Actor Mark Harmon

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NCIS star talks about how his hit show stands out against other procedural dramas.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Mark Harmon back to this program. He, of course, stars on NCIS which has become one of the most watched series on television. The show airs Tuesday nights at 8:00. Here now a scene from NCIS.
Tavis: You must know something that other folk on TV do not. You guys are in season seven now.
Mark Harmon: Season seven.
Tavis: Up against American Idol, no less.
Harmon: Always have been.
Tavis: Yeah (laughter). You’re my man, first of all.
Harmon: (Laughter) You’re my man.
Tavis: How the heck do you survive seven seasons up against that?
Harmon: You know, Tavis, we just have always concentrated on doing the work. You know, that’s the only thing that’s in our control. I don’t think any of us who’ve been there the whole time are too surprised by the success the show’s having. I think it’s odd that here in year seven we’d have more success than we’ve ever had before. But I also think it’s earned success and honestly earned too, by the way.
I think we’ve had changes and we’ve gotten better with those changes. We were talking about Rocky Carroll earlier and I think Rocky’s coming to this case has meant something for this cast as other changes have. So whether we’re changing in front of the camera or behind the camera, I guess the game is to try to get better with the change and I think we’ve done that.
Tavis: I’m intrigued by that phrase, Mark, “honestly earned.” What do you mean by that?
Harmon: I think it is unusual to find a place where people like their job as much as they do on this show. We have some writers who have written more than 25 episodes. It’s unheard of in network television, certainly one-hour dramatic television. And I could say the same for those people behind the camera as well as those in front of it. We’ve done 160 episodes and no one is phoning it in.
It’s about the work ethic. It’s about appreciating the job you have and realizing that the job you have is rare and that they don’t come around all the time. I think, at some point, this show will end like they all end, but for right now, there’s not a person on this show that doesn’t really enjoy what this is and continue to work hard to try to keep it what it is, which is what we’ve always done.
Tavis: Given that you’ve done this for seven seasons, when you start to move toward that place where you think the end is near, will you know what that means? Will you recognize that?
Harmon: I don’t know. I’ve never been there, Tavis. I don’t know. From the beginning, I’ve never had an intent to try to run this or any other show into the ground. I would love to think that you had enough vision into the future to realize, you know what, it’s time to take this off on a high road as opposed to just drive until its last breath. I don’t think anybody intends to do that.
But I just know that, here 160 episodes in, this is a fun place to work and they’re challenging us continually as actors and certainly it’s important to keep this group together, these creative people, and it’s up to the network to know that.
Tavis: It’s one thing to stand out against American Idol and, for all that American Idol is, it ain’t something that everybody wants to see. I mean, people who do like choices and it’s a beautiful thing. So I can see, even though it sounds weird, how you could stand out against a show like American Idol.
The other question for me, though, which I think is more interesting is how you stand out against other shows, other procedurals, other dramas, and there seem to be more than a few of these kinds of shows?
Harmon: I think luck has something to do with it, but I also think that no one has a crystal ball. I mean, you know up front that this show was always strong in character. It always had humor and that was something you recognized about it right off.
Then you gather together this very talented and mixed cast that has changed. The cast has changed and yet four people from that original group of seven still remains there. I think we have had changes. That’s part of it. I think we’ve managed both in front of the camera and behind the camera to get better with those changes.
I think that’s odd. You and I were talking earlier about when change is going to happen and you know it’s going to happen, you get scared a little bit. You don’t always know that it’s going to work out and we’ve been fortunate that way, but we’ve also worked at it and worked hard at it. This group deserves it all and that gets back to the honesty part of it that we talked about earlier.
You know, last time I sat here and talked to you, we were working 150-hour weeks and there was no one complaining about that. It’s not that we’re working any less hard now. We’re just more organized and working less hours.
Tavis: It’s not lost on me and, for anyone who knows your background, your career, your life’s journey really isn’t surprised about this, but you are as humble a guy as you’ll ever meet. You always deflect when it comes to you. You really are into this team concept.
I said, for those who know your background, they know you played sports, of course, but I get the sense as I’ve talked to you over the years that it’s more than just, you know, a statement. You believe in this team concept.
Harmon: You know, listen. I appreciate the respect, but I actually don’t know any other way to do it. I’m a team guy. When I was playing sports, my job was to get the ball to the guy who could do the most with it. That hasn’t changed.
I don’t care about, you know, things like the size of the trailers and who’s number one on the call sheet or getting the laugh. I care that the laugh comes and that we’re all a part of that.
From the beginning here, I have jumped into this in my mind as a team effort and to work as a team together and from this, it becomes this. That’s what I understand. You know, if that’s working on this show, then give credit there, but it’s to everyone, not to me.
