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Shows are putting Norfolk on the TV map
By LARRY BONKO, The Virginian-Pilot
© March 1, 2005
Last updated: 6:06 PM

IT WOULD BE NICE if somebody in Norfolk’s Convention and Visitors Bureau thanked producer Donald P. Bellisario for including the city in scripts for “JAG” and “NCIS.

Imagine the tab if the city paid to promote itself in prime time on CBS, the most- watched network.

There is no need for that as long as Bellisario’s writers continue to reference Norfolk, which is the case tonight at 8 when an episode of “NCIS” is set here in the home of the Atlantic Fleet.

The name of the episode is “Pop Life.” The description: “The NCIS team investigates the bizarre death of a female petty officer who is found brutally murdered in the bed of a bartender who works at a Norfolk dance club. Grammy winner Mya plays a dance club singer.

OK, you might not want CBS reminding the world that murder and mayhem can happen in Norfolk, but you have to weigh the good against the bad. The city gets a ton of free publicity out of this episode.

Said Bellisario: “We love to include Norfolk, Virginia Beach and that whole area in our shows. We do it all the time. I wish we could get there to shoot. Maybe later this year.

Both “JAG” and “NCIS” are filmed in Southern California.

“JAG” is about Navy lawyers in the Judge Advocate General Corps. “NCIS” is about the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. The largest office in the NCIS system (79 agents) is in Norfolk. The show was originally called “Navy NCIS,” but Bellisario decided that was redundant.

Bellisario forged the Norfolk connection with “NCIS” when the pilot was being filmed early in 2003. Leon Carroll Jr. served as technical adviser – a position he still holds. Carroll was assigned to the Norfolk NCIS office in the 1990s before moving to Los Angeles.

Heading up the Norfolk office today is Rick Warmack, who was Carroll’s colleague in Los Angeles when “NCIS” was getting off the ground. Like Carroll, he helped Bellisario with technical matters.

“We had input. They listened. Don’s people have the utmost respect for NCIS,” said Warmack, who’s run the Norfolk office since last March. NCIS has agents in approximately 140 locations on land and sea worldwide to root out crime, keep Navy secrets secret and counter terrorism.

Mark Harmon says he based his character – Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs – on Warmack. Harmon dresses like him: Ball cap. Jackets with NCIS FEDERAL AGENT printed on them.

“I spent a lot of time with Rick when we were first shooting the series. There is a lot of him in my character – a lot of stuff. In a lot of ways, I try to be him. We’re still connected. He’s invited me to visit him in Norfolk. I’d love to do that,” said Harmon when the “NCIS” gang recently schmoozed with TV writers in Los Angeles.

You’re welcome any time, Mark.

“NCIS” has been a top 20 show from time to time, so it’s not a stretch to call the show a hit. It gets 12.7 million viewers. That’s great when you consider that Tuesday nights at 8 it’s up against megahit “American Idol.

The folks in NCIS think of the series as a recruiting poster. “It’s given us high visibility,” said Warmack. “That increases the pool of potential applicants.

“The show’s taken off,” said Bellisario. And the reason for that is … ?

“We do shows with unexpected developments. There’s always a twist at the end. We have humor in our shows. A lot of humor. Our characters are unique. The actors like working together.

Let’s hope so. “We often work 16-hour days. And six-day weeks. Our scripts are generally 10 or so pages longer than for most hour dramas,” said Harmon, who has appeared on dramas “Chicago Hope,“St. Elsewhere” and “Reasonable Doubts.

Most unique character: Pauley Perrette as brainiac lab rat and forensics specialist Abby Sciuto, she of the Goth hair, makeup and wardrobe. “I’m a science nerd in real life.

Sample “NCIS” humor: When the air conditioning conked out at the NCIS offices, the agents moved their laptops to the morgue, where they shared space with the body parts of three people who were cut to pieces and stuffed into metal drums.

“This show has more gore in it than any other show I’ve produced,” said Bellisario.

More laughs, too. The writers have the agents played by Michael Weatherly, Sasha Alexander and Sean Murray doing more one-liners than David Letterman. David McCallum, who plays the quaint Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard, fires off zingers in the midst of an autopsy.

The mix of what is droll with what is dead has produced a watchable TV show about an agency that few people outside of Navy towns like Norfolk knew existed before “NCIS” signed on.

© 2005


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