Mark Harmon’s ‘NCIS’ Exit: A Farewell to Gibbs

Mark Harmon as Gibbs in NCIS
Cliff Lipson/CBS

Gibbs has left the bullpen. The tight-lipped, steely-eyed NCIS boss man, played by Mark Harmon since 2003, retired in the October 11 episode and was last seen happily fly-fishing in Alaska. Although indefinitely suspended, he’d just gone very rogue in helping take down a mining company CEO. But instead of catching a seaplane to D.C., he dropped this bombshell: “I’m not going back home.”

Since last spring, rumors had been swirling that the actor (who is also an exec producer) was ready to exit the CBS hit, with reports that his Season 19 participation would be limited. But no one expected it to be this limited! Gibbs said his goodbyes to most team members in flashback—he even dunked that good old flip phone in a cup of coffee! Is there even the slightest chance we’ll hear his gruff “Grab your gear” again? The farewell seemed definitive, but, says executive producer Steven D. Binder, “Never count Leroy Jethro Gibbs out.”

When the job is done, walk away.” That gem is No. 11 in Gibbs’ rules, the self-written code that onetime NCIS special agent in charge Leroy Jethro Gibbs lives by. Well, it seems the brave, taciturn hero finally considers his work at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service complete. “Any actor can depart this show, and it will survive,” Harmon told TV Guide Magazine in 2017. It’s a theory no one wanted him to test—and certainly not without giving us time to prepare emotionally.

He first walked into our lives—with, it should be noted, quiet confidence rather than the swagger that would be fully justified for a former Marine marksman—in the military drama JAG. That 2003 episode served as a backdoor pilot for NCIS, which became a ratings juggernaut. Harmon based aspects of the character on David Lytle, a real-life NCIS agent.

We knew little of Gibbs’ background at first. But we saw that he was brave, loyal and paternal toward his team, whom he eventually started referring to as his “kids.” And those kids got tough love. His father-daughter relationship with Mossad agent Ziva David (Cote de Pablo) was both tempestuous and tender—and a series touchstone. Wisecracking agent Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) was the son he never had. No matter how out of control things got for the folks at NCIS, Gibbs was there for them, even if it wasn’t in a warm and fuzzy way. The guy was, basically, a rock.

Until he wasn’t. Gibbs had his outbursts, which perplexed both the team and his boss, Director Leon Vance (Rocky Carroll). But they sprang from a deep desire to catch the bad guy. Over time, we learned that Gibbs’ obsession with justice—and willingness to break the rules to get it—was partly born of an unimaginably tragic past. His first wife, Shannon (Darby Stanchfield), and daughter Kelly (Mary Mouser) had been killed years earlier. It was later revealed that Gibbs got vengeance, offing the man responsible.

“I was never interested in playing him with a big red S on his chest,” Harmon once told us. “I’m much more attracted to the underbelly stuff. Gibbs is a loner with emotional scars a mile deep.” That dark side rendered him unpredictable, and in moments when he leaned toward violence, we’d root for him to stick to his moral code—for his sake.

Rocky Carroll as Vance, Mark Harmon as Gibbs in NCIS

Cliff Lipson/CBS

As with many things in Gibbs’ life, his romantic status was often “It’s complicated.” Married four times, he actually shared an ex-wife with his close friend, onetime FBI agent Tobias Fornell (Joe Spano). But don’t get it twisted. Gibbs was unfailingly loyal. Yes, having had a relationship with the same woman might be awkward for some, but for Gibbs, it bonded them closer. He helped Fornell try to save his opiate-using daughter as if she were his own.

Gibbs’ other longtime friendship, with medical examiner Donald “Ducky” Mallard (David McCallum), was explored in flashback in the 400th episode. To continue the family analogy, Ducky was Gibbs’ wise uncle. And best not cross his “kids,” agents Nick Torres (Wilmer Valderrama) and Ellie Bishop (Emily Wickersham). The pair were once involved in a hit-and-run that nearly killed Torres; after the driver turned up dead, there was speculation Gibbs was behind the killing. (Probably not, but it would have been in character!)

Gibbs was also smart enough to know what he didn’t know. Sure, he had a legendary aversion to technology. (And not just with cellphones. That boat he made in his basement—the one blown to smithereens—was constructed with hand tools.) So he relied on techie Tim McGee (Sean Murray) and brilliant lab rats Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette) and later Kasie Hines (Diona Reasonover) and medical examiner Jimmy Palmer (Brian Dietzen) to do everything from analyzing DNA to scouring street cams.

In a world obsessed with superheroes, nonstop chatter and the quest for fame, Gibbs’ old-school decency and honesty made him stand out. Leroy Jethro Gibbs, you poker-faced silver fox, we’re glad we knew you. Send a postcard from Alaska sometime—we know you won’t text.

NCIS, Mondays, 9/8c, CBS