‘NCIS’ Boss on a Possible Gibbs Return: ‘It Has to Be the Right Story’

Mark Harmon as Leroy Jethro Gibbs in NCIS
Bill Inoshita/CBS

NCIS bid adieu to Mark Harmon’s Leroy Jethro Gibbs back in the fourth episode of Season 19, and ever since, the number one question fans have is simple: When is he coming back? After all, he is still alive, last seen fishing in Alaska in “Great Wide Open.”

“There’s always head space for him to come back. It just has to be the right story, I think, to get him excited about it and to get us excited about it,” executive producer Steven D. Binder tells TV Insider. “It’s a card to play, and I don’t think we want to play it cheaply. I think when we do play it, it really needs to be the right thing. And we work on a different timeline than other shows. Other shows maybe have a year or two or they don’t know how much time they’re gonna have. We just, for rightly or wrongly, operate on a much longer time scale for these things than other shows do.”

But while he hasn’t been seen since his exit, his presence is still very much felt on the show, including multiple mentions of his rules. “Gibbs put his stamp on the team in a huge way, and it’s gonna take more than a year for that to fade,” Binder says, speaking as a writer, showrunner, and fan. “I wouldn’t want it to fade because if I can’t have Gibbs, I still love having his presence in there.”

And while he does wonder what Gibbs is doing now, there’s a reason we haven’t gotten an update on his life. “I want to know, but I also don’t want to know,” the EP admits. “I feel like we left Gibbs in this magical place, and as this magical being who — I don’t want to think of Gibbs in an apartment or in another house or with another woman. I almost don’t want to think of him that way. I saw him in a river, happy, which I never see him as, smiling with a knife in his pocket and fish in the boat. That’s how I imagine him, and that’s how I want to keep imagining him. And so when we do bring his memory alive, it’s always the ghost of Gibbs at NCIS and not necessarily where specifically he is now.”

Also keeping Gibbs’ memory alive is Harmon continuing to lead the opening credits. Will that remain true for the rest of the series? “Those are things that we have not sorted out quite yet, so the answer is we will wait and see,” Binder says. “That was a function of the fact that we, although the season’s [ended] and Mark will not have appeared in any more episodes, that was not anything that was a decided thing, so he remained in the credits because we didn’t kill him. He’s going to be in a certain amount of episodes. He’s in the same amount of episodes I think David McCallum was in, who’s in the credits and we just kept continuing, because Mark could have easily been in another five or six episodes. It didn’t end up that way for no other reason than it was just a really difficult season and that would’ve been just another thing to do to make happen.”

Mark Harmon as NCIS Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, David McCallum as Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard in NCIS

Cliff Lipson/CBS

He continued, “Everyone has to talk to everybody and see how people are feeling about, do we want to make a more definitive step one way or the other? … I’ll have a more definitive answer for that once we actually have to build the title sequence, because that’s really our deadline, and we don’t do that until July, August.”

NCIS also revealed that Gibbs set up a college scholarship fund, sending agents’ children to college in his late daughter’s honor, when Special Agent Timothy McGee (Sean Murray) and Dr. Jimmy Palmer (Brian Dietzen) received $10,000. In fact, that came up on NCIS: Los Angeles, after Eric Beale (Barrett Foa) sent the team checks for $10,000. “Maybe he was inspired by Gibbs,” Deeks (Eric Christian Olsen) commented. But how did he know about the fund?

“I think it’s sort of common knowledge within the world of our NCIS,” NCIS: LA executive producer R. Scott Gemmill says. “He had done that on the mothership. It was just a bit of a callback to the mothership, more for fans of both shows than anything else. It was very subtle and, I’m surprised you picked up on it. But we sometimes give a shout-out when we can.”

NCIS, Season 20, Fall 2022, CBS