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The Real Reason Sasha Alexander Left NCIS After Season 2

Over 15 years into its run, NCIS has had members of the team kidnapped, shot, stabbed and even blown up by terrorists — but one of the most shocking deaths came just two seasons in. Longtime NCIS fans may remember that in the season two finale, Caitlin Todd (aka Kate, played by Sasha Alexander) survived a bullet to the chest meant for Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon), only to be fatally shot in the head seconds later.

That wasn't quite the last time we saw Todd, but it marked Alexander's surprise departure from the show after appearing in every previous episode. She returned for the first two episodes of season three, playing Todd in her colleagues' flashbacks. She also made a surprise guest appearance in season nine episode Life Before His Eyes, in which a near death experience prompted Gibbs to remember people he lost throughout his life and career, and consider how things could have turned out differently.

In Todd's case, Gibbs imagined what could have happened if she hadn't died, and pictured her having a baby with her NCIS partner Anthony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly). But as far as Alexander was concerned, leaving NCIS was her happy ending. Here's the real reason Sasha Alexander left NCIS after season 2.

Creator Don Bellisario said Sasha Alexander couldn't handle the NCIS workload

We know the NCIS team works long hours to catch the bad guys, but the people who make the show are also pulling very long shifts, purely in the name of entertainment.

This detail slipped by fans, who were so furious when Todd was killed off that show creator Don Bellisario weighed in on what happened behind the scenes. (The untold truth of NCIS is that Bellisario would soon quit the show he helped bring to life, partly because of a rift with Harmon.) He explained that he'd already started working on the script for the last episode of the season — and was actually planning to have a break in Australia — when Alexander begged him to write her out of the show.

In July 2005, a couple of months after Todd's dramatic death aired, Bellisario shed some light on the situation in a conversation with the Chicago Tribune"Sasha came in two days before I was to leave, and with tears in her eyes, she said, 'I just can't work this hard.'" The showrunner admitted that NCIS is "a hard show to make. We work very long hours," and added that although Alexander was technically under contract to CBS, he persuaded the network's brass to let her go.

While Bellisario and Alexander knew what was coming, no one else knew about her departure. Fans got wind that one of the NCIS team was going to die in the season two finale. But exactly who it would be was kept so secret that they even shot an alternate ending where Todd survived, with some of the footage eventually used in Gibbs' alternate reality fantasy.

Working on NCIS is legendarily difficult

Bellisario isn't the only one to ever lend credence to the idea that working on NCIS could be taxing to the point of exhaustion for some of his stars. Mark Harmon, who has portrayed Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs on the series for 17 grueling years, has spoken in the past not only about how difficult a gig NCIS can be, but about how it used to be even more so early in the series' run.

During the series' 16th season, Harmon had a chat with Entertainment Tonight in which he acknowledged that as plum a gig as his starring role on NCIS is, it's not exactly a walk in the park. "This is hard to do. And we miss that sometimes, because this is a happy group and we all work hard," Harmon said. "But this looks so much easier than it is. And that's because you've got such talented people in so many different directions here, who all get in the same path of what they're trying to do" (via CheatSheet).

In a 2017 interview with The Talk, Harmon described the early days of the series in terms that suggest a schedule that was nothing short of brutal. "The first day was 21 hours," Harmon said, somehow refraining from cringing at the memory. "We've, I think, maneuvered the [schedule] over the years to make it much more specific, and I think we've gotten better with that."

A different actress almost snagged Sasha Alexander's NCIS role

It's interesting to consider that the character of Kate Todd might have been a longer-lived one, had producers gone with their initial choice for the role. In a conversation with CBS News, Harmon revealed that Lauren Holly — who portrayed Director Jenny Shepard on NCIS from seasons 3 to 5 — almost landed the part before it was handed to Alexander. 

"At the time that Sasha was hired, Lauren was in that mix to play that role," Harmon said. "And the fact that her name came back up again for the role of Jenny Shepard did not surprise me a lot... because of what [Holly] has an actress."

Holly must have boundless energy, because when asked why she chose to depart the series after only three seasons, she gave a much different reason: she wanted to take on different roles, and was unhappy at Bellisario's departure. On her personal website, Holly wrote, "I was saddened that Don Bellisario was forced out, and I missed him a lot. To be honest, now that the work bug had bitten me again, I got bored with my part of the 'Director.' Then the decision was made to kill me, and boy did they. About five different ways!"

Sasha Alexander had no regrets about leaving NCIS

As much as we want to believe that the stars of NCIS are the same strong knit team behind the scenes, some of Alexander's fellow NCIS alumni have left the series under less-than-ideal circumstances (such as Jennifer Esposito, who only lasted one season).

However, the good news for Caitlin Todd fans is that Alexander is more than happy with her decision to leave. In a 2012 interview with TV Guide, she reiterated that she only left because she personally couldn't handle the long hours. "People don't realize that on a network show, you make 24 episodes a year — that's ten-and-a-half months a year, 17 hours a day. It's hard core," she said.

Alexander wasn't just thinking about the show's impact on her work/life balance at the time. She added that had she stayed on, "I really firmly believe in my heart that I would not be where I am today," meaning married with two children and working on creatively fulfilling projects. "I didn't want to wake up and be in my forties and go, 'Oh, my gosh!' But people don't understand."

Taking the risk and leaving NCIS did seem to pay off personally and professionally. Two years after her dramatic exit, Alexander married Italian director Edoardo Ponti. The couple now have two children, and she also gained a famous mother-in-law: none other than iconic actress Sophia Loren. Career-wise, Alexander went on to play half of crime-solving double act Rizzoli & Isles for seven seasons, and appeared in the Showtime comedy series Shameless. Todd may have taken one for the NCIS team — but Alexander is happy that she's no longer sacrificing her real life for the screen.