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The Untold Truth Of Mark Harmon

If you're at all familiar with police procedurals, you've probably heard the name Leroy Jethro Gibbs. Played by actor Mark Harmon, Gibbs was the lead character on "NCIS" for 18 seasons. Harmon is best known for his near-two decade stint on the beloved CBS show, but he's had an interesting career away from the series as well, and his personal life has been anything but boring.

Before he rose to fame playing his laconic special agent on "NCIS," Harmon featured in a number of other successful television shows, most notably the medical dramas "St. Elsewhere" and "Chicago Hope." He also co-starred in several mainstream films, including "The Presidio" with Sean Connery and Meg Ryan, and "Sealing Home" with Jodie Foster. In 2002, Harmon had a memorable guest arc on "The West Wing," which earned him an Emmy nomination. He secured the lead role in "NCIS" the following year.

Harmon's acting career has certainly been fascinating, but so has his life away from the cameras. While "NCIS" fans may feel like they know Gibbs pretty well at this point, there's probably a lot you don't know about the man who played him for so long. Keep reading to discover the untold truth of Mark Harmon.

He was an award-winning college quarterback

Mark Harmon was a talented athlete back in the day. A native of California, the actor was a quarterback at UCLA for two seasons (1972 and 1973) and led the Bruins to a 17-5 record during his time there. Football runs in Harmon's blood: His father, Tom Harmon, was also a gifted college player, having scored 33 touchdowns for the University of Michigan. He used to love watching clips of his dad in action when he was growing up. "I was literally, like, 8 before I realized my dad ever got tackled, because on the reel, he scores every time he gets the ball," the actor told Parade. Tom Harmon later became a football broadcaster, which furthered his son's love for the game.

Though he wouldn't start acting until after college, Harmon's time as a football star led to an early brush with Hollywood royalty. In 1973, he won a National Football Foundation award. That same year, John Wayne was in attendance at the ceremony to accept the Gold Medal award. As Harmon told Stephen Colbert, it was an unforgettable night for several reasons. Unaware that it was a tux-only event, Harmon walked into a clothes store at the last minute and purchased a dove gray tuxedo with a frilly undershirt. Surprised by his bold outfit choice, Wayne called him "rebel" all night. "He signed my program, 'To the rebel, may the wind always be at your back, John Wayne,'" Harmon recalled.

Ozzie and Harriet got Harmon into acting

Despite his successes on the football field, Mark Harmon decided to pursue a career as an actor. The reason behind his decision is an unexpected family connection. After his sister, Kristin, married the musician and actor Ricky Nelson, Harmon began hanging out with her parents-in-law, who happened to be the famous TV duo Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. Ricky had starred with his parents in the sitcom "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" in the 1950s and 1960s, and, as Harmon told Parade, "Ricky was a really good guy." Harmon became close with Ricky's father as well, and he recalled how Ozzie joined him at the beach one summer when he was working as a lifeguard.

At the time, Ozzie was filming a spinoff of "Ozzie and Harriet" called "Ozzie's Girls." One day, Ozzie asked Harmon to fill in for an actor who couldn't make it, and he agreed. He spent his time on set following Ozzie around and watching him work in the editing room. After that experience, all he could think about was acting. "That changed my course," Harmon said. He forgot about football and began taking acting classes. Before long he was landing small roles in television and movies. His big break came in 1983 when he was cast in the hospital drama "St. Elsewhere."

He was once named Sexiest Man Alive

Leroy Jethro Gibbs may not be the sexiest fictional agent ever created, but there was a time when Mark Harmon was considered a major hunk. Much to his embarrassment, he was named People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive in 1986. In 2015, he told People that he thought the title was "silly." Harmon also revealed that he found out about it in a rather unconventional way. The actor had recently done an interview with People about leaving "St. Elsewhere," but he had no idea the mag was about to bestow the title of Sexiest Man Alive upon him. He went to play basketball with his friends one evening and "both backboards on either side of the court were plastered with the cover," he recalled. "So that's how I found out."

His friends certainly found it funny, and so did Harmon. The actor poked fun at the whole episode when he hosted "Saturday Night Live" in 1987, delivering his opening monologue in nothing but a bath towel. He joked that the original plan had been for him to come out in nothing at all. "I went to Lorne [Michaels] and I said, 'The costume is degrading,'" Harmon said during his monologue. "He said, 'Look, Mark, tomorrow's Mother's Day and that's something for them.'"

