It's Talk Like a Pirate Day a few days early on the set of NCIS, at least for one guest actor who is waving a gun in the faces of a handful of hostages aboard a ship that has been commandeered in international waters. Among the captives is one Leroy Jethro Gibbs, taken by surprise while investigating what had looked to be an empty vessel. There's just enough of an echo of Captain Phillips in this scenario that you can picture the pirate in question suddenly declaring, "I'm the special agent now."
Instead, the hijacker is on the phone with Michael Weatherly and recurring guest star Diane Neal...or he will be, when the episode airs Oct. 21, at which point editors will have cut in footage of those two arguing on the other end of the line about who's in charge of the negotiation. Whatever they are or will be saying, the pirate is not impressed, because he barks, "I don't need a boat. This isn't a negotiation; it's a demand! Blood's on your hands now." He grabs a woman to take up top and presumably execute, then gives his knee to the groin of a fellow hostage who tries to object. "You want to take her place?" That poor guy doesn't, but there is some greater gallantry down the row. "I do," says Gibbs, quietly offering himself in the woman's stead while staring down the barrel of a trembling semiautomatic.
These are Mark Harmon's only two words of dialogue in the entire scene, so, along with the baffled pirate, you study his poker face for hints of what TV's favorite strong-and-silent-type is up to with this seemingly sacrificial bid: Does he have a plan to overtake his captor?
A plan to improvise a plan? Does that noncommittal look in his eyes signify a sniper's cocky nonchalance, a captive's hidden nerves, or some unknowable Gibbsian combination of all of the above? You can't help but want to look deeper into the actor's baby blues to guess whether he's in control or worriedly winging it.
Maybe it speaks volumes about how eager we are for something that defies our chatfest-fueled times that the principal character on TV's highest-rated drama is defined more by his warm but often inscrutable gaze than anything resembling a gift for gab. On a show otherwise populated by garrulous regulars, Gibbs is a "functional mute," as Weatherly has kidded. If Harmon were being paid by the word, you might even consider him the best-remunerated actor in history.
"We joke about it," says showrunner Gary Glasberg, "but honestly, every one of us does what we call a 'Gibbs pass' at some point in our writing process." Christopher Silber, who wrote this episode, elaborates: "On other shows, the lead actor is always counting his lines. But I remember when I first got to NCIS [in 2005], 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.'" Silber mimes one line after another being crossed out. "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."
It's probably not too much of a spoiler to reveal that, at some point in this episode, Gibbs does literally get the upper hand on the shakiest semiautomatic in the west. After Harmon finishes blocking a bit of third-act combat with director Arvin Brown, the actor sits down in the darkness amid the video monitors to talk about not being talky.
"It's reacting instead of acting," Harmon explains. "Gibbs is more reactionary. And that's more fun to play." So what is his character thinking when he says "I do" to the pirate? "Gibbs always has a plan," Harmon says. "I don't know that he's quite sure how it's going to work out. That, in its predictability, is very unpredictable." We can count on him for results, in other words. "The work part of this character I have no worries about: what he does on the job and how he does his job. It's when he's alone, away from it, that I think he's really questionable."
Questionable how? "It's not an easy time for him," says Harmon, alluding to the fact that Gibbs lost both his father and his mentor in recent seasons, on top of earlier personal tragedies. "When this job is gone, if it's ever gone, keep me away from him."
Gibbs may be the quintessential patriot, but he's also the ultimate workaholic, delving into his duties as a constant distraction from the pain of losing his murdered wife and daughter in events long before the outset of the series. "Gibbs is a point leader," he says. "He's out in front. So the first person to get shot is going to be him, and that's the way he's always been. That's what he believes and how he was trained. And in not caring as much, maybe, about life, there are freedoms in that. If it ends, it ends. Even though it's about trying to do the right thing; I don't think he's stupid or that he's got a death wish."
All those ghosts and flashbacks aren't incidental to Gibbs' bravado in taking on "a dangerous job in a dangerous world," Harmon is quick to add. "A lot has been taken [from him] also. His memory of great loss is not something the writers or I or anybody ever expects him to get over. It's too deep. It's also what makes him interesting and more fun to play."
If it seems slightly incongruous for Harmon to keep using the word "fun" in connection with a stoic character who forever seems to be wrestling inner demons, consider the equal aspect in which NCIS makes seriocomic hay out of Gibbs's relationships with his non-deceased wives. And Glasberg has promised we'll meet another ex-spouse, who is yet to be cast, after the holidays.
"Are you talking about somebody we already know, or another one?" Harmon says, sounding surprised at this news. "What are we up to now, six?" He laughs. No, seriously: "Well, what is the number? Is it, like, five?"
Luckily, Silber (who wrote for the show until 2007 and then returned in 2013) is sitting nearby and knows his lore. "Three ex-wives" — living, that is — "and one dead wife. Yeah, that's it. That's all." Viewers previously met the original love of his life, Shannon (Darby Stanchfield), in flashbacks, as well as Diane (Melinda McGraw), the ex he shares with a friend, FBI Special Agent Tobias Fornell (Joe Spano), not to mention Stephanie (Kathleen York).
