‘NCIS:’ Why the Writers Struggle With Mark Harmon’s Dialogue as Agent Gibbs

Mark Harmon – though boasting a quick wit, a likable personality, and a knack for reading people as Agent Gibbs – is not much of a talker on the CBS smash hit (or in real life, according to Michael Weatherly). With a glare, a scowl, or a smirk, he can communicate a message to maximum effect without ever opening his mouth to speak.

Mark Harmon
Mark Harmon | Photo by Cliff Lipson/CBS via Getty Images

Mark Harmon is a rarity on mainstream television; though he is the lead actor on NCIS, he speaks few words and demands attention and respect through other means, mainly experience and the way in which he carries himself. So, when it comes to writing dialogue for Agent Gibbs, the writers often find themselves confounded.

TV Guide spoke with NCIS’s former showrunner Gary Glasberg (who passed away in 2016), and he revealed how the writers handle penning dialogue for Gibbs, and what the intricate process entails.

Behind the scenes of ‘NCIS:’ Inside the “Gibbs pass”

Agent Gibbs – defined more by a gaze than a manner of speaking – is not an easy character to write dialogue for. If he says too much, it may clash with his actions-speak-louder-than-words persona; if he says too little, the episode may fall short, or fail to adequately satisfy viewers concerning Harmon’s screen time.

Gary Glasberg, speaking on behalf of writing dialogue for Gibbs, told TV Guide, “We joke about it, but honestly, every one of us does what we call a ‘Gibbs pass’ at some point in our writing process.” If you’re wondering, the “Gibbs pass” entails exactly what you think it does: a writer pens some dialogue for Mark Harmon’s Agent Gibbs and passes it on to someone for approval.

The idea behind the “Gibbs pass:” someone along the way will catch a line that doesn’t feel like Gibbs, or simply has him saying too much in a certain scene. Christopher Silber, a writer who has penned a handful of NCIS episodes, explained:

“On other shows, the lead actor is always counting his lines. But I remember when I first got to NCIS, figuring out how to write that character was so complicated. You would type what you think is very little, and then you’d get your script back and be told, ‘He can say that with a look, that with a look, and that with a look.’ You get programmed to remember that and always think, ‘As few words as possible.’ Or no words, if possible. The best version of a scene would be no words at all for him! Or one word.”

When it comes to Agent Gibbs, there seems to be a method to the madness: remove any lines that Harmon can deliver with a “look.” While this would present a challenge for any new writers to NCIS, it’s likely that, as writers grow more comfortable with the many looks Harmon can accomplish, the process gets smoother.

Mark Harmon discusses Agent Gibbs’ “reactionary” nature on ‘NCIS’

Mark Harmon explained to TV Insider that Agent Gibbs is an inherently reactive man, which Mark Harmon feels is “more fun to play.” Mark Harmon goes on to discuss the character’s tendency towards overworking, as well as the fact that the character always seems to have a plan.

If Gibbs talked more, it would likely remove some of the mystery inherent to his character, which fans love. Gibbs always has a plan, but not everybody is entirely in the loop. Thus, balancing his dialogue in such a way to guarantee that it plays into his persona, as well as the plot of each episode, requires finesse. A degree of specificity is needed, which has elicited the famed “Gibbs pass.”