The actor: Although he first found fame as a quarterback for the UCLA Bruins, Mark Harmon has now spent more than three decades as an actor. Although he’s spent a fair amount of time on the silver screen, starring in such films as Summer School, Stealing Home, and The Presidio, it’s the small screen where he’s found the greatest success, playing doctors (St. Elsewhere and Chicago Hope), detectives (Reasonable Doubts and Charlie Grace), and the occasional serial killer (The Deliberate Stranger). Now nine years into playing Special Agent Jethro Gibbs on the absurdly successful CBS series NCIS, Harmon has decided to take on a side gig that, if successful, could result in the next big TV-movie franchise: playing Lucas Davenport in the USA Network’s adaptation of John Sandford’s Certain Prey, premièring Nov. 6.
Certain Prey (2011)—“Lucas Davenport”
Mark Harmon: I was a fan of the books before anything. I’m a fan of John Sandford’s, and I’d read many of these. So that’s where it started.
The A.V. Club: It seems like it could follow the same path as Tom Selleck and the Jesse Stone films, where you could branch out into a franchise.
MH: Well, potentially, I guess. Tom’s done a nice job with that. I don’t know. I know that it’s exciting to be part of one that started just in the kernel of the development process and moved it to actually getting made. This is at a time when that’s really hard to do. [Laughs.] It’s been two and a half years in that process, and that’s not very long in this business when it comes to things getting made. But it started with the character, the writer, the people that you kind of hitch your cart to and say, “We’re all sharing the same idea here with what we’re trying to do, but can we pull it off?” And to be hooked up with USA—they’re putting their foot in the water in the movie business. They haven’t done this in a while, but if it works, it’s potentially the start of… I mean, there’s 21 of these books right now with this character, and Certain Prey is number 10 in the run of how they were written. I hope it does work, I don’t really know that it will, but if it does, then there’s a potential for a lot of things. I guess if the decks were clear and I wasn’t doing a series, or this series [NCIS] in particular, I think you’d have a different formula where you’d perhaps venture to do four of these a year or something. But right now, to do one of these a year with NCIS is a lot.
It’s a very different character than Gibbs. He’s a different guy. He’s a wealthy guy. Drives a Porsche, the whole thing. He likes being a cop, but the character itself is very different from Gibbs, and that’s obviously part of the attraction for me. To try to expand, to do something different, and, in some ways, to try and reintroduce yourself. I mean, you go off and do a different role with different people, that’s what actors do. You try it, and you see if you can pull it off. It’s a departure.
AVC: You really haven’t stepped outside of Gibbs a great deal since the start of NCIS.
MH: Yeah, this is different. And I hope it works.
AVC: Was the experience a challenge?
MH: Oh, it’s definitely a challenge. Which is the reason to do it. It’s a challenge in all directions. Certainly in scheduling the time to do it. [Laughs.] But also the role itself, and putting together all the other pieces to make it happen. There are good people involved, and this was done in a team concept with a lot of talented individuals. We shot in Minnesota and we shot in Toronto. We did it in a pretty tight schedule. It was a 20-day shooting schedule. So I hope people like it. I know I keep saying that, but if people like it, that’s important. And if they don’t… Well, that’s part of the risk as well.
Ozzie’s Girls (1974)—“Harry ‘King’ Kong” / “Mark Johnson”
AVC: There’s a clip on YouTube of what purports to be your very first acting performance: playing Mark Johnson on Ozzie’s Girls.
MH: Wow! [Laughs.] Well, you know, I don’t know if this might be more fun for you, but Mark Johnson was actually the second time I was on Ozzie’s Girls. The first time, I played a character named Harry “King” Kong.
AVC: I did not know that. Great name, though.
