Mark Harmon was born with football and Hollywood in his veins: His mother, Elyse Knox, starred in dozens of films throughout the 1940s and his father, Tom Harmon, was a Heisman Trophy winner and played for the Los Angeles Rams.
After a successful college football career at UCLA, where he was the star quarterback, and a brief flirtation with law school, Harmon deciding to give acting a shot.
"I'd always dreamed about being able to compete [athletically] because it was such fun. When it got close to not being fun, I knew it was time to walk away,” Harmon told The Times in 1986, the same year he was voted People magazine’s “sexiest man alive." “Those guys who went and played football made all this money. I said no. I was going to go to law school and burn out as a student.
"Then I decided I just wanted to act. But I couldn't admit that to anyone until I felt I had something to peddle. So I set a course for myself. I took classes at night. During the day I was a carpenter and a salesman."
After a string of short-lived series and forgettable TV movies, he landed the part of Dr. Robert Caldwell on the hit medical drama, “St. Elsewhere,” in 1983. Harmon set hearts aflame as the charming plastic surgeon, but in a risky plot twist encouraged by the actor, the character was written off the show after contracting AIDS from a prostitute. “I saw the choice of either accepting a dramatic, timely story line and exiting the show or walking down the hospital hallways saying 'hello' to the doctors for another three seasons,” he said at the time. Harmon explored similarly dark terrain in the made-for-TV movie “The Deliberate Stranger,” in which he played serial killer Ted Bundy.
After a brief stab at leading-man status with films like “Summer School,” “Stealing Home” and “The Presidio,” Harmon eventually returned to the familiar territory of series television with parts in “Chicago Hope” and later, “The West Wing,” where he earned an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of stoic Secret Service agent Simon Donovan.
In 2003, he was cast as no-nonsense Special Agent Agent Jethro Gibbs in “NCIS,” a spinoff of the popular CBS drama “JAG.” The series follows an investigative unit of the U.S. Navy and is consistently the most-watched drama on network television, attracting over 20 million viewers a week.
Harmon seems unlikely to shake his wholesome hunk image anytime soon. He’s been married to the same woman, “Mork & Mindy” actress Pam Dawber, since 1987, and in 1996 he even rescued two teenage boys from a burning car outside his Brentwood home, smashing the window with a sledgehammer. "I don't see it as any thought process. Either you do or you don't,” he has said of the incident.