Since its debut over 15 years ago, “NCIS” has captivated audiences and built an incredibly loyal fan base. But even the most devoted of viewers may not be as familiar as they think with the inner workings of the show.
From the actor who almost didn’t get cast to the drama between certain co-stars, here’s a look at some of the biggest “NCIS” secrets you’ve probably never heard before.
‘NCIS’ Originally Had A Different Title
When “NCIS” first premiered as a spinoff to “JAG” in 2003, CBS executives worried that audiences would confuse it with “CSI.” In an attempt to distinguish the two, the network dubbed season one of the new series, “Navy NCIS.” The show later dropped the word “Navy” from the title for its redundancy — the “N” in “NCIS” already stands for “Naval.”
Pauley Perrette Has A Real Background In Criminal Science
Pauley Perrette, who played NCIS favorite Abby Sciuto for 15 seasons, relied on her real-life education to portray the forensic scientist. Perrette studied criminal science, sociology and psychology at Georgia’s Valdosta State University. She also began pursuing her master’s degree at New York’s John Jay School of Criminal Science before her acting career took off.
Mark Harmon Wasn’t The First Choice To Play Gibbs
It’s hard to imagine “NCIS” without Harmon as its star, but it turns out it almost happened. The actor wasn’t producer Donald Bellisario’s first choice for the part. According to CBS, Don Johnson was first offered the role, but he passed on it.
‘NCIS’ Features Some Of The Producer’s Family Members
Prior to his departure from the show, “NCIS” was a family affair for Donald Bellisario. Sean Murray, who plays Timothy McGee on the series, is his stepson. Bellisario’s daughter Troian also appeared as McGee’s sister on the show.
Sasha Alexander Asked To Leave The Show In Season 2
Fans felt shocked and angry when the series killed off Special Agent Kate Todd, played by Sasha Alexander, in season two. But it was reportedly the actress’s own decision to leave the show. According to the Chicago Tribune, she asked to be let go from her contract and Bellisario went to bat for her with CBS.
“You don’t want to force someone to work when she says this is not what she expected it to be,” Bellisario told the publication at the time. “I think it was just more than she realized.”
The ‘Most Wanted’ Board Sometimes Displays Real-Life Figures
It’s worth keeping a close eye on the “Most Wanted” board in the “NCIS” offices. The faces featured on the board change throughout the seasons. It even occasionally includes the images of some real-life figures, like Osama Bin Laden, whose picture appeared with a big red line through it after his death.
‘NCIS’ Is One Of The Few Spinoffs To Outlive Its Predecessor
With season 16 now airing, “NCIS” is the second longest-running scripted, non-animated U.S. primetime TV series currently on air, surpassed only by “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” It’s also the seventh longest-running scripted U.S. primetime TV series overall. Comparatively, “JAG” only lasted 10 seasons, making “NCIS” one of the rare spinoffs to become even more successful than its flagship series.
Harmon And Showrunner Bellisario Didn’t Get Along
Bellisario, the series’ original creator and showrunner, left “NCIS” in 2007. His abrupt exit came as the result of a long-running standoff between him and Harmon. According to TV Guide, the actor was reportedly frustrated with Bellisario’s “chaotic management style,” which resulted in long hours. As tensions came to a boil, Bellisario was forced to resign as showrunner, although he retained his executive producer title and kept his overall deal with CBS.
The First ‘NCIS’ Spinoff Sparked A Lawsuit
The drama between CBS and Bellisario over “NCIS” didn’t end when he left the show. Bellisario sued the network in 2011 after the launch of the first “NCIS” spinoff, “NCIS: Los Angeles.” The TV creator claimed that CBS owed him millions of dollars since his contract guaranteed him either a “first opportunity” to work on the series or payment. Per The Hollywood Reporter, a settlement between both parties was reached in 2013.
The Original ‘NCIS’ Opening Featured Clips From One Of Harmon’s Old Movies
The opening credits of early seasons of the show featured footage of an aircraft navigating around the Golden Gate Bridge. That footage was actually shot for “The Presidio,” a 1988 military drama that Harmon starred in.
