Top NCIS Off-Camera Facts
NCIS is almost twice more successful than the show it originally spun from, JAG. But how much do you know about it? Which actors could have played the role of Gibbs? How is Mark Harmon actually similar to the character he portrays? And which details from Pauley Perrette’s real life found their place on screen? Find out the most surprising facts about NCIS agents!
1. THE ORIGINS OF THE SHOW
The pilot, called "Navy NCIS: The Beginning" aired 17 (!) years ago, back in April 2003. But did you know that originally it was from an episode of the long-running legal drama ‘JAG’? The episode was called “Ice Queen’, and one particular scene from it has been a part of the NCIS series for the entire 13 seasons.
The die-hard fans of the show might have guessed already: it’s the shot from the opening credits, which shows a car driving on Pennsylvania Ave towards the Capitol Building. The original show aired for 10 seasons, which means that NCIS lasted for nearly twice as long as the series it originally spun-off from!
By the way, during Season 1 the show was entitled "Navy NCIS", but the word ‘Navy’ was eventually dropped, because ‘NCIS’ is actually short for ‘Naval Criminal Investigative Service’.
Also, the showrunners were a bit apprehensive about the possibility that the viewers would confuse the show’s title with a hugely popular forensics crime drama series ‘CSI’. So they made a joke about it in the very first episode of the show: when Special Agent DiNozzo is asked if ‘NCIS’ is any relation to ‘CSI’, he responds - "Only if you're dyslexic".
2. WHO COULD HAVE PLAYED GIBBS?
Most fans would agree with Michael Weatherly, who once said that Mark Harmon is “the spine of the show”. It seems strange to think that another actor could have played the NCIS boss. But it turns out that Harmon wasn’t the first choice for the role of Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs!
The show’s creator Donald P. Bellisario originally wanted to cast Scott Bakula or Don Johnson as Gibbs. But Mark Harmon proved he was perfect for the role by portraying Agent Simon Donovan on the TV series ‘The West Wing’, and eventually Don Bellisario decided to cast him.
“What I saw was a very controlled presence, a quiet strength,” he told Entertainment. “That’s what I was looking for.”
By the way, there was a time when Harrison Ford was urged to pursue the role of Gibbs. He didn’t do it, but in the very first episode of NCIS, Mark Harmon alludes to the fact, dropping Ford’s name and the movie he was in, ‘Air Force One’.
Moreover, Don Bellisario didn’t quit on the idea of having Scott Bakula on his show. And eleven years later, the actor was cast as Special Agent Gibbs's former partner - Special Agent Dwayne Pride - and the lead of ‘NCIS: New Orleans’.
And did you ever wonder where Leroy Jethro Gibbs’ name comes from? The fact is that the show’s creator Don Bellisario named the character after his family members: his brother's name is Leroy and his father's middle name is Jethro.
3. FAMILY CONNECTIONS
It turns out that many actors on NCIS also have something in common with their characters. For example, most of the personality and interests displayed by forensic specialist Abby Sciuto come from the actress behind the character – Pauley Perrette.
She actually got the role on NCIS because she majored in Forensics in college! Moreover, in an episode called ‘Enemy On The Hill’, when Abby is staring at a locket with her adoptive mother’s picture, the photo is actually of Perrette’s real mother.
In the same manner, Michael Weatherly’s own family history is very similar to his character's, Tony DiNozzo. DiNozzo's wealthy father cut him off from his inheritance. And in real life, Weatherly's father cut him off from the family fortune when Michael revealed he wanted to become an actor.
True NCIS fans already know by now that actor Sean Murray is actually Don Bellisario’s stepson. So it’s no wonder that other members of the family have also appeared on the show. Vivienne Bellisario, Donald's wife (and Sean Murray's mother), played Gibbs' love interest in the first two seasons.
Murray’s stepsister, Troian Bellisario, played Agent McGee’s sister, while his stepbrother, Michael Bellisario, played the part of Abby’s lab assistant Chip Sterling. But the most intriguing story is connected to Agent Gibbs: every time the scene calls for a younger version of the character, the younger version is played by Sean Harmon – Mark Harmon's son!
4. NO SUGAR ON SET
Abby Sciuto was one of the most loved characters on NCIS, and, as we’ve just mentioned, the character was heavily inspired by Pauley Perrette. But it turns out that Abby’s caffeine energy drink addiction had nothing to do with the actress’ habits.
According to Perrette, her famous Caf-Pow cups were originally filled with Hawaiian Punch. But later she stopped consuming refined sugar, so the punch was changed to unsweetened cranberry juice.
Another actor who decided to cut down on sweets, was Sean Murray. His drastic transformation during the show’s 8th season simply couldn’t pass unnoticed. Fans were worried that Sean was losing weight as a result of some illness!
