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The Main Concern NCIS Faced In Dealing With Dead Bodies On Set

The long-running "NCIS" series is the ultimate proof of how a series can stay relevant and loved by fans even after nearly 20 years on the air. With 19 seasons and three spin-offs to its name, the police procedural is still going strong and will return to CBS for Season 20 this fall. That should come as no surprise, seeing that it has the most viewers out of all the network TV series in the United States (via Newsweek). Fans are certainly not tired of seeing the Naval Criminal Investigative Service at work, and as long as the writers continue to come up with new stories, the future of the franchise seems safe. 

One question that continues to come up in discussions revolving around "NCIS," though, is the show's handling of scenes featuring dead bodies, especially those that take place in the morgue. It goes without saying that using real corpses is out of the question, so it's up to the art department to produce realistic fake dead bodies episode after episode. Turns out, it's a major headache not just for the production crew but for the actors playing the bodies as well. 

The morgue is a very cold place

In a CBS News Q&A session with the "NCIS" cast, one of the questions pertained to the challenges of shooting the morgue scenes. David McCallum, who plays the chief medical examiner Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard for many seasons, said that these scenes worry him, "because it's freezing cold in there (...) these poor actors and actresses come along and lie on a steel table, so our main concern with the bodies is to keep them warm, keep them happy and to let them come home in one piece." 

The cold is not the only problem that actors on "corpse duty" have to go through on "NCIS" and similar shows. The job of playing a corpse may just entail laying still and letting the other actors perform, but it certainly isn't an easy one. In 2011, a Wall Street Journal reporter actually signed up to play a dead body on "Law and Order," just to see what the process looks like. In her piece, she wrote that there is a major difference between bodies that are "morgue dead" and "freshly dead." The first type of body is much harder on the actors since they need to spend hours lying still while the make-up artists prepare them for the morgue shots.

The WSJ article also claimed that "NCIS" often uses mannequins instead, but since these figures take weeks to get ready and cost nearly $8,000 each (in 2011), using real-life actors definitely makes less of a dent in the show's budget. According to the "NCIS" executive producer Mark Horowitz, using actors to play corpses instead of mannequins is not only cheaper but makes the morgue scenes look more believable. In his words, "the truth is nothing looks more realistic than an actor playing dead."