Harmon just part of the gang on unstoppable 'NCIS'
This publicity image released by CBS shows Mark Harmon in a scene from "NCIS." Last season 18.5 million viewers tuned into "NCIS" to certify it as one of TV's highest-rated shows and, even more impressively, make it a series whose audience after 10 seasons has expanded, not shriveled, with age. (AP Photo/CBS, Sonja Flemming)
NEW YORK (AP) — Life comes with few chances to witness a fundamental law being turned on its head.
But last season 18.5 million viewers did just that every week, tuning to "NCIS" to certify it as one of TV's highest-rated shows and, even more impressively, make it a series whose audience after 10 seasons has expanded, not shriveled, with age.
"NCIS," which averaged 11.8 million viewers its first season back in 2003-04, grew by more than a million viewers last year alone.
This, of course, contradicts TV's natural order. "NCIS" (which starts its 11th season Tuesday at 8 p.m. EDT on CBS) seems to have a long-term lease on TV's fountain of youth.
It doesn't hurt that "NCIS" maintains an absorbing, go-down-easy recipe of drama, character and humor that no other show is able to match.
"We've been successful so far," says series star Mark Harmon with some understatement, "and we keep finding ways to grow it."
But don't go laying too much credit for that growth, or any other metric of success, at Harmon's feet.
He's the star, of course, playing tormented but intrepid Leroy Jethro Gibbs, Special Agent in Charge of the military's Major Case Response Team.
Harmon is surrounded by a sturdy troupe of actors including fellow charter cast members Michael Weatherly (NCIS Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo), David McCallum (Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard) and the wildly popular Pauley Perrette (as Goth lab rat Abby Sciuto).
"There's four of us who were there in the beginning, plus pretty much 90 percent of our crew," says Harmon, citing the stability of the show's production team as one key reason for its continued robustness.
Granted, there have been comings and goings. This summer, "NCIS" fans were shocked to learn that Cote de Pablo was exiting after eight seasons. The new season's first two episodes give her character, Special Agent Ziva David, a dramatic send-off.
"We wish Cote well," says Harmon. "But for those of us still here, it's all about moving on: 'This is what we've got, and we're going to find a way to make it even better.'
"I'm not trying to shuck off our success, because it's all earned, every bit of it. By a lot of people."
Thus does Harmon reaffirm his one-for-all-and-all-for-one manifesto.
"I'm not the big dog," he says flatly. "I might be a dog. But there's a lot of dogs."
Now 62, Harmon is an unlikely TV superstar. His manner during a recent interview is friendly but crisp, soft-spoken and firmly self-effacing. With his pretty-boy looks matured in middle age, this is the all-grown-up version of the star quarterback at UCLA who, after brief turns in law school, advertising and selling shoes, set his sights anew on acting and made good.
He forged a solid career in a succession of TV series, including "Reasonable Doubts," ''Chicago Hope" and "St. Elsewhere," where, nearly 30 years ago, he played the first prime-time hero to contract, and die of, AIDS.