MH: See, I told you it was more fun. [Laughs.] Rick [Nelson] was married to my sister, Kris, but I knew Ozzie [Nelson] in a different way from that, and that was from lifeguarding down at Laguna Beach. Ozzie was a distance swimmer, and he used to swim along my beachfront where I guarded, and then he’d come in, I’d give him my towel, and we’d sit underneath my tower in the late afternoon and talk about big-band music and stuff. Ozzie was the first guy to steer me toward acting. It was the spring of my senior year at UCLA, and he called and said, “Hey, this actor got sick, can you come in and play this part for two days?” And it was great. I got an opportunity to be on the set of Ozzie’s Girls for three or four days, for rehearsal and then shooting it. Ozzie was directing and producing and acting, and David [Nelson] was doing the same. And I played a character called Harry “King” Kong that was a voice on the phone. I was just a voice at first, but at the end, my character comes to the door in a gorilla outfit, and I got to say, “My name’s Harry ‘King’ Kong. Which way to the Empire State Building?” That was my first line. And then in the closing titles, I got to take off my headpiece and you could see who was underneath the gorilla. But that was the first role I ever had.
AVC: What made you want to try your hand at acting, given that you were coming off a career in college football?
MH: Well, I guess more than anything I trusted Ozzie’s opinion, you know? He presented it like, “Hey, come take a look at this.” And in fairness, I didn’t do much in front of the camera, but I was on that set for almost a week and had the opportunity and freedom to go into the director’s booth and watch Dave and watch Ozzie and watch the show format and how it was laid out. And I liked it. I’d never been on a set before. I had an opportunity to get inside a little bit, and it’s not an opportunity that I knew anything about. I liked the team concept of it. At the time, I was applying to law school and taking a job at an advertising firm, heading in a very different direction. Theoretically, anyway. As a college senior, I don’t know that many know exactly where they’re headed, and I certainly didn’t in retrospect. At the time I thought I did. But this was before the spring of my senior year, and this then got me interested in trying to enroll in the acting classes at UCLA. I didn’t get into any of those. [Laughs.] I tried, but I didn’t get in. But it did push me to try and study outside, and I was able to get entry into a couple of those classes, which for a number of years was what I did. I did that, and I worked other jobs during the day to pay for them. So, yeah, Ozzie’s Girls was an important opportunity. And it all started underneath a lifeguard tower in Laguna Beach. [Laughs.] Who knew?
Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (1998)—“Magazine Reporter At Mint 400”
MH: Oh, that was a fun one. That was fun. I’m a Terry Gilliam fan and have been forever. I was just so excited that he was interested in me being in one of his movies. I enjoyed that role, and I enjoyed the process of it a lot. Movies come out the other end months later and they sometimes have a different spin. Sometimes they’re different from what you shot or what you did, and this definitely had some of that. But what a great experience to work with him.
Moonlighting (1987)—“Sam Crawford”
MH: I was already a Glen Caron fan before that, and I already knew Bruce [Willis] as well. That was at a time when they didn’t have scripts, so what you really got was kind of a broad-base paragraph describing who Glen thought your character was, and then you went to work and they gave you words when you got there. [Laughs.] But it was an enjoyable show to be on and be part of, and it was enjoyable people to work with and learn from. I liked that. I liked the character and the opportunity to play him. That was definitely a case of being attracted to the character.
AVC: To hear you describe it, it sounds like you were kind of flying by the seat of your pants.
MH: Well, listen, a lot of this business is flying by the seat of your pants. [Laughs.] But that’s just how it was done at the time. People don’t necessarily recall that, at the time, Moonlighting was doing pretty well, and they were having trouble getting shows out, so there was almost an expectation of new episodes. That’s when I was there. Right at that time. And it was an interesting time to be there. I think I did three or four episodes, but I was there for three or four months.
The West Wing (2002)—“Agent Simon Donovan”
MH: Great fun, great role, and really such a pleasure to have Aaron [Sorkin]’s words to say. And such a great honor and treat to work opposite Allison [Janney]. It’s all just the luck of the draw, in some ways. They had approached me a year before to play a reporter in an episode, and then that role got canceled for whatever reason, but then a year later the Simon Donovan thing came up. That was somewhat similar to Moonlighting, in that you were just given kind of a bio: “This guy’s a Secret Service agent, he’s investigating a real threat to C.J., and we don’t know where this is headed.” That kind of thing. But in the first week, actually, Allison came up to me and said, “They’re gonna kill you.” I said, “What do you mean they’re going to kill me?” She said, “We get along too well. They’re gonna kill you.” [Laughs.] And she was right!
