Advertisement

The Biggest NCIS Exits, Ranked: Which Sendoffs Shook Up the Show Most?

Two episodes into its 21st season, CBS’ NCIS crafted a beautiful sendoff for Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard, played by the late David McCallum — the long-running and well-watched procedural’s last remaining original cast member.

That emotional hour, revolving around Ducky’s own passing (and the team’s fond remembrances of their friend and colleague), ended a rather quiet period for NCIS, which hadn’t needed to deal with any major exits since franchise front man Mark Harmon’s swan song, early into Season 19.

More from TVLine

Ahead of Harmon’s decision to part ways with the role of Gibbs (though he remains an executive producer), NCIS had navigated a flurry of cast and character exits. Over the course of consecutive mid-Season 18 episodes, we learned that Jimmy Palmer’s wife, Breena, had died of COVID during an off-camera time jump… operational psychologist “Jack” Sloane (played for three seasons by Maria Bello) relocated to Afghanistan to do good work… and Tobias Fornell’s long-suffering daughter, Emily, died of a drug overdose.

To cap off that eventful Season 18, Special Agent Eleanor Bishop — played by eight-season cast member Emily Wickersham — bid colleague (…and more) Nick Torres a sudden adieu, as it was revealed that she had orchestrated the sullying of her own reputation as a former NSA analyst in order to go deep undercover for… um, something.

Season 19 proceeded to mark the procedural’s fist time slot change in, well, ever (moving to Mondays at 9/8c), as well as promote Katrina Law to series regular as Special Agent Jessica Knight and Gary Cole (The Good Fight) as Special Agent Alden Parker.

In the wake of Ducky and McCallum’s passing, TVLine has revisited NCIS‘ biggest exits from the past 20-plus years, ranking them by how greatly they impacted the plot/other characters. Check out our list and then weigh in with your own thoughts.

Want scoop on NCIS, or for any other show? Email InsideLine@tvline.com and your question may be answered via Matt’s Inside Line.

15. PAULA CASSIDY, played by Jessica Steen

15. PAULA CASSIDY, played by Jessica Steen
15. PAULA CASSIDY, played by Jessica Steen

A onetime GITMO interrogator and Agent Afloat, NCIS Special Agent Cassidy died tragically toward the end of Season 4, by tackling a suicide bomber through a door and thus saving the lives of nearby agents. Though possibly a character forgotten by all but the most committed of longtime fans, Paula’s death nudged former flame Tony to tell Jeanne Benoit that he loved her, setting in motion one of the series’ messier romantic arcs.

14. BREENA PALMER, played by Michelle Pierce

14. BREENA PALMER, played by Michelle Pierce
14. BREENA PALMER, played by Michelle Pierce

Granted, Jimmy Palmer’s wife passed away Linda Reagan-like, off-screen and during a time jump — a victim of COVID-19, as was slowwwwly revealed during a mid-Season 18 episode. But Jimmy’s reaction within that episode broke our hearts, especially as he noted to Gibbs how “the hospital wouldn’t let me see her” due to COVID precautions. As with Director Vance and his own better half, Jimmy’s loss will surely sting for a bit, though we as viewers had only gotten to know Breena over a half-dozen scattered episodes.

13. EMILY FORNELL, played by Juliette Angelo

13. EMILY FORNELL, played by Juliette Angelo
13. EMILY FORNELL, played by Juliette Angelo

One episode after Jack Sloane decided to leave the team and make camp in Afghanistan, NCIS delivered a somewhat unexpected and incredibly sad resolution to the Emily Fornell/opioid addiction arc that had started with the Season 16 finale.

Earlier in Season 18, a series of episodes “jumped back in time” to November of 2019, to reveal to us Gibbs and Fornell’s hunt for the leader of the drug ring that had supplied opioids to Emily. Their bid to cut off the head of the snake, however, would not prevent Emily from relapsing off-screen, setting the stage for Tobias’ silent, anguished discovery that his little girl had died from an overdose. We haven’t yet seen in full the extent of Tobias’ grief (since the back half of Season 18 focused on Gibbs being disciplined for his assault of a POI), but we reckon there is more to come.

12. JACKSON GIBBS, played by Ralph Waite

12. JACKSON GIBBS, played by Ralph Waite
12. JACKSON GIBBS, played by Ralph Waite

Waltons family patriarch Ralph Waite had made only a handful of appearances over five seasons as Gibbs’ one-estranged father, but as with most of the series’ parent/adult child relationships, every moment we spent with them together was to be treasured. The reveal that Jackson had died of a stroke, in the Season 11 finale, came as no great surprise, seeing as Waithe had passed away in real life months prior, but series lead Mark Harmon finely conveyed the always guarded Gibbs’ sense of loss, in what proved to be a lovely tribute episode.

