When Gibbs swam away from his boat in the 18th season of NCIS, viewers thought that was the final curtain. Of course, it wasn’t, but he didn’t stick around for much longer after that. Why did Mark Harmon leave the show in such a dramatic fashion, though? And what was going on behind the scenes to cause his exit?
There had been rumors about a potential departure during season 18, and fans could have been forgiven for thinking that Harmon would be leaving when his boat blew up. But Gibbs turned up again for the first few episodes of the 19th season before rapidly leaving again. This was definitely an unusual way to treat a fan-favorite character who'd been around for almost 20 years. So you can see why people thought there could have been more to the situation than met the eye.
Something fishy seemed to be going on. Hollywood gossip circulated for a good while that Harmon would be leaving the show. In some ways, NCIS also seemed to be setting up a new chapter. When Cote de Pablo came back — and we started to see a bit more of Ziva David — the idea got loose that she would fill Gibbs’ boots. Harmon had made no secret of his desire to spend more time on his ranch in Montana.
So, perhaps it wasn’t entirely a surprise that producers wrote Gibbs out of the show. In the fateful episode, he finally finishes his business with Paul Lemere and disappears from view on his boat. And the opening episodes of the following season certainly made Gibbs’ exit seem almost inevitable. Harmon once said, "I have to be challenged. The busier I am, the better I like it." Could it be that the crime procedural was no longer fulfilling his creative ambitions?
Harmon has been involved with NCIS since it first aired in 2003. If you can believe it, he’s appeared as Gibbs in more than 400 episodes! And it’s fair to say that he has been central to the show’s success. Only Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has aired for longer than NCIS. But will it survive the departure of Gibbs? Rumor has it that there’s a lot of angst on set, so maybe more people will follow in Harmon’s footsteps...
Too old for drama
Harmon turned 70 in September 2021. Maybe he felt he was too long in the tooth to deal with work drama. Perhaps it was time for him to take up some new hobbies or do more of what he used to love. When Harmon was younger, for instance, he was great at football — just like his dad. He was even good enough to pursue a career in it, but his good looks got him noticed elsewhere. Hollywood was calling!
The fledgling actor also caught the eye of actress Pam Dawber. The two got hitched back in 1987, but it was no Hollywood wedding; only a handful of guests were invited. It’s fair to say they make a great couple, though. The pair are still together all these years later, and they’ve since had two boys — Sean and Ty — to round out their family. As a veteran TV actress, Dawber would stand by any hard decision her husband had to make.
Does she look at all familiar to you? Well, you may remember Dawber, mainly if you were a fan of comedy back in the 1980s. Yes, she’s Mindy from Mork & Mindy. And as she also popped up in four episodes of NCIS in 2021, she would get a chance to glimpse what it was really like behind the scenes of the show. So many fans had to ask themselves: was it possible that Dawber had anything to do with Harmon’s departure?
Given that they’re superstars, you’d think the couple must constantly be spread across the gossip pages, right? But, that is not quite the case. They like to keep things private, and that policy began from day one. Dawber told People that back when they were engaged, “We’re not trying to keep something secret, but if you don’t want it totally exploited by the press, you have to.” Evidently, they are a lot more grounded than most celebrity couples in Hollywood.
And the duo knows that there are bigger things in life than landing lots of high-paying roles. Dawber herself has kept a low profile, living mainly as a stay-at-home mom. She explained why to ET in 2016, saying, “I don’t think two people can work all the time in show business and stay married… I did everything you could do in this business. And then I had children, and it’s like, ‘I’m not going to chase this fame thing.’”
Instead, Dawber found satisfaction in more day-to-day jobs. For example, she said, “I wanted to drive my kids to school. I wanted to be there for their birthdays and bring cupcakes and donuts and do the school festivals and all that, and I did. I got to teach in their art class... It was a different life then, and I was very happy to do it.” She deserves plenty of credit for being the rock of her family.
Mind you, the pair have not always had it their way. Just after marrying, they went through some serious legal problems. Harmon was fighting his troubled sister Kristin for custody of his teenage nephew. Kristin was accused of being a drug user, and Harmon wanted to give the kid a stable home. It all turned a bit nasty, though, when Dawber faced questioning about her alleged substance use. Harmon was eventually forced to give up his claim and step aside.
The whole affair did bring about some difficulties when it came to Harmon and Dawber’s marriage. They were only human, after all. But Harmon and Kristin managed to patch up their relationship and remained on friendly terms until she passed away in 2018. An insider told OK! about why he’d been willing to make up with her, saying, “[Harmon is] a tough guy, but he’s loyal and doesn’t hold grudges.” In spite of their troubles, the actor knew how much family mattered.
