After 18 seasons on NCIS, Mark Harmon, who played Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, had had enough, and asked to be written out of the show. Truth be told, the process actually began in the season 18 storylines but came to fruition in in the fourth episode of season 19 when Gibbs, who had just wrapped up a case with McGee (Sean Murray) in Alaska, decides to stay in the 49th state, where he has found peace.
“What has always drawn me here [to NCIS, not Alaska] is the character I play and to keep it fresh and to keep it challenging,” Harmon says addressing his exit for the first time on the season 19 NCIS DVD “Being Gibbs” special feature. “Plot-wise, this character has taken the path that it did. I thought it was honest and OK with, ‘I’m not retired.’ The character is living in Alaska as far as I know.”
Of course, it was up to showrunner and executive producer Steven B. Binder to figure out the truth of what it would look like if Gibbs was no longer working at NCIS, especially since the character had often posed the question, “What am I without the job?”
“It just didn’t feel right to see him retired and shopping at the grocery store, working in his basement, and playing checkers in the park,” Binder said. “It just didn’t seem right to put him actually anywhere, so we ended up putting him nowhere. He went off into the wilderness, into the wild. And that left open any possibility. It didn’t leave the audience with any specific thing. It allowed the audience to imagine what happened to Gibbs. He can come back. He’s safe. He’s happy.”
Harmon, too, didn’t know what Gibbs would do if you take the job away from him, so he relied on the writing staff.
“Once he works on his boat and he finishes that, which he did, then what?” he said, referring to the storyline in season 18 in which Gibbs is suspended for beating up a man who was cruel to dogs. “So, you’re going to make those choices and play those extreme choices, then you’ve got to be open to what’s truthful behind that.”
The idea for the “Great Wide Open” exit episode was based on Rule 91: When you decide to walk away, never look back, and was co-written by executive producer David J. North and co-executive producer Brendan Fehily, who both admit it was a difficult script to write.
“I cried writing it and then I cried shooting it,” Fehily said. “To see Sean in that river at the end and really get emotional… If you turned the camera around on a lot of the crew, there were tears in their eyes. It’s one thing to write it, another to see it in front of your face coming to fruition, everything that we wrote. I was as pleased as I had been for any single episode I wrote or been a part of.”
This fall, NCIS will move into its 20th season without Harmon, with Gary Cole as Alden Parker now leading the team, and while he won’t be there—except for a possible surprise drop-in visit, Harmon is gratified that the show will go on.
“The longest time I ever spent anywhere at any one time was 5 years on Chicago Hope,” he said. “This show is still doing what it’s doing after 19 years and remains remarkable. I don’t know that it will ever happen again. I’m proud of this show and I’m proud of the people here. This group, this family, this team has been through a lot and being part of this show for as long as most of us have been here, I’m proud of that and the people who jumped onboard as well.”
NCIS: The Nineteenth Season DVD includes all 21 episodes as well as 45 minutes of exclusive special features and behind-the-scenes-moments and is available to purchase.