to play in the moment.
De Pablo also often does her own stunts for the combat-ready Ziva. “Coming from the theater I love that. You get home and you’re exhausted, but you feel like you’ve really worked.”
However, after a neck injury, she stepped back a bit and let the stunt team take over more.
Fans protested one actor’s exit in an appropriate way
In season four, Ziva picks up a paper clip and tells Tony Dinozzo, “I will kill you 18 different ways with this paper clip.”
So when de Pablo announced she would be leaving NCIS before the start of season 11, heartbroken fans sent CBS paper clip after paper clip.
While de Pablo decided not to reveal her personal reasons for leaving, she “was incredibly moved by the blind support people had… People trusted that what I was doing was what I needed to do, and that’s unconditional love from people who don’t even know me.” Luckily for Ziva fans, de Pablo recently made her NCIS comeback; returning to her iconic role after a 5 year break.
The first female lead was a hasty replacement
Sasha Alexander played Kate Todd, the perfect buttoned-up partner to Gibbs. But in the JAG backdoor pilots, Gibbs’ female partner was Vivian Blackadder, played by Robyn Lively. Unfortunately, Bellisario found her performance to be “too soft,” and they went scrambling for a replacement for the series.
CBS President Les Moonves recommended Alexander himself. She had just appeared on CBS shows CSI and Presidio Med, and Moonves thought she’d be perfect. Bellisario and the other producers agreed.
After NCIS, Alexander went on to play Isles in TNT legal drama Rizzoli & Isles.
One actor exit came as a total surprise to the cast
Alexander told Bellisario that she wanted to leave the show at the end of season two, because of the show’s grueling shooting schedule (and, later, other mysterious grievances she vaguely alluded to). But the circumstances of her character’s fate was kept under wraps until the moment it happened.
Weatherly and Alexander were preparing a scene. And then… he saw producers apply a blood pack to Alexander. And he realized she was gonna die.
“If you watch the moment where she gets shot, I flinch because I could see the guy hitting the button.” Alexander has since guest starred.
You can’t blame nepotism for one key actor
Sean Murray plays Tim McGee, a particularly nerdy cybercrime expert of the NCIS who gets lots of goofy nicknames from his less nerdy colleagues. And he happens to be creator Bellisario’s stepson.
However — that has nothing to do with his success on the show.
McGee was only supposed to appear as a guest star on one episode. But he earnestly proved himself, earning a way into a main actor. “People think, ‘Your stepdad created the show, so you’ve got it easy.’ I can tell you it was not… I was under extra scrutiny.”
One character is named after a key crew member
Leon Vance, played by Rocky Carroll, takes over as the NCIS director after the death of Jenny Shepard (Lauren Holly). Carroll already knew Harmon, having worked with him on Chicago Hope. But that wasn’t the only personal connection with the new character.
He was named after Leon Carroll, a retired NCIS agent who worked as the show’s lead technical advisor. “I thought, what an honor. And then [showrunner Shane Brennan] said, ‘Either way, we’re going to have him keep a toothpick in his mouth, like you do.’ But the fans hated it! They called him a woodpecker!”
A writer’s strike actually helped the show
From 2007-2008, the Writers Guild of America went on strike, ceasing production on any written television shows. For most shows, this caused a lot of friction and headache, as they, you know, couldn’t write any new shows.
But for NCIS, it somehow helped.
In desperate need of programming, USA started airing reruns of NCIS, which at that point was not the number one juggernaut it is now. And audiences, also in desperate need of programming, tuned in, becoming obsessed and boosting new episodes’ ratings.
One actor’s audition was quite unorthodox
After de Pablo left, Emily Wickersham came in to read for new female lead, NSA analyst Ellie Bishop. During the initial session, Wickersham sat down on the ground to deliver her scenes, a surprising move that delighted showrunner Gary Glasberg.
For the next session, they did something unheard of.
They brought every potential actor to the set, and had them do “a day in the life.”