Beyond The Poseidon Adventure (1979)—“Larry Simpson”
MH: What a learning experience, a chance to be on that set for 17 weeks. I didn’t have a lot of words with the part, but I was happy to get that role. It was the second movie I’d ever done, and—I think that guy was an elevator operator. I think that’s what he was. But I was there every day. I survived, and I had the great fortune to follow Michael Caine around every day, along with Karl Malden. I learned a lot from those guys. That was an important stay. My master’s class was following those guys around every day for 17 weeks. There was a lot to learn.
Comes A Horseman (1978)—“Billy Joe Meynert”
MH: Richard Farnsworth and Jason Robards, both those guys really took me under their wing… and for no reason. [Laughs.] I mean, they had no reason to do that, other than that we were all in Westcliffe, Colorado, for a long time. I was excited to get that role. That was the very first movie I ever did. It was a chance to work opposite Jimmy [Caan] as well, and it gave me the great gift to work with Alan Pakula. He was special. I learned a lot on every one of those films. I mean, look, I’m still learning a lot, but the education was early for me with those guys on those sets. It was a lot to take in.
Natural Born Killers (1994)—“Mickey Knox in Wayne Gale’s Reconstruction”
MH: That was fun. Working with Oliver [Stone], I mean, that’s wild. [Laughs.] You know, it all changes. You go and you sit and you talk, and you think you’ve got an idea of what the character is, and then it all changes. It’s about being flexible. For me, I think it’s an honor to be able to work with people like that, to be able to experience whatever it is. Whether it’s everything you expected or it’s less than you expected, you create a broader base, and that was true there. That was two days down in Winslow, Arizona, but it was worthwhile for a lot of very different reasons.
AVC: Did you get the impression that it was a knowing wink to one of your previous roles to have you playing a killer?
MH: I think it was intended as a wink. Maybe more so when I got down there than I thought before going. I’m a jock at heart, so when you change things up, I’m not going to get too excited by that. I just adjust. [Laughs.] I think sometimes that background matters. Like I say, it’s all about being flexible and not getting too locked in. But, yeah, I think there was a wink intended from the beginning, and that’s part of why I did it.
The Deliberate Stranger (1986)—“Ted Bundy”
MH: I don’t even know if I’d have gotten a chance to get in on that if Bundy wasn’t described in the way he was described, as the guy next door. Otherwise that role goes to somebody else. But I was really excited to work with Marvin Chomsky when I got that role. That was definitely a departure for me. I’m glad people remember that one.
AVC: I don’t think my wife and mother are alone in saying that they never looked at Volkswagen Beetles the same way again after watching that.
MH: I get that. [Laughs.] It was really weird. Reading the books and stuff, that car was described as, like, six different colors. It was described as blue, yellow, white… and the art directors on the show were trying to find out what the real color of the car was. And they got a call from a guy in Utah who had bought Bundy’s car after the investigation—he had it in his garage, up on a rack—and it was that Volkswagen tan that they had. And if you parked that tan underneath a streetlight at night, that car looked yellow. And you think, “Wow, was that contrived, or was it real?” But even when he escaped to Florida, the car he stole was a Volkswagen. It’s an interesting thing to think about, the path of that whole story. So, yeah, I’ve never looked at Volkswagen Beetles the same way since, either. [Laughs.]
Stealing Home (1988)—“Billy Wyatt”
MH: Oh, just a role—just a project that we all wanted to do, including Jodie [Foster] and everybody else who was involved in that. It was a script that you read and just kind of fell in love with. There was no other reason to be part of that project. There was nobody telling any of us that this was a smart move to go do this movie. [Laughs.] Everybody screen-tested, everybody fought for roles, everybody went there and kind of humped through the production schedule of seven or eight weeks. It was really shot on a shoestring, and we were like a traveling circus. I’m appreciative of that part, that project, and that role for a hundred reasons, but ultimately it’s for the fact that it was an opportunity to read a script that you loved and that you wanted to do just because you loved it. And I think that’s true for most everybody who was in that movie. It’s still one of my favorites.
