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TV: JAG and NCIS

Donald P. Bellisario
Creator and Executive Producer
Tuesday, October 5, 2004; 12:30 PM

This is the new season of two popular military dramas, both Bellisario productions, airing on CBS. "JAG" (Judge Advocate General) is an adventure drama series about a group of officers trained as lawyers who investigate, prosecute and defend those accused of crimes in the military, including murder, treason and terrorism. "NCIS" (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) is an action drama, about a team of special agents whose mission is to investigate any crime that has a shred of evidence connected to Navy and Marine Corps personnel, regardless of rank or position.

Acclaimed writer, producer and director Donald P. Bellisario was online Tuesday, Oct. 5, at 12:30 p.m. ET to answer your questions about his television series.


Bellisario is best known for his creations "Magnum, P.I." and "Quantum Leap." Among other honors, Bellisario's work on the series won him an Edgar Allen Poe writing award. "Quantum Leap," the 1989-1993 science fiction drama garnered four Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Drama Series. His other credits include "Tales of the Gold Monkey" with Stephen Collins; "Airwolf" with Jan-Michael Vincent; and "Tequila and Bonetti" with Jack Scalia. He served as executive producer for all five series, and also in that same capacity on Paramount's 1995 detective telefilm "Crowfoot." He wrote, produced and directed the 1987 feature film "Last Rites," starring Tom Berenger.

NCIS airs on CBS Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET and JAG airs on CBS Fridays at 9 p.m. ET (Check local listings).

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Donald P. Bellisario: Hello. It's really nice to be here today and let's see if I can answer some of your questions about my shows!

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Bellisario,

I have been a huge fan of all of your productions. You consistently produce quality entertainment that entertains as well as provokes thought. As your current production of JAG enters its 10th Season, what direction do you foresee in the character development of Harm and Mac?

Donald P. Bellisario: It depends on how much longer JAG goes on. This could be the last season and I'm not predicting that it will be. I'll have to resolve that relationship one way or the other forever.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I know the purpose of today's chat is to discuss your current series, but I have to tell you that I loved watching "Airwolf" when I was younger. Any chance of a DVD release of the series?

Donald P. Bellisario: There's always a chance in today's market to see the release of successful past series but that is a Universal television decision.

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Arlington, Va.: One of the things I loved about Magnum P.I. was that beneath all the crowd pleasing shots of the Ferrari racing through beautiful scenery was a dark story about a hero with personal demons who suffered a lot. Your new shows seem much more straightforward and establishment based -- is that because you don't think today's audiences are as open to some of Magnum's ambiguity?

Donald P. Bellisario: No, I think that 24 years have passed since Magnum came on the air and shows and storytelling changes. However I think you'll see that Magnum and NCIS has the same type of storytelling with an interesting ensemble cast mixed with humor.

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Boston, Mass.: I've been a fan of JAG since the first seasson and I've always thought that a natural spinoff would be an Army/AirForce version of JAG. If you've considered this, too, what has prevented it?

Donald P. Bellisario: I haven't considered doing it. One JAG is enough. Although now that NCIS is successful, I have thought of doing a combination JAG/NCIS on a carrier.

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Lansing, Mich.: Between the three CBS "CSIs", the syndicates showing the original "CSI" ad nauseum, plus "Crossing Jordan" and "Medical Investigations," how will you keep "NCSI" different enough to engage viewers?

Donald P. Bellisario: NCIS is not CSI unless you are dyslexic. The fun of this show is the humor that goes on between the characters. The forensics is actually a small part of it and I think this distinguishes NCIS from all other similar forensic shows -- including not only the way it is written, but the way it is filmed, etc.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: "Quantum Leap" was one of the greatest shows of all times. I recall when it was cancelled, someone stating that there is always a possibility that the show could return someday. I know it has been several years, but is there still some chance of reviving the show and giving it a second chance?

Donald P. Bellisario: I am working with Universal's scifi channel to create a new Quantum Leap which would have Stockwell as a regular and Scott Bakula appearing at least in the first episode which would introduce a young female reaper.

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Rochester, NY: I keep reading that this is JAG's last season. If the ratings are as good as last years shouldn't they renew it?

Donald P. Bellisario: Many things are involved in renewing a show including contracts with key members of the cast, the demographics of the show. JAG for example has a rather old demographic that advertising doesn't care for therefore the show may be too costly for the advertising that it generates.

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Frederick, Md.: What is the possibility of a Magnum reunion/movie/guest spot on JAG or NCIS? And what do you think of the new Battlestar Galactica?

Donald P. Bellisario: A Magnum feature film is in development with Imagine.

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Okemos, Mich.: Mr. Bellisario,

Do you and the other producers of JAG read comments submitted by fans on-line? If so, how much does that 'viewer opinion' (in relation to the Harm/Mac dynamic) sway the writers/producers in terms of what translates onto the screen during the current season?