Still, some have speculated that the bond between the NCIS leading man and his other half may change now that Harmon is out of the show. He was reported to be keen on “finally kicking back with his wife,” but Dawber apparently had some other ideas. The insider noted, “[She] feels [appearing on NCIS] could be her big shot to get back out there. [Dawber would] like to have [Harmon’s] support, but friends think she’ll follow her heart on this one.”
Perhaps Harmon’s tales of on-set drama will put her off the idea. For one, when he was on the show, the actor was rumored to have had a fraught relationship with fellow cast member Pauley Perrette, who played chipper goth forensics expert Abby Sciuto. The two fell out after Harmon’s dog reportedly snapped at a person working behind the scenes. That individual had to have stitches as a result — a rare bit of real violence on the crime procedural.
But what supposedly ruffled Perrette’s feathers beyond that single canine outburst was that for weeks after the fact, Harmon kept bringing Dave the dog to work with him. She confronted her costar about it, as she felt that it wasn’t very considerate. Wasn't there a good chance that somebody would get hurt all over again? And while some people on the set allegedly felt Perrette was only saying what others were thinking, it didn’t go over well with Harmon.
According to The Wrap, the disagreement turned into a permanent rift. In fact, the two stars stopped working together simultaneously. Their parts were even written very strategically so they didn’t end up next to each other on set. A source told the website in 2018, “She did her scenes on one day, and he did his work on other days, and they still produced a great show. So it was simply scheduled that they did not work the same days.”
But Perrette was not content to let sleeping dogs lie after she left the show following its 2018 season. Instead, she got on Twitter, went into full rant mode, and let the world know she was unhappy. Followers learned that she felt the media was telling untruths about her. Then Perrette dropped the bombshell that “he” had done something terrible. And given the well-documented backstage drama on NCIS, people reading didn’t seem to need two guesses about who “he” was.
There was no love lost in this tirade. Perrette even claimed that Harmon had given her “nightmares.” But what is really amazing is that the accused actor ultimately kept mum about the whole affair. And when an insider shared what his views were, they weren’t what you could call fiery. That person told OK!, “He says he had nothing to do with it, and he wishes her the best.” Hard to say whether Harmon was attempting to minimize the feud, or just taking the high road.
The network also chimed in, claiming that the dog incident was not the driving reason behind Perrette's departure. A spokesperson said in a statement, “Pauley Perrette had a terrific run on NCIS, and we are all going to miss her. However, over a year ago, [she] came to us with a workplace concern. We took the matter seriously and worked with her to find a resolution. We are committed to a safe work environment on all our shows.”
And, of course, Harmon’s choice to step away from the hit show was also steeped in drama — including what happened to his character over the course of those final episodes. First, Special Agent Gibbs resolves his last case — and the cliffhanger that ended season 18. Then he turns in his badge and sails off on a boat. Regular viewers of NCIS will recognize the boat as the same one Gibbs had been working on in his cellar.
After the last case is resolved in Alaska, Gibbs tells his longtime second-in-command Timothy McGee, “I’m not going back home.” Resolving the matter had, he says, given him a “sense of peace.” And there may not have been a dry eye among the folk watching at home as Gibbs tells McGee how much he means to him. They had seen these two characters go through so much together, and it had the sense that they were really saying goodbye to a dear friend.
That ending hadn’t come as a complete surprise, mind you. Across all corners of the internet, there had been whispers about Harmon wanting to head out the door long before the season began. The Hollywood Reporter even ran a story about how he was set to leave at the end of season 18. But contrary to that report, Harmon signed up for another year — albeit in a restricted way. The veteran actor wanted to finish things on his own terms.
Speaking to People in 2019, Harmon explained when he’d know the time was right to leave. The star said, “I’ve always thought if there’s ever a time where the writers are walking into the room and going, ‘I don’t know what to do,’ then I think we all have to look at each other and call it a day. But we’re not there yet.” It doesn’t look like they’d got to this point when Harmon did leave, though. So what happened?
The actor even said that none of us should expect to see him in a similar role after he quit. Harmon explained, “I’ve been around long enough to know what this is. That commitment is part of what I signed up for. So I know when this show ends, that’s it. There won’t be anything else like this for me.” He might also be making that promise out of respect for Gibbs, a character who has defined much of his career.
In 2019, an inside source told OK! that Harmon had been “saying for a long time that he needs more time off to spend with his family and that he wants a smaller workload.” That all came to a head at the end of season 18 when Harmon told the producers he wanted out. So why did the actor stay on, then? For starters, there was a fear that the show would be axed altogether if he left.