St. Elsewhere (1983-1986)—“Dr. Robert Caldwell”
MH: Bruce Paltrow. That wouldn’t have happened, at least for me, without Bruce Paltrow. On the day I got that role, I was actually down the hall with Steve Bochco reading for a show called Bay City Blues. For the fifth time. [Laughs.] And I walked down the hall after that reading, being no closer to getting that role than I was when I walked in. But the casting director, who also happened to be casting St. Elsewhere, said, “Hey, you know, we’re trying to cast this plastic surgeon, you want to take a look at this and come in and read?” And it was a cold reading. I just got the sides and walked right in. Bruce was there, and Tom Fontana and Mark Tinker were all in the room. And I read, and right there in the room, Bruce said, “Hey, I liked that! That was good! You want to do this?” Which had never happened before. And I left and called my agent and said, “Hey, we’re gonna get an offer to do this,” and he said, “Bay City Blues?” I said, “No, no, this show called St. Elsewhere.” He said, “What?” It wasn’t even the show he had sent me in for! [Laughs.]
That was an important experience, to get a chance to work with that body of actors on that show for a number of years. Again, you get a chance to say better words, and you get to play against really talented people. There was a young group of actors on that show and there was an older group. We all got along, but for us young guys, it was just a constant effort to keep our jobs. [Laughs.] It’s where I certainly gained respect for the writer and not arbitrarily changing anything in the script. You say what’s written. That’s certainly the way Aaron Sorkin works. I’m glad I got that down. That was an important thing, to respect the writing.
AVC: Bobby Caldwell also proved to be a groundbreaking television character.
MH: Yeah, he sure was. Or he became that way, anyway. He didn’t start out that way, but things developed. On that show, they changed things often, and I don’t know if you recall, but cast members went through that revolving door pretty quickly. [Laughs.] Bobby Caldwell was certainly one of those.
AVC: What were your thoughts when they decided to have Bobby diagnosed with AIDS?
MH: Well, originally, it was ALS. And then they changed it. Tom Fontana called me in and said, “We think we want to do an AIDS storyline. Are you acceptable with that?” I said, “Absolutely. Just go for it.” He said, “Well, this may mean you leave the show.” I said, “Do what you’re going to do.” I mean, the truth is, as much as actors like to think they have a say over what’s going to happen to their characters, they really don’t. [Laughs.] Obviously, the storyline was an important one at the time, and they did such a nice job writing it. You don’t know any of that when they first approach you with it. It’s just an idea. That it had the impact that it did at the time… Who knew? But I did think it was important information in what it was to get out.
AVC: The last we saw of Bobby was when he left St. Eligius and headed off to work at an AIDS hospice on the West Coast. His final fate was eventually revealed a few seasons later, but had there been any talk of you coming back for a true final episode?
MH: Was there talk at the time? Well, I know there was talk about coming back at one time. Not for the final episode, but… there was talk.
AVC: I ask because it was finally revealed that Bobby had died, but you weren’t there when it happened. So I was just wondering if there had even been any talk of bringing you back so that you’d have the opportunity to actually play that death scene.
MH: No, I don’t think so. You’d probably have to ask Tom about that. I don’t know. I mean, I kind of remember conversations about, like, “Would you come back to let them finalize the storyline a little bit?” As I recall, it was more a scheduling thing than anything. I’m better at looking forward than I am at looking back, anyway, so I don’t know. If I were available, would I have done it? I’m not sure. But I don’t remember it getting very serious in any direction. But I could be wrong.
[We contacted Fontana, who responded, “Yes, Mark was pitched the idea of his character coming back for a death scene, but he was doing a movie—I don’t remember which one—so he wasn’t available to do it.”—ed.]
I’ll Remember April (2000)—“John Cooper”
AVC: I believe this is the only time you and your wife, Pam Dawber, have ever worked together.
MH: On screen, yeah. Onstage, we’ve done a number of different productions of Love Letters in different places. I was a Bob Clark fan—actually, my wife is, too—and it’s just a good script. A good story. But the plan was not to work opposite my wife from the beginning. She’s got her own brain and her own decision process. But it was interesting for all those reasons. Fun to do. And different.
AVC: How was it to work with her in that capacity?
MH: [Long pause.] Different. [Laughs.] No, “different” just ’cause you know each other so well. We played husband and wife in that, and it was a period piece, but… It was fun. And we’d worked onstage opposite each other before, but doing it in a movie was… well, what else can I say? It was different. [Laughs.]
