Sean Murray Looks Back on 21 Years and 1,000 Episodes in the 'NCIS' Universe

Sean Murray

Sean Murray got his first role as a child actor—a background part in Steve Martin’s My Blue Heaven—by jumping a line. “We were living in San Diego and there was a radio ad looking for locals to be extras,” he tells Parade. “I begged my mom to go.” And so he found himself at age 12, standing single-file at Jack Murphy Stadium, waiting.

“They’re going down the line and picking people and telling them to step aside into a second line,” he remembers. But they didn’t pick him. So he looked over at his mother and did the only thing he could think to do. “I just jumped in the second line,” he says. “I felt that was probably the one to be in.” He was right.

<p>The Riker Brothers</p>

The Riker Brothers

Now 46 with two kids, Murray is celebrating a milestone moment in a career that’s spanned decades: His hit CBS procedural, NCIS, is about to air the franchise’s 1000th episode on April 15. “We strive, as always, to make [the series] as good as we can, with the same secret sauce that we’ve always had—the character-driven stuff,” he says.

Since the show premiered in 2003, Murray and his character Timothy McGee have climbed the ranks of their respective fields in relative lockstep: Murray, the baby-faced actor who’s still recognized from his turn as Thackery Binx in the 1993 cult classic Hocus Pocus, grew from a guest-starring role to the show’s longest-running series regular, while McGee advanced from inexperienced rookie agent to senior field agent.

Related: 'NCIS: Origins' Prequel Finds Its Young Leroy Jethro Gibbs

“I voiced pretty early on that I did not want the character of McGee to just revert to the same thing every week—I wanted him to grow,” Murray said. “Luckily, they wanted the same thing. I’ve always felt that there was a constant evolution. I think that’s part of why I’m still so interested in doing this 21 years later.”

Speaking from his home in the San Fernando Valley via Zoom, McGee dives deeper into his NCIS success, his early years as a Navy brat and more in this week’s Parade cover story.

Paulette Cohn: How did you land your role on NCIS?

Sean Murray: Originally, the McGee character was just a one-time guest appearance. Several episodes down the way, they finished editing one of the shows and they were about three minutes short. They said, ‘Let’s bring McGee back, put him with Tony [Michael Weatherly] because that worked when we did that the first time.’ From that point on, McGee started to appear in each episode more and more.

Did anyone help you along the way?

As the show grew, I grew with it. When they invited me to join full-time and I knew I’d be coming in for Season 2, our tech advisor lined up a trip to Brunswick, Georgia to go to FLETC, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. We went and it was dead in the middle of summer and it was so hot and there were so many mosquitos, it was crazy. I took handcuffing technique classes, weapons assembly, disassembly, some driving courses. I got to hang with some agents and do some real fun stuff. Even though we use almost none of that on the show when we’re filming, it made you feel better about portraying an agent to do those kinds of things.

You grew up a Navy brat. Was your father supportive of your acting career, or did he want you to follow in his footsteps?

Both my mom and my father have always been nothing but incredibly supportive of what I do. I remember my father—a Navy guy through and through, very disciplined—saying to me, “Are you sure you want to do this? This is not easy, and you won’t really have much to fall back on.” I said, “I’ve got to do this, I want to do this.” Even though he was a very practical guy, he understood.

Has he ever been on set to watch you work?

I remember my father coming to visit me on the set of Hocus Pocus [when Murray was around 15 years old] and him kind of standing in the rafters just watching. I would go, “Dad, come down here. Get closer.” He would just smile and go, “No, no, I’m good. I’m just going to watch. I understand none of it, but I find it fascinating.”

Meanwhile, your mom was the one who took you to auditions as a kid?

My father was in the middle of his military career and everything. One of the parts of him being a captain of a ship is he was on deployments for six or seven months at a time. My mother was sort of down for the adventure of, “Let’s start commuting to L.A., going to auditions, seeing what will happen, maybe getting an agent,” that sort of thing. Things worked out well. Although my mother learned pretty quickly that she was not a stage mom and was not interested in hanging around on sets and eating craft service and doing crossword puzzles. I think by the time I was 14 I had hired someone as a guardian to drive me to and from set and all that sort of thing.

