'NCIS' Season 11 finale: Mark Harmon recalls late TV 'dad' Ralph Waite would 'blow your doors off'

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Mark Harmon promises the "NCIS" season finale delivers the expected cliffhanger, but it also offers something more.

Television's top-rated drama series salutes one of its own as its 11th year ends Tuesday (May 13) on CBS, with the episode "Honor Thy Father" taking Gibbs (Harmon) home after he learns of the death of his father. The elder Gibbs was played over six seasons -- most recently, last fall -- by the late Ralph Waite, also famous as another CBS dad on "The Waltons."

The friendly, straight-talking Harmon deems the story a fitting memorial. Also an "NCIS" executive producer, he tells Zap2it that Waite's passing in February "was a surprise to everyone. An announcement was made about it, and I think it hit everybody the same way.

"There was a lot of talk about how to handle it. We could have put a tag on the end of [the recently repeated] 'Better Angels,' which was a terrific final episode for Ralph, or a tag on the show we were shooting when we heard the news ... but that would have been out of context."

Referencing Cote de Pablo's exit and Emily Wickersham's arrival, plus the two-part episode meant to launch a New Orleans-set "NCIS" spinoff, Harmon notes it's been "an interesting year, for a million reasons, on this show. Some things, we planned for and some things, we didn't -- and this news about Ralph affected how Gary (Glasberg, the showrunner and the co-writer of the finale) saw the final part of the season."

Harmon also credits the story's other writer, Gina Lucita Monreal: "She and Ralph had such a connection. She's a playwright, and he totally got that from her ... and she's beautiful, and Ralph liked beautiful ladies. It all just seemed right."

The result, Harmon reports, includes "some flashbacks, but we tried not to do too much in the way of fabrication. The news was certainly shocking, but it remains in all of our lives that some day, we're going to have to handle it. This is in tribute to Ralph and the time he spent with us, because he made every effort to make it real."

While Gibbs deals with his personal grief in the season-ender, the rest of his NCIS team probes a fire aboard a U.S. Navy ship secretly used as a holding site for terrorists. "The case blows up, and it affects other things," Harmon says, "so the hour isn't entirely a tribute, but I think it certainly gives respect to Ralph and how this company feels about him."

Harmon's own feelings about Waite are clear. "He came in at the last minute, showed up on a 115-degree day in Lake Piru (Calif.) and worked 17 hours -- and didn't blink. We all looked forward to Ralph coming, and he had his own way. He was a man's man.

"He'd drive up by himself from the desert in his little Fiat, get some breakfast and get dressed and made up, say hello and walk into rehearsal. And as soon as he sat down and locked into the character, you'd better have been bringing it, because he was going to blow your doors off."

As he settles into the hiatus before "NCIS" revs up for Season 12, Harmon -- husband of Pam Dawber, who reunited last month with "Mork & Mindy" partner Robin Williams on CBS' "The Crazy Ones" -- is pleased Waite is getting his due from the show reasonably soon after his death.

"It certainly doesn't take away from the loss, the show's loss, his family's loss or any of that," reflects Harmon, "but he was a special guy who did it on his terms and went out his way. If the audience's last memory about Ralph Waite on our show is from 'Better Angels,' that's a pretty fair memory."
Photo/Video credit: CBS