Movie Reviews

This NCIS Actor Was First To Utter 1 Swear Word On Scripted TV (& It Couldn't Be More Fitting)


  • Mark Harmon broke the taboo of using profanity on scripted TV with his character Jack McNeil in
    Chicago Hope
    in 1999.
  • Harmon’s no-nonsense characters in
    Chicago Hope
    paved the way for more relaxed standards in TV programming.
  • In his upcoming project,
    Freaky Friday 2
    , Harmon will depart from his serious roles, showcasing his caring and patient qualities.

This one NCIS actor was the first to utter one forbidden word on television, changing the media forever. While expletives are commonplace on television now, someone had to utter them first to break down the walls of tradition and usher new slang into the media. While television has relaxed its standards to adhere to the times, the media’s breakdown was gradual. Some actors and musicians got away with profanity on live TV in the 1960s and ’70s but often faced the consequences. It was another beast to usher cursing into scripted network TV, where the profanity was planned.

HBO TV shows pushed boundaries in the late ’90s, with shows like Sex and the City and The Sopranos. As television evolved to HBO—R-rated programming, which extended the limits of what was acceptable on TV—primetime shows gradually followed suit. While NCIS pushed the boundaries of what made for comfortable viewing—portraying murders and mutilated and dead bodies frequently—the police procedural isn’t as racy as the shows released on HBO at the time. However, one NCIS star broke down a massive television barrier that would set up the series to be more relaxed before it ever took off.


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Mark Harmon Was The First Person To Say 1 Swear Word On Scripted TV

Mark Harmon’s Jack McNeil Character Told His Peers Off In Chicago Hope

Before he was Leroy Jethro Gibbs to the NCIS Major Case Response Team, Mark Harmon portrayed Jack McNeil in the 1990s medical drama Chicago Hope. The series debuted on CBS in 1994 and featured an ensemble cast that rotated characters as necessary, similar to NCIS. Harmon joined Chicago Hope as a regular cast member in 1996. In 1999, in the medical drama, Harmon uttered the first recorded instance of the word “s**t” on scripted TV. After a botched operation, Jack McNeil tells malpractice attorneys that “s**t happens,” successfully establishing the use of obscenity in scripted network programming.

After Mark Harmon used the word uncensored in
Chicago Hope,
South Park
used it 162 times in season 5, episode 1, “It Hits The Fan.”

Mark Harmon’s Jack McNeil character was a headstrong orthopedic surgeon in the medical drama. Harmon joined the cast of Chicago Hope the same year as his NCIS co-star Director Leon Vance. Both actors would stay with the medical series until 2000 when it was canceled after six seasons. The medical drama premiered the same year as NBC’s ER, a medical drama of the same nature. While Chicago Hope ended in 1994, ER would run for 15 seasons until 2009. Had Chicago Hope lasted that long, Mark Harmon may never have been Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

Why Mark Harmon Was The Perfect Actor To Break The Tradition

Harmon Portrays No-Nonsense Characters In Chicago Hope And NCIS

Mark Harmon as Gibbs sitting in a car in NCIS Ex-File

Mark Harmon was the right actor to break down the cultural barrier by using the word “s**t” on television. In the late 1990s, Harmon established a no-nonsense character in CBS’ Chicago Hope. The doctors on the show were often at odds with hospital management over what the doctors perceived as, at times, unnecessary rules and regulations. After Chicago Hope, Harmon established a character with even less regard for rules and standards as the Special Agent in Charge of the Major Case Response Team at NCIS Headquarters. As an agent and team leader, Leroy Jethro Gibbs dogmatically colored outside the lines.

season 22 will air on CBS this fall, but Mark Harmon is no longer a part of the cast.

In either circumstance, Mark Harmon’s television series characters around the turn of the century worked in high-stakes environments that called for the occasional obscenity. In many ways, it feels natural that a surgeon who had just lost a patient would evoke profanity. However, it would typically make more sense for a surgeon who has just lost a patient to use obscenity in the act of losing the patient. Instead, Harmon’s character used the word to dismiss the situation and absolve himself from discussing it further. It’s a tactic Harmon further honed with his Leroy Jethro Gibbs character.

Mark Harmon’s Jack McNeil On Chicago Hope Was A Precursor To His NCIS Role

Jack McNeil Set The Tone For Gibbs’ NCIS Demeanor

Looking back at Chicago Hope, Jethro Gibbs is a clear evolution from Mark Harmon’s role as Jack McNeil. McNeil is a character who is straightforward by default, almost incapable of acting otherwise, much like Jethro Gibbs. Harmon’s Chicago Hope character concerns himself with righting wrongs where he can and trying to forgive himself where he can’t. Both characters dedicated personal headspace to the injustices in their work. They were determined to get the best treatment for the people they aimed to help, dealing closely with daily life and death circumstances.

While Harmon also portrayed a doctor on NBC’s St. Elsewhere, one could argue his character in Chicago Hope is more similar to his portrayal of a federal agent. Jack McNeil and Jethro Gibbs are both masters of their craft, respectively. Jack McNeil won the Chicago Hope Hospital’s “Doctor of the Year Award for 1998.” Jethro Gibbs worked his way up to leading the NCIS team at Washington’s NCIS Headquarters. It’s not just that they are masters of their craft, but that Harmon is a thoughtful person who naturally portrays a character well at the height of their skills and career.

How Mark Harmon Will Break From His More Serious Roles In His Upcoming Project

Harmon Will Join Jamie Lee Curtis And Lindsay Lohan For Freaky Friday 2

While Harmon generally portrays a specific type of character, his first role since his NCIS stint will challenge the preconceptions of who Harmon is on-screen. The actor will reprise his role as Ryan alongside Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan for the revival production of Freaky Friday 2. Mark Harmon appeared as Jamie Lee Curtis’ boyfriend in the Freaky Friday movie released in 2003. The film premiered in August, just a few months after Harmon debuted as Leroy Jethro Gibbs in JAG and one month before the actor would debut on CBS in the NCIS spinoff from the legal procedural.

Some of Mark Harmon’s best qualities carry throughout his roles; he is enduringly serious, respectful, and caring.

In Freaky Friday, Harmon’s character departs from many of the characteristics of Jethro Gibbs or Jack McNeil. Ryan is a devoted husband-to-be and stepfather in Freaky Friday, which is evident in how he sticks by his fiancée, Tess, throughout her process of self-discovery. Ryan doesn’t know why the leading women in the film act as bizarrely as they do, but he is patient and caring nonetheless. Some of Mark Harmon’s best qualities carry throughout his roles; he is enduringly serious, respectful, and caring. Other Freaky Friday actors will also return to their roles, such as Chad Michael Murray.

Analyzing the actor’s career and who Mark Harmon is as a person makes it unsurprising that he was the first to deliver a forbidden swear word. Harmon’s characters have a record of pushing against standards and procedures to do their job well and make an impact. Harmon’s Jack McNeil character had the same no-nonsense attitude as the Gibbs character in NCIS. The actor hasn’t returned to the screen since Mark Harmon left NCIS in season 19, and it will be fascinating to see what elements of his previous characters Harmon incorporates into his Ryan reprisal.

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