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Exclusