You may recognize him as special agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, but there’s a lot more to Mark Harmon than meets the eye. With an acting career spanning over 40 years – the last 16 of which have been on CBS’s NCIS – the St. Elsewhere alum has also been married to Pam Dawber for 31 of those years, disproving the notion that all Hollywood marriages are fickle.
But how exactly did Harmon get to this point in his career and more importantly, how has he made things last with his wife for so long? Read on to uncover the secrets to Mark Harmon’s success.
Harmon’s Parents Were Well-Known
Mark Harmon is the youngest of three children. He was born to Tom Harmon and Elyse Knox on September 2, 1951. His father Tom was a former football player with the Los Angeles Rams, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1940 as a halfback for the University of Michigan.
Harmon’s mother Elyse was a fashion designer-turned-actress who is remembered for playing Anne Howe, the love interest of a fictional boxer in Joe Palooka, Champ. Considering his parents’ respective professions, it was likely that Harmon would follow one of those paths.
Harmon And His Dad Had A Trying Relationship
Growing up, Harmon’s father Tom worked as a sports broadcaster following two seasons with the LA Rams. Tom was away from his family a lot and this had a profound effect on his relationship with Harmon.
Though the distance caused tensions between Harmon and his father, the two often bonded over sports. "He raised me hard, and when I say hard, I mean hard. I was taught to fight for everything," Harmon told People magazine.
He Had Brawn And Brains
Considering his and his father’s mutual love of sports, it’s not surprising that Mark Harmon started out as a football player. He got offers from the football programs at the University of Oklahoma and UCLA, ultimately choosing the latter.
Harmon was the starting quarterback for the UCLA Bruins from 1972 to 1973, helping the team compile a 17-5 record. The following year, he graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in communications.
He Decided To Stray From Football
After college, Harmon declined multiple lucrative offers to go pro and instead, wanted to try his hand at something else. At first, he was interested in taking up law school since, at the time, he believed "the contract field [was] ripe for an attorney with sports savvy," according to People magazine.
When law didn’t work out, Harmon considered advertising and actually established himself as a merchandising director for Ytdia Central before he realized it wasn’t a career he was happy with.
It Was In The Back Of His Mind
Despite making enough money to buy his own home, Harmon knew he wasn’t passionate about his business career. "I realized I wasn’t happy on a plane trip one day. I looked at all the other businessmen in suits and ties and told myself it wasn’t for me," he told The Telegraph in 1977.
"Acting was always in the back of my mind," he added. Harmon didn’t admit it to himself until his mid-20’s.
He Was Already Used To The Camera
For someone who grew up on the periphery of Hollywood, Mark Harmon naturally decided to pursue an acting career. "I guess I got accustomed to movie cameras when I was in junior high school and the family was doing cereal commercials in our backyard," he told The Telegraph.
One of Harmon’s first national television appearances was alongside his father Tom in commercials for Kellogg’s Product 19 cereal, for which Tom was a spokesperson.
Harmon’s First Role Through Family Connections
Mark Harmon got his first real taste of Hollywood while he was still attending UCLA. At the time, Harmon’s older sister Kristin was married to ’60s teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson, the son of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. Through his sister’s in-laws, Harmon was offered a walk-on role in an episode of Ozzie’s Girls.
Harmon was dedicated to football at that time, however, and it took him several years before he really decided to give acting a real shot.
He Put Himself Through Acting Classes
Despite having connections to the industry in his family, Harmon worked hard to make it on his own by taking acting classes at night while working carpentry and sales jobs by day.
"When I told my mom and dad that I was going to really try to go 100 percent and be an actor, I mean, my parents were supportive, but they thought I was out of my mind," he told CBS’s Sunday Morning.
Harmon Had A Lead
Harmon’s acting career started out with small guest spots on shows like Emergency!, Adam-12, and Police Woman. Harmon’s appearance on Emergency! was in an episode titled "905-Wild," which was a failed backdoor pilot about L.A. County animal control officers.
Even though it didn’t sell, the producer Jack Webb cast Harmon as the lead in Sam. The 1978 series about an LAPD officer and his K-9 partner only lasted for six episodes.
Harmon’s First Emmy Nomination In 1977
Even though Mark Harmon was only cast in bit parts and had a failed series at the start of his career, he wasn’t entirely out of luck. Harmon portrayed Robert Dunlap in the made-for-TV movie, Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years in 1977.
He was so impressive at that stage of his career that he was already nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor. Still, Harmon’s big break was yet to come.
He Started Getting Regular Roles
In 1980, Harmon was cast in the soap opera Flamingo Road opposite Morgan Fairchild. Harmon played Fielding Carlisle, an ambitious politician who marries into a wealthy family, but the series didn’t make it past two seasons.
At that point, it may have seemed like Harmon was fated to get cast on doomed television series but luckily that wasn’t the case. Shortly after Flamingo Road’s cancellation, Harmon landed a role on St. Elsewhere.
Harmon’s Big Break As Dr. Robert Caldwell
Mark Harmon’s first real big break was with NBC’s St. Elsewhere in 1983. Harmon joined the cast at the start of the second season as Dr. Robert Caldwell. Dr. Caldwell was a plastic surgeon at St. Eligius who had a reputation around the hospital as a lothario.
Fans loved Harmon’s character and were shocked when Caldwell was diagnosed with HIV in season four. It was network television’s first instance of a recurring heterosexual character contracting the virus.
He Liked The Way He Left The Show
Dr. Caldwell was a beloved character among St. Elsewhere fans but Harmon admitted to wanting more out of the role, which is why his character met an untimely end.
"I was really revved up by the AIDS idea. I never said, ‘I want out.’ I saw the choice of either accepting a dramatic, timely storyline and exiting the show or walking down the hospital hallways saying ‘hello’ to the doctors for another three seasons. I’ll take as my dramatic shots in front of the camera as I can get," Harmon said.
He Was The Sexiest Man Alive
Despite Dr. Caldwell’s heartbreaking end on St. Elsewhere, Mark Harmon’s three-season stint on the show made him quite popular off-camera, especially with the ladies. In fact, Harmon’s charming role on the show was enough for him to be named People magazine’s second-ever "Sexiest Man Alive" in 1986.
"Women would come up to me and show their breasts and ask for my opinion and I gave it to them!" the former TV plastic surgeon told People.
In Real Life He Was Monogamous
As the "Sexiest Man Alive," Harmon surprisingly didn’t have ladies on his arm all the time. "I’m real monogamous by nature, and I’m fine being alone like I am now," he told People in 1986.
Prior to gaining his title, Harmon was in a four-year relationship with his Flamingo Road co-star Christina Raines, who he’d met previously while filming the 1978 miniseries Centennial. After that, he had a brief tryst with Dynasty’s Heather Locklear.
And Then He Met Pam Dawber
"When I marry, I want it to be everything this town says it can’t be. I’m not into catting around," Harmon said in his "Sexiest Man Alive" interview with People. Coincidentally, he met Pam Dawber that same year at a party.
Dawber was a former model who turned to acting in the late ’70s. Her career hit a breakthrough when she was cast as Mindy McConnell on Mork & Mindy alongside Robin Williams.
Pam Stopped Acting To Raise Their Kids
After Mork & Mindy went off the air in 1982, Dawber found more sitcom success with My Sister Sam, in which she played the lead Samantha Russell. My Sister Sam was short-lived and was canceled but Dawber was starting to go in another direction with her life anyway.
In 1987, she and Mark Harmon tied the knot. Their sons Sean and Ty followed soon after, leading Dawber to put her career aside to focus on their family.
Harmon Brought It To Court
Mark Harmon is usually a drama-free actor but shortly after his marriage, he found himself in the midst of a bitter custody battle over his nephew Sam. In 1987, Harmon filed for custody of his nephew on the grounds that his sister Kris was unfit for parenting.
Two years prior, Ricky Nelson died in a plane crash and by then, Kris had fallen into drugs. But tensions within the family grew so strong that Harmon eventually dropped the lawsuit.
Harmon Started Doing More Movies
Meanwhile, Harmon began appearing on the big screen. He starred in the memorable 1987 comedy Summer School, as laidback gym teacher Freddy Shoop. Harmon took the role against his wife’s wishes because he wanted to work with director Carl Reiner.
"That was a game changer for me, like, ‘[Reiner] thinks I can do this?!’ and that meant a lot. But Pam said, Don’t do that. Don’t do this movie.’ We don’t generally like the same thing, and that’s been healthy for us, actually," he told People.
He Realized Where His Priorities Were
Mark Harmon continued to do movies as the ’90s came around. But it was not long before he realized how much his career kept him apart from his family.
"I was in the jungles of New Guinea making a not-very-good movie [Till There Was You] when my firstborn took his first steps. No job is worth missing life’s most important moments," he told Closer Weekly. At that point, he returned to television to be closer to home.
That Time Harmon Was A Real-Life Hero
In 1996, Mark Harmon made headlines when he saved the life of a teenage boy. Outside of Harmon’s Los Angeles home, a Jeep crashed and burst into flames. The driver was able to get away but a 16-year-old boy was stuck in the passenger seat.
Harmon used a sledgehammer to break the passenger window and pull the victim out of the car. It was very much like a scene from the hit show that Harmon would star in a decade later.
Harmon Enters The West Wing
Harmon’s career throughout the ’90s wasn’t as exciting as it was in decades prior but that all changed in 2002. That year, he was cast on the hit NBC political drama, The West Wing. Harmon played Secret Service special agent Simon Donovan.
Harmon’s four-episode story arc in season three saw him protecting White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg, with whom his character became very close before he was killed in an armed robbery.
Getting Killed Off Was Premeditated
Harmon didn’t mind being killed off of The West Wing so soon because according to him, he appreciated the opportunity to work with Aaron Sorkin and Allison Janney. But his chemistry with Janney got him killed.
"[In] the first week, actually, Allison came up to me and said, ‘They’re gonna kill you.’ I said, ‘What do you mean they’re going to kill me?’ She said, ‘We get along too well. They’re gonna kill you.’ …And she was right!" he told The A.V. Club.
He Earned His Second Emmy Nomination
Fans of The West Wing were easily charmed by Harmon on the show and were shocked to see how Agent Donovan met his demise on the show. Regardless, he garnered his second Emmy nomination, Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series, exactly 25 years after he earned his first one.
Though Harmon didn’t end up bagging the Emmy, his stint on The West Wing led to the role of a lifetime.
Harmon Was Getting Set Up
Many people noticed Mark Harmon on The West Wing and one of those people was Donald P. Bellisario, who at the time was working on his next project: a spin-off of the popular Navy legal drama JAG.
"What I saw [in Harmon] was a very controlled presence, a quiet strength. That’s what I was looking for… Mark has that jock mentality – you tough it out no matter how tough it is," Bellisario told Entertainment Weekly.
He Debuted Agent Gibbs On JAG
In 2003, Harmon guest starred in two episodes of JAG. In the season eight episode "Ice Queen," Harmon is introduced as special agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, who is in charge of the Major Care Response Team of the Navel Criminal Investigative Service.
The episode served as a backdoor pilot for the JAG spin-off, NCIS, which would long outlive its predecessor. Bellisario knew that they’d made the best decision in casting Mark Harmon.
With Fame And Fortune Comes Scandal And Rumors
When NCIS premiered in 2003, Harmon began portraying Agent Gibbs. He had no idea how big the show would become and how it would affect his personal life. “We ended up successful enough in that first season…to be kind of in that mid-ground where you’re not doing well enough that people are drawing attention to you,” Harmon said.
That didn’t last long though and soon enough, NCIS blew up and Harmon’s fame did too. Check out how Harmon built a career and marriage, then how NCIS changed everything.
Harmon Has An Ensemble Cast To Thank
To this day, Harmon continues to lead the cast of NCIS as Agent Gibbs, which means that the show has remained on the air for more than 15 years and counting. It’s a wonder how successful the show has become but Harmon believes it’s all in the cast.
"It’s a character-driven show. It’s an ensemble show. And that’s, to me, when it works best. When this team gets together and solves whatever they’re solving. Or not. Sometimes they don’t solve it," he said.
Harmon Made His Boss Leave The Building
Though Harmon credits NCIS’s success to the cast and crew who back him, things haven’t always been easy behind the scenes. Harmon reportedly grew frustrated with Bellisario’s "chaotic management style."
"Mark’s been working every single day, 16 hours a day… Script pages get faxed to the set at the last minute, and Mark is tired of dealing with [it]," a source told TV Guide at the time. Eventually, it was enough for Bellisario to resign as the showrunner for NCIS.
Harmon Isn’t There Yet
In addition to playing Gibbs, Harmon has since become an executive producer for NCIS. You would think that an actor would be reluctant to be stuck in the same role for nearly two decades but in this case, Harmon has no plans of stopping anytime soon.
"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," he told People.
He Sees No Reason To Leave
For his part, Harmon certainly isn’t ready to leave either. "I’ve been around long enough to know what this is. That commitment is part of what I signed up for; I know when this show ends that’s it – there won’t be anything else like this for me," he told People magazine.
He added, "Nothing goes on forever, but… I see no reason to leave." We don’t expect NCIS to lose its lead agent anytime soon.
They Don’t Think It’s Natural
While Harmon has found long-lasting success with NCIS, he did all of it while remaining a family man. As of 2019, Mark Harmon and Pam Dawber have been married for over 30 years, which is surprising for a Hollywood couple.
"Pam and I have both made a living in this business, and still, there’s a part of that that’s just not natural," he once told Closer Weekly.
They Know Showbusiness Isn’t Good For Marriage
Pam agreed with her husband, adding, "I don’t think two people can work all the time in show business and stay married." It’s likely why Pam put her acting career aside to focus on being a mother and a wife.
"I had children and it was like, ‘I’m not going to chase this fame thing,’ …And I was very happy about it," she told Closer. Yet still, people are scratching their heads over how this marriage has managed to stay afloat.
They Owe It To Maturity
On rare occasions, Harmon and Dawber have shared some of their secrets to maintaining their marriage. For his part, Harmon believes part of it was due to the fact that they were more mature.
"We were both in our thirties when we got married, so hopefully the stupid stuff we did earlier [helped]. That’s probably the closest I have to what the key is," Harmon told People. But he also makes sure he does something in particular every single day.
He Makes Sure It’s Not Naked
Another thing that Harmon does to make his marriage last is wearing something on his ring finger every day. It’s not always his wedding ring. Sometimes he wears an eagle head-shaped ring that once belonged to his grandfather.
"I wear it or a few others I have because when I’m not shooting, I like to make sure I have something on my ring finger, because I’m proud to be married, and I’m proud of who I’m married to," he said.
Keeping Secrets Was Necessary
For her part, Pam Dawber has always been strategic about her relationship with Mark Harmon, at least as it pertains to the public. Back in 1987, she told People magazine why they never publicly spoke about their relationship, despite all the rumors about them.
"We’re not trying to keep something secret, but if you don’t want it totally exploited by the press, you have to," she said. Their privacy was something they took with them into family life.
They Stayed Out Of The Spotlight
Mark Harmon and Pam Dawber managed to have a private, intimate wedding and that kind of privacy was something that bled into their family life. Once they had kids, they purposefully kept themselves out of the spotlight.
"Notice you don’t see us in the magazines. When you’re married, that’s real life. And to go and plaster your kids… I’m sorry, I’m not for that," Dawber told Entertainment Tonight. Her husband agrees that privacy is key to making things last.
The Homebodies Stay Away From Social Media
Harmon agreed with his wife that keeping a low profile was essential to raising their family and to maintaining their marriage. They’ve made a conscious effort to stay in at home most of the time.
"It’s not even a choice. It’s who we are. We stay home. A lot. I’m not a Twitter guy or a Facebook guy. Our sons aren’t into that either," Harmon told Closer Weekly. Perhaps this decision was made based on how he grew up himself.
He Raised Them The Same Way
One might say that Harmon and Dawber’s decision to raise their family under the radar was influenced by Harmon’s upbringing. Despite the fact that he grew up with famous parents, he says he grew up "normal."
"My parents kept things real – I had no idea they were famous. In fact, it didn’t hit me until one day when I was riding in the car with my father… Suddenly, we were surrounded by people who recognized my dad… I remember looking at this man I thought I knew so well and thinking, Who are you?" Harmon recalled.
He Might Still Say Hi If You Saw Him In An Airport
Harmon still gets recognized on the street thanks to his NCIS success and despite keeping his private life under wraps for the sake of his family, he doesn’t mind getting noticed from time to time.
"It’s hard to walk through airports even in the most out-of-the-way places without being surrounded by people who love the show – and that’s nothing to complain about. I’ve don’t TV shows where I walk through airports apologizing," he told Page Six.