Thanks!

A loyal 10-year viewer,
Nancy

Donald P. Bellisario: Some producers read comments submitted by fans. None of those sway us in terms of what we create in the season -- mainly because there are so many diverse and opposing views. As a writer-producer, you must stick to your own view otherwise you'd go crazy!

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Arlington, Va.: I got hooked on Magnum PI in syndication about 5 years ago and saw a great many episodes. However, I never found out who Robin is. Can you help me out?

Donald P. Bellisario: Contrary to what some have said, even those in the show Magnum, Robin Masters was not Jonathan Higgins. In the first season, I used the voice of Orson Wells as the voice of Robin Masters.

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Texas: I've been watching JAG since Season 1 on NBC. Thank you for all these wonderful years of being able to watch David James Elliot on my TV all this time. To me, he -is- JAG and the main focus of the show.
Recently, there have been arguments between fans about the win/loss records of Harm and Mac in the courtroom, and the fact that Harm always seems to win, and that they know as soon as Harm is assigned to a case that he's going to win. Do you and the writers 'plan' to have Harm always win the cases and therefore make Mac look less capable, or does it just happen? I don't really care. I'm a Harm fan, so his winning doesn't bother me, but I know that others out here do care about it, mostly Mac fans.
And did you plan for the major fragmenting of the fans over characters?
Thanks, and keep up the good work! (Nancy)

Donald P. Bellisario: I wouldn't count on Harm always winning in the courtroom. Believe me that there is no conspiracy among the writers and producers in JAG for Harm to win and make Mac looks less capable. It just happens.

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Seneca Falls, NY: Mr. Bellisario, I've been a fan of JAG since season 1 and I just have one question. Do you think we'll see less of the soap opera quality we've seen over the past couple of sesaons and get back to more of the roots of JAG that was present in the earlier seasons? I just would hate to see JAG turn into The Harm and Mac Love Hour. I'd enjoy the type of stories you had this past Friday over the more soap opera quality of the whole Mac and Harm will they won't they dance thing.

Donald P. Bellisario: I agree with you. I think we need to into more of the earlier season stories than to turn JAG into a Harm Mac love hour.

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Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: I've enjoyed JAG, First Monday, and now NCIS. What will be the premise for your next new series?

Comment: I've figured out the Harm/Mac shipper thing. There will really only be romantic scenes between Harm and Mac in September, November, February, and May. This realization helps to temper disappointment. That is why I was so thrilled you chose not to go down the UST road for NCIS. It is nice to watch an episode and know that none of the characters will become romantically involved with one another (except for McGee and Abby). Thank you.

Donald P. Bellisario: I have no idea about my next new series. I just want to keep these two shows going right now.

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Raleigh, N.C.: I am a great admirer and an loyal fan of all of your shows. I hope you can bring back Clayton Webb for a few JAG more appearances. Now my question. Do you have any control over how the shows are edited when they go to syndication? A couple of minutes and some of the best lines seem to be edited out. If you have no control, do the edits bother you?

Donald P. Bellisario: Unfortunately, I have no control over how shows are edited when they go to syndication. It certainly does frustrate me.

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Mt. Pleasant, Iowa: Why do you never have David McCallum "Ducky" on at the end of the show when the rest of the cast are discusing the case? Abby's there most of the time even though she's in the lab, it feels wrong.

Donald P. Bellisario: The end of NCIS usually has a humorous exchange between Gibbs, Tony, Sarah and McGee. Abby is rarely there nor is David because they are not the special agents that the cases revolve around. Although in future shows, you'll see some end on Abby or Ducky.

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Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: Devoted JAG watcher since the jump to CBS here.

A couple of episodes have been remarkably prescient -- something shown on JAG is quickly followed by the same story happening in real life.

Best example was "The Colonel" where a colonel's wife got wound up in shipping drugs via the diplomatic pouches. Before the season had finished, it happened in real life.

Had you heard a rumor and made a teleplay out of it? Does this happen often?

Donald P. Bellisario: Occasionally we will write an episode based on real life incidents that we have heard of but most times, and this is true in all the shows I've created going back to Magnum, I have for some strange reason written or created episodes which then actually came true. I think it wasn't just being prescient, I recall the first show I ever wrote was Ba Ba Black Sheep and I had Pappy Boyington ask me how I knew a certain incident happened that I put into the show and I told him that I didn't and he told me that it had happened. So, I've always been blessed or cursed with this ability. Which at one time had gotten me questioned by the FBI -- that had to do with the second year opening of Magnum which negotiations are going on between Vietnam and the U.S. government in Hawaii over our MIAs.

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Savannah, GA: How do you divide your time between two successful television shows? I read somewhere that you spent the majority of your time with NCIS last year trying to get it on its feet...do you plan on dividing your time more equally this year?

