When America’s favorite TV star isn’t playing Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs on NCIS, he’s recharging in the saddle on a Montana ranch.
More than 18 million viewers tuned in to watch the dramatic season eight finale of NCIS, in which Mark Harmon — as Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs — finally tracks down and dispatches the elusive Port-to-Port Killer. Now, with the “Pyramid” story arc concluded, the series is set to begin its ninth season in late September, once again helmed by Harmon’s Gibbs — ever the organized, disciplined, and demanding team leader of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and one of television’s highest-rated shows.
It’s not just the show — which was voted America’s favorite in 2011 — that’s so popular. According to a recent Harris Poll, the Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated Harmon has overtaken Oprah Winfrey as America’s favorite television personality. Starring as the no-nonsense, head-slapping, and sometimes twinkle-eyed Gibbs, Harmon shines in front of the camera; behind it, he’s been one of the show’s producers since 2008. His all-around efforts have helped earn the show a legion of fans and top ratings, showcasing a lifetime of acting, athletic, and wrangling abilities.
But with all the effort involved in the show’s demanding 9-month, 12- to 15-hour-a-day production, time away from shooting in Los Angeles is rare and critical. Harmon finds welcome respite in the ranchlands and mountains of Montana, where he makes an annual pilgrimage to free both soul and psyche. During NCIS’ two-month spring hiatus, he literally heads for the hills to a cattle station with his wife of almost 25 years, Pam Dawber (who won over America in the late ’70s and early ’80s playing Mindy to Robin Williams’ Mork on the sitcom Mork & Mindy), and their two sons to ride, herd, and generally recharge.
This past spring was no exception, but it took some additional juggling as the busy actor added yet another high-profile project to his very full plate: teaming up with the USA Network for a two-hour telepic based on John Sandford’s best-selling novel Certain Prey. Harmon signed on to play the book’s compelling antihero, Minneapolis Deputy Police Chief Lucas Davenport.
Certain Prey has Harmon facing off against a hit woman and killer determined to hunt him down. “Mark Harmon could read the phone book and we’d probably want to put it on the air,” says Jeff Wachtel, president of USA original programming. The network has rights to all 21 titles in Sandford’s wildly popular Prey series. So if the movie does as well for USA as Wachtel’s faith in Harmon would suggest, it might be a TV-movie franchise in the making.
Turning 60 this September, Harmon, it seems, is picking up the pace. Slacking off just isn’t in this guy’s repertoire.
As unassuming as the guy is, in some ways the hardworking Harmon seemed destined for stardom. Born in Burbank, California, in 1951, he grew up in Los Angeles the son of Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon and an avid athlete in his own right. At UCLA, where the California native graduated cum laude with a degree in communications, he was more football star than aspiring actor. He quarterbacked for the UCLA Bruins and was named a national scholar-athlete by the National Football Foundation in 1973. It wasn’t till he dabbled in acting his senior year that Harmon found his calling. (He eventually admitted that in retrospect he knew he wanted to be an actor since the age of 6: “I subconsciously began to realize that I wanted to entertain people.”)
He soon began landing small roles in episodic television and TV movies, receiving his first Emmy nomination in 1977 for the small-screen Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years, in which he briefly but movingly played a soldier who has lost a leg in the war. Over the next 25 years, he would garner an-other Emmy nomination as well as four Golden Globe nominations, one for his chilling perform-ance as serial killer Ted Bundy in The Deliberate Stranger. Other standout movie roles include The Presidio opposite Sean Connery, the remake of Freaky Friday opposite Jamie Lee Curtis, and Carl Reiner’s smash hit Summer School.
As well as his big-screen roles were received, Harmon proved naturally at home on TV, where his good looks, football hero charm, and acting chops won him long-running roles on the series St. Elsewhere, Chicago Hope, and Reasonable Doubts. Even before he became a staple on nighttime serial TV, his brainy, brawny charm had earned him idol status: In 1986, he was People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, a distinction Harmon regards with typical self-deprecation: “If other people think I’m okay-looking, that’s great, but I don’t see it myself,” he was quoted. “When I look in the mirror all I see is a bunch of fake teeth and football scars.” If People’s sexy nod suggested Harmon was on the market, it wasn’t for long: He and Dawber, then starring in My Sister Sam, married in 1987.
The secret to Harmon’s longevity on-screen and in marriage could be his fundamental belief in the power of teamwork and collaboration — a skill that he honed quarterbacking and that he now brings to the set. It doesn’t hurt his day job, either, that after years of working cattle for several weeks every spring, he’s also honed his wrangling skills.
He’s a guy who likes a challenge — and who doesn’t brook boredom. “I’m in the business to push it,” he has said. “I’m not likely to be attracted to characters I’ve already done. I have to be almost frightened by the possibility of taking it on.” He admits to enjoying walking that edge — it’s why he likes what he does for a living. “The only other job I’ve ever had that provides that time in the morning where you’re going to work and you can’t wait to get there, and the sun’s rising and you’re moving toward something you look forward to getting up and doing every day, was being a carpenter.”
This is also a guy who likes building and renovating things — all kinds of things. That might be anything from his first car — a 1928 Model A Ford he bought with his own money when he was 13, rebuilt over the next year and a half, then drove without a license — to the 1972 24-foot Airstream trailer he got off a horse ranch in Arizona, restored, and now keeps as his on-set dressing room.
The carpentry tools on NCIS? They belong to Harmon. And Agent Gibbs’ boat renovation? An undertaking after Harmon’s own heart. Starting out as an actor, he worked as a roofer and framer to make money, and he still loves carpentry. “What I really enjoyed was finish work. I like the longevity of it. If you do it right, it will be around a lot longer than you are.” It’s an approach that seems to apply to Harmon’s acting roles — he’s building stuff to last.