How Mark Harmon’s Role in ‘St. Elsewhere’ Was Groundbreaking in the ’80s
Mark Harmon has an impressive resumé spanning decades. The actor is best known for his role as Leroy Jethro Gibbs in the long-running police procedural NCIS. However, before he led the team at NCIS, he played a crucial role that was ahead of its time. Here’s how Mark Harmon’s role in St. Elsewhere was groundbreaking in the ’80s.
The overview of ‘St. Elsewhere’
St. Elsewhere was a medical drama set at the fictional St. Eligius Hospital, which earned the nickname “St. Elsewhere” due to its status as a lesser-equipped medical facility. However, despite the hospital’s reputation, the staffers cared about their patients, and St. Eligius employed first-rate doctors.
The show followed the employees as they dealt with low funding, lack of up-to-date equipment, and personal and professional lives, which often intertwined. St. Elsewhere was created by John Falsey and Joshua Brand and aired on NBC. The series was a success during its six-season run from 1982 to 1988, earning critical acclaim with 13 Emmy Awards.
It was also a groundbreaking medical drama credited for creating a template for other medical shows, such as ER and Chicago Hope. Along with Harmon, Ed Flanders, David Birney, G.W. Bailey, Ed Begley Jr., Howie Mandel, Denzel Washington, Christina Pickles, and David Morse starred as the staff at St. Eligius.
Mark Harmon played an HIV-positive doctor in ‘St. Elsewhere’
Harmon joined the St. Elsewhere cast in the second season. He portrayed Dr. Robert Caldwell for three seasons until his off-screen d***h in season 4. His character was a promiscuous plastic surgeon whose lifestyle eventually became his undoing. Dr. Caldwell contracted HIV from unprotected sex, and his d***h made Harmon the first primetime lead character to d13 from AIDS-related complications.
At the time, the conversation surrounding AIDS was still hush-hush, and many people, especially the entertainment industry, thought it taboo to discuss the then-mysterious disease. However, Harmon’s character’s d***h in St. Elsewhere gave a bold and realistic portrayal.
A year after his exit, Harmon spoke with the Sun Sentinel about the character and his historic on-screen d***h. The actor said he had asked the writers for an exciting storyline for Dr. Caldwell at the beginning of his final season, and “they really came through.”
Looking back at the momentous event, Harmon told Variety in 2012 that while it was groundbreaking, it was risky. “At the time, it was really risky, but years later, it was something people talk about and remember. What they were saying about that character was simply not being done at that time,” Harmon said.
Mark Harmon isn’t the only common factor between ‘NCIS’ and ‘St. Elsewhere’
Over the years, Mark Harmon has appeared in several major productions, even doing a stint as a doctor again in Chicago Hope. However, his two biggest TV shows — St. Elsewhere and NCIS — have one thing in common besides the actor.
In the Sun Sentinel interview, Harmon said that although he enjoyed his time on St. Elsewhere, the show’s beauty was its ability to move forward and evolve as actors came and went, which is true for his other show, NCIS.
Throughout NCIS‘s run, several main cast members — including Pauley Perrette, Cote de Pablo, Michael Weatherly, and recently Harmon himself — have left the show. Yet NCIS continues to draw millions of viewers per episode.
“Change is healthy. Any actor can depart this show and it will survive,” Harmon told TV Insider in 2017.
CBS renewed NCIS for a 20th season, which debuted in September 2022. Harmon became an executive producer after leaving the cast last year. His final season was one of the show’s highest-rated.
Since his departure, NCIS has seen a slump in ratings, and CBS has yet to announce season 21.