Donald P. Bellisario: Over the years, I have been able to assemble a very talented team of writers and producers on JAG -- this always takes time. But now, they are doing the show and I have moved on to spending 95% of my time on NCIS. I wish I could stay on top of both but when you create a new show, it really has to have the mark of the creator and so hopefully NCIS where I won't have to spend much more time on it.

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Somewhere east of the Sierras: You've had many successful shows that have had long runs on TV. You've also made great choices for leads in your shows, particularly with "Magnum", "Quantum Leap", both leads on "JAG", and now with Mark Harmon on "NCIS". Have these shows succeeded because of the storylines or is it the quality of the lead actors or both?

Donald P. Bellisario: It's definitely both. It's a synergistic effect that requires both the actors and the writing to create a successful show.

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Marquette, Michigan: Will Harm being doing any flying this season on JAG, especially off a carrier? I would love to see him flying an F-14 again or an FA-18 like he did last season. The character seems so happy when he's flying.

Donald P. Bellisario: What would a year of JAG be without Harm being in the cockpit of an aircraft? You'll see him flying again in an F-18 or his private Waco.

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Dania Beach Florida: While you say you don't listen to viewer comments, you do provide us with an audience liason in Harriet M. Thank you for that. By the way, who is Kip?

Donald P. Bellisario: Kip is my dog! All JAG fans know that!

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Cary, NC: Do the increasing graphics on the bottom right, er bottom left, er top, or really anywhere now on the screen promoing other programs irk you as much as me? You producers ought to revolt!;

Donald P. Bellisario: They sure do but it's hard to revolt. It's like their ballpark, their ball and glove and you've got to play their game and you can't do it without the network.

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Miami FL: What is it about Steven Culp that makes him so desirable to producers? At the same time last season he was on JAG, ER, and Star Trek Enterprise (with your old pal Scott Bakula). and by the way,
Please bring back Gunny!;!;!;!;

Donald P. Bellisario: Steven Culp is an excellent actor and a really nice guy and it's easy to see why he's working on so many different tv series. He has an extraordinary amount of talent that he brings to any character.

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Los Angeles, CA: Congratulations on having two hit shows. Do you find it difficult to split your time between them? Do you have/play favorites or are they like children and you love them both for different reasons?

A JAGfan - and new NCIS follower.

Donald P. Bellisario: Your tv shows when you create them are like your children and you love them all. And like children, you occassionally love one more than the other but you won't let any of them know that.

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Oakton, VA: I've noticed that of the major networks, CBS (and your shows) seem to have the most diverse cast of characters, and often portray's minorities in not-necessarily-negative ways. Just wanted to say thank you for that.

Donald P. Bellisario: Thank you for your comment. I have always believed that we should use the best in what we do and that goes for in front and behind the camera -- sex, race, age should have nothing to do with it. I try to portray the positive sid e of minorities not just the negative and I've always done that on my shows. For instance on Magnum, I made three of the characters Vietnam vets who were affective but not defective and at that time veterans were all defective on television. I think that some minorities were negatively treated earlier in the tv years and then the swing went the other way where you couldn't show a minority committing a crime. At one point we used to joke that the only bad guy you could show on tv was a WASP accountant. I try to portray in my show an equal balance, good or bad, for all characters. We're all flawed to some extent and we're all heros to some extent.

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Arlington, VA: Why did the Admiral leave?

Donald P. Bellisario: Because John Jackson felt that seven or eight years was enough and he wanted to go back to do some theater work and to following his son who has a major league baseball career.

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mt airy, md: There are so many great stories right from the newspapers-courts-martial from Iraq,etc. Are we going to see any of these in upcoming JAG episodes?

Donald P. Bellisario: Oh, you sure are! I don't want to do too many Iraq stories because viewere like to be entertained and they get enough of the subject in the news. But in the beginning of the season, you'll see some Iraq stories and then throughout the season, you'll see some more court martial cases.

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Los Angeles, CA: What part of the production process (creating, writing, shooting, editing, etc) do you like the best and why?

Donald P. Bellisario: There is no best for me because I love the entire process. I love to create a show, write it, produce it, direct it, do the mix on it, edit it. It's what I do best is to take my grubby little hands in everything. Unfortunately that is hard to do with 24 episodes and two shows so I always look fondly on the pilots -- creating the show and setting the tone of it, although the tone has to be constantly evolving.

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Hollywood Fl: Will we ever find out who the mystery woman is that picks up Gibbs from time to time?

Who is the actress that plays her?

Did you include her to quell any shippers who might want to imagine Mark's and Sasha's characters together?

Donald P. Bellisario: No, you will never know who the mysterious redhead is and she will continue to appear throughout the life of the series and the idea is to make everyone speculate.

No, and when the series is over I might tell you why I included her (which might be ten years from now).