Maybe Harmon felt he should stay long enough to help the series transition and bring in a replacement. And that new lead turned out not to be Cote de Pablo, after all. It wasn't even Sean Murray. Instead, seasoned character actor Gary Cole became a series regular in season 19. When his character Alden Parker was introduced, the network insisted that he was there to help — not take over from — Gibbs. Though that insistence was a little suspect right from the off.
And to anyone who was paying attention, that official statement started to look like an outright lie. As the new season progressed, it became obvious that Parker was, in fact, replacing Gibbs as the new main character. The imminent possibility of Harmon leaving became all the more inevitable. And the network, it seemed, had not been quite straight with the fans. Did they really think that they could just swap out their most iconic star without anyone noticing?
In hindsight, the executives could have played their cards a little better. Some fans were really annoyed when they realized what was going on. Cole had some big shoes to fill, not to mention he had to win over legions of viewers who felt nothing short of betrayed. For one hardcore supporter of the show, it was too much to bear. They said CBS had “flat out” lied to the fans. And one thing in particular seemed to upset them the most.
The big issue was not that Cole had gotten the gig. After all, he was a veteran performer who seemed to be up to the gargantuan task of replacing Harmon. No, many avid viewers were irate that Timothy McGee — Gibbs' protege and good friend — was not stepping up to become the leading man. Sean Murray's character has been around since the first season, after all, and fans had been under the impression that he was being groomed for the job.
Sore about Gibbs
The fury was tangible as one fan tweeted up a storm. The criticism began, “You said Parker was not a replacement for Gibbs. That is exactly what you were planning.” And the anger didn’t stop there. “Second beef: Gibbs would have never recommended Parker over McGee for leader. The job should have been McGee’s!” they wrote. Though some fans questioned the creative logic of the show, the production team quickly piped up to defend the new era of their cast.
Showrunner Steven D. Binder — a Hollywood creative with over two decades of experience under his belt — had an answer to the fan’s ire. He tweeted, “I, personally, would not presume to think Gibbs recommended Parker over McGee. I would like to think Gibbs and McGee had plenty of time to talk about the future and what McGee told Torres on the stake-out… Gibbs already knew…” These off-screen conversations, however, were all a little too convenient for some watchers.
But if Binder hoped that his succinct explanation would end the beef, then he had another thing coming. Another fan tweeted, “Not cool, passing over McGee — inconsistent writing. After training and depending on McGee, Gibbs would have picked him.” And while McGee eventually made it clear that he didn't not want the job, fans weren't buying that statement, either. The whole thing just didn't seem consistent with his character or with the fictional universe they'd all grown to know so well.
One person wrote in defense of their favorite Senior Field Agent, “McGee deserves the job — not Parker. Boot Parker, give him his own team if necessary, but this team is McGee’s.” Another expressed more than a little hurt about the decision, writing, “Really can’t believe that Vance offers Gibbs’ job to Parker! Slap in the face to McGee.” Of course, this was all just internet chatter. It could not undo the massive change that had occurred behind the scenes.
So, Gibbs is out, and Parker is in. And that’s the whole mystery resolved, right? Well, not quite. Harmon is expected to return at some point as a guest, according to Rocky Carroll, who plays NCIS Director Leon Vance. Given Harmon's importance to the show, it’s not really surprising. The actor will also remain involved in NCIS as an executive producer, so it’s not a completely clean break. The drama he experienced with Perrette wasn’t enough to keep him away for good.
For now, Harmon’s is content to just chill out. The quiet life suits him quite well. OK! spoke to an anonymous source who said, “Mark may be worth well over $100 million, but he’s never been a big spender.” The actor even likes to do his own home repairs. “[Harmon] spends afternoons doing carpentry, working on his cars, or cooking with Pam [Dawber]. Those are the moments he cherishes,” the insider added. And that was only the beginning of the explanation.
Warming to the subject, the source continued, “[Harmon has] changed over the years. He’s mellowed with age, and he’s not as buttoned-up as he seems. He might come off as standoffish, but people will be shocked to know he has a great sense of humor and is actually a pretty easygoing guy.” In spite of that statement about Harmon enjoying being a normal guy, Steven Binder did not expect that Harmon would leave the world of NCIS altogether. There was too much at stake.
He said in a statement, “Our north star has always been staying true to our characters, and that truth has always guided the stories we tell and where those characters go. So, regarding the future of Gibbs, as long-time fans of the show may have noticed over the years… never count Leroy Jethro Gibbs out.”