TV icon Ralph Waite, best known for his portrayal of stalwart father figure John Walton on The Waltons, passed away in February at the age of 85. At the time of his passing, Waite was also a recurring cast member on CBS’s NCIS, where he played father to Mark Harmon’s Leroy Jethro Gibbs. Below, NCIS executive producer Gary Glasberg opens up about crafting a proper send-off for the character in an EW Guest Column.
By: Gary Glasberg
It started with a phone call. Mark Harmon received a call that his co-worker and friend, Ralph Waite, had passed away. The news hadn’t broken yet. Mark came upstairs to see me in my office. We sat down and reflected on Ralph’s extraordinary career. From Cool Hand Luke to The Waltons, Ralph Waite defined and earned the title “character actor.” We considered adding a simple In Memoriam card to the end of the next episode that was about to air. It didn’t feel like enough of a gesture. We contemplated re-running “Better Angels,” his last wonderful storyline with us. It felt redundant. Ralph deserved more. He would have wanted us to stretch, to push the story envelope, to leave people feeling the loss of Jackson Gibbs, not just reflecting on it.
There’s no doubt season eleven has been a season of surprises; Ziva’s departure, Bishop’s arrival, the launch of NCIS: New Orleans. The writers and producers of NCIS talked extensively and decided it might be time for a change. We didn’t need to do another cliffhanger. We didn’t need to leave the audience guessing who might survive a bomb blast or a political kidnapping. We had something very real happen to us off-screen. We lost someone we truly cared about. And now it was time to let Leroy Jethro Gibbs say goodbye to his father, too.
I knew instantly who would help me write this emotional farewell. It had to be Gina Monreal. She and Ralph connected on “Better Angels.” He got a kick out of her and vice versa. Not to mention, he truly respected Gina’s talent on the page. Tony Wharmby was already set to direct the episode so that basically reassembled the team. We started talking about how best to handle Jackson’s death. As always, we knew we had to come up with a parallel crime story (it’s what we do), but the drive of “Honor Thy Father” would undoubtedly be Gibbs mourning the loss of his dad. This needed to be a finale with real emotional resonance. A finale with heart and soul and warmth and pathos. And, of course, a few classic NCIS twists and turns along the way for good measure.
Every character has their moment to say goodbye. Tremendous thought went into the funeral scene. We knew we wanted to see some of Jackson’s old WWII buddies paying their respects. We knew we had to get Billy Dee Williams who plays Jackson’s buddy L.J. to help us, as well. We knew we wanted Jackson to have a military funeral. It needed to be a fitting goodbye for a decorated veteran. From day one, Gina knew the music she wanted over the final montage. It had to be Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me In Your Heart.” I’m a huge Warren Zevon fan. I wasn’t about to argue that. Trust me, you’ll needs the tissue box. It’s not easy to get through the funeral sequence without tearing up a little.
Is there some NCIS suspense? Of course. Do we get some classic Abby, McGee, and Tony? Absolutely. But this season finale is about Gibbs. We get to see a personal side of him few have witnessed. We get to feel his pain and his anguish and his sadness. And we get to see his pride. The pride Gibbs had in his father, regardless of their differences.
Oh — and do stick around to see the very end of the show. You might get a glimpse of what Gibbs will be building in the basement in season twelve.