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Pittsburgh: Mr. Bellisario, I've been a fan since Quantum Leap. Your shows are always thought provoking.

I heard a rumor that Harm was going to get a parasite, and he's going to hallucinate a life where he's in the Iraqi Republican Guard. I think this is a great idea. Also, I think it would be great if Catherine Bell dressed more like a lady!; She's darn pretty!;

Donald P. Bellisario: What a great rumor! I hadn't heard it until now!

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Clifton , New Jersey: Will Harm and Mac ever have any more action episodes? Example: Palmer like episodes.

Donald P. Bellisario: Yes, you'll always see some action episodes with Harm and Mac with the new season in JAG -- I can't be more specific than that.

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Virginia Beach, VA: You once mentioned that you hoped JAG would have a lengthy run similar to Law and Order. Is that still your hope or will season 10 be the last?

Donald P. Bellisario: My hope is always that this season is never the last. I will have a better idea after we get a half year of ratings and see where the show is and what it is doing in January 2005. If it is the last season, it will definitely effect the kinds of shows we tell and how we wrap things up.

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Placentia, CA: I've been watching Navy NCIS (now called NCIS)and have been thoroughly enjoying it. I really enjoy the sense of humor and comraderie between the characters.

I have 2 questions. The final epsiode of last season seemed to resolve a bit suddenly with the resolution of Kate suddenly being released from her kidnapper and Gibbs finding the "terrorist" in a fashion that was a little easy after such a long half season hunt. Rumor had it that this was planned to be a cliffhanger with part 2 being the second season opener. What happened to change the ending of this episode? Did you recieve presure to resolve it more quickly?

My second question is more pedestrian, why the name change from Navy NCIS to NCIS?

Donald P. Bellisario: I wrote that episode and quite frankly, I debated in my own head into making it a cliff hanging two parter. But since I'm trying to separate NCIS from JAG, I didn't want to have cliff hangers as JAG does. The same is true for changing the name from NAVY NCIS to NCIS. The network insisted on calling it NAVY NCIS to hang onto the JAG audience but what your'e really saying Navy Naval Criminal Investigative Service and it's a bit silly. I was able to convince them to go with just the acronym this season. JAG is a great show however NCIS is a completely different show and for that reason, I want to keep them separate. I'm probably the only exec producer who begged the network not to put in NCIS advertising "from the creator of JAG."

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Bonita, CA: Thank you for all the years of entertainment you've sent us through all of your different shows. Just a curiousity question, but why has the initial clip of Harm in the opening credits stayed the same for three years? It's great, but all of the others have changed.

Donald P. Bellisario: The initial clip of Harm has been the same for three years because I like it.

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ColoSpgs, CO: What do you look for when you casting all your actors (leads and guest stars)? Do you have a profile in mind when you bring people in or do you see anyone/everyone and then adjust the role to fit the actor you like best?

Donald P. Bellisario: You have a character that has been written in mind and we don't adjust the role to fit the actor, it's the other way around.

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Boca Raton, FL: Mr. Bellisario,
I'm a big fan of your work, especially Quantum Leap. I recall seeing years ago an episode of Battlestar Galactica that you were involved in. I don't remember many of the details, except that Apollo stepped into the life of a person on an alien planet (the Eastern Alliance?). It was fairly similar in concept to Quantum Leap. Was this the inspiration for that great show? Thanks, and keep up the great work.

Adam

Donald P. Bellisario: No, Battlestar Galactica episode had nothing to do with the concept of Quantum Leap. That came to me in my desire to create a show for network television that would have a different show every week with different characters -- something that networks don't like to do.

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Auburn, Georgia: I just wanted to thank you Mr. Bellisario for having the insight to add Catherine Bell to the cast of JAG....

As the female lead she's outstanding, and her character IMHO is such an important and vital part to JAG...

Thanks again!;

Donald P. Bellisario: Catherine is indeed an outstanding female lead and I agree with you that her character is very important to the success of JAG.

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Longtime Fan: Did the Magnum character come from the Lance White detective that Tom Selleck played a couple of time on the Rockford Files?

Donald P. Bellisario: No, the only thing related about Magnum and Lance White is that they were both played by Tom Selleck.

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Laurel, MD: I know we are only 2 episodes into the season but I really miss the admiral. Any chance of a few guest appearances this year?

Donald P. Bellisario: We would love to have JJ make a guest appearance but I don't think it's going to happen.

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Washington, DC: Since Harriet has left JAG to have twins, will we occasionally see her or will she just be referenced on the show?

Donald P. Bellisario: You definitely will see Harriet in some upcoming shows. She's too good an actress and too important to only reference in episodes.

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Donald P. Bellisario: Thank you all for the questions. I've answered to the best of my ability and what I realize has been pathetic. I hope to do it again sometime but now I have to go to work. Thank you again and God Bless.

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