Harmon once rescued a teenager from a burning car

Leroy Jethro Gibbs is known for being a pretty heroic guy, but can we say the same for Mark Harmon? Apparently, we can. Harmon had a real-life brush with danger in 1996 when he staged a life-saving rescue right outside his front door. One evening, two teenage boys were driving down his street when their car crashed and caught fire. The driver was able to free himself, but the passenger, Colin Specht, remained trapped inside. Luckily for Specht, Harmon saw what was happening and reacted like lightning. He appeared as if from nowhere with a sledgehammer, breaking the window and pulling the 16 year old to safety.

"I owe everything to him," Specht told CBS years later, adding that he "would not be alive" had Harmon not jumped into action. Specht suffered third-degree burns and was in hospital for a long time following the accident, only learning from his parents that he had been rescued by Mark Harmon. Speaking about the incident for the first time in 2013, the actor was incredibly humble. "I won't take credit for it, because if the car explodes and I'm there next to the car, then you're talking about two young boys who don't have a father," he said. According to Specht, however, Harmon is a true hero. "There's no way I can repay him, except for pay it forward, and I try to do that in my life," he said.

He had a memorable on-set experience with Elizabeth Taylor

Harmon shared the screen with several big stars before he became one himself. In 1989, he starred alongside Elizabeth Taylor in the TV movie "Sweet Bird of Youth," and it was quite the experience. Speaking to Stephen Colbert, Harmon revealed that Taylor had it in her contract that she would only work for eight hours a day. She had an assistant with her that would keep track of the time, and when her time was up, Taylor would promptly leave the set. One day, Taylor had been working two hours longer than her allotted eight hours, and she made sure everyone on the set knew it. Harmon, exasperated by all the scheduling difficulties, said something to the effect of "welcome to the club."

Taylor glared at him when he made the comment, but after that day she gave up her eight-hour clause and stayed on set for as long as everyone else. The most memorable part of the story happened during the wrap party, which Taylor hosted at her own home. The Hollywood icon gave everyone who attended the party gifts, but she had something extra special for Harmon. Within his gift box was a solid gold 1959 Hamilton Select watch with an engraving on the inside that read, "M.H. Two hours, tik-tok. Love you, T." That's one watch that will never go out of style.

He's married to Mindy from Mork & Mindy

Though Mark Harmon may be the most famous person in his family, his wife had a successful career of her own before she met her husband. Harmon's wife, Pam Dawber, is a retired actor best known for playing Mindy in the popular sitcom "Mork & Mindy." She also played the lead character in the 1986 sitcom "My Sister Sam."

According to People, the pair met at a party thrown by a mutual friend and they tried to keep their relationship out of the public eye, at least at first. "We're not trying to keep something secret, but if you don't want it totally exploited by the press, you have to," she told the magazine at the time. Harmon and Dawber made it official in 1987, and have two sons together.

Though Dawber is mostly retired, she did return to the small screen for a stint in 2021 when she joined her husband for four episodes of "NCIS." Dawber told Entertainment Weekly that she had been asked to do the show several times before, but that she had always turned them down. But when she was offered the role of a journalist named Marcie, she was finally convinced. She only had one stipulation: "If this is a romantic interest, I'm not interested," she told the producers.

Harmon tried to turn down his starring role in Summer School

Though you probably haven't seen Mark Harmon in a movie for many years, there was a time when blockbuster films were part of his career path. One such film is 1987's "Summer School," where Harmon plays a gym teacher forced to teach summer school in order to keep his tenure. Harmon spends much of the movie wearing Hawaiian shirts, talking about surfing, and trying to woo a fellow teacher, played by Kirstie Alley. While not a rousing success — veteran film critic Roger Ebert absolutely hated the film — it did well enough at the box office, and it certainly didn't hurt Harmon's career.

The most impressive thing about "Summer School" is that it was directed by Carl Reiner, the comedy legend and creator of "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Reiner was convinced that Harmon would be perfect for the role, but Harmon wasn't so sure. Despite the fact that a comedy icon believed he had what it took to pull off the part, Harmon still tried to turn it down. He told The Daily Beast that he initially refused the role and tried to get Reiner to cast Tom Hanks instead. His reason for turning down the role? "I'm not funny!" he said.

