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NCIS Uncovered: Behind The Scenes Secrets

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Since its premiere 16 years ago, NCIS captivated audiences with its action-packed, thrilling scenes, likable characters, scandalous drama and some injections of humor.

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As one of the best network TV dramas around, it boasts a loyal fan base with audiences turning in each week to get their fix of the special agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. If you thought you knew all about the show, think again as we reveal some secrets behind the scenes of the hit show.


It was originally a JAG spinoff

When NCIS first started, it did not come off a separate script with an original idea. It was actually formed from the popular TV show JAG. In season eight of the CBS Naval legal procedural show, there were two episodes titled “Ice Queen” and “Meltdown.”

CBS

They introduced the new team from NCIS and acted as a backdoor pilot for the show. It was received well by audiences and a new CBS show was born.

A wordy title

When NCIS was greenlit, producers were figuring out what the official name would be for the show. Initially, they decided to name it Navy NCIS, which came off as a bit too wordy.

CBS

However, the meaning behind this was due to the fact that CBS didn’t think audiences would know what the acronym meant so wanted to give more information in the name. At this point it was essentially called Navy Naval Criminal Investigative Service. The name was redundant and they changed it.

Mark Harmon’s fued

Donald P. Bellisario was the mastermind behind the show and also has Magnum P.I and JAG to his name, making him a very famous within the TV crime drama genre. However, one of NCIS’ biggest names, Mark Harmon, was less than impressed with Bellisario’s management style and would change scripts last minute and have actors working 16-hour days.

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After complaining to CBS, Harmon got Bellisario to retire and instead he went on to serve as an executive producer.

It was a big change for CBS

CBS excelled in producing crime procedurals but the producers wanted to escape falling into the same category as the others on the network. They wanted to focus more on character development and intended on a different shooting style using fast cuts and mini montages.

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They ended up giving the pilot the name “Yankee White,” which originated from the nickname government workers gave the background checking process for potential employees for the President and Vice President.

Mark Harmon’s many talents

Prior to becoming the star of NCIS, Mark Harmon tried his hand in a number of other areas. Harmon was a renowned college football player, was a starting back for the UCLA Bruins and was even inducted into the Pierce College Athletic Hall of Fame.

CBS

In addition, he owned a minor league baseball team and also worked as a carpenter before changing industries and becoming an actor. Harmon has proved that he is truly a man of many talents.

Harmon the hero

It turns out that football, carpentry and acting aren’t the only things that Mark Harmon can do. In 1996 he saved someone’s life when 16-year-olds got into a big accident outside the actor’s home in Los Angeles.

CBS

The car set fire and Mark Harmon came bolting out of his house, smashed the window with a sledgehammer and pulled the teenager out of the car who was trapped inside. The victim had third-degree burns, but Harmon saved his life.

Harmon wasn’t the first choice

When casting for the lead role of Leroy Jethro Gibbs, Bellisario did not think that Harmon would be a good fit. Having seen the actor in prior roles including St. Elsewhere and Chicago Hope, he wasn’t convinced it would work out.

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However, executive producer Charles Floyd Johnson stepped in and cast him. In the end, Bellisario admitted that the show wouldn’t have been what it was without the actor. Luckily he was cast and the show became a hit.

Gibbs-smack was totally improvised

Some of the best lines from TV shows and movies are usually those that were not in the script. This can also be said for NCIS when Agent Gibbs replies “Don’t make me Gibbs-smack you.”

CBS

Harmon made the line up completely on the spot and delighted the entire production crew when he said it as the cameras were rolling. The famous line made it to the final cut and now t-shirts are sold with his hilarious phrase written on them.

The best guy on set

While some lead actors on TV shows can act entitled on set, this was not the case for Mark Harmon and his co-stars and crew spoke incredibly highly of him.

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The actress Cote de Pablo who plays Ziva David said “He made it very clear from the beginning: We are all the same,” while Johnson added “Harmon has that very strong kind of presence that’s quiet but speaks volumes.” It’s a big contrast in comparison to his character Gibbs, so his acting is quite amazing!

Living the life of a character

The success of NCIS was overwhelming for cast members, and as much they are happy their show is doing well, they’re not overly thrilled that it disrupts their everyday life off set. David McCallum who plays Donald “Ducky” Mallard claimed that he always gets referred to as his character.

