‘NCIS’: Season 19 Was Not the First Time Mark Harmon Wanted to Leave the Show

ARTICLE HIGHLIGHTS

  • Mark Harmon made his debut as Leroy Jethro Gibbs on a 2003 epsiode of JAG.
  • He went on to star and execuive produce NCIS for over 19 seasons.
  • Harmon’s time on the show was almost cut short way back in season 4.
NCIS Mark Harmon as Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs in an image from a 2009 episode
Mark Harmon | Cliff Lipson/CBS via Getty Images

NCIS season 19 featured the surprise exit of Mark Harmon’s Leroy Jethro Gibbs in episode 4 “Great Wide Open.” After leading the popular CBS procedural for more than 400 episodes, the 70-year-old was the last remaining original character to say goodbye or take a step back from the series. However, season 19 was not the first time Harmon wanted to leave.

Mark Harmon wasn’t just the star of ‘NCIS’

Harmon made his debut as Gibbs in a 2003 episode of JAG, which served as a backdoor pilot for NCIS. In the special two-part episode, Harmon appeared alongside David McCallum (Dr. Ducky Mallard), Michael Weatherly (Tony DiNozzo), Robyn Lively (Vivian Blackadder), and Pauley Perrette (Abby Sciuto) as the team from the Naval Investigative Criminal Service.

Everyone who appeared in the backdoor pilot went on to star in NCIS. Except for Lively, who was replaced by Sasha Alexander’s Agent Caitlin Todd.

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In addition to being the star of NCIS, Harmon was also made an executive producer when the series began. It’s a position that he still holds despite stepping down as the lead actor.

The other OGs are long gone

The first NCIS regular to exit the series was Alexander, whose character was killed off at the end of season 2. Replacing her in season 3 was Cote de Pablo’s Ziva David, but she left NCIS after season 11.

Weatherly made his exit after season 13 so he could lead his own drama, Bull. Perrette quit after season 15 due to a falling out with Harmon. McCallum took a reduced role starting in 2017 when his character retired as Chief Medical Examiner and became the NCIS historian.

Both Sean Murray (Timothy McGee) and Brian Dietzen (Jimmy Palmer) made appearances in season 1. But, they aren’t considered NCIS OGs because neither was part of the original full-time cast.

Mark Harmon wanted to leave ‘NCIS’ during season 4

With all of the comings and goings on the NCIS set over the years, Harmon remained the one constant until he stepped back this season. However, the St. Elsewhere alum came close to quitting NCIS all the way back in season 4.

At the time, Harmon was butting heads with series creator and original showrunner Donald Bellisario. There was serious tension on set between the series’ star and EP over deadlines and work hours. TV Guide reported at the time that the situation was “much worse” than anyone thought.

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“Mark’s been working every single day, 16 hours a day,” an insider claimed at the time. “Don tries to micromanage everything. Script pages get faxed to the set at the last minute, and Mark is tired of dealing with the huge impact that makes on his life.”

CBS had to choose between Mark Harmon and Donald Bellisario

Ultimately, things got so bad between Harmon and Bellisario that CBS was forced to choose between them. The network opted to keep Harmon, while giving Bellisario the boot from his own show.

CBS abruptly fired Bellisario from NCIS, but kept him on at the network to produce other series. After he got the axe, the producer told The Los Angeles Times that Harmon was behind “a full blown PR campaign” to force him out of the show he created.

Bellisario is convinced that Harmon was responsible for the anonymous leaks to the press that alleged bad working conditions on set. And he believes Harmon did all of this to get him fired.

“I asked Mark to reshoot a scene. He redid it exactly the same way he did it the first time and never spoke to me again,” Bellisario said. “I do wish it hadn’t ended the way it did.”

Mark Harmon implied it was the ‘NCIS’ creator’s own fault that he was pushed out

Harmon didn’t say much publicly about Bellisario’s firing. But he did mention that things improved after the NCIS creator left. He also implied that it was Bellisario’s own fault that he got pushed out.

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“If we’re working 14-hour days now instead of the 17- or 18-hour days that we were doing, it doesn’t mean we’re working any less hard,” the actor said in 2007. “We’re just more organized. This has become a very well-oiled machine. I don’t wish to go head to head with Bellisario in the press. . . . He knows why he left.”

NCIS airs Monday nights on CBS.