For 15 seasons, Sean Murray has brought Special Agent Timothy McGee to life in NCIS, growing and changing along the way.
How do you keep people watching a series for 15 years?
One way is to have characters who are allowed to evolve over many seasons. One such character is Special Agent Timothy McGee of CBS's NCIS. Sean Murray, who has played McGee throughout the series, has taken the character from a rookie to the senior agent on the team.
"From the beginning, as a kind of inept, rookie agent to now, there's been quite an evolution there," Murray says. "And that was something I was insistent with, with our producers and our writers, that I didn't want the character to eternally be the rookie, I didn't want it to be baby Maggie Simpson again every week."
"There's an element of that you've got to have. You can't completely lose the characters obviously. But it kind of worked naturally because as the show grew, my character grew. And so a lot of those challenges came naturally. As more assignments and bigger things started happening to McGee, he had to grow from those sorts of things. Now he's married with twins and all kinds of crazy."
In fact, all of the characters have changed over the series, as well as the cast as a whole, with actors leaving and new ones taking their places. However, according to Murray, those changes had nothing to do with personality issues. In fact, behind the scenes, the show has retained most of its original crew.
"The retention rate on our crew, alone, has been something crazy, like 80% through all these years. Because that's how much our crew means to each other, means to us. We're just a family; we're all accountable. Everyone does their thing. Our cameramen know how to swing, know how to roll with things that happen on the spot and aren't planned because it's intuitive.
"Everyone's just dialed in together. No one's phoning it in. And I think if people started phoning it in, we'd all start picking on them until they went away."
That camaraderie extends to the writing staff, as well. "We've had most of our team from the beginning, so we have a big open dialogue between the cast and the writers and we're all friends and go out to dinners with each other. I don't mean to make it sound like it's all a Disney wonderland, but you know, being on as many sets as I've been on, there's nothing like this set and working on this show."
Even cast changes were friendly, not angry. "I think for some people, and this was definitely the case for a couple of the people, I think at some point maybe you're done with it, maybe you've outgrown it, you kind of feel like you want to explore something else. We never had situations where someone left in a huff and everyone was pissed off, or anything like that."
And, for those who stay, the on-set dynamic remains fun through all the inevitable changes. "I saw on USA a season one rerun a couple weeks ago and I was like 'What is this show?' I couldn't believe it. I thought 'Wow, this person's talking like crazy and this is the deal, and this is the dynamic with different ... '
"It changes as we go and I think that what makes us keep going, as far as our interest in doing the show and wanting to continue, is that we have a lot of fun together. The cast really gets along. And we have a lot of fun working together. So I think all that maybe goes towards the longevity of the show and I think some of that bleeds over in the characters, and people seem to like the characters."
People also have grown to know these characters, even without dialogue. Murray says, "And a lot of our stuff plays not on the word, the dialogue. It's sort of in between things that are happening sometimes. And that comes from us just being playful with each other because that's just how it is. And it makes working together really easy actually. Because I've been on those sets where people do not get along."
One special and long-standing relationship on NCIS is the one between Murray and star/executive producer Mark Harmon. "I've known Mark since I was 15 years old, actually. He did a guest stint on a show I was doing for CBS called Hearts of the West when I was 15 years old. And Mark came on and guest starred.
"So I've actually known him since then, so when I joined the cast of NCIS, he of course remembered me and was just as wonderful as when I knew him at 15. So Harmon's an old friend to me, a real old friend to me."
Even before his long run on NCIS, Murray had a pretty good resumé and some high-powered co-stars. "My first big gig was Hocus Pocus, the Disney movie with Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker. That was my first big break I'd say, where I played the factory kid who gets turned into the cat. That was incredible.
"I remember that because I was young and so inexperienced, and I remember walking out onto the sound stages where they had created the witch's house and the moat and the forest and everything was inside a stage, and I'd never seen anything like that. I was just blown away by the big production of everything."
Another early experience was performing in the film This Boy's Life, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro.
"I've had some really good opportunities to work with some pretty cool people. I did a movie called This Boy's Life, a small part. That was actually before Hocus Pocus. And that was DiCaprio's first major movie and De Niro was in it. I didn't have any on camera work with De Niro, per se, but just seeing him around the set and the general kind of thing, you learn a lot just watching.
"And it was Leo's first role and I remember just in the couple scenes, the sequence we did, I remember thinking 'Oh, this kid's gonna be big, I know it.' Even when I was 13 years old. But I could tell. I could tell he was going to be big. And he became big, obviously. He's done all right."
Moving into the NCIS world also brought some challenges. The whole cast had to train, and some of what they learned was somewhat unexpected.
"I remember a lot of us early on when we were doing some training and hanging with real NCIS agents. I went to FLETC, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Brunswick, Georgia to audit classes and do some things.
"The one thing that we all noticed from these NCIS agents is that, as serious as the stuff that they were dealing with was at certain times, there was a real levity to it all that just had to exist because things were so screwed up. And you know, there's nothing fun about murders and things like that. So there's almost a levity you've got to keep."
In the end, though, it all comes back to the chemistry and the ever-evolving characters that keep NCIS interesting to Murray. "it's a great place to work and I'm really thankful to be a part of it because I know it's going to leave a legacy. And to be a part of something like that is pretty amazing."