Tavis: To your point now about sports. Sport is all around us. I mean, just this week, we just wrapped up March Madness. We’ve got baseball season underway now. The Masters is underway. So sport is all around us.
I think it was Earl Warren, the former Chief Justice, former governor of this state in fact, who once said that when he woke up in the morning, he read the sports pages first because they told of man’s accomplishment rather than his detriment.
I think that’s still the case on most days. The sports pages can be pretty inspiring. Not always, but pretty inspiring, pretty encouraging, which raises this question for me, given your metaphor earlier.
Is there something you take from sport that you can use, that you apply in your acting?
Harmon: No one does it alone, no one does it alone and no one is more important than anybody else. It has a lot to do with upbringing and what you really believe. I couldn’t play this if I didn’t believe it. I understand that part of it. I understand how to make that work and I think this show is responsible to that.
But I like to think that most of the things I’ve done in my life are responsible to that and, to that, I give credit to my parents and the coaches I’ve met and the background that, in some cases, was just plain luck.
Tavis: I don’t know if you’ve said this to me in one of our earlier conversations or I read this somewhere; it could have been either. But I remember being intrigued by it and I said to myself when I saw you again I wanted to ask you about this.
One of the things that you said that you liked about this show is that the characters get to protect and get to keep their secrets. Did you say that?
Harmon: Something like that. You made it sound much better than what I said (laughter).
Tavis: No. I think I just bastardized your quote (laughter). But you know what I’m getting at here.
Harmon: Yeah, I do.
Tavis: Unpack that for me. What did you mean?
Harmon: I just – and that gets back to the honesty question. Again, I think it’s taken our audience a while to understand who these characters are. They were character-strong in the beginning and, if you had written some of these back stories in years one, two, three, in that area, I don’t know that the audience would have cared. Now they’re invested.
Now they care and now some of those story lines to really define how these people became who they are and also a continuing story line in some aspects of what we do, we do all kinds of different shows on this show and some have continuing story lines that kind of link up each other and some have story lines that go, you know, ten episodes back and bring someone back and then we do stand-alone episodes as well.
That’s what I mean by honest storytelling. I think our audience deserves that and I think our characters have warranted that and I think our writers are very aware of giving them that. If you then say, okay, here in your seventh, our numbers are better than ever, that we’re doing 20 million viewers a week, then you need to give them credit for that because that’s the secret they keep.
Our writers are terrific. We’ve been able to keep them together for a long time and, hopefully, we’ll be able to keep them together for a few years to come yet.
Tavis: I ask this question not to cast aspersion on him or anybody else because he’s a personal friend. Jay Leno was on this show not too, too long ago and, of course, we all know the controversy that erupted when Jay made the move to prime time and bumped out of the way a prime time drama. Of course, he’s back in late night now and doing well.
But there was this huge conversation as we recall about these one-hour dramas and what the future of them were going to be in television. Did we learn anything from that?
Harmon: Well, yeah, I think you did. We all work for the boss. I mean, I work for the network and that’s who I work for. Jay works for the network. So I think it’s tremendous they give him credit for making all those decisions of what his future is, but the truth is –
Tavis: – (Laughter) Jay was told what to do, yeah.
Harmon: You and I know it’s not that clear. So, listen, I didn’t look at it that way. I’m more concerned about the jobs. Not your job or my job, but the jobs of these people here who are manning the cameras and manning the sound booms and all those other things. You know, we got to find a way to make there be more work here and keep more work here. That’s my concern about this business.
I’m really proud that, for seven years, there’s been, you know, 270 people on the set of NCIS that know they have a job to come back every June and that’s a responsibility no one there takes lightly.
Tavis: I keep thinking that, in season seven, season eight, season nine, we’re gonna be like blown away. You’re gonna pull this mask off and underneath this white face, there’s gonna be a brother because of that name. I still swear your character is a brother. Deep down inside of you is a Black man who plays this character.
Harmon: I love it.
Tavis: I love that name, Leroy Jethro (laughter).
Harmon: Me too. Early on, there was a moment where it changed for one script. I called up right away and said, “Oh, no.” I love this name, you know. That’s part of the interesting thing for me, you know.
For me, really going way back to the beginning, that name stopped me. When I read who that character was and that was what his name was, I stopped and I still stop. I’m proud of it and I like playing him and he’s fun.
Tavis: Only Mark Harmon could play Leroy Jethro on a show called NCIS, but he does it awfully well, as if you didn’t know, because you have made it one of the top shows on television for seven straight years opposite Idol, no less. Mark, good to have you back on this program.
Harmon: Pleasure, Tavis.
Tavis: Have a great rest of the season, man.

Harmon: Yep.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm