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'NCIS' Producers Recall Thinking Mark Harmon's Exit in 2021 Was 'the Death Knell' for the Series

'NCIS' executive producer Charles Floyd Johnson admitted Harmon, who played Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, "stayed on longer" than the actor intended

Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic Mark Harmon attends the Stand Up To Cancer 10 years of impacting cancer research on September 7, 2018
Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic Mark Harmon attends the Stand Up To Cancer 10 years of impacting cancer research on September 7, 2018

The producers of NCIS are looking back at Mark Harmon’s exit from the CBS series.

Executive producer Charles Floyd Johnson told The Hollywood Reporter that he believed that Harmon’s 2021 departure would be a “death knell” for the procedural after he starred as Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs nearly two decades.

“Coming in at 6:30 a.m., five days a week, and being the major character that was the linchpin — that’s pretty tough, and he did it for 18 seasons,” he said of Harmon, 72. “He had just gotten to the place where he was getting close to turning 70, and he wanted to spend time with [wife] Pam [Dawber] and his kids."


He continued: “So he was leading up to it. It started probably [with him dropping hints] around the 15th or 16th season. But he was so loyal to that crew and so supportive of the show. He was very proud of it, and he stayed on longer than he even intended.”

Monty Brinton/CBS via Getty Mark Harmon on 'NCIS'
Monty Brinton/CBS via Getty Mark Harmon on 'NCIS'

Related: Mark Harmon Wanted to 'Keep It Fresh' Before 'NCIS' Departure — but Teases Gibbs Is 'Not Retired'

Director James Whitmore Jr. recalled wondering how the show would move forward without Harmon, telling the outlet, “When Harmon was talking about leaving, and there was this chance that he might not come back, I said, ‘How are they going to replace this dude?’ And they brought in the one guy that could do it, which was Gary Cole.”

Johnson admits the show “hit gold” when Cole joined NCIS in season 19 to play Special Agent Alden Park.

There were a lot of names bandied about,” he recalled. “When everybody finally decided we’d make an offer to Gary Cole, we didn’t pitch it to him as, ‘He was going to become the new Gibbs.’ We pitched it to him that he was going to come in and wasn’t sure he was going to stay with the team, so that he didn’t have to feel like he was stepping into the shoes of someone who had been there for 18 seasons.”

<p>CBS</p> Gary Cole on 'NCIS'


Gary Cole on 'NCIS'

Related: Mark Harmon Describes What Will Spell the End of 'NCIS' — and How Long He'll Stay with the Show

Executive producer Mark Horowitz reflected on how the introduction of Cole’s character changed the dynamic of the show, explaining, “When Gibbs was in charge, he was the leader, and everybody was pretty much under him. When the Gary Cole character came in, it loosened up a little bit and allowed McGee (Sean Murray) to become a senior agent, and they have a little bit more authority. So it gave room for other possibilities.”

Back in August 2022, Harmon addressed saying goodbye to the procedural in the fourth episode of season 19 when his character Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs decided to stay in Alaska indefinitely after solving a case.

"What has always drawn me here is the character I play and to keep it fresh and to keep it challenging," Harmon said in a special featurette on the show's season 19 DVD release, per Entertainment Tonight. "Plot-wise, this character has taken the path that it did. I thought it was honest and OK with."

Harmon — who starred on the series since its premiere in 2003 — also shared that he believed that his beloved character is "not retired," adding, "The character is living in Alaska as far as I know."

Sonja Flemming/CBS via Getty Images Mark Harmon and Pauley Perrette on 'NCIS'
Sonja Flemming/CBS via Getty Images Mark Harmon and Pauley Perrette on 'NCIS'

Related: 'NCIS' Goes Down Under! Longtime CBS Franchise to Debut Its First International Edition with 'NCIS: Sydney'

Following the episode, executive producer Steve Binder opened up about Harmon's exit for the long-running series.

"As an executive producer and dear friend, Mark continues to be an integral part of the fabric of the show. 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," he told PEOPLE in a statement. "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."

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"Mark's always been part of the show, Mark's always going to be part of the show," CBS Entertainment President Kelly Kahl told Deadline in September 2021. "In terms of his on-air appearances, we're just going to have to see how it plays out going forward."

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