Saturday, 14 September 2013

Mark Harmon: Not falling far from the tree

Tom and Mark Harmon
The apple doesn't always have to fall far from the tree in the same way. Mark Harmon is synonymous with the ‘80s, playing numerous memorable roles on TV and in the movies, literally spanning the entire decade. Yet he does not coming from acting stock.

Instead, Tom Harmon was a football legend, who the University of Michigan honoured recently at their home opener against Notre Dame. They no longer retire numbers, but they awarded Harmon's number 98 to quarterback Devin Gardner for the remainder of his career at Michigan. It is a way for the school to honour Harmon, who was Michigan's first Heisman Trophy winner in 1940.

Mark Harmon with co-star Morgan Fairchild in "Flamingo Road"
He is also the father of actor Mark Harmon, who made his mark in the 1980s, but continues that success today as Leroy Jethro Gibbs in the long-running series "NCIS". Mark started out following in his father's footsteps, playing quarterback at UCLA, but chose a different way of entertaining the masses, and became an actor.

Dawn of the decade: Flamingo Road
As the 1980s opened, Mark Harmon was just revving up his acting career. I'd seen him briefly in 1979 in the TV series "240-Robert" where he starred with Joanna Cassidy, but that was pretty short-lived.

Then, one day in the summer of 1981 I was flipping channels and landed on Channel 7 where I caught a rerun of a show called "Flamingo Road". It was a night-time soap opera on NBC, designed to compete against "Dallas" and "Knot's Landing". It featured Morgan Fairchild as the villainess Constance Weldon Carlyle. When I tuned in, I remember the scene clearly. Constance's husband Fielding Carlyle was running for the senate. He was giving a speech then just tore up his cue cards and threw them in he air. Fielding Carlyle was Mark Harmon's first major, recurring acting role in a TV series.

The show had a pretty good cast, including Stella Stevens, Barbara Rush, Howard Duff, Christina Raines, Kevin McCarthy, Woody Brown, and John Beck. It started out well, but tanked, and was cancelled after two seasons.

Groundbreaking on St. Elsewhere
The medical drama "St. Elsewhere" had gained a reputation for attacking controversial subjects. None would be more controversial, cutting edge, and forward-looking as one involving Mark Harmon. He joined the show in 1983, playing Dr. Robert Caldwell, who would eventually contract HIV from unprotected sex, leaving the show in 1986. It was one of the first instances of a character on primetime television to contract HIV or AIDS.

Mark Harmon in "The Prince of Bel-Air"
TV movie mania
Mark Harmon in
"The Deliberate Stranger"
It was a Saturday night in 1986, and my parents went out for the evening. I stayed home and watched a double header on Channel 13. I was stoked about the first movie, which was "The Return of Perry Mason". I wasn't even sure what the second movie was about, but it turned out to be awesome. It was "The Prince of Bel-Air" and it starred Mark Harmon and Kirstie Alley, before she joined the cast of "Cheers" to replace Shelly Long. Harmon played a beach bum, who met his match in Alley.

Mark Harmon at far right in "Moonlighting"
That same year, Harmon played one of the most chilling roles I have ever seen him play. I am totally surprised he never got an Emmy nomination. The movie was entitled, "The Deliberate Stranger" and Harmon turned in a haunting performance as serial killer Ted Bundy. I still recall the cover of "TV Guide", which showed a picture of Harmon as Bundy crouching in prison fatigues, handcuffs and leg irons, all chained together.

Another banner year
The following year, 1987, was another banner year. He played laid back, beach-bum teacher Freddy Shoop in "Summer School", which I saw in the theatre with some high school buddies. Shoop is a teacher, all set to take off for summer, who is forced to teach summer school in order to save his job. In the meantime, he falls for another teacher, played once again by Kirstie Alley. The movie actually has quite a few of the same actors as "The Prince of Bel-Air".

The movie poster for "Summer School"
Harmon returned to series TV to guest in a four-episode arc on "Moonlighting", during a tumultuous time on one of primetime's most popular shows. In the midst of acrimony between the show's two leads, Harmon played a new love interest for Shepherd's character Maddie Hayes.

Closing out the 1980s
Harmon would star in a few more movies, most notably "The Presidio" in 1988 with Sean Connery and Meg Ryan. It was Connery's first movie after his monster success on "The Untouchables" with Kevin Costner. I remember my best friend of the time, Chris Vining, telling me you could drive a truck through all the holes in the plot.

Harmon would also appear in the movies "Let's Get Harry", "Stealing Home" and "Worth Winning", but his theatrical career never took off.

Since then, he has starred in various TV series such as"Reasonable Doubts" with Marlee Matlin from 1991 to 1993, "Charlie Grace" as the title character in 1995, "Chicago Hope" from 1996 to 2000, and did a four-episode stint in 2002 on "The West Wing", earning an Emmy nomination.

In 2003, he guest starred in two episodes of "JAG" which served as a pilot for "NCIS", a show he still work on.

Parting thoughts
Mark Harmon truly is one of my favourite actors. He is one of those actors who always seemed to be there when I was growing up. He has more range and talent then I think he is given credit for, ranging from a hilarious movie like "Summer School" to an Emmy-nominated performance in "The West Wing".

No comments:

Post a Comment