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The Hit-Maker

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Donald P. Bellisario was at the top of his game in the advertising world when he decided to chuck it all and move to Hollywood. He'd worked for eight years at the Bloom Agency in Dallas and served as senior vice president and creative director. Yet he had a burning desire to pen feature films and wanted to see if he could make it as a screenwriter. "I was turning 40, and I thought, 'If I don't do it now, I'll never do it,'" he says.

Bellisario worked as a freelance commercial director for a bit and spent his free time writing spec scripts and passing them out to anybody who would read them. "Somebody read [my spec] and passed it on to somebody else, and that eventually got me an agent," Bellisario recalls. "I said, 'How long will it take me to sell a feature script?' He said, 'You'll sell a feature script within a year, year and a half.' I said, 'I've got enough money to last me six weeks.' He said, 'Have you ever thought of writing for television?' And that was the start of it."

Bellisario never looked back; he's been writing, producing, and creating successful small-screen series for three decades now. His television creations include the cult classic Quantum Leap, the long-running procedural JAG, and the sturdy crime drama NCIS, now in its fourth season on CBS. He also co-created the 1980s megahit Magnum, P.I., which made a bona fide star out of Tom Selleck. That, Bellisario says, was one of the few times he wrote a script with a particular actor in mind. "CBS wanted to do a [show about] a private eye in Hawaii, and Tom Selleck was attached to whatever project that was going to be," he remembers. "So in that case, I created Magnum based upon meetings with Tom and finding out what he was like and looking at his work and making a decision how to write that."

Of course, Bellisario has also had that elusive "eureka" moment of finding the perfect actor to inhabit one of his carefully drawn characters. The producer wasn't having much luck casting the role of Sam Beckett, Quantum Leap's charming time traveler, when Scott Bakula walked through the door. "Scott came in and read for me, and he'd just come off Broadway, where he was nominated for a Tony [for Romance/ Romance]," Bellisario says. "He read for the part, and I just held my breath until he went out the door, and then I said, 'I want him!' That was that."

Bellisario obviously relishes finding the right actors for his various characters, and he speaks with great pride about assembling the distinctive NCIS ensemble. The show, which focuses on a team of special agents from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, is a procedural by nature, but it distinguishes itself from the pack through flashes of sly humor and an eclectic array of personas. "I've created characters that are individuals," Bellisario says. "You can't take dialogue from one and throw it into the mouth of another; it doesn't work that way. They're very unique, so the actor that's playing [a particular character] has to be just as unique and be able to bring that character to life. And I've been very fortunate that, on this show, everybody has fit that bill."

Bellisario initially passed over leading man Mark Harmon, who plays grizzled team leader and former Marine gunnery sergeant Leroy Jethro Gibbs. "Somebody told me 'Mark Harmon,' and I said, 'No, I want a guy who's got some edge to him and some age on him,'" Bellisario says. "I was thinking of Mark Harmon as I had seen him as a young man, a guy in his 20s. You get those pictures; they just go in your mind and they don't go away." When casting director Susan Bluestein mentioned Harmon's critically lauded arc on The West Wing, Bellisario agreed to take another look. "I looked at it, and I didn't have to look at two minutes of it and I went, 'Oh my God, he's Gibbs. He's Leroy Jethro Gibbs,'" Bellisario says.

Michael Weatherly, who portrays wisecracking agent Anthony DiNozzo, won Bellisario over in an entirely different setting. Bellisario was in Australia, where he has a condo, when he got word that the actor was very interested in meeting with him about NCIS. Weatherly happened to be in Sydney shooting The Mystery of Natalie Wood, in which he played Robert Wagner. "I said, 'Yeah, I'll meet with him, but it's gonna have to be back in the States because I'm leaving tomorrow. I got my family; we're going out to a dinner tonight,' " Bellisario recalls. "They said, 'Well, he's really anxious; he's a Magnum fan.'"

Indeed, Weatherly was so anxious that he called Bellisario directly. The actor was charming, and his genuine love of Magnum shone through. "He really knew Magnum," marvels Bellisario. "You talk to somebody when you create a show, you know if what they're telling you is genuine or if they just looked you up on IMDb and start to feed you a line." Bellisario ended up inviting Weatherly to dinner with his family. By the end of the four-hour meal, the actor had nabbed the part.

Other actors came via good old-fashioned casting. Pauley Perrette, who plays goth forensic specialist Abby Sciuto, walked in to audition and fit the role immediately. Bellisario recalls, "She said to me, 'This character is my dream. This is what I wanted to be, and I got sidetracked into becoming an actress to make money in New York, so I could go to study forensics at NYU.' So that was a no-brainer."

As for fan favorite Sean Murray, who portrays geeky, insecure agent Timothy McGee, Bellisario confesses to a bit of nepotism: Murray is his stepson. "He had been in a number of movies as a young man, had done TV, had done pilots that didn't go. He was running into a dry spell," Bellisario says. "He was about 23 at the time, and he was really depressed. I said, 'Look, I've been thinking about writing in a probie agent, somebody who's brand-new. He's a good agent, but he has absolutely no faith in himself. I'll write this character in one show.' And I did. I put him in one episode. And everybody in the cast loved him. I wrote him in another show and he really did well, so I started writing him in more. I brought him back as a [recurring character]. Then the next season, I brought him in as a regular. The fans love him."

Bellisario has also worked as a director, helming a number of television episodes, as well as the 1988 feature film Last Rites. He directed the NCIS series premiere, "Yankee White." He notes, "I definitely have in mind what I want out of an actor in a performance. But one of the first things I do when we go to shoot a scene is I'll say, 'I kind of see the scene playing in this kind of blocking, but why don't you guys try it, see if it works for you, and if it doesn't, let me know what doesn't work.' So it becomes a collaboration at that point between the actors, myself, and the cinematographer."

Bellisario carries this collaborative mindset over to the casting process. If an actor isn't quite working out in the audition, for example, he will often give adjustments. "If I see something there, I'll then try to work with [the actor] and say, 'Why don't you try this?'" he says. "I'll say, 'That was really one way to go; it's not what I had in mind when I wrote this part. Let me tell you what I had in mind, and can you try to do it that way?' When they can take what they have been doing in their mind over and over again and can take the direction, I'm very impressed by that."

Bellisario, who is currently writing the NCIS season finale, has a number of ideas for future TV shows. He'd also like to write and direct another feature and notes that whatever he does next will be "as different as Quantum Leap was."

It's tough, though, for him to move on to other projects; he can't imagine giving anything less than 100 percent to NCIS. "I'm an exec producer who's very hands-on; I have been my whole career," he says. "So to do it any other way, I just don't know how. So I spend a lot of time on it, and it doesn't give me time to [move on to other projects]. I want to do more. I want to do more shows." He pauses, then lets loose with a self-deprecating chuckle. "Jesus, you'd think I've done enough."

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