After 40 years in the spotlight—and 16 years on NCIS— the star opens up about what matters most: his marriage, his kids and the value of a hard day’s work
Minutes after finishing breakfast at a cozy Santa Monica diner, Mark Harmon offers his guest a ride. As the star of the CBS hit NCIS—currently the highest-rated drama on network TV— he could own any of the flashy cars parked outside. Maybe the gleaming black Range Rover? Harmon walks right on by. The BMW sedan worth more than most people’s annual salaries? Nope. “This is me right here,” Harmon says, gesturing to a beige Ford Crown Victoria, a discontinued model once commonly used as a cop cruiser. Harmon picked up the Crown Vic at a police auction; it was previously owned by a detective in Riverside, Calif. High-intensity lights are still affixed to the front windshield, there’s a rifle rack in the trunk, the seats are velour, and the aroma inside is distinctly Old Car Smell. “The idea was to get this for my son when he went down to college, because we wanted something safe,” Harmon, 67, explains. “And you cannot kill these things.” You also can’t outrun them: The car has an engine designed for freeway chases. Harmon’s son put one foot on the accelerator and was spooked. The kid wound up with a Prius, and Harmon got the decidedly understated vehicle he proudly drives around town to run errands. “I won’t let Pam turn on the cop lights, and she says, ‘If we were dating, you would,’” he says of his wife of 31 years, actress Pam Dawber, with a laugh. He has no plans to stop driving the thing, he explains, because “they don’t make ’em like this anymore.”
The same could be said of Harmon. A latter-day hybrid of Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart, he’s equal parts old-school grit and gentlemanly earnestness. He comes by it honestly— his roots stretch back to Hollywood’s true golden age. Harmon was born and raised with two older sisters in Burbank by his dad, football and broadcasting icon Tom Harmon, and his wife, artist Elyse Knox. He has never much enjoyed personal interviews and rarely gives them. He frequently relies on wisdom imparted by his father—“My dad taught me, if it’s not true, don’t worry about it,” he says at one point—and now, after four decades in show business, he is in a position to provide guidance to others. Yesterday on the set of NCIS, on which he stars as Navy investigator Leroy Jethro Gibbs, an extra asked him for advice. “He was the autopsy corpse, the body just lying there on the table,” Harmon says with a chuckle. “I told him, ‘You’re here—use it. Go learn from everyone you can learn from.’ I’ve always worked hard, I’ve always tried to pay attention to the little things—but here’s the real secret: There are no little things. What the grip does, what the director does, what the editor does, all of it matters. I’ve always just been trying to fill in the gaps with things that I don’t know and things that I needed to practice.”
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