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TV Icon Remains True to Military Roots

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

LOS ANGELES, June 11, 2007 – One of TV’s biggest names, Don Bellisario -- creator of “Magnum PI,” “JAG” and, most recently, “NCIS” -- credits his own Marine Corps experience with giving him the background he needed to break into the television industry.

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Television icon Don Bellisario, creator of “Magnum PI,” “JAG” and, most recently, “NCIS,” credits his own Marine Corps experience with giving him the background he needed to break into the television industry. Courtesy photo

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“You write what you know,” said Bellisario, who served in the Marine Corps before going into advertising then television. He said his military background helped him break into TV 30 years ago with the NBC drama, “Baa Baa Black Sheep.”

“I guess I looked at that as kind of a talisman for me, my lucky rabbit foot,” he said during an interview in his Hollywood office, where mementos of his Tinseltown successes are displayed alongside a Marine Corps flag flown over Fallujah, Iraq.

Two years after “Baa Baa Black Sheep” hit the screen, Bellisario created “Magnum PI,” a detective story based in Hawaii. He said he knew he was taking a bold step when he bucked anti-Vietnam sentiment still prevalent in Hollywood at the time and portrayed the show’s stars as Vietnam veterans.

“Something I’m very proud of happened,” he said, reflecting on that time. “I began to get letters from veterans who had been in Vietnam, thanking me for portraying them in a positive manner. Because up until that show, anytime you saw a Vietnam vet in television, he was an alcoholic, a druggie, a shooter in a tower, a wife beater, a killer, (or) insane. And you never saw a positive image.”

But that doesn’t mean Bellisario’s audiences see military portrayals through rose-colored glasses or that the storylines don’t venture into controversial topics.

He recalled one “JAG” episode, loosely based on a story he heard about two submariners who covered up evidence that they had accidentally sunk a torpedo while unloading the gun tubes.

Bellisario said he decided to spice up the plot line by making the missing torpedo a nuclear round. The Navy reviewed the script, but refused to support the production because officials said existing security measures make the storyline preposterous. Rather than change the script, Bellisario produced the show without military support. “I understood, and they understood,” he said.

In his portrayals, Bellisario strives to give a balanced picture of the military, he said. He cited a JAG episode that was based loosely on a real incident about a female flier who cried sexual harassment after getting poor ratings on her checkout rides. As it turned out, she really was “an accident waiting to happen,” Bellisario said.

“That’s an interesting story, but I’m not going to tell that story unless I tell another story that balances it, where a woman is, in fact, held back … because she rejected somebody’s advances,” he said. “I told both of those stories in two different shows.”

Bellisario said he goes out of his way to give the military a fair shake in his shows, and he called that a big factor in why he rarely gets turned down when he asks the Defense Department for support.

“The truth is, it is rare that they do not cooperate on a show,” he said. “And the reason it’s rare, I think, is because I always try to hold the military up in a very positive light. I don’t want to do anything negative to hurt the military or the people serving in the military. I don’t like to do that.”

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageActor Mark Harmon (right) joins other cast members on the “NCIS” set during the “Vanished” episode, in which a Marine Cobra helicopter is found abandoned in the middle of a mysterious crop circle in a Virginia cornfield. Don Bellisario, who created the program, said Defense Department support adds realism to the production. Photo by Danny Feld/CBS/Paramount, used by permission  
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