11. ‘JACK’ SLOANE, played by Maria Bello

11. ‘JACK’ SLOANE, played by Maria Bello
11. ‘JACK’ SLOANE, played by Maria Bello

Bello’s exit was not at all unexpected — it had been announced seven months prior — so it was all a matter of how the team’s operational psychologist would break away from the pack. In an episode that aired midway through Season 18, Jack hinted at a move to Costa Rica, yet when all was said and done, she instead semi-impetuously decided to stay behind in Afghanistan after a mission, to follow in the shoes of a local chaperone who had taken care of her years ago when she was held hostage by “The Monster.” Sloane’s role with the team had not been a pre-existing one, and there will be no rush to fill it, but the goodbye kiss that she elicited from Gibbs at the very least showed us that Boss still knows a great catch when he sees one (and even when she isn’t a redhead).

10. ELI DAVID and JACKIE VANCE, played by Michael Nouri and Paula Newsome

Though Ziva’s father and Director Vance’s wife had only 11 appearances between the two of them over some four seasons, their deaths as the result of a drive-by shooting that riddled the Vance home with bullets, in Season 10’s “Shabbat Shalom,” stands as one of NCIS‘ most emotional hours. The series would repeatedly revisit Leon Vance’s grief, as a widowed father, while Cote de Pablo’s work in the scene where Ziva learns of her abba‘s fate (at the 1:50 mark of the video above) will never not bring us chills:

9. JENNY SHEPARD, played by Lauren Holly

9. JENNY SHEPARD, played by Lauren Holly
9. JENNY SHEPARD, played by Lauren Holly

Jenny arrived on the scene in Season 3 with one of the series’ richest backstories, as, yes, an ex of Gibbs’, but also as a woman who had dedicated a decade of her life to solve her Army colonel father’s death by “suicide.” Reuniting with Gibbs at NCIS (as Director Thomas Morrow’s successor), Jenny surreptitiously sought to get the goods on her father’s suspected killer, René Benoit AKA “La Grenouille” or “The Frog.” But in the end, it was another part of Jenny’s past — a Russian crime lord’s lover whose assassination she couldn’t pull off — that came back to haunt her, leading to a Mojave Desert diner shootout in which the baddies were all killed, but alas, so was Director Shepard herself, devastating the team back home greatly.

8. ABBY SCIUTO and CLAYTON REEVES, played by Pauley Perrette and Duane Henry

8. ABBY SCIUTO and CLAYTON REEVES, played by Pauley Perrette and Duane Henry
8. ABBY SCIUTO and CLAYTON REEVES, played by Pauley Perrette and Duane Henry

Pauley Perrette’s exit after 15 years came as little surprise, given that it had been announced seven months prior. We just didn’t know that the streetside murder of MI6 agent/NCIS liaison Clayton Reeves, who like Abby was shot during a not-so-random mugging, would precipitate Abby’s sendoff. Because Reeves died a hero in the course of protecting his colleague, Abby committed herself to following in his footsteps by shepherding a charity for homeless women. She then accompanied Reeves’ body back to his London home before embarking on this new chapter in her life.

Henry’s own, abrupt exit after, two seasons, made up for any shock value that Perrette’s own departure lacked. And though Abby unarguably had made her “Gibbs, Gibbs, Gibbs!” mark over 15 seasons, successor Kasie Hines (played by Diona Reasonover) has quite ably filled the forensics lab with the circuitous fast-talking we have come to expect.

7. ELLIE BISHOP, played by Emily Wickersham

7. ELLIE BISHOP, played by Emily Wickersham
7. ELLIE BISHOP, played by Emily Wickersham

We would have expected to be a lot more moved than we actually were when Special Agent Ellie Bishop opted to “peace out” on Nick and the rest of the team in the Season 18 finale, after surreptitiously framing herself as a onetime NSA leak — especially since Wickersham’s split with the show had not been announced! And yet, while, yes, Torres has been left with a romantic wound to lick, Bishop’s exit was (and probably will continue to be) somewhat overshadowed by Gibbs’ simultaneous “death.” Plus, whereas Ziva David was not immediately replaced on the team upon her own departure, Special Agent Jessica Knight (played by new series regular Katrina Law) is already in place to pick up the badass female slack.

6. MIKE FRANKS, played by Muse Watson

6. MIKE FRANKS, played by Muse Watson
6. MIKE FRANKS, played by Muse Watson

It may surprise some of NCISless-seasoned fans that, yes, Mike Franks at one point was actually alive, and not a ghost or hallucination. But the fact that the character popped up now and again in the years since his tragic Season 8 death — fatally stabbed while thwarting the Port-to-Port Killer whose next target was Gibbs — is testament to the important role he had played in Jethro’s life, as the mentor who taught the NCIS team leader everything he knows.

