Born in California in 1951, Mark Harmon is best known for playing a doctor on the long-running show St. Elsewhere, as well as for his roles on Chicago Hope and NCIS (formerly known as NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigative Service). In 1985, Harmon was named People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive." In 2002, he appeared in a guest role on the political drama The West Wing. More recently, he's become known for several roles in television movies.
Born on September 2, 1951, in Burbank, California, actor Thomas Mark Harmon faced some challenges growing up. His father, Tom Harmon, worked as a sports broadcaster. This meant that he often traveled, leaving his wife Elyse Knox, a former actress, to look after the couple's three children. Mark deeply felt his father's absence. Even when his father was home, their relationship was not easy. "He raised me hard, and when I say hard, I mean hard. I was taught to fight for everything," Harmon told People magazine.
The two, however, shared a love of sports. His father had won the 1940 Heisman Trophy for playing college football, and Mark was a stellar football player as well. He served as the starting quarterback for the University of California, Los Angeles, for two seasons, but Harmon decided against pursuing a career in professional football. During his youth, Harmon's sister Kristen began dating Ricky Nelson, the son of television legends Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Nelson. Through this connection, Harmon was offered a walk-on role on the show Ozzie's Girls (1972–73). Harmon had not previously considered acting, but the experience gave the athlete a taste for Hollywood.
Making it in Hollywood
Graduating with a degree in communications in 1974, Harmon turned down offers of up to $40,000 to train as a pro in order to try law school. He then left the law to work for an advertising agency. This also dissatisfied Harmon, who then took a job selling shoes to athletes. Feeling unfulfilled, Harmon decided to try his hand at more acting roles.
At the beginning of his acting career, Harmon looked to veteran actor Jack Webb, the star of the crime series Dragnet, for advice. Webb helped him land a guest spot on the crime drama Adam-12 (1968–1975). A string of guest appearances soon followed; typically the roles involved a silent, handsome stranger without speaking lines. "The guys I played didn't have names. I was the cop, the farmer," he told USA Today. His first notable TV role came in 1977 with the movie Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years, for which he received an Emmy Award nomination.
Still, Harmon had yet to get his big break. To support himself, he worked as a roofer during the day, and honed his acting skills while performing in theatrical productions in the Los Angeles area at night. In 1981, he landed a leading role in the prime-time soap opera Flamingo Road, playing an ambitious politician who married into a wealthy Florida family. Morgan Fairchild starred as his wife and Cristina Raines appeared as his love interest. Harmon and Raines became an item off-screen as well. The drama was canceled in 1982, but Harmon and Raines continued to date, touring the U.S. and Canada in the play Key Exchange. The couple split two years later. Harmon was particularly heart-broken by the break-up, and rebounded in a brief romance with actress Heather Locklear.
Harmon quickly moved on to another TV series as well: the medical drama St. Elsewhere. He joined the cast during the critically acclaimed program's second season. On the show, Harmon played plastic surgeon Dr. Bobby Caldwell alongside such actors as Denzel Washington, David Morse, Ed Begley Jr., William Daniels and Howie Mandel.
As Dr. Caldwell, Harmon helped promote awareness about AIDS. His character contracted the disease during his third season with the show. Harmon's character showed that a heterosexual male was just as likely to get AIDS as other segments of the population. "That was an important piece of information to get out, because there was a consensus at the time that AIDS was the result of a certain lifestyle, and that was dead wrong," Harmon told Entertainment Weekly.
Also in 1986, Harmon took on one of the most notorious figures in recent history. He gave a convincing performance as serial killer Ted Bundy in the TV movie The Deliberate Stranger. Bundy was known for his ability to charm his victims, and Harmon was able to deliver both the suave and sinister aspects of Bundy's personality. This dark role did not affect his public image as a heartthrob, however. He was named People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" for 1986.
That same year, Harmon began dating actress Pam Dawber, who he met through a mutual friend. Dawber and Harmon wed in 1987 in a small ceremony attended by a few friends and family members. Not long after their wedding, however, the couple became embroiled in a bitter custody dispute over Harmon's nephew, Sam.
Harmon took his sister, actress Kristin Harmon Nelson, to court out of concern for his nephew's well being. Kristin, once married to rocker Ricky Nelson, had been experiencing problems with substance abuse. The legal battle divided the Harmon family with Harmon, his other sister Kelly, and his parents siding against Kristin. Harmon eventually dropped the suit to put an end to all of the fighting.
Harmon found some success on the big screen around this time. In 1987, he starred as Mr. Freddy Shoop in the comedy Summer School. He then went on to leading roles in the military drama The Presidio with Sean Connery, and drama Stealing Home with Blair Brown, Harold Ramis, and Jodie Foster. In 1991, Harmon returned to series TV with the police drama Reasonable Doubts with Marlee Matlin. He played a detective assigned to work with a deaf, assistant district attorney (Matlin). The show was canceled after two seasons.
Harmon's next series had an even shorter run. Only five episodes of 1995's detective series Charlie Grace made it on air. He had much better luck when he joined the cast of David E. Kelley's medical drama Chicago Hope in 1996. On the show, he played an orthopedic surgeon. "Having been a carpenter, I feel close to this character. So much of what they do in the surgical theater is like working with wood," he told Entertainment Weekly. Working on the series also gave him more time with his family, which included two sons, Sean and Ty, by this time.
In 1996, Harmon proved to be a real-life hero when he rescued two teenagers trapped in a jeep accident near his home. Harmon used a 12-pound sledgehammer to break the windshield to free the teens before the vehicle blew up.
After Chicago Hope ended its run in 2000, Harmon appeared in several TV movies. He also landed a guest role on the political drama The West Wing in 2002. Playing a secret service agent, Harmon won accolades for his work on the series. He even received an Emmy Award nomination for his portrayal of Simon Donovan. This performance helped Harmon get his next big break.
TV producer Don Bellisario saw Harmon's work on The West Wing and thought he would be a great fit for his next project. He needed to cast the lead investigator, Leroy Jethro Gibbs, in the military crime procedural NCIS. "What I saw was a very controlled presence, a quiet strength. That's what I was looking for. Leroy is Mark's kind of guy. Mark has that jock mentality—you tough it out no matter how tough it is," Bellisario told Entertainment Weekly.
Originally called Navy NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigative Service, NCIS debuted in 2003 and soon built up a strong following. It was developed as a spin-off from the popular Navy legal series JAG starring David James Elliott and Catherine Bell. In addition to Harmon's Special Agent Gibbs, the NCIS team includes Agent Tony Dinozzo (Michael Weatherly), Agent Timothy McGee (Sean Murray), Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard (David McCallum) and Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette).
On the series, Harmon has been able to display his abilities as an actor, ranging from light comedy to serious drama. Harmon says the character "can be really good at his job ... but so much of his life is really tormented and dark, and I don't know if he'll ever recover from it. I think he would be an uncomfortable guy to have dinner with."
In 2007, Harmon and Bellisario had a dispute about how the show was being run. There was some issues over the actors getting their scripts late and Harmon complained to the network. Bellisario was replaced and a new show-runner was brought in. "This is a hard enough thing to do when everything is going right. We've made changes, and we're better organized now," Harmon explained to USA Today.
Three years later, audiences remain enthralled with Harmon's character, and with the show. NCIS averages more than 20 million viewers each week, making it one of TV's most popular programs.
Off-screen, Harmon seems to be an easy-going, down-to-earth person. He is known by his colleagues for his dedication, sense of humor, and lack of pretension. "He's one of those guys who makes you say, 'They don't make them like that anymore,'" his wife Pam explained to In Style magazine.
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