How Adam-12 helped turn Mark Harmon from a college football standout into a TV star
A link to Ozzie and Harriet helped boost his decade-long career, too.
Image: AP Photo
One doesn't become the "Sexiest Man Alive" overnight. People bestowed that title upon Mark Harmon in 1986. The St. Elsewhere hunk became just the second man to earn the title, following, erm, Mel Gibson. By then, the thirtysomething actor was no newcomer. Networks had been handing the handsome California kid headlining television roles for decades. He had been a cop with a dog partner in Sam (1977), and a helicopter rescue hero in 240-Robert (1979).
That Sexiest Man Alive honor took him to another level. Harmon was playing a game of basketball when he found out. The other fellows had taped covers of the magazine to the backboard to rib their buddy.
He may have been on the court when he learned of his supreme sexiness, but Harmon was best known for his achievements on the football field. After putting two years in a community college, Harman made the leap to the big time at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was a quarterback of course. Just look at the guy.
As QB, Harmon led UCLA in the 1972 and 1973 seasons. In his first game as a starter (which took place days before the above photo) the slinger led the Bruins to a shocking upset over two-time defending champions Nebraska.
Being a photogenic college athlete just miles away from Hollywood studios can certainly lead to a screen career, but Harmon can truly thank two people for his television stardom — his sister Kristin and Dragnet creator Jack Webb.
Let's start with the former. Kristin was undoubtedly the envy of American girls when she married teen idol Ricky Nelson in 1963. She was a teenager at the time. (Fun aside: Mark's other sister, Kelly, married John DeLorean, the automobile innovator.) Being married to Ricky had its perks, specifically a role on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. She made her first appearance as Kris Nelson on the era-defining sitcom in 1963.
Mark was just 12 at the time, and not quite ready for his primetime debut. However, in 1973, a forgotten reboot, Ozzie's Girls, brought Ozzie and Harriet back to (syndicated) television. Through his sister, Harmon nabbed a walk-on role in 1973, his screen debut.
Kristin Nelson had just one other significant recurring role on television — playing Jean Reed, the wife of Officer Jim Reed (Kent McCord) on Adam-12. It just so happens that Harmon solidified his acting career playing a "partner" of Jim Reed, too.
After UCLA, an uncertain Harmon turned down offers to go pro, dabbled with law school, worked at an ad agency, and sold shoes. Finally, still feeling the bite of the acting bug from his tiny role on Ozzie's Girls, Harmon sought advice from Jack Webb, the creator of Dragnet and Adam-12. Webb himself helped Harmon secure guest spots on his shows Emergency! and Adam-12.
Harmon ended up with an entire episode named after his character, "Gus Corbin." The story came late in the show's run, just two episodes before the finale. When Malloy is otherwise occupied, Reed finds himself working with a new partner, Gus (Harmon, naturally).
Alas, that episode did not feature his sister, Kristin. She can be seen before and after his turn in the squad car.
Forty-five years later, Harmon is still playing law enforcement on NCIS. Let's see who People picks for the cover later this year.