Mark Harmon (born 1951) is an American actor who has had a minor career in films and a major one in TV. His father was Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon. He has two older sisters: Kristin Nelson, the former wife of singer Ricky Nelson, and Kelly Harmon, who was once married to car magnate John DeLorean. His maternal grandparents were Austrian immigrants.
Mark went to UCLA, where he was the starting quarterback for the Bruins football team in 1972 and 1973. During his very first game, he engineered a stunning upset of the two-time defending national champion, Nebraska Cornhuskers. In his senior year, Harmon received the National Football Foundation Award for All-Round Excellence, and graduated cum laude in 1974 with a B.A.
One of his first national TV appearances was in a commercial for Kellogg’s with his famous father, its longstanding TV spokesman. He made over 2 million bucks doing a series of Coors commercials. Thanks to his sister Kristen’s in-laws, Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Nelson, he landed his first job as an actor in an episode of Ozzie’s Girls. Mark received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor for his performance in the TV movie Eleanor and Franklin. In 1980, Harmon became a regular on Flamingo Road. Following its cancellation, he played Dr. Robert Caldwell for three seasons on the NBC Emmy-winning series St. Elsewhere. In 1996 to 2000 he was a regular on CHICAGO HOPE for 90 episodes. He was also named People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive.”
In May 2002, he portrayed Agent Simon Donovan on The West Wing. The role gained him his second Emmy Award nomination, exactly 25 years after his first nomination. Harmon appeared in a guest-starring role in JAG in April 2003, which introduced the character of NCIS agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs. Since 2003, Harmon has starred as Gibbs in the CBS drama NCIS for 258 episodes, a role which earned him three nominations at the People’s Choice Awards. He also starred in several stage productions of LOVE LETTERS alongside his wife Pam Dawber, of MORK AND MINDY fame.
Harmon received the 2,482nd star of the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2012. In 2014, he started his own company called Wings Productions to produce NCIS: New Orleans. In 1987, Harmon filed for custody of his nephew based on grounds that his sister Kris’ parenting was compromised by substance abuse. His whole family sided against him; and he later dropped the custody bid. In 1988, Harmon was part owner of a minor league baseball team, The San Bernardino Spirit, which spawned Ken Griffey, Jr. In 1996, Harmon made news when he saved two teenage boys involved in a car accident outside his Brentwood home. Harmon used a sledgehammer to break the window of their burning car.
I first met Mark on the set of LET’S GET HARRY. He played “Harry,” an engineer who is kidnapped along with the US ambassador (Bruce Gray) in Colombia. When “Harry’s” friends in Illinois find out, they decide to go get “Harry,” and their exploits make up the bulk of the movie. Most of the cast were famous at the time of the film. Michael Schoeffling, was in Sixteen Candles, Tom Wilson, Back to the Future, Rick Rossovich Top Gun, and rock star Glen Frey was one of The Eagles. Also in the cast was that madman, Gary Busey…and some other actor, what’s-his-name, oh yeah, Robert Duvall!!
But despite its impressive cast, Let’s Get Harry is a film that is remembered for little except director Stuart Rosenberg’s decision to remove his name from the credits. This was due to significant re-editing and additional shooting that occurred after principal photography had concluded. In the director’s cut, Mark Harmon doesn’t make an appearance of any kind until the final rescue sequence. But Mark’s sudden notoriety as the “SEXIEST MAN ALIVE,” coupled with the producer’s concern that the character of “Harry” should appear earlier, so that the audience would care about who the hell was being rescued, led to the filming of additional footage. This so outraged Rosenberg that he took his name off the credits. The direction was attributed to “Allan Smithee,” (The default appellation when a director refuses credit.)
The film was shot in and around Vera Cruz on the east coast of Mexico. Historically, Veracruz (The True Cross) was the original landing place of conquistador, Hernan Cortes. Today it is a sleepy port utterly devoid of charm. The shooting schedule was vastly complicated with all the coverage necessary for the many characters in the action sequences. So I was down there for weeks with nothing to do but run on the beach, lay by the pool, walk into town, and have lunch on the set. It was a living hell!? At the end of each day, the cast would gather in the hotel lobby. We were all away from home, with a large per diem burning a hole in our pockets. This is when I noticed an interesting shift in the group’s dynamic. Although Mark’s role in the film was minor, his status in the cast became major. Perhaps it was his leadership skills developed as a quarterback, or perhaps just who he is, but in no time at all, the entire cast (with the exception of Mr. Duvall, who chose to hang out with two friends he had the producers hire to keep him company) would sidle up to Mark to see what was happening that night.
After we wrapped in Mexico, the additional scenes were shot just outside of LA. A Mexican village was specially created to replicate where “Harry” and the Ambassador were being held captive. The resulting scenes were added to the final cut. But the movie did not fare well at the box office. In general it is considered poorly written and executed. Many of the scenes are totally unrealistic, especially the final assault on a drug lord’s camp. Are we to believe that these guys from Illinois, none of whom have had any training, were able to kill dozens of armed “Banditos,” and destroy their camp with improvised bombs? In a word: No!
I next met Mark on an early episode of NCIS. I remember commenting that the “vibe” was so different from producer Don Bellisario’s other show JAG. When I had worked on that, the star David James Elliot was utterly impossible. I wrongly assumed that because we were both Canadian and shared credits on STREET LEGAL, MELROSE PLACE and KNOTS LANDING, we might have something in common ….something to talk about. But he could not have been less interested….in me, or indeed even in his own show. He would not appear on set until after they called “Action” and would disappear as soon as he heard “Cut!” Mark must have been aware of the same behavior when he guest-starred on JAG. And he made it very clear to me that he would not tolerate any similar antics on NCIS. Because of that, and also because of the excellent scripts, great ensemble, and Mark’s slightly eccentric performance as “Leroy Jethro Gibbs,” NCIS has the highest ratings of any TV show in the US today.
Secretly I was hoping I might uncover some hideous scandal, some ghastly skeletons in his proverbial closet. But according to most people who have met him, Mark Harmon is a prince among men: treated as royalty in the world of Showbiz. And with very few mishaps, he has vaulted into the high position he now enjoys.