Gibbs's wives are parceled out only slightly more sparingly than another recurring element built into the show's mythos: Gibbs's rules. It turns out this current season, number 12, will be a red-letter time for those. This very pirate-themed episode ends with the revelation of a previously unheard rule. And Glasberg promises a December episode will deal entirely with Gibbs's rules, brought on by an encounter with the daughter-in-law of Mike Franks, the crusty mentor who was stabbed to death in 2011 and has occasionally shown up since as a fantasy confidante.
When Glasberg is informed that Harmon seemed surprised to learn that the audience would be meeting another ex-wife this season, the executive producer laughs. "He knows we've been playing with it for a while," he says. But it leaves open a question: As an executive producer alongside Glasberg, just how involved does Harmon get beyond his job as actor?
Not much, you'd think, if you took your cues from listening to Harmon. As for the development of future storylines, Harmon says, "I don't go up there and talk about it. I try to leave these [writers] alone. I like being surprised, or somewhat surprised, when they say, 'Hey, we're gonna do this.' It's fun for me to read it, and question it, and play it, and try to make it work" — closer to the actual shoot date.
But Glasberg paints Harmon as a true and extremely involved partner. "We have constant communication that happens multiple times a day," says the showrunner. "I see him first thing in the morning; I talk to him when he's home at night. There's constant discussion of upcoming stories and ideas and of things that I'd like to do with his character and others. And that's the way we've worked since I've been here. It's terrific. I've never had that relationship with an actor before."
If Harmon doth protest too much that he stays out of running the show, Glasberg says, "Isn't that true of everything about Mark? He's a very hardworking guy who doesn't like to take credit. He does his job and does it brilliantly and then gets on his horse and rides off into the sunset." (Or at least rides off in the Airstream trailer he keeps parked on the set.)
It's generally well known that Harmon took a firmer hand behind the scenes a few years into the show's run to try to turn a chaotic set into a steady one. It's hard to argue with the results, as reflected in NCIS's becoming TV's most-watched drama in 2009 and continuing its reign ever since. "It's more usual," Harmon says, "for a series to get into Year 4 or 5, and all of a sudden you start seeing things slipping off, or people getting bored.
"And it's unusual," he continues, risking understatement, "that we're 12 years in and still excited about what we're doing. You look forward to getting up and making that drive in the morning because you're going to work with friends — and, oh, yeah, by the way, it's the
No. 1 show in the world. This is rare air, where we are, and we know it."
NCIS's long run as the seemingly most stable set in Hollywood saw some bumps in 2013 when Cote de Pablo left the show on the eve of production, throwing a whole run of planned storylines into disarray. "Last year we went through a bunch of things in nobody's control," Harmon says obliquely. "We had a plan up front and then that plan changed rapidly, so the fact that these writers were able to pull together the season the way they did was a real feat. They worked their asses off.
"This season feels, in some ways, more organic," he continues, "because the decks are cleared and they know where they're headed" — with a full complement of stand-alone episodes occasionally being drawn together by an arc involving the Russian villain first caught (and fumbled) in the season premiere.
Others might have followed up a season of panicked Ziva-lessness by lightening their stress loads a little, yet Harmon and Glasberg ensured there would be no coasting by introducing a second spinoff, NCIS: New Orleans. Although no one would doubt it's primarily creator Glasberg's baby, you can catch Harmon being uncharacteristically willing to own up to just how involved he's been in the new series, from casting to reviewing dailies to even weighing in on decisions about the music. The two agreed that the new series should be filmed on location and have a coshowrunner (Jeffrey Lieber) out in New Orleans, but the writers would remain on the NCIS lot in California, so scripts wouldn't be hammered out via Skype.
Harmon has had no real involvement with the other spinoff, NCIS: Los Angeles, and initial fan hopes for significant character crossover didn't amount to much after a much-hyped Season 1 appearance by Pauley Perrette. With New Orleans, though, more NCIS stars are putting in cameos than not. "It's a personal choice," emphasizes Harmon. "Each actor, that's their choice. If they can't, fine, and if they want to, great. Obviously, we have [recurring actors like] Diane Neal and Joe Spano who have come through here and could be a part of [NCIS: New Orleans] for case-driven reasons. Pauley's character" — forensic scientist and Louisiana State University graduate Abby Sciuto — "certainly has a draw there based on where her character is from." The NCIS stalwart most likely to regularly cross the 9pm divide onto the new series is Rocky Carroll, who will also be coming back to the Los Angeles edition of the franchise for the first time in three years.
Harmon is too much the TV veteran to make it sound as though NCIS: New Orleans is even guaranteed survival, let alone smash-hit status. "Gary and I will both be glad when it airs," he says shortly before the series premiere, "and we'll see if it's received, and we'll see how people are liking it or not." (Turns out the show had the fall's most-watched new series debut, with 17 million viewers that night, suggesting that the want-to-like factor, at least, is astronomical.) As an executive producer, Harmon used lessons from NCIS's messier early years to figure out how he wanted to ease New Orleans into its run. "The start of [this show] was very different from the start of [NCIS]," the actor says. "They're fortunate to have had this footprint." But with NCIS strolling into its 12th season with 18 million viewers, what rookie series wouldn't want to walk a mile in its moccasins?
NCIS airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on CBS.