NCIS Creator’s Reported Conflict With Mark Harmon Addressed 16 Years After Exit

The reported conflict between NCIS co-creator Donald P. Bellisario and Mark Harmon gets addressed 16 years after the creator's exit from the show.

  • Sixteen years ago, co-creator Donald P. Bellisario left NCIS due to conflicts with the star Mark Harmon.
  •  Harmon and Bellisario had a strained relationship, but without them, there would be no NCIS.
  •  Harmon is praised as a solid and committed professional who demands everyone to show up ready to go.

Sixteen years after co-creator Donald P. Bellisario left NCIS, the show’s co-creators, producers, and director spoke about the conflict that led him to leave the show. Having begun in 2003, NCIS is a police procedural revolving around the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. It was originally a spin-off of JAG before becoming successful enough to secure spin-offs of its own in NCIS: Los AngelesNew OrleansHawai’i, and the upcoming Sydney. Harmon starred in the first 19 seasons as agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

As the wait for NCIS season 21 continues, several long-time creatives spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the show’s long run. Executive producer Charles Floyd Johnson, co-creator Donald P. Bellisario, co-creator Don McGill, executive producer Horowitz, director James Whitmore Jr., and casting director Susan Bluestein each spoke about the conflict between Bellisario and Harmon that caused the co-creator to step away from the show. Check out their comments below:

JOHNSON (executive producer): Eventually, actors felt like they would get two acts or one act, and they didn’t know what their arc was for the show. They couldn’t figure out their lines. It was a very complicated show in the beginning. And so when we got to about year four, Harmon just felt like it was too hard. He never said to anybody, “Get rid of Don.” He just said, “This is too hard to work this way.” Eventually, the network went to Bellisario and said, “Maybe you should work from a distance from it and not be quite as involved in terms of the way you work.” And so Bellisario, by the fifth year, was gone.

BELLISARIO (co-creator): It was just time for me to move on and do something else. I had done enough on the show, so I stepped away. It was my decision.

JOHNSON (executive producer): I was in the middle a lot. I was able to walk the line, and work with Harmon and work with Don. It was not easy, but I was able to do that. I sometimes felt, when the train went off the track, I was the person who had the responsibility of getting it back on and keeping everybody together. But I have great respect for Don. Without him, there would be no NCIS. The two strongest people who got that show up and running in terms of keeping it what it was, would be Bellisario and Harmon.

WHITMORE JR. (director): Mark Harmon is just a solid pro, committed to the work. He is completely creative, never stops working, never stops supporting the other actors, demands everybody showing up there ready to go, just like he is. He doesn’t mess around.


MCGILL (co-creator): I just know what I was reading in the trades. (Laughs.) I know that Mark was not happy, and that he and Don, their relationship became strained. I don’t know much that went on behind the scenes because I wasn’t there. It’s just one of those things that happens, the classic Hollywood creative differences.

BLUESTEIN (casting director): I always had a special fondness for Don because he was very, very good to me. I was always very grateful to Don.

HOROWITZ (executive producer): He was definitely the leader — the creator of the show — and I think there was always a question mark in people’s minds: How would it proceed?

JOHNSON (executive producer): That was hard for all of us to believe because he had always been so intricately involved in every show, and he established so much of the pattern of the characters. I became the showrunner for a while with Shane Brennan, but I wasn’t a writer per se. Eventually, we brought in a couple of writers to run the show from the creative standpoint. But I was very lucky. I had been there for so long and had great relationships with everybody, so I was able to stay on and be a useful producer for them. Obviously, it worked because I’m still there. (Laughs.)

Mark Harmon’s Role In NCIS Explained

Since the beginning of NCIS, Gibbs has been a leading man and the show’s centerpiece. That is why his season 19 exit left the show in such a precarious position. Harmon left NCIS early in season 19 specifically to give the show a chance to prove that it could still bring in ratings without him. It was a gesture that proved his commitment to the series.

While Bellisario and Harmon shared a major conflict, the two were incredibly influential in making the show what it has become. The producers never expected Harmon to agree to take the Gibbs role, making his long run even more incredible and impactful. Harmon continued to spend his career preparing to play the same character for 19 seasons. However, there was one period where it seemed that Harmon nearly quit NCIS in season 4, but Bellisario’s exit seemingly kept him on the show.

Harmon is known for supporting those around him and completely dedicating himself to his roles. That tenacity is the reason he stuck with NCIS for so many years, and it’s why he worked so well as the equally dedicated Gibbs. Even if it did lead to Bellisario leaving NCIS, the show managed to survive with Harmon’s help and love for the show.


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