But the actor took to Twitter to reassure everyone that’s not the case, and explained that his slimming down was the result of a new diet. Also he advised them to re-watch all of the 24 episodes of Season 7 to see the progress of him gradually losing the weight.
to those who have asked what I did to lose the 25 lbs: 14 months of no alcohol and almost no sugar. ate strictly organic ;)— Sean Harland Murray (@SeanHMurray) September 29, 2010
5. THE REAL AGENTS
The ‘NCIS’ cast and crew strive to keep everything on the show as realistic as possible. In order to get this effect, they consult with real NCIS agents and are even in close communication with the NCIS Communications Director! There’s a lot of the actual jargon used, too, which definitely adds realism to the set.
David Brant, NCIS special agent, and executive
Over the years, the showrunners have worked with many actual and former agents from the NCIS agency, and some of them made brief cameos in the series. One of them is David Brant – an NCIS special agent and executive, who served as the Agency Director for nine years! He made a guest appearance in ‘NCIS’ Season 3, in an episode titled ‘Frame Up’, which aired one month before his retirement.
There’s even a reference to it in the series: He is asked by Gibbs "I heard you were quitting", to which Brant responds "I like to refer to it as a lateral move into the recreational sector." And Gibbs explains to Ziva that it "mostly means fishing and hitting a golf ball". Isn’t it a great nod to the real-life event?
Thomas Betro, the former Director of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service
Yet another brief but memorable cameo was made by Thomas Betro – the former Director of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, who appeared in the ‘NCIS’ Season 5 episode, ‘Identity Crisis’. In fact, at the time Betro was still serving as Director of NCIS! He later revealed in an interview that although “many aspects of the show are fictionalized and dramatized”, the ‘NCIS’ series still does a good job:
“I am glad that the U.S. public gets to see and understand the hard and sometimes dangerous work our agents perform on a regular basis to keep the Navy, Marine Corps, and the citizens of the United States safe.”
However, among the many things the show gets right, some things would never (!) happen with real agents. You’ve probably noticed that Mark Harmon’s character sometimes affectionately slaps fellow agents on the back of their heads. Well, according to NCIS Communications Director, MaryAnn Cummings, if a real NCIS agent did that, it would lead to disciplinary action.
6. THE MOST WANTED BOARD
Fans of ‘NCIS’ know that a board with the bad guys’ faces appears in the background of almost every episode. So whose pictures are on this most-wanted board? In fact, some of them are the faces of crew members, but the real-life bad guys can be spotted, too.
Like Osama bin Laden, whose photo was hanging on the wall since NCIS debuted, up until he was hunted down in 2011. But the production for that season had already wrapped by the time it happened, so the NCIS set designers digitally crossed the picture off with a red line.
The other familiar face among these “criminals in question” is Agent G. Callen from the ‘NCIS: Los Angeles’ series. Presumably, he’s undercover using one of his aliases. Moreover, according to the NCIS board of the most-wanted fugitives, the show’s creator Don Bellisario himself is still "at large"!
However, it’s not the only thing that constantly hints at Bellisario’s personal touch to the show. Do you remember the sound at the beginning and end of each act, when the scene goes black and white? This ‘foof’ sound was actually invented by Bellisario, who wanted to create a unique and memorable effect. And he made it – by simply hitting a microphone with his hand.
7. CELEBRITY CAMEOS
Over the years there were tons of celebrity appearances on the set of NCIS, so we’ll only name a few. Darby Stanchfield, best known for her roles in the series ‘Scandal’, ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Locke & Key’, also played Gibbs' deceased wife Shannon. And Jamie Lee Curtis appeared in many episodes as Dr. Samantha Ryan, his girlfriend in Season 9.
Colin Hanks played an unpleasant Inspector Parsons who got Gibbs arrested. And Misha Collins’ role on NCIS was far from angelic: his character unwittingly kidnapped a Navy officer. Zac Efron appeared in an episode of NCIS just a couple of days prior to the premiere of ‘High School Musical’.
The star of ‘The Vampire Diaries’ and ‘The Originals’ Daniel Gillies played the role of a member of the Royal Navy who was framed for murder. And Ricky Whittle, best known for his roles on ‘The 100’ and ‘American Gods’ played a villain who kidnapped Palmer and Ducky in the 10th season of NCIS.
‘Outlander’ star Graham McTavish played a Russian Special Forces agent in the milestone 100th episode. Two more stars from the political thriller series ‘Scandal’ appeared on NCIS too: a surprisingly blonde Bellamy Young played the main villainess in the first season, and Katie Lowes’ one-off role was in Season 4.
The ‘Stranger Things’ stars Millie Bobby Brown and Sean Astin both had small roles on NCIS, although not in the same episode. Astin portrayed the lead investigator on Dr. Ryan's team in Season 9, and Millie Bobby Brown starred in Season 12, where she played a girl who killed her own mother.
But the biggest celebrity cameo was made by none other than the former First Lady Michelle Obama! She appeared in NCIS season 16 in order to promote her charity ‘Joining Forces’, which is dedicated to supporting service members, veterans, and their families.