There's still a chance Harmon could come back to NCIS

Fans of the wildly successful procedural "NCIS" were shocked when it was announced that Mark Harmon, who played lead character Leroy Jethro Gibbs, would be leaving the show. Harmon signed on for only a limited number of episodes in Season 19, with his character intending to leave his job at NCIS in order to start a new life in Alaska. Gary Cole then went on to replace Harmon as the lead actor on the show.

But, just because Harmon has left the show for now doesn't necessarily mean we'll never hear from Gibbs again. Executive producer Steven D. Binder told fans not to despair, reassuring viewers that "regarding the future of Gibbs, as long-time fans of the show may have noticed over the years...never count Leroy Jethro Gibbs out."

Harmon remains an executive producer on the series, so he hasn't left the show entirely behind. Sean Murray, who plays McGee, says Harmon still comes to set often. Regarding Harmon's continued presence behind the scenes, Murray told Parade, "I really, truly believe that the Gibbs could pop up somewhere. I really believe that there's a possibility of that happening." None of this is confirmation one way or the other, but it's clear that Harmon remains an important part of the "NCIS" family, whether he ever returns as Gibbs or not.

Mark Harmon and NCIS co-star Pauley Perrette didn't exactly get along

It's no surprise that a series that's run for 19 seasons (and counting) would have its fair share of on-set drama. Some of that drama revolved around Mark Harmon and his co-star Pauley Perrette, whose real-life relationship was far from the loving one depicted on screen. Perrette left the series after Season 15 and, at least initially, the reason for her departure was unknown.

After rumors surrounding her departure began to crop up online, Perrette took to Twitter to explain her side of the story in 2018. Via several tweets, Perrette explained that she had remained silent up to that point in an effort to protect her colleagues and added that a "very rich, very powerful publicity machine" had been pressuring her into silence. According to The Wrap, Perrette's claims revolved around "NCIS" star Mark Harmon and his dog.

As the story goes, Harmon and Perrette got along fine until an incident in 2016 when Harmon brought his dog to set. His dog apparently bit a crew member, who then required 15 stitches. Harmon continued to bring his dog to work following the incident, which upset Perrette and other members of the crew, according to reports. Perrette then took the issue to CBS management, who made the decision to prevent Harmon from bringing his dog to set from then on. This created such a huge rift between the two that after these events Perrette and Harmon refused to film any scenes together, according to an insider.

His son played the younger version of his NCIS character

Mark Harmon and his wife Pam Dawber have two sons together, Sean and Ty. His son Sean has followed in both his parents' footsteps, having become an actor as well as a stunt coordinator. It's always lucky when actors are able to keep it in the family when it comes to casting, and that was just what happened when "NCIS" producers were looking for someone to portray a younger version of Gibbs.

The choice is an obvious one, at least in hindsight. Rather than casting an unknown actor with a passing resemblance to Harmon, why not cast his actual son? That's exactly what happened in 2008 when the first flashback episode featuring a young Gibbs aired. Sean Harmon would play a young Gibbs in a total of seven episodes over the course of the series. Mark Harmon told Entertainment Tonight that he's proud of the work Sean does as an actor, and that he's proud of both his sons for being hard workers.

Interestingly enough, Sean Harmon was actually featured in another part of the "NCIS" universe, though not as anyone in the Gibbs family. He returned to the franchise in 2015, starring in an episode of "NCIS: Los Angeles." He played a white supremacist named Charlie Connor who begins to reconsider the path he has chosen for himself.

He once sought custody of his nephew

Though Mark Harmon comes off as a devoted family man, he's had his fair share of family drama over the years. His sister, Kristin, is most well-known for marrying Rick Nelson and being the mother of the Nelson brothers. Kristin and Rick had something of a tumultuous relationship, and they were both drug users for many years. Kristin filed for divorce from Rick in 1980 and received custody of her four kids, including her youngest, Sam, who was born in 1974. Kristin continued to use drugs after the divorce, and Sam would often stay with relatives, including Kristin's sister, Kelly, and his grandparents. Sam eventually moved in with Mark Harmon and his wife, Pam Dawber.

Rick Nelson died in a plane crash in 1985, and around this time Kristin's drug use worsened. Mark convinced her to enter rehab, and when she came home in 1987, she found that Mark was suing for custody of Sam, who was 12-years-old at the time. A judge temporarily granted Mark's request, as well as a restraining order against Sam's mother. What followed was a family feud of sorts, which eventually ended with Kristin regaining custody of Sam and Mark receiving visitation rights.