Wyatt Earp (1994)—“Sheriff Johnny Behan”
MH: I’d read for Larry Kasdan a number of times on a number of different movies, and to be honest with you, I thought I had no chance. I read for a number of different roles in Earp and then was thrilled to get a call from him, saying that he wanted me to play Behan. It’s always fun to get on a horse. [Laughs.] And fun to work with Larry. I’d always wanted to do that, and that was a treat. Fun to play a historical character, and fun to research and realize that it depends on what book you read how the character’s depicted. We all had different opinions on that. But it was really enjoyable to work with Larry on a Kasdan script, where you have 10 days of rehearsal around a table with the whole cast with a script that does not change. There’s a great pace to it. Larry’s a gracious guy and creates a wonderful set and treats people kindly. Those are all hugely important things in this business or any other. I loved doing it.
Flamingo Road (1980-1982)—“Fielding Carlyle”
MH: Wow. [Laughs.] Great cast. That originally was a movie of the week, and then sometime during the pilot of that, they decided they wanted to try and have a series option. That’s how that started. But when I originally got that role, it was a movie of the week. A hard show to do. For me, anyway. I was always wanting to, y’know, rough it up a little bit. [Laughs.] That was a different thing. It was more of a nighttime-soap kind of thing, at a time when Dallas was getting a foothold and all that. So there were a number of those just starting. But that was a remarkable cast. That’s what I’ll remember about that show. I had a chance to get to know Kevin McCarthy and Stella Stevens and Howard Duff and Barbara Rush. Some really terrific people on that show.
AVC: And you can say that you were married to Morgan Fairchild.
MH: [Laughs.] Yeah, although I guess unhappily on that show. I’d actually worked with Morgan prior to that, though, in a thing called Dream Merchants a couple of years before that.
240-Robert (1979-1980)—“Deputy Dwayne ‘Thib’ Thibideaux”
MH: 240-Bob! I replaced an actor. They’d already started shooting. That’s why they dyed my hair blonde. The guy they’d cast before me was 6’4” and blonde. And I’m not 6’4” or blonde. [Laughs.] I had done little guest shots on series prior to that, but that was really the first series block that I had a chance to do. I think I did something like a dozen episodes. I remember we broke for Christmas and we were supposed to come back, then they canceled us, but then there was a strike and they put the show on a different timeslot and it did really well, so they tried to bring it back. But I didn’t do any of the return episodes. I just did those first ones. But I learned a lot from John Bennett Perry on that show. John is Matt’s dad.
AVC: I believe Matthew Perry’s first acting job was actually on that show.
MH: Oh, yeah, Matt’s on that show. He was just a little kid then. Joanna Cassidy was also on the show, and she and John were veterans. I learned a lot from them. It was a fun show to do. You were scuba diving and mountain climbing, running and driving fast cars and all that. Definitely fun.
Adam-12 (1975)—“Officer Gus Corbin”
Emergency! (1975)—“Officer Dave Gordon”
Sam (1978)—“Officer Mike Breen”
AVC: You mentioned that 240-Robert was the first real block of episodes that you ever did on a series. Does Sam not rate a mention?
MH: [Laughs.] No, ’cause Sam never really got a chance to be a series. We actually did a couple of versions, as I recall, with different people. I was the same and the dog was the same. [Laughs.] But the people around us were different. That was a Mark VII production. That was Jack Webb, an idea he had based on an LAPD bomb dog unit. That’s where he got the idea for it. But I don’t know that he ever got it where he wanted it to really make it much of a series. Originally I think it was kind of spun off the Adam-12 format.
AVC: You also did episodes of Adam-12 and Emergency!, both of which Jack Webb produced.
