Mark Harmon offers his guest a ride minutes after finishing his breakfast at a cozy Santa Monica diner. He could own some of the flashy cars parked outside, as the star of the CBS hit NCIS, currently the highest-rated drama on network TV. Perhaps the gleaming black Range Rover? Harmon's walking right on by. Is the BMW sedan worth more than the annual wages of most people? Hey, nope. Harmon says, gesturing to a beige Ford Crown Victoria, "This is me right here," a retired model once widely used as a police cruiser. The Crown Vicata Police Auction was picked up by Harmon; it was previously owned by a Riverside, California, detective. The front windshield is still connected to high-intensity lights, there is a rifle rack in the trunk, the seats are velour, and the fragrance inside is obviously Old Car Smell. Harmon, 67, explains, "The idea was to get this for my son when he went to college because we wanted something safe." "And these things you can't destroy. You can't outrun them either: the vehicle has an engine built for chases on the highway. The son of Harmon put one foot on the accelerator and was spooked. The kid ended up with a Prius, and Harmon got the understated car that he proudly drives to run errands around town. 'I'm not going to let Pam turn on the cop lights, and she says,' If we were dating, you would," he says with a laugh about his 31-year-old wife, actress Pam Dawber. He has no plans to quit driving the thing, because "they no longer make them like this," he says.
It could be said the same for Harmon. A Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart latter-day hybrid, he's equal parts old-school grit and gentlemanly earnestness. He truly comes through it, has roots stretching back to the real golden age of Hollywood. Harmon was born and raised by his dad, football and broadcasting legend Tom Harmon, and his wife, artist Elyse Knox, in Burbank with two older sisters. He has never liked private interviews much and never gives them. "My dad taught me if it's not true, don't worry about it," he says at one point, and now, after four decades in show business, he is in a position to offer advice to others. He also relies on wisdom provided by his father. On the set of NCIS yesterday, in which he stars as Navy investigator Leroy Jethro Gibbs, an extra asked him for advice. He was an autopsy skeleton, a body on the table just lying there," Harmon says with a chuckle." "I told him, 'Here you are, use it. Go learn from anyone you can learn from.' I always worked hard, I always tried to pay attention to the little things, but the real secret is here: there are no little things. What the grip does, what the boss does, what the publisher does, all that matters. I still tried to fill the holes with stuff I didn't know and things I wanted to learn".
Tom Harmon was a college star who went on to play in the NFL for two seasons; Mark, his only son, played quarterback and ultimately became a UCLA starter. He says, "I'm a practice guy, a repetition guy." You can tell me there is something I can't do, but I'm just going to use it as an opportunity to prove you wrong. I'm a tough guy, I'm a jock, so you can scream at me all day long, and it's not going to hurt me, I'm just going to try to get stronger. I've used that to my advantage in this market.' His off-camera life is grounded, too. His sons, Dawber, Sean, 30, and Ty, 26, have embarked on their own careers (Sean, an actor, has played a younger version of the role of Harmon on NCIS; Ty has gone into screenwriting), and Harmon hopes that he has served them well. To him, raising a family is about' the honor of making an impact on them as young adults and hoping to carry them along as good human beings, good people.' Success is a life-long endeavor, not a destination. "Today, my boys are both doing well. Today," he underlines. By tonight, that might change. My wife will say, 'No, they're doing fine, period, end of the sentence.' But I'm going to add, they are today. I come from the workforce, and I'm proud of that. Every day, you've got to wake up and just work hard. That's what I am always going to wake up to do: try my best.
That dedication influenced a career of extraordinary length and variety, from the goofy charm of Summer School to serial killer Ted Bundy to an Emmy-nominated guest stint on The West Wing, and there was St. Elsewhere, of course, where he starred as Dr. Robert Caldwell, and in 1986 he won the title of People's second-ever Sexiest Man Alive. He is legendarily uncomfortable with the title and when it is mentioned today, he always gives a small wince. "Oh, it's not really that I hate it," he says, flashing a sly smile that 33 years ago probably helped seal the deal. It's just that I'm not going to be serious about it. And let's just say I think maybe a few too many people have".
After a less-than-auspicious start, his day job at NCIS is now in its 16th season and shows no signs of slowing down. "This year we're doing better than last, which is kind of remarkable for a show of this age," he says. While, after so many years in the same work, some stars may grow impatient, Harmon is nothing but grateful. He says, "I have been around long enough to know what this is." His admiration of the stability of the show rivals his love for his staff, many of whom have been working there since its premiere. "For a whole lot of people who arrive long before I do and leave well after me and don't get paid almost as much, this show represents a livelihood," Harmon says. It's meant that a crew member who told me in season 1, 'Someday I'd love to get a little bass-fishing boat,' now has the boat and the cabin on the lake in season 16. I know what it's like to stand on my mark, about to do a scene, when the executive producer comes in and says, 'That's it, boys, we're canceled.' The first thing you see is the faces of the crew because they're about to do a scene at that moment. In this market, I may not be the smartest man, but I'm not playing games. I know how lucky I am."
He also recognizes that certain losses are greater than unemployment. Harmon's father died unexpectedly at the age of 70 when the star was just 38; he lost his sister Kristin, who was 72, last year. "Everyone gets in their car every morning thinking they're going to get to where they're going," Harmon says. (Harmon's sister, Kelly, 70, lives in Los Angeles.) "But you won't get one of those days. Maybe it's your day not to make it; maybe it's the day somebody you love doesn't make it. But the day will come around sooner or later. So the least you can do until then is to wake up every morning satisfied about where you're going. Every morning, I turn the light on and I feel good."
He will not arrive in a sports car at a Hollywood night club (although, for the record, he admits, "I have a very nice car in my garage at home") and is happiest to spend his downtime working in his woodshop (a prized possession remains a set of tools handed down to him by his father that he then passed along to his boys). But, that does not mean that Harmon is not savvy about the celebrity game. "You'll notice I didn't say we should meet somewhere in the middle of Beverly Hills," he says from the diner's corner booth, so truly antique that the Formica counters are chipped off. He is glad that when he and Dawber, 67-famed as one half of the hit Mork & Mindy in the 80s-were first together, the Internet did not exist. "He says of gossip sites, "There's irresponsibility there, and it's not going to go anywhere. And it's not difficult to think that America's TV Sweetheart and the Sexiest Man Alive would have had to suffer incessant media scrutiny: Witness Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt. But Harmon thinks the fact that both he and Dawber joined the union as mature adults is another secret to the durability of his marriage. "When we got married, we were both in our 30s, so hopefully we did the dumb stuff earlier," he says. That's probably the closest I have to what the secret is." Harmon makes it clear that his wife is a source of joy, while the couple remains fiercely private." Asked about the distinctive ring on his wedding finger, in the form of an eagle head, he says, "We think it was my grandfather's because my dad left it in a box of things." I wear it or I wear a few others because I want to make sure I have something in my ring finger when I'm not firing, and I'm proud to be married and I'm proud of who I am married to. Just so proud of her, I am.
An actor is still looking for his next job," he says, "With retirement not at all on the horizon, Harmon continues to abide by another piece of advice from his dad. He says, "Work your ass off, and don't let the effort show," Also: Approach people the same way, not on the basis of who or what they are. Show common kindness to them. Don't be colored by their occupations or fame. I don't get all excited about people blowing my ass up with smoke. You've got to be honest. Speaking of a man driving a vehicle with 100,000 miles on it and zero trade-in plans. He sums up the key to his success before going back to the Crown Vic in a way that speaks volumes on why he stayed so long in Hollywood and will definitely make his dad proud. "He acknowledges, "I'm fortunate," but you earn luck."