“Under Covers,” Season 3, Episode 8: Tony and Ziva go undercover as a couple.
This episode was so much fun to shoot. Cote de Pablo, who plays Ziva, came to me right before we were shooting the first scene where we kissed, and said, “I’ve never kissed anyone on camera before.” I was expecting this timid little-bird kiss, like a little peck, but she was like a lioness—she practically ate my head off! This is where TIVA (Tony+Ziva) started. We were told to really have fun with it, they wanted a sexy thing happening, and Cote delivered. I was just sort of along for the ride. And let’s be honest, three out of the four letters in “TIVA” are from Ziva, so what is the “T” then? The crucible, is it the cross? I don’t think so.
“Requiem,” Season 5, Episode 7: Tony runs through an empty warehouse, down a pier, and dives into the water to save a lifeless Gibbs.
There is a very funny clip on my IMDb page of a demo reel where I’m running—an excerpt from “Requiem.” It’s a behind-the-scenes clip that shows I’m actually jumping into cardboard boxes, not water. Diving into the tank, which was filmed in the Valley, and pulling Mark Harmon out of the tank was a huge experience. To do the running, jumping, scuba diving, and to cap it all off with a mouth-to-mouth kiss with Harmon. I took CPR in high school, and my wife is a doctor, so I had a little help. When she saw the episode she said I was doing it all wrong and I told her I couldn’t be breaking people’s ribs! My character knew he would be getting head-slapped for the rest of his life for that mouth-to-mouth, “Don’t make me kiss you, boss.”
“One Last Score,” Season 8, Episode 17: I directed this episode, which included a car-chase scene.
To be able to look at what everyone does in all the different departments and interact in that way, it really juiced me and gave me huge energy. When you’re an actor, you have your role and you’re protecting your character. You aren’t necessarily being a puppet, but it’s definitely a very small part of the big picture—one cog in the machine. When you are the director, your responsibility is the whole machine. Oh my God, I loved it. It starts out so big, it’s epic. The car-chase scene I wanted to cater to my style; I wanted it to feel like an older film, a throwback. I locked off cameras and did close-up scenes of eyes. My inspiration comes from Bullitt, a couple of old James Bond movies, and at the same time I was looking at episodes of The Rockford Files—that dusty, classic, American television. I also wanted a Western element, almost like a showdown between the two guys. I wanted at the very end of the chase scene for the other guy to realize an almost supernatural hero in Gibbs—a hound from hell. I wanted him to bow down in the dirt. I think I started hounding them to let me direct an episode since Season 2, and I continue to hound them. For me, directing it made my experience much more dynamic. Everything dilated.
“Truth or Consquences,” Season 7, Episode 1: Tony is held captive in a chair while being interrogated.
In order to get that look of being dehydrated in the desert and sunburned, they put glue on my lips. Glue tightens the skin so you can’t smile. I couldn’t open my mouth, and when I tried to laugh I sounded like Doctor Evil meets Beavis, or maybe it’s Butthead. In this scene, Tony’s been given a truth serum, which means you’re getting completely unabashed DiNozzo, and it was hysterically funny that he was so relaxed. He was just tickled and amused by the situation, punky and very funny. It’s not like he was trying to be bad ass—if anything he’s thinking, if this plane goes down, I might as well enjoy it.
“Flesh and Blood,” Season 7, Episode 12: The first episode that guest starred Robert “RJ” Wagner as Tony’s father.
RJ and I talk a great deal, and we are close now outside of the show. Before this episode I had never met him, but I played him in The Mystery of Natalie Wood. When we met, he told me he hadn’t seen it but he heard that I did a great job. Growing up in the ’70s I was very aware of Robert Wagner. There’s a reason he played “Number 2” in Austin Powers. Wagner arrived with a panache and warmth that I didn’t anticipate, and he instantly fit in with the NCIS set. The fact that the episode was successful was just a bonus. Wagner has seen it all, and he had just written that book Pieces of My Heart. He’s a great guy with a great lesson. He’s someone that was best friends with Cary Grant, been mountain climbing with Spencer Tracy; he’s lived his life.
“Driven,” Season 4, Episode 1: Tony is undercover as a street performer.
When I moved to New York to act I was no good at working restaurants—hosting, waiting, bussing, dishwashing—I wasn’t good at any aspect. But I did have a guitar. So I would sing “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” but you would only hear the chorus because the train comes by every 30 seconds. I would make a couple hundred bucks, and I was just trying to be entertaining. For the episode, I started singing in a Jamaican accent, and Dennis Smith, who has directed about a fourth of all the episodes we’ve done, put the camera above me and craned down on me singing, “I’ve gotta do what I’ve gotta do,” and this dog they had was sitting there whining at my bad performance.
“SWAK,” Season 2, Episode 22: The NCIS team is attacked by a letter filled with white powder.
“SWAK,” or sealed with a kiss, is the virus episode where I get the plague. This was done not too far after we had all the anthrax letters going around, so it does evoke that in an office environment. It’s an episode that starts with the funny stuff, then I open this letter with lipstick on the back and dust swirls everywhere, Gibbs stands on his desk and sounds the alarm, Tony takes a bottle of water and pours it on himself and then says, “Sorry, boss.” Throughout that episode, DiNozzo is thinking about movies and can’t help but relate his experience in this scene to an old movie or an ABC Afterschool Special. In this episode Tony’s not doing so well; it’s the season where we killed off one of our main characters. I was so grateful to be given an extraordinary character. “SWAK” is where we see that Tony is more than a wise ass in a suit.
“Judgment Day Part I and II,” Season 5, Episodes 18 and 19: Michael wears a Hawaiian shirt in a particularly dramatic scene.
Now that I’ve seen The Descendants, I understand what Clooney is going through. I had to wear a Hawaiian shirt at the death scene of Jenny Shepard (played by Lauren Holly), a very dramatic scene. And it was oversized, like a muumuu or something. I probably could have been a little smarter with the shirt selection. In the earlier seasons, I didn’t wear a coat and tie, but in Seasons 6–9, the last 100 episodes, I did.
“Boxed In,” Season 3, Episode 12: Special agents Tony and Ziva are trapped together inside a giant container where there is a shootout.
At this point, the early days of Season 3, Cote (Ziva) was a rookie herself. This was a great episode; we had a lot of fun with the counterfeit money and the shootout. Cote forgot to wear her earplugs in this scene, but more important, I think that “Boxed In” is particularly remarkable in that it synthesizes the relationship between Ziva and Tony because of the close proximity that they share in the container.
“Cloak and Dagger,” Season 6, Episodes 8 and 9: The NCIS team realizes there is a mole inside the agency.
Having a mole inside of our team, the agency, trying to figure out how to out the mole, catch the mole—whack-a-mole. Jesse Stern, a producer of the show, was involved in constructing a really intricate, tricky bit of storytelling. I feel like this is one of those high-water marks of the show; it wasn’t a season finale or a season premiere, but there’s something about it that is just super-good. To me it’s an example of the best that we do at NCIS.
By summarizing these different episodes, it becomes more and more clear that it is hard work and lots of hours. Sometimes it’s tough sledding to make things happen that are fun, relatable—that the storytelling is alive. But all of these episodes are about what happens in between the words and spaces of the show, and it’s where we come alive.
As told to Anna Klassen in February of 2012.