Everyone shot scenes with the cast and crew, and even ate lunch with them. Wickersham said that beyond character needs, “they were also seeing who was going to fit in with this family.”
One character changed after fan reaction
Michael Weatherly plays Anthony DiNozzo Jr., a senior field agent whose macho swagger contrasts comedically with Gibbs’ more subdued attitude. But one aspect of his otherwise enjoyed character had to change: his behavior toward women. Even if you like Tony, you gotta admit he can be a little icky.
Tony hit on women, making less-than-PC comments and jokes. And Bellisario started to realize that many fans — specifically, many female fans — were starting to hate Tony. So, heeding their warnings, he and Weatherly toned down those parts of the character. And now, he’s a beloved member of the NCIS family.
For Michael Weatherly, flattery will get you everywhere
Normally, an actor books a role by auditioning for it. Pretty standard stuff.
When Weatherly was being considered for Tony, though, all bets were off. Things started with a phone call to Bellisario, where Weatherly flattered the heck out of him, complimenting Magnum, P.I. And then…
…they went out to dinner for more than three hours, with Bellisario’s family with them. And, according to Bellisario, “I liked him so much that I cast him in the show after that meeting.” They even added Weatherly’s real-life enjoyment of Bellisario shows into NCIS.
Who needs auditions, anyway?
Other famous folks were up for parts
Before Alexander was cast as Kate, one TV star was up for the part: Jennifer Aniston. There was an issue, though: she wasn’t done shooting Friends yet. For her to nab the part, NCIS would’ve had to postpone production by at least a year — and they just couldn’t do that.
Remember how the pilot references Air Force One? That’s a bit of an in-joke, because Harrison Ford was up for Gibbs before Harmon got it. At the time, Ford’s career was slowing down, and his agents really wanted him to take it.
We think everything worked out perfectly for everyone.
An on-set birthday party got out of hand
When Harmon turned 54 during the shooting of an episode, he had a simple request: Don’t make a big deal.
What did everyone do? Made it the biggest deal ever. Holly was especially excited to get back at Harmon, having been the target of many of his trademark pranks.
150 cast and crew members wore T-shirts saying “It’s Mark Harmon’s Birthday.” Harmon’s trailer was stuffed with balloons and pinatas. And everyone marched around with special signs celebrating Harmon. Harmon earnestly thought there was some kind of strike, before realizing the celebratory truth.
Some cast members have behaved controversially
After de Pablo left the show, Perrette wore a shirt saying “I Heart My Job” to a CBS event, and tweeted, “I love my job. #NCIS”. While she didn’t mention de Pablo directly, many assumed Perrette was criticizing her. De Pablo eventually called and asked Perrette to tone it down.
When Weatherly left the show, he got a new gig starring in CBS legal drama Bull. During production, his costar Eliza Dushku accused him of sexual harassment. She was promptly fired and given a large severance package. In response, executive producer Steven Spielberg left the show.
Harmon’s dog caused some huge problems
In 2016, Harmon brought his dog to set. And his dog bit a crew member, causing a 15 stitch injury. It especially upset Perrette, who began feeling unsafe. But Harmon refused to stop bringing the dog. And Perrette felt scared to tell people, given Harmon’s status and power. So…
They stopped being in rooms together.
Perrette would shoot her scenes one day, Harmon would shoot his scenes another. Even on Perrette’s last episode, she and Harmon didn’t have a goodbye scene. Perrette later tweeted bluntly, “I am terrified of Harmon and him attacking me. I have nightmares about it.”
One character has been a surprising inspiration
Ziva David, played by de Pablo, is an Israeli, ex-Mossad special agent for the NCIS. And this role, which the Jerusalem Post cites as being the only Israeli character on a network TV show, has been instrumental in representation for Israeli and Jewish characters and culture.
Ziva wears a visible Star of David necklace in every shot, listens to Israeli hip-hop band Hadag Nachash, and uses an accurate pronunciation we just don’t hear in TV shows. For many, she is a gateway to Israeli and Jewish culture, and that is really something.
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