CBS

In addition, Harmon said “It’s hard to walk through an airport now.” Other cast members say they got their lines repeated to them by fans at the grocery store.

The father figure on set

Harmon became a favorite among everyone on set. His courteous manner and kindness earned him the nickname “Papa Smurf.” Sean Murray explained “We’re fond of calling him Papa Smurf.

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CBS

I’m not sure how fond he is to be called Papa Smurf, but we love it.” On one occasion, Harmon actually played father on set when his son Sean was brought in to play a younger Gibbs as a flashback in one episode on the show.

The one cast member who stayed longer than intended

Brian Dietzen played Dr. Jimmy Palmer on NCIS. He first appeared as the neurotic medical examiner in one episode in season one. His role was only intended to be for one episode so Brian gave his own take on character to take advantage of his spot.

NCIS
CBS

It turned out that Dietzen was a hit with the fans so he started getting more and more callbacks until he became a regular in season 10 and appeared on the opening credits.

Morphing into their character

When working on a show for so many years, it is easy to start having some of the same mannerisms as your character, and this is exactly what happened on NCIS. McCallum spoke of this and said “The scary part of that is, I find that Ducky and David have combined.”

NCIS
CBS

Additionally, De Pablo claimed that she once greeted her friend with a half-hearted hug as her character Ziva was not emotionally present and she had slightly morphed into her.

Changing stereotypes on the show

Pauley Perrette played Abby on the show and when telling her about her character, Bellisario explain that the overall goal was to defy the stereotypes usually given to goths.

NCIS
CBS

Instead, they wanted her character to be a goth who was “happy, totally put together and successful… She thinks she looks pretty and never calls herself anything other than happy.” In acting out her role, Perrette used her experience from studying human behavior to give her input for Abby.

Convincing Cote De Pablo

Sasha Alexander left NCIS leading Kate Todd to be killed off the show. As the female lead, producers knew they really needed someone great to replace Alexander. At the time, producers had their eye on Cote de Pablo who was working on Broadway at the time.

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Cote De Pablo| Jacopo Raule/Getty Images

When they approached her for a role, she turned them down immediately as she wanted to focus on her stage show. However, when the stage show was unexpectedly cancelled, she came in for an audition two days later and got the role.

The woman who does it all

When De Pablo was screen testing with Weatherly, he went completely off script and proceeded to hit on her. When De Pablo thought he was ruining her moment, she just destroyed him, leading the whole room to erupt into laughter.

NCIS
CBS via Getty Images)

Producers loved her instantaneous reaction to the moment and thought she was a great addition. De Pablo also liked to do her own stunts until a neck injury forced her to take a step back.

The hilarious way fans protested De Pablo’s exit

In season four, Ziva threatened Tony Dinozzo and said “I will kill you 18 different ways with this paper clip.” So when De Pablo announced she was leaving the show at the beginning of season 11, fans started sending CBS tons of paper clips.

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CBS

Despite never giving the reason for her departure, De Pablo stated “People trusted that what I was doing was what I needed to do, and that’s unconditional love from people who don’t even know me.”

Rushing into a replacement

Everyone recognizes Sasha Alexander as the actress who played Gibbs’ partner, Kate Todd. However, she wasn’t in the role from the pilot and instead it was Vivian Blackadder played by Robyn Lively.

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CBS

When the show went to air, Bellisario thought her performance was “too soft” and started scrambling to find a new female lead. It was CBS President Les Moonves who recommended Alexander as she had appeared in CSI and Presidio Med. The rest was NCIS history.

A family show

Sean Murray plays Tim McGee and is a much loved character on NCIS. It turns out that he is Bellisario’s stepson but nepotism had nothing to do with how he won this role.

CBS

Initially, McGee was only supposed to appear as a guest star on one episode, but after proving himself in the performance, they kept him on as a main star of the show. Murray admitted that it wasn’t easy and being on the show warranted extra scrutiny due to the connection with his step-father. 

Paying homage to the crew

After the death of Jenny Shepard, Leon Vance takes over as the director of the NCIS. His name wasn’t something writers came up with and the character was actually named after a retired NCIS agent who ended up working as the show’s lead technical advisor.

CBS

The real Leon always had a toothpick in his mouth and they wanted to have the character on the show do the same but the fans ended up hating it. 

A writer’s strike was actually a good thing

In 2007-2008, there was the famous strike from the Writers Guild of America. It caused havoc for TV shows as all production ceased and no one worked.