It was around that time that your parents divorced. Your mom went on to marry producer and screenwriter Don Bellisario in 1998, which made the NCIS creator your stepfather. Do you ever think of yourself as a nepo baby?

No. I was doing this on my own from 12 years old. I’d done a series, I’d done a movie, I’d done plenty of stuff before Don became my stepfather.

But the connection had to help.

It’ll get you a foot in the door. But you cannot pull off being a lead simply because you’re someone’s child. If you worked for Don and you were related to him, he was extra hard on you. He didn’t mess around. That’s what made his shows so good. I love Don backwards and forwards, but he can be a real gorilla, which is wonderful in a lot of ways.

Your daughter, Cay Ryan, made her TV debut guest starring on NCIS last season. She’s just 16, but how will you feel if she decides this is her career path?

She’s from the musical theater world. She’s been in performing-arts school since she was very young. She’s made to do this stuff. As I’m sure you can see in any of the [NCIS] promo pictures they snapped of us, I’m grinning from ear to ear.

When you play a character for a long time, sometimes the writers pull things from the actor’s real life. Did they do that with you?

The thing with McGee’s father being a Navy Admiral, that was definitely inspired by my real life. We used a black-and-white picture that was taken of me and my father. I’m 8 or 9 years old standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier. We used this picture to establish McGee’s father initially.

Also, I used to build computers when I was a teenager. Before there were DIY videos on the internet, I read manuals and put together computers with my little brother. Early on, I would correct the dialogue as far as a lot of the computer and gadget talk.

What’s something else people might not know about you?

Since I was a teenager, I remember going to a gallery in Studio City and seeing art by Mark Ryden. Luckily, when I got older, I was able to collect some of his more limited pieces. I don’t have a whole gallery’s worth, but I was able to collect a few pieces that are very, very special to me.

Related: Many Questions Remain as 'NCIS' Heads Into Its 21st Season

And you’re a music nerd?

I listen to all kinds of music. I grew up on electronic music and hip-hop. I’m a big hip-hop nerd. Guys like Wilmer [Valderrama] and Rocky [Carroll] on the show, we’re always talking hip-hop.

It must have been great to do the crossover with NCIS: Los Angeles and work with LL COOL J.

I had a blast when he was hanging with us over on our set for the crossover. The actors hang out between the camera setups—he’s got like a small little boombox speaker with him that he’s playing music through constantly. Not loud, but just so he can kind of hear it and jam out to it. It’s usually, like, disco. It’s very rarely hip-hop. [But] I’ve been able to have real conversations with Todd [LL COOL J’s non-stage name], which is nice. As a hip-hop fan, it’s pretty surreal to have that.

I remember the first time sitting next to him and going, “Are you familiar with Detroit electro techno stuff?” He was like, “What? No.” I said, “All right, give me your number. I’m going to send you some stuff.” So I started sending him some songs. He started texting me how much he loved it.

How do you deal with all the losses? David McCallum, of course, who died last fall. But Mark Harmon leaving, Michael Weatherly leaving.

I have been fortunate to make lifelong friends with most of the people that have been on this show. From Cote [de Pablo] to Michael. Mark is a very important person in my life, we talk all the time. Even Jennifer Esposito, who was only on for a year, we talk. Emily [Wickersham]’s got a child now and she’s doing fantastic. Pauley [Perrette] and I text at least once a week. So, I don’t feel like I have lost anyone.

Was Mark Harmon’s exit the hardest?

It was hard for me. It was hard for a lot of us. When we filmed the final episode where we said goodbye to [his character] Gibbs, that was real. The whole crew was standing in that fly fishing lake crying, all of them. The most manly of our camera crew, tears were coming out.

Do you feel like you’ve missed out on other roles because you’ve been tied to NCIS?

A lot of people are always looking for something else. For me personally, my character was always growing, and this show was always growing and changing. One of the things that has kept me interested, too, is being able to drive home to see my family and my kids every night. That’s a huge thing. Most of my actor friends do not have that luxury. There are not a lot of shows that shoot in L.A.

On top of it, we’re making a quality television show. We’re not just showing up for the paycheck and the free lunch. We’re there to really work hard, we always have been. Even 21 years later.

Next, The Who, What, Why and When for the 'NCIS' Franchise’s 1,000th Episode