Mark Harmon wasn’t always Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs on NCIS. He did a lot of television guest shots, was a regular on a few television series and parlayed his “Sexist Man Alive” title into a short theatrical film career.
Before all of that, Harmon was a football quarterback at UCLA. The team won a lot of games in his two seasons, but they ran the wishbone offense, which didn’t make many NFL quarterbacks. Harmon took his sports pedigree and good looks across town to give acting a shot. His sister was married to Rick Nelson and that led to an appearance on the very forgettable show, Ozzie’s Girls (1973). But it was a foot in the door.
Harmon’s parents were, football All-American and Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon, and model-actress-artist Elyse Harmon, raised three kids who would spend a lot of time in the spotlight, for various reasons.
Character roles. As Harmon began getting the occasional TV or film role as a minor player, he came to the attention of Dragnet’s Jack Webb, a very successful independent producer. Harmon guest starred on Emergency! (1975), playing Animal Control Officer Dave Gordon in the episode “905-Wild” which was meant as a “backdoor pilot” for a proposed series. Webb directed the episode himself. It didn’t sell, but Harmon also played Officer Gus Corbin in one hour of Adam-12 (1975) another Webb-produced series.
Harmon not only had good genes, he was blessed with good fortune, landing a supporting role in an important television movie, Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years (1977). Harmon was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for the role.
Webb came calling again. Sam (1978) was a series about a police officer and his dog. The series lasted only a few episodes, but this gave Harmon his first lead series role.
240-Robert (1979-1981) Harmon co-starred in 13 of 16 episodes as Deputy Dwayne “Thib” Thibideaux in a series about search and rescue officers. Joanna Cassidy co-starred in the Rick Rosner (CHiPs) created series. Harmon was getting typecast as law enforcement, but that would prove to be a good thing later on.
Television guest starring roles. Lavern & Shirley, Love Boat, Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew, Police Woman, Police Story, Centennial, Prince of Bel Air, etc. Harmon also landed some small parts in television movies and feature films like Comes a Horseman, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, After the Promise, and Let’s Get Harry.
Flamingo Road (1980-1981) Harmon co-starred in this primetime soap, meant to compete with several other shows. He was Fielding ‘Field’ Carlyle, of the wealthy Carlyle family who live on Flamingo Road in Florida. The usual infidelities, powerplays, dirty deals and family drama. Morgan Fairchild and Howard Duff co-starred.
Harmon began popular for appearing in mini-series and television movies, which he would continue even after NCIS was launched. The roles didn’t seem to stray much in that they were character roles for a type of actor. With the clean-cut, boy next door looks, Harmon worked a lot, but most of the roles were not very deep. That was about to change.
St. Elsewhere (1983–1986) The role of Dr. Robert Caldwell, in this quirky series, catapulted Harmon into the stratosphere. He became People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” of 1986. St. Elsewhere was one of the first television shows that completely broke the plane of reality. Flashback, future, fantasy, crossovers, the show’s producers pushed the storylines into bizarre and tripping areas of drama/dark comedy. This show broke Harmon’s stiffness as an actor, it featured him as a romantic lead and a tragic character. It did more to grow him as actor than any other project.
Of all of this television films, his Ted Bundy role gained the most notoriety. The Deliberate Stranger (1986) presented Harmon as the charismatic, but deadly, serial killer. A highly rated television film, it also provided some pushback for presenting Buddy as a charming killer. It was a great career risk for Harmon that paid off.
Film roles. Hollywood studios came calling. Harmon enjoyed a hot, but brief period of major Hollywood action. Summer School (1987), directed by Carl Reiner, presented Harmon as a slacker teacher who gets pressured into teaching summer school. Lots of hijinks but not very funny. Worth Winning (1989) is even less funny as Harman is a womanizing jerk, who learns a tough lesson. The Presidio (1988) was Harmon’s highest profile film, a murder mystery co-starring Sean Connery and a young Meg Ryan. Violent and very generic. Harmon made a few other films, but his career was going to be on the small screen.
Back to television he went, although he did keep his schedule open for film parts. He guested on Moonlighting as Cybil Shepard’s love interest for a few episodes.
Reasonable Doubts (1991-1993) was a cop show that paired Harmon with Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God). The show had a lot of promise, but struggled to find an audience. This was Harmon’s best work to date.
Charlie Grace (1995) was a television series starring Harmon that lasted only a few episodes before cancellation. He was also a producer on the series. He was an ex-cop P.I., also a single father. The only thing it didn’t have was an audience.
Chicago Hope (1996-2000) had been on the air for awhile when Harmon joined the cast. Having played a doctor on St. Elsewhere, Harmon knew how to put on the scrubs. A decent show, competing against ER, I found this a somewhat generic medical show, good but not great, and kind of a holding pattern for Harmon.
The West Wing (2002) attracted every actor of note, and Harmon climbed aboard for four episodes. This role changed his life. Harmon how had some gray hair and a maturity that suddenly started getting him noticed. There was also a bit of change to his acting, the less is more approach. There was a strength in his minimalist style.
Producer Donald Bellisario (JAG), who was casting his new series NCIS, saw Harmon’s Emmy-nominated 2002 arc as Agent Simon Donovan on The West Wing. “‘What I saw was a very controlled presence, a quiet strength,’ says Bellisario. ‘That’s what I was looking for. Leroy is Mark’s kind of guy. Mark has that jock mentality—you tough it out no matter how tough it is.’”
So, there you have it. The acting history of Mark Harmon, from football to NCIS.