Cote De Pablo Studied Various Languages To Play Ziva
From seasons three to 13, Cote de Pablo played Ziva David, a former Israeli special forces veteran who speaks more than five languages. The actress worked with language coaches to learn how to speak Hebrew and other dialects when necessary.
“[Ziva]’s like a little prodigy when it comes to languages and that’s what makes the character fun to play,” she told TV.com. “And it obviously presents a huge challenge to me because whenever they throw something else at me, I just have to sort of tackle it and go with it. But it’s not easy.”
CBS Canceled Another Spinoff—’NCIS: Red’—Before It Even Aired
In 2012, CBS began developing another “NCIS” spinoff, “NCIS: Red.” The show would have starred Kim Raver and John Corbett as members of a mobile investigation team who work and live together as they travel the country solving crimes. The network introduced the characters in a backdoor pilot that aired during “NCIS: Los Angeles,” but ultimately decided not to move forward with the series.
“Sometimes [spinoffs] work and sometimes they don’t. Protecting [the franchise] was really important,” CBS president Nina Tassler said at the time, per Digital Spy.
The Writers Do A ‘Gibbs Pass’ When Penning Dialogue For The Character
Most fans would describe Harmon’s Gibbs as the strong and silent type, the kind of guy who conveys more with an intent look than with actual words. But contrary to what you might think, that actually makes it harder to write for him. In 2014, then-showrunner Gary Glasberg told TV Guide that writers do a “Gibbs pass” while scripting episodes to determine whether any dialogue can be edited out or replaced with a non-verbal cue.
Harmon Participates In Determining His Character’s Story Arcs
Though Harmon says he tries to stay out of the writers’ way, Glasberg told TV Guide that the actor is extremely involved in developing future storylines for Gibbs.
“We have constant communication that happens multiple times a day,” Glasberg said. ”I see him first thing in the morning; I talk to him when he’s home at night. There’s constant discussion of upcoming stories and ideas and of things that I’d like to do with his character and others.”
Caf-Pow Isn’t Actually A Caffeine Beverage
Abby keeps herself awake and alert through those long work hours by pounding caffeine drinks dubbed “Caf-Pow.” So what’s actually in those cups? In a Twitter Q&A, Perrette revealed that the drink is actually “unsweetened Cranberry juice. VERY TART!”
Several Real-Life Navy Figures Have Appeared On The Show
On several occasions, the series has featured cameos from real-life NCIS agents. Dave Brant, who served as NCIS director from 1977 to 2005, made a brief appearance on the season three episode, “Frame Up.” Brant’s successor, Thomas Betro, also showed up in an episode during season five.
Michael Weatherly’s Character Once Joked About His Famous Ex
Michael Weatherly played Anthony DiNozzo on the show’s first 13 seasons. In a season three episode, DiNozzo jokingly refers to Weatherly’s own past, saying he’s “got a better chance of hooking up with Jessica Alba than these guys do infiltrating SeaLife.” Weatherly and Alba were actually engaged from 2000 to 2002.
Harmon Helped Formulate The Spinoff ‘NCIS: New Orleans’
Harmon had no involvement in creating “NCIS: Los Angeles,” but the actor did help formulate “NCIS: New Orleans.” Per TV Guide, he participated in everything from casting decisions to reviewing footage. “NCIS: New Orleans” premiered in 2014 and is now airing its fifth season.
The Cast Sometimes Accidentally Call Each Other By Their Real Names While Filming
Even the longest-standing “NCIS” veterans can’t help but slip and call each other by the wrong name from time to time. During a month-long Q&A on Twitter in 2015, Perrette wrote, “Harmon has called me Pauley during #NCIS scenes many times!”
Harmon’s Real-Life Son Appears On The Show
Ever wondered how “NCIS” managed to find an actor who looks so much like Harmon to portray young Gibbs? Turns out they didn’t have to look too far. Harmon’s actual son, Sean Thomas Harmon, plays the younger version of the famous character in several episodes of the series.
