The Man Who Made Gibbs: ‘NCIS’ First Technical Adviser, Richard Warmack

Courtesy of Rick Warmack

This is an excerpt from TV Guide Magazine’s Gibbs Forever Special Collector’s Edition, available for order online now at NCISMag.com and for purchase on newsstands nationwide.

While assigned to the NCIS Los Angeles Field Office as the assistant agent in charge, I received a call from NCIS HQ, in early 2003, asking me to go see a producer named Donald P. Bellisario who wanted to do a show about us. I nervously asked HQ what I was supposed to do when we met, and they said make sure of two things: Get our name right, and we are never the bad guys. Seemed like a pretty simple mission, so off I went.

I met with Don at his studio and found him to be one of those larger-than-life figures. He said he had tried years before to coordinate with the Navy to get a show on the air about NCIS, but couldn’t do so. He ended up doing JAG instead, obviously one of his huge success stories. I realized why there seemed to be overlap with his depiction of what JAG and NCIS agents do.

(Bill Inoshita/CBS)

After I dutifully informed Don that the agency’s priority was to ensure we were shown for who we were, a small but proud and extremely capable organization driven to get to the truth, he walked me into an adjacent conference room, where I was met by no less than 10 writers. For the next couple of hours, I was peppered with questions about the NCIS, what we did and how we did it. I told them some stories and gave them general insights into past cases I had worked that I thought best represented what the organization was about.

Don wanted me to meet with Mark Harmon and “tell him how an agent thinks and acts.” I arranged to meet Mark the next day and, surprisingly, he asked to come to my house. He truly wanted to get to know me personally in my environment. The next morning, I was late to arrive because we had a minor emergency at work and he was patiently sitting in his car in front of my house waiting. I quickly found him to be both likable and real. I remember him commenting on what I was wearing, a sport coat with a casual shirt and open collar and a T-shirt underneath. I think he expected I’d be in a suit. Though NCIS agents did wear suits routinely, on that day I was not in one because of what I was involved in at work.

Courtesy of Rick Warmack

Though I knew he wanted to get my insights, I also felt that he sincerely cared for others. Mark listened intently as I answered his questions and we just talked about my experiences with the agency. At that stage of my career, I had been assigned overseas twice and had assignments on both the East and West Coasts of the U.S., including one at our headquarters in Washington, D.C. Mark was truly interested in hearing about all of those assignments and how the work differed in each.

The next day, I arranged to drive him to the Camp Pendleton Field Office to get the feel of an NCIS headquarters on a Marine Corps facility. During that drive, I felt as though we were just a couple of friends on a road trip. As I would later learn, Mark had that effect on people. He was a celebrity, yet quickly connected with people on a personal level and made them feel comfortable. Mark met with the agents and support staff in the Camp Pendleton office and could not have been more genuine and respectful. As we drove back, I remember Mark gushing about the great work NCIS and its people did. This was the start of what I will always consider a valuable relationship in my life.

I spent a lot of time with Mark and the other cast members on the set as they filmed the first season. He was always indulgent, letting me tell him how to do things that I knew he probably already knew about how law enforcement people do things. Above all, I remember Mark showed such respect for our agency and what we do, and that meant everything to me.

Behind-the-scenes on the CBS series NCIS with Technical Advisor Leon Carroll and actor David McCallum (Cliff Lipson/CBS)

After working with the show for several months, my commitment to the show as the technical adviser started to conflict with responsibilities at NCIS that could not be impacted. I recommended one of my friends and mentors, Leon Carroll Jr., to be the full-time technical adviser. Leon had recently retired from NCIS as the special agent in charge of the Northwest Field Office and was living in Los Angeles. Leon was calm, knowledgeable and the right fit. Leon met with Mark and they bonded quickly and have been great partners ever since. Leon has remained with the show as the technical adviser, and, in my opinion, Mark’s trust in him has been a real factor in the success of the show.

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Mark and I have remained in touch and friends over the years. He has always been what I found him to be on day one, a kind and caring person of integrity. It is nice to see someone like Mark Harmon represent the great men and women of NCIS. The key has been that Don, Mark and the many others who have put this show on the air always did what was originally requested…they got our name right, and they never make us the bad guys.