5. CAITLIN TODD, played by Sasha Alexander

5. CAITLIN TODD, played by Sasha Alexander
5. CAITLIN TODD, played by Sasha Alexander

The former Secret Service agent was DiNozzo’s OG partner in zingy office banter, thought she arguably called out his frat boy antics more than her oneday successor, Ziva David ,ever would. Even so, the dynamic between Tony and “Kate” was one of the series’ early hallmarks, and that made the exact circumstances of her death in the Season 2 finale — felled out of nowhere by a sniper’s bullet fired by Ari “Ziva’s half-brother” Haswari, just as she was responding to a rare compliment of Tony’s — all the more devastating.

4. ZIVA DAVID, played by Cote de Pablo

4. ZIVA DAVID, played by Cote de Pablo
4. ZIVA DAVID, played by Cote de Pablo

The former Mossad officer had big shoes to fill upon her Season 3 arrival, succeeding as she did NCIS Special Agent Caitlin Todd (who had died at the hands of no less than Ziva’s half-brother, Ari). Yet de Pablo instantly made her mark, establishing a razor-sharp banter with Michael Weatherly’s DiNozzo and crafting Ziva into a truly enigmatic TV character. When news broke over the summer ahead of Season 11, that de Pablo and the CBS drama were unable to agree to terms for a new contact, the fan reaction was fierce — 1,200 comments on the first news story alone! And while Ziva’s eventual, double-episode exit story was compelling, touching, and in the very end more than a bit romantic, she was a hard act to follow in her own right — so much so that de Pablo’s cameos in recent years were greatly welcome.

3. DR. DONALD ‘DUCKY’ MALLARD, played by David McCallum

David McCallum passed away on Sept. 25, 2023 — just as the 148-day Writers Guild strike was about to end, meaning the NCIS writers had a No. 1 priority as they went back to work. Though Ducky had only appeared intermittently over the last few seasons (3-4 episodes each, and remotely as of late), McCallum was the long-running procedural’s last remaining original cast member. So when it was discovered, by Jimmy, that the good doctor had passed away in his sleep, the episode “The Stories We Leave Behind” was every bit as wonderful as it deserved to be, abundant with emotional reactions (especially from Dr. Palmer), meaningful flashbacks and one pretty perfect cameo.

2. TONY DINOZZO, played by Michael Weatherly

2. TONY DINOZZO, played by Michael Weatherly
2. TONY DINOZZO, played by Michael Weatherly

In Michael Weatherly‘s final NCIS episode, Special Agent Tony DiNozzo followed his heart, and then his head, setting the stage for the original cast member’s exit. Upon hearing about the bombing of the David family farmhouse in Israel, Tony made tracks for the airport but Abby and McGee intercepted him at his home, to relay the very bad news that Ziva indeed died in the attack. Tony’s furor that followed was soon enough interrupted by his introduction to Tali, a daughter whom Ziva gave birth to years ago.

At the end of that Season 13 finale, DiNozzo shared with Gibbs his decision to leave the team and take care of Tali, starting with a trip to Israel and followed by a visit to the Paris that “Ziva loves.” “I’m everything to that little girl now,” is how Tony put it, “and I’ve never been anybody’s everything before.”

While we now can find some comfort in the fact that 1) Ziva in fact was alive and 2) Tony eventually confirmed that (albeit off-screen, years after Weatherly’s exit), the fact is that Tony was a one-of-a-kind presence, both hero and sometime heel. A master of both bon mots and the occasional groaner. A cinephile who in some ways lived the life of a dashing, camera-ready crimefighter. McGee is a very fine “Very Special Agent” and Torres nicely fills the role of reformed rake, but DiNozzo stands as the character whose absence most resonates with us.

1. LEROY JETHRO GIBBS, played by Mark Harmon

1. LEROY JETHRO GIBBS, played by Mark Harmon
1. LEROY JETHRO GIBBS, played by Mark Harmon

Harmon reportedly was ready to hang up Gibbs’ cap after Season 18, but learned that if he did so, CBS might not renew NCIS. As such, he agreed to return for what TVLine later reported that would be only “a few” episodes.

Sure enough, in but the fourth episode of Season 19 — after he, McGee et al solved the case of a contract killer hired by a conglomerate to clear the way for an environment-poisoning copper mine  — Gibbs decided not to take back his badge, gun and job,  but stay in Alaska, where the multi-episode arc had most recently led him.

McGee has Gibbs’ blessing as the new team leader, and yes, we got a taste of what a Gibbs-less NCIS team would be like, after his suspension. Still, this is the biggest exit in the series’ long run, and time will soon enough tell if TV’s most watched drama can survive it.

WHICH NCIS EXIT ROCKED YOU HARDEST? TELL US IN COMMENTS!

Best of TVLine

Get more from TVLine.com: Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Newsletter