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The NCIS Guest Star That Finally Let Gibbs Get Emotional

During his time on "NCIS," Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) had a tendency to be all business while investigating crimes with his crew. It's not that Gibbs didn't care. In fact, he definitely depended on his co-workers and was driven by the loss of his wife and child to become an even more dedicated professional. But his demeanor frequently remained serious and by-the-book. Sometimes, he could even seem taciturn, and only a handful of his friends could get away with ribbing him about his grumpy demeanor. Gibbs was the sort of man who put the business of bringing criminals in over the feelings of those around him. 

Considering how much emotional scar tissue he carries with him, Gibbs' reactions in the workplace are understandable. And yet, there was one particular case that opened the team leader's emotional floodgates and let him relate deeply to another human being on a personal level. Which guest star allowed Gibbs to access his deeper feelings and address his own vulnerabilities?

Christopher Lloyd's Joe Smith causes Gibbs to open up

"NCIS" fans likely know that Gibbs was a Marine who saw action in Kuwait in his youth. That fact makes his bond with possible Pearl Harbor survivor Joseph Smith (Christopher Lloyd) in Season 17's 20th Episode, "The Arizona," all the more touching. Gibbs deeply relates to the veteran and goes the extra mile to try and help him. The NCIS team leader's efforts to assist Smith causes him to open up to his friends about his own service.

In the episode, Smith breaks into the house of Admiral Michael Caplinger (Peter Murnik) and steals a Purple Heart medal belonging to Caplinger's late daughter, Julia. Gibbs' team tracks Smith down, and he is willing to return the Purple Heart if Caplinger promises to have his ashes interred on the USS Arizona. The only problem is that Smith previously used his brother's birth certificate to join the Navy at 16 years old, thus leaving him without concrete proof he served in the war.

While Gibbs and the crew look into worrying evidence that Smith might be trying to con them, Gibbs gets personal in an attempt at getting Smith to confess the truth. He puts a lot of pressure on the senior citizen to confess what he felt and saw on the USS Arizona during the attack on Pearl Harbor, which leads to a bravura moment from Lloyd, who pulls out the stops in his performance as he remembers pulling a close friend from the water that day.

Gibbs' Navy service took a heavy toll on him

Later — with Smith's story confirmed in a very tragic way — Gibbs tells Timothy McGee (Sean Murray) about the toll serving in Kuwait wreaked on his psyche. "It took something from me. It's what war does," Gibbs confesses. He admits that had his late wife Shannon and daughter lived to see him return, they may not have recognized him. "Maybe there wouldn't have been enough of me left for them to hang on to. Maybe the best of me was gone." With "half of him" back there on the battlefield with his dead compatriots, Gibbs declares that "what mattered" most resonated with him. "You knew that the guy next to you was willing to die for you, and you for him, and you look around and think, it shouldn't take a war to make the world that simple," he concludes. 

Mark Harmon told TV Guide for their recently-released "Gibbs Forever Special Collector's Edition" issue (as recounted by TV Insider) that it's Smith's honesty that ultimately encourages Gibbs to talk to McGee (Sean Murray) about what he's been through. "Sometimes someone else opening up about their experience makes it OK for that person to address their feelings," Harmon says. "Once Gibbs gets to the truth, he doesn't quit."