CBS

For a long time studios and their employees were clashing as nothing was being put out and they were losing a lot of money. However, when USA started airing reruns of NCIS, viewers began tuning in and there was nothing else to watch. Episode ratings were massively boosted. 

An unusual audition

After de Pablo left the show, Emily Wickersham was brought in to read for the new female lead, NSA analyst Ellie Bishop. Showrunner Gary Glasberg was impressed by her audition but to make sure she was the right fit, they changed it up.

CBS

They then brought every potential actor to try out the set and see if they fit in with the rest of the cast. Everyone brought in was screen tested and then ate lunch with the crew. 

A necessary character change

Michael Weatherly plays Anthony DiNozzo Jr.in NCIS. The special field agent had a certain swagger about him and in many cases he displayed some controversial behavior towards women. While many of these derogatory comments were written into the script, fans began hating the character.

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The writers were then told to tone down this side of him and have him come across as a more genuine and likeable person. From then on, the NCIS family accepted him. 

Weatherly likes the flattery

Instead of going through the usual process of auditioning for a role in front of a casting couch, when Weatherly was being considered for the role of Tony, he decided to charm the heck out of Bellisario.

CBS

When they went out for dinner it ended up being more than three hours and the two men got on like a house on fire. Weatherly also told Bellisario how he loved Magnum P.I and his other shows. Talk about a charmer…

Almost Kate Todd

Before Sasha Alexander was cast in the role of Kate, there were some other big actresses who were being considered. Jennifer Aniston was being eyed up by producers and the biggest problem was that she wasn’t done shooting friends.

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In order for Aniston to take on the role, production would have to have been delayed by a year and that wasn’t an option. In the end, Sasha Alexander proved to be a great Kate Todd and audiences loved her. 

Harmon brings the house down

In the shooting schedule, Mark Harmon’s 54th birthday fell during the shooting of an episode. Harmon being the low-key guy he is didn’t want a big deal made out of it. In a prank, the cast and crew decided to throw him a rager and do it up as big as possible.

CBS

150 cast and crew members wore t-shirts that said “It’s Mark Harmon’s Birthday.” Everyone walked around with signs celebrating the actor, needless to say he was so embarrassed. 

Controversial characters 

When de Pablo left the show, some of her co-stars didn’t have the best of responses. Perrette wore a shirt which read “I Heart My Job” to a CBS event and even went on to Tweet “I love my job. #NCIS”.

CBS

The move didn’t go unnoticed and the studio and the show didn’t want the negativity or controversial press. The indirect messages resulted in de Pablo picking up the phone and asking Perrette to tone it down as it was unnecessary. 

Harmon’s dog caused a massive issue

When Harmon brought his dog to set in 2016, it ended up biting a crew member quite aggressively and caused a 15 stitch injury. Pauley Perrette made a fuss about it and claimed that she was feeling unsafe.

CBS

On the other hand, Harmon refused to stop bringing the dog so they stopped being in the same room and filming together. They didn’t have a farewell scene together and Perrette tweeted that she had nightmares about being attacked by the dog. 

A big inspiration

De Pablo played Ziva David, the Israeli, ex-Mossad special agent for the NCIS. As the only Israeli character on a network TV show, her role was incredibly influential for Israeli and Jewish culture. On NCIS, she portrays a different type of Israeli agent that is usually played on film and TV, something that was memorable to viewers and resonated with them.

CBS via Getty Images

She wears a Star of David necklace in every scene and listen to Israeli hip hop. NCIS were commended for their positive representation. 

Weatherly’s hard work

Michael Weatherly is truly an actor who got to where he is from hard work and dedication. Weatherly grew up with money, but from the age of 12, his father cut him off from his inheritance, at which time he decided to pursue acting.

CBS

Weatherly worked hard to land his roles and managed to make a name for himself in TV and was commended for his part on NCIS. He is only one of two actors who appeared in all the NCIS related series.

One actors exit was a total shock for everyone

When Alexander told Bellisario that she wanted to leave the show, they kept her entire storyline a secret until it unfolded in front of her co-stars and the whole set.

NCIS
CBS

Weatherly and Alexander were rehearsing their scene and he then saw producers apply a blood pack to Sasha, quickly realizing she was being killed off. Weatherly flinched in the scene where Sasha gets shot and the whole cast were pretty shocked.

Read more: Behind the scenes secrets of Grey’s Anatomy

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