He chose not to be a movie star for his family

While Mark Harmon was in a few movies in the 1980s, he has spent much of his career working in television. While working in television is a well-regarded job for an actor today, that wasn't always the case. Despite the draw of movie stardom, Harmon made a decision not to travel the world shooting in exotic locations for one simple reason: his family.

After his children were born, he realized being with his family was more important to him than any job, so he made a decision to work closer to home. He told CBS News the story of when he went to shoot a movie in New Guinea and he nearly missed watching his son learn how to walk. When he arrived at the airport and saw his young son walking on his own, he told his wife, "Hate to tell you, but I'm not gonna be doing new movies in New Guinea for the rest of my life to be able to afford the house we're in, and miss all this." Staying in Los Angeles and only shooting locally was worth it for Harmon, and it seems his decision has paid off, if his success on "NCIS" is any indication.

The crew of The West Wing was not happy when Harmon left the show

Though Mark Harmon's run on "The West Wing" as Simon Donovan — a Secret Service agent and C.J.'s (Allison Janney) love interest — didn't last long, he apparently made quite the impact on set. Harmon told the Chicago Tribune that he jumped at the chance to be on the show, heading to set the first day just hours after receiving his very first script. "This train called 'The West Wing' is moving fast, and you're expected to keep up," he said of the experience of filming the series, which was challenging but rewarding.

The cast of "The West Wing" enjoyed his time on set just as much as he did, according to creator Aaron Sorkin. Harmon's character was only on the show for four episodes, and his arc ends when he is shot in a bodega robbery at the end of Season 3, upsetting his fans on set. Sorkin told The Hollywood Reporter that Donovan's death was an example of something random happening for no reason, suggesting that Harmon's character was literally born to die.

Sorkin recalled that some of the female members of the crew were especially upset with his decision to kill off Donovan, making sure to let him know that the "squibs" (the special effects devices used to simulate being shot) were placed in such a way that he could potentially survive the shooting. "They let me know if I didn't want my tires slashed he'd survive," Sorkin said of Harmon's supporters on set.

Sean Murray gave him an interesting nickname

Mark Harmon may not seem like a jokester kind of guy, but that hasn't stopped him from picking up a few playful nicknames over the years. Queen Latifah brought up some of these nicknames when she had Harmon on her show, and Harmon explained the origins of a few of them. He told Latifah that he was referred to simply as "The Quarterback" while playing football for UCLA because his dad was the announcer and he wanted to avoid sounding biased.

Latifah also reminded Harmon that he has been called a "silver fox" more than once, which he had no response to. When asked about the nickname "Papa Smurf," he knew exactly what she was talking about: That nickname came from his castmate Sean Murray (who plays Timothy McGee on "NCIS"), though he has no idea where Murray got the name from. When prompted about the two nicknames on CenterStage with Michael Kay, Harmon admitted he thinks "both of them are kind of dorky." When Kay asked Harmon what his wife calls him, Harmon responded, "None of your business." Papa Smurf it is.

If he wasn't an actor, he'd be a carpenter

Though Harmon has been working steadily as an actor for over 40 years, he has a pretty good idea of what he would be doing now if Hollywood hadn't worked out for him. When Men's Journal asked him what he would do if acting weren't an option, he was quick to answer. "[I'd] be a carpenter," he said. "I tried to do that, but I just couldn't get hired." He went on to say, "For me it was about materials and doing right. If you did it right, [the project] outlasted you." Like his character, Gibbs, who builds boats in his free time, Harmon says he still enjoys carpentry, but he doesn't have much time to do it anymore.

When working as a carpenter didn't pan out for Harmon, he went on to work at an ad firm, where he stayed for about four years. It was during this time that he got a promotion at a sales rep company, meaning he was essentially a shoe salesman "for about seven months." It was after this promotion that Harmon decided to give up the cushy job and pursue acting full-time.

He recalled the moment he made the decision, which was on his way back from a work trip to Boston. On the flight home, he was sitting next to a 33-year-old man who was telling him about how he was trying to make pension by 65, meaning he would have to remain at his job for another three decades. "He was drinking his second martini by the time we were wheels up," Harmon recalled. "He was miserable in his job and he was trying to maintain the job for another [32] years. I went home, got in my car, drove out to the place where I worked, and gave my notice."