Going into the ninth season of NCIS, it’s hard to remember a time when Harmon wasn’t a fixture on TV. After his 95-episode run as Dr. Jack McNeil on Chicago Hope ended in 2000 and before the two JAG episodes that aired as NCIS pilots in 2003, Harmon did a stint on the critically acclaimed The West Wing as Simon Donovan, a role that established his believability and likeability as a special agent.
He was on the ranch in Montana, where there’s no cellphone service, when he got the news he’d landed the West Wing arc. “The cook at the ranch came out of the family house and said, ‘There’s a phone call,’ ” Harmon remembers. “ ‘[Show creator] Aaron Sorkin’s lookin’ for Harmon.’ ” It was only for four episodes but they packed a punch, and the show’s legions of fans found the story line and Harmon’s portrayal unforgettable.
On assignment to protect White House press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), who was receiving death threats, Agent Donovan is killed when he unwittingly walks into the middle of a holdup — just when banter-filled chemistry with C.J. has evolved into definite love interest. “That was a fun time and Allison was great to work with,” Harmon says. “The show was like jumping on a conveyor belt going a million miles an hour.” The wild ride earned him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series and put him back in the public eye.
If he’s believable as an urban crime fighter, Harmon’s every bit as credible as a rural character. And, in fact, he has a history of embracing western roles. Two years before he was cast in the now almost legendary role of Gibbs, he costarred with Tom Selleck in the well-received TNT adaptation of Louis L’Amour’s romantic western Crossfire Trail. Playing opposite good-guy Selleck, whose character Rafe Covington has promised a dying friend he’ll protect his wife and ranch, Harmon got to stretch his bad-guy muscles as villain Bruce Barkow, who feels no compunction about trying to kill Rafe in order to take the woman and land for himself.
He’d pulled on boots several years earlier as a young supporting actor, in 1978 – 79’s 12-part miniseries Centennial, based on James A. Michener’s novel about a fictitious Colorado city, chronicling more than 200 years of Western history (Harmon describes the experience as “kind of like a great summer camp with the common bond of being a young actor trying to do good work”).
Harmon’s love of the West and the western traces even further back. “One of the original reasons I wanted to become an actor was to ride a horse, as I grew up with westerns,” he says. Long before his career took a turn to medical and cop shows, he was cast in Comes a Horseman, set in the 1940s American West and starring Jane Fonda and James Caan as two ranchers whose small operation is under threat from hard times and a land baron (Jason Robards).
The film opens with Harmon’s character, young gun Billy Joe Meynert, riding with Frank “Buck” Athearn (Caan) across the Colorado wilderness during World War II. To prepare for his part, Harmon had packed up for Westcliffe, Colorado, to ride horses and herd cattle. Luckily for him, cowboy actor Richard Farnsworth, who starred in the movie as Dodger, made himself a mentor — and became Harmon’s idol in the process. “Dick Farnsworth took me under his wing during the 12-week shoot and taught me how to rope and cut cattle,” Harmon remembers fondly.
While his role in the movie is brief — his character is killed early on — and he never got to be in a scene with his idol, Harmon stayed on set and got to know Farnsworth, who received his first Oscar nomination as Best Actor in a Supporting Role. “It was a great place to be, and I learned a lot about acting on that movie,” Harmon says. “I think about that time a lot, and how I had the great fortune to work with such great actors — Richard Farnsworth, Michael Caine, and José Ferrer — early in my career.”
Next on the western slate was Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp, in which Harmon plays Johnny Behan, the sheriff during the historical events leading up to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. To Harmon, Behan wasn’t a bad guy. “You have to understand the time when the movie took place,” he explains. “One thing I learned reading about that period is that it attracted a tough-fabric person who could survive in a town like Tombstone.”
Wyatt Earp was a chance to delve into Western history, to work with more great actors (Dennis Quaid and Gene Hackman among them), and to be horseback in ways that called on his athleticism. “There was a great rearing entrance of me on horseback coming into Tombstone, and I knew as soon as I did the scene that it wasn’t going to be in the movie — the film was called Wyatt Earp, not Johnny Behan. Nevertheless, that was a nice little treat.”
On the subject of riding in his movies, Harmon trots out a great story from the days filming Crossfire Trail: “I was given a pair of slightly sloppy black boots. When I put them on, I knew I wouldn’t have control of the horse wearing them. Deciding to wear my own boots and spurs, I turned my hand over to the muzzle of the horse I would be riding and he immediately shied. This was going to be a huge ride-out scene. As soon as I put my foot in the stirrup, the horse became a bucking maniac and the entire production was watching us with their mouths wide open. Finally I swung off and managed to land flat-footed on the ground.”
It wasn’t just natural athletic ability that allowed him to pull off the unexpected stunt. Both he and Pam have ridden off and on for years and had a small horse property in upstate New York. Harmon has ridden his own horses and movie horses plenty — but not so much that he’d ever take them for granted. It was during filming of Comes a Horseman, after all, that stuntman Jim Sheppard, longtime western star Audie Murphy’s stunt double, was killed being dragged behind a horse.
Harmon believes the horse and rider relationship is all about respect — for both the animal and the danger involved. And while he assumes that the wranglers on the movie set know what they’re doing and never put the actors in harm’s way, he’s keenly aware that climbing on an animal that weighs six or seven times as much as he does calls for caution.
“If you get up on a horse, you are occasionally going to go off a horse — it’s just the odds,” Harmon says. On movie sets, he says, “you don’t know who was on that horse five minutes before you were and don’t know anything about him.” As for the horses he and his family ride in Montana, he doesn’t know every one he’s paired up with. “Even if you know the horse, it could be having a bad day.”
For the Harmon family, there’s really no such thing as a bad day during their annual Montana pilgrimages. They’ve been going to Big Sky Country, where there’s not a cellphone or computer in sight, since their now-grown sons were young boys. On their first visit, they drove from California and spent a week riding and relaxing.
“We were afraid that the boys might have been too young, but they really loved it,” Harmon says. “And we’ve been back every year since. That’s where I get my rest — and a week has turned into three.” Over the years, those weeks have produced dozens of memorable family experiences. “A few years back my youngest and I did a wrangle up in the mountains, and it was such a great father-son bonding experience,” Harmon says. “He can ride like the wind and spent last summer up there training horses, as it is a working ranch.”
More than anything, Harmon says, it’s riding through unspoiled country that bonds the family. “It’s in a part of Montana that hasn’t been messed with much, and we get to ride through beautiful nature, seeing bears and bobcats. Our boys have had a summer experience that’s been much different than their friends’.”