MH: Yeah, I worked with Jack really early on. I’d actually met him when I was at UCLA and I was speaking on the banquet circuit. After a number of years and two different jobs, I decided that I needed to either commit to acting or not. And I left the advertising stuff, and I didn’t leave with any great plan, other than that I needed to try to do this or not. Jack was the first person I called after that. Not only did I not have a plan, but I didn’t have an agent. But Jack was doing all these shows like Adam-12, a show called Sierra, and Emergency! By the way, at the end of the shows, this big sweaty hand would come out and—bang!—leave the stamp of the studio logo. That hand? Jack’s hand. [Laughs.] I thought that was great. That was literally his stamp on the show. But after that, a card came up for Universal Studios, so I just called up Universal Studios and asked for Jack Webb. And they put me through to Mark VII, the secretary answered, and I said, “Hi, this is Mark Harmon, I’m trying to talk to Jack Webb.” And he got on the phone.
AVC: That’s amazing.
MH: It was. But I arranged to go in and talk to him, and I did, but I had longer hair and a mustache. And he kind of looked at me, and he said, “What do you want?” I said, “I want to talk to you about being…” [Lowers voice to an indecipherable volume.] “About being what?” [Whispers.] “An actor.” I couldn’t even say it! But he made me say it. And then he pulled some sides out of his desk and put him across the desk at me, and he said, “You come back here tomorrow afternoon looking like a cop, and we’ll talk about it.” And that’s all he said. And I didn’t really know what that meant, but I took the sides, and I interpreted “looking like a cop” as getting a haircut and shaving off my moustache, which is what I did. And I came back in the next day and read for him. I think more than anything he was surprised by the commitment. [Laughs.] But he took me down onto the set of Adam-12, and I did a small screen test with Kent McCord and Marty Milner, and I got a little part on Adam-12. I was a fan of Jack’s then, and I was a fan of Jack’s all during that time, up until now. And I’m always thankful for that. He didn’t really know me, and he didn’t have to give me a shot or a chance or anything else. I only say good things about him. I liked him.
The Presidio (1988)—“Jay Austin”
MH: A chance to work with Sean [Connery]. A chance to work with Meg [Ryan]. A really good script, originally by Larry Ferguson, who wrote The Hunt For Red October. But the script changed a lot, as they sometimes do. An interesting experience, though.
Chicago Hope (1996-2000)—“Dr. Jack McNeil”
MH: A chance to learn how to direct. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was that something you’d had your eye on as a career option?
MH: It was something I’d been interested in. I always try to take something every day from the set that I didn’t know when I arrived in the morning, and being on as many sets as I’ve had the opportunity to be on, it just made sense to pay attention to that and other things. Part of the original format to that job was, with Bill D’Elia and with John Tinker, to say, “I’d love to try and learn how to do this. Can I use this opportunity to get into editing and to get into casting?” And they provided all that, which was great. It was a number of years before I got the shot, but I remember it specifically because of that. And on top of that, that was a great cast to work with, too. A chance to work with Hector [Elizondo] and Adam [Arkin] and Christine [Lahti]. Good people.
Reasonable Doubts (1991-1993)—“Det. Dicky Cobb”
MH: [Sighs.] That was a good show. I liked that show. I’ll tell you, that was… [Laughs.] That was a demanding, hard show, at least for me, anyway. I was really busy on that show. I had to learn everybody’s words and both sign ’em and speak ’em. I worked awfully hard on that and sure tried to be competent at it. I don’t know that I ever got it done, but I sure was working on it. Let’s Get Harry was where I met Bob Singer and worked with him for the first time, and then Reasonable Doubts was the second time, and there was a thing after that called Charlie Grace that was the third time. I liked working with Bob. A nice man and a good partner. But that show… I don’t know, that show struggled through two years. We fought for those two years.
That’s why I appreciate what I’ve got on NCIS so much. When you’ve had experiences like Reasonable Doubts or 240-Bob or Flamingo Road or maybe even Charlie Grace—you’ve worked just as hard on those, but the result has not been the same, and certainly the attention that comes with it has not been the same. You have a gathering of people on NCIS that have an appreciation of that and of what it is, and that’s what makes it special, but you have to have had the other experience to appreciate it.