Sean Murray’s Diet Caused Concern In Season Seven
When fans noticed that Murray, who plays McGee, was shedding weight over the course of season seven, they began expressing concern for the actor’s health. Murray later clarified that the weight loss was simply the result of a new diet, tweeting, “To those who have asked what I did to lose the 25 lbs: 14 months of no alcohol and almost no sugar. Ate strictly organic.”
Abby Really Does Have A Middle Name
Fans knew for some time that Abby’s middle initial was “B,” but it was initially unclear what it stood for. Perrette finally solved the mystery in 2015. In response to a fan’s question on Twitter, the actress revealed that Abby’s middle name is Beethoven.
Abby’s Locket Featured A Photo Of Perrette’s Real Mother
In a 2011 episode, Abby carries a locket with a photo of her mom and a clipping of her hair, which she later runs a DNA test on. According to TV Guide, the woman in the image is Perrette’s actual mother, who passed away in 2002.
The Show References A Cast Member’s Previous Character
As seen with DiNozzo’s joke about Jessica Alba, the show often makes references to the cast members’ real-life pasts. In one such case, Harmons’ Gibbs alludes to a role formerly played by David McCallum, known to “NCIS” fans as Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard. When asked what a young Ducky looked like, Gibbs immediately answers “Illya Kuryakin” — the character McCallum actually portrayed in the 1960s TV series, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”
Gibbs’ Father And Harmon’s Father Share Similar Military Backgrounds
Art often imitates life on “NCIS.” On the show, Gibbs’ father Jackson, portrayed by Ralph Waite, once served as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. Harmon’s real father, Tom Harmon, was also a military pilot during the same time period.
Weatherly Also Has Real-Life Parallels To DiNozzo
Here’s another case where “NCIS” played off the real life of one of its actors. The show reveals that Weatherly’s character, DiNozzo, had a falling out with his wealthy father. That’s not just made-for-TV drama: Weatherly also comes from well-off parents whose father reportedly disapproved of his choice to pursue acting.
Producers Incorporated Harmon’s Carpentry Skills Into His Character
According to the Herald Sun, Harmon developed his carpentry skills while working a summer job in high school. After he mentioned his hobby to producers, they quickly wrote it into the show. During his downtime, Harmon’s character, Gibbs, constructs boats in his basement (although Harmon admits he doesn’t know much about building boats in real life).
Harmon’s Dog May Have Led To Perrette’s Exit From The Show
Perrette shocked fans last year when she announced she was leaving “NCIS” after 15 seasons. Following her departure, reports arose about a growing tension between Harmon and Perrette over his dog. According to Vanity Fair, their feud started in 2016 after Harmon’s dog bit a crew member, resulting in an injury that required stitches. When Harmon continued to bring his dog to set, Perrette reportedly confronted him, creating a rift between the longtime co-stars. After that, the two reportedly filmed in separate locations until Perrette opted to leave the show.
CBS released a statement reading, “Over a year ago, Pauley came to us with a workplace concern. We took the matter seriously and worked with her to find a resolution. We are committed to a safe work environment on all our shows.”
Perrette Passed On Some Advice To Her Replacement, Diona Reasonover
Following Perrette’s departure, “NCIS” promoted guest star Diona Reasonover to series regular. Reasonover, who plays forensic scientist Kasie Hines, reveals that Perrette gave her some advice about joining the show.
“She told me to just be myself, really,” she told E! News. “She was like, just bring yourself to this role. She has been, I think, such a wonderful grounding force on this show. She’s a really kind, generous person in real life.”
The Show Still Earns Huge Ratings
Despite all the drama happening both on and off screen, “NCIS” remains a huge ratings earner for CBS. Well over a decade into its run, the show maintains incredibly strong viewership. Case in point: Season 16 recently pulled in an average of 12 million viewers per episode.