Charlie Grace (1995-1996)—“Charlie Grace”
AVC: A lot of what I’ve read about the show suggests that it was basically Nash Bridges before Nash Bridges: You were a detective, you had a daughter, you had a partner…
MH: Really? I’ll tell you, you should look at the pilot for that, if you can find it. It was a real hard-hitting, 10 p.m. kind of show. But we got on the schedule as an 8 p.m. show, we were opposite Friends, and… I don’t know that it ever really got a chance. I was standing on a mark during episode four—we didn’t do many—and Bob Singer, who was my partner on that, he walked onto the set. I was actually working with another actor in the scene, and all of a sudden I looked around, and you saw writers and post-production people coming onto the set. I thought, “It must be somebody’s birthday. We must be going to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to somebody or something.” And Bob came right out in the middle of the shot, stood on the mark, and said, “We’re done.” That was how I found out. And in that millisecond when it hit, that impact, I watched our crew members [Makes whooshing sound] going for the door, all looking for jobs. And then Bob kind of turned to me, looked at me, and put his hands on my shoulders—I knew him pretty well—and he said, “Oh, man. You’re upset. You’re still looking for the first honest man in this business, aren’t you?” And it bothered me when he said that. It angered me. But it was a great lesson, and I think about that experience often, that moment, because it’s important to remember that and to have really worked hard at something and not have had the return, or even close to the return, that, say, NCIS now has.
It’s like on the 100th episode of NCIS—we’re three or four episodes away from doing the 200th now—but I was standing there next to Cote de Pablo, and this isn’t her first job, but it’s certainly her first experience with something like this. And all these people are running around, taking pictures, folks you haven’t seen on the set for the whole run of the show, and she kind of whispered in my ear, “This is kind of a big thing, isn’t it?” [Laughs.] And that perspective made me laugh just because that’s just what she should think. I knew what it was, though, and now that we’re approaching episode 200, she’d probably know now, too. There’s an appreciation that’s important in everything we do, and there is truth in what I said before: I worked just as hard on the ones that didn’t have the success that this one has. So you won’t catch me complaining about any of it. I appreciate it too much. And it takes hard work to get there, to do it. It’s not easy. We’ve had changes. There have been people who couldn’t do it and have left, and yet we’ve managed to get better with those changes. So that’s all part of it. And without the footprint that came before it, I don’t know that I’d have those values.
When I was in acting classes early on, there were so many people in these classes who were doing great work, and you’d just look at them and say, “Wow, I hope to someday be like that.” And yet these people never worked. You never saw them. And then I got a chance to do 240-Robert, and that was a shot in the dark, but the next thing you know, you’re doing kind of a limited series, so to speak. Then you’d run into some of your acting buddies, and they’d say, “Why are you doing that?” “Why am I doing that? I’m trying to work!” [Laughs.] I was learning, getting my feet wet. I don’t have regret about things I’ve done that are successful or not successful or what people perceive or don’t know or whatever. I just know for me it had to be the right choice at the time. Sometimes that choice is just about getting a job. And other times it’s because, regardless of what anybody said, you knew you wanted to be part of this. And there seems to be some validity in that for me, in regards to having a choice. As an actor, so often you have no choice. To have a choice, to be able to say, “That’s one I want to do” versus, “That’s one I have to do,” there’s a big difference there. And it feels good to be able to be at that point where I have that choice.
Summer School (1987)—“Freddy Shoop”
AVC: I’m sure you’re aware that, even though NCIS is the No. 1 show on television, there’s still a very substantial subpopulation that hears your name and thinks, “Dude from Summer School!”
MH: Freddy Shoop! No, I get that. People wanted a teacher like Freddy Shoop. Heck, I wanted a teacher like Freddy Shoop. [Laughs.] I give all that credit, every bit of it, to Carl Reiner. He was so special, and it was so much about his opinion. I had an agreement with him going into that movie. He was the one who grabbed me and said, “I want you to do this role. You, specifically.” And it’s funny: He made that decision based on an interview he saw me doing on The Today Show with Bryant Gumbel when I was promoting The Deliberate Stranger.
AVC: Because nothing says comedy like Ted Bundy.
MH: Well… [Laughs.] The backstory is that Bryant was a cub sports reporter at NBC when I was playing football at UCLA, and on Thursday afternoon, when everybody was heading off the practice field and looking to take a shower, Bryant was sitting there trying to find an interview with anybody, and I usually sat and talked to him. So I knew him from that, and the interview that we did on The Today Show, as I recall, was kind of fun. It was about rehashing stuff and was much lighter than some of the stuff that he normally did there. And Carl saw it, and then from that, it was Carl’s confidence that convinced me that this was the right choice at the time. But that movie… You know, whatever it represents to whoever, whether it’s the people who liked it or the people who hated it, I just think that, for me, the experience to share a set with Carl Reiner and get to know him. That’s what I’ll remember from that. That’s not unlike the time with Karl Malden or Michael Caine or some of the others I’ve had the chance to meet and work with and gain from just because of who they are as people.
AVC: You and Carl actually got to reminisce about the movie on The Bonnie Hunt Show.
MH: I did! And that was a surprise for him to show up, too. A couple of years ago, they called and were going to reissue Summer School on DVD as a special edition after 20 years or whatever. They said, “We’d like you to do a commentary with Carl.” I said, “Are you kidding me? A chance, now that I’m older and wiser, to get to sit down with Carl Reiner and just tell him personally what he means to me? Yeah. Sign me up. Count me in.” [Laughs.] So, yeah, that’s what I’ll take from that experience.
NCIS (2003-present)—“Special Agent Jethro Gibbs”
AVC: This is probably one of the few interviews over the past nine years where you haven’t spent virtually the entire conversation talking about NCIS, but honestly, I’d guess that less than 5 percent of the readership of The A.V. Club would admit to watching the show. Which is a little weird, given how many people watch it every week.
MH: If it’s possible for a No. 1 show to be still be under the radar, then we’re still under the radar. [Laughs.] I don’t think there’s any of us who’ve done this show for nine years who are confused by what it is. Or what it took to get it to where it is, for that matter. It’s changed a lot—we’ve had three different show-runners—but we’ve gotten better, I think we’re doing it better now than we’ve ever done it, and none of that is without choice and effort and the perspective that this is a pleasant set to work on, where people come to do the work every day. It’s been an interesting thing to watch. From the outset, I don’t think people got behind it. We ended up successful enough in that first season to kind of maintain, to kind of be in that mid-ground where you’re not doing well enough that people are drawing attention to you but you’re not doing bad enough where they’re doing to cancel you. And we grew from that.
So from where we stand, this is the overnight success that took nine years. But we’ve always been about the work. We’ve always been about trying to do good shows, to do all kinds of different shows. And now there’s writers on our shows who’ve done 30 episodes apiece. They love their job, and they’ve stayed there. And we’ve got new writers this year—Gary Glasberg’s come in—and they’re feeding off that and bringing a newer, different spin to that. And you’ve got a cast that likes each other. After nine years, they still like each other. [Laughs.] You want this cast to sit down and talk at a roundtable? Bring it on. They love it. I don’t know that you’re going to get many two-year shows to do that, much less nine-year shows. So there’s a respect there, and it goes deep, down to the last crew member.
AVC: Does it ever bother you that some people don’t watch the show because they don’t think it’s challenging enough, or even just because they don’t consider it hip enough? Obviously, everyone’s allowed their own opinion, but do you have an opinion on their opinion?
MH: I don’t, really. An opinion’s an opinion. I mean, people are watching, you know? [Laughs.] I don’t know that our concern has changed ever on that show. We just every eight days try to do a good show. There’s a work mantra here on the show that remains and continues to build, and that’s that it’s really about continuing to challenge people, to try to do stories that are different, to try and push characters, and certainly to maintain the humor. Oh, yeah, there’s a case, but the case is not what drives it. It’s a character-driven show. It’s an ensemble show. And that’s, to me, when it works the best. When this team gets together and solves whatever they’re solving. Or not. Sometimes they don’t solve it. But it’s the people.
Having said that, though, it’s the body of this that makes it work. No one person is any more important than anybody else. It’s important how you treat people. This is a good set, and it’s a place people look forward to coming to work to every day. And that’s also reflected in what the show is. So whether it’s cool or not cool, hip or not hip, or whether people are watching… Well, guess what? They are watching. And we’re not confused about that. We just keep trying to do it. It’s not easy to maintain a “most watched” heading on a show, and this show manages that, and by a long way. I think we all believe we’re doing something right.
AVC: And if they don’t agree with that, they can always go watch Summer School again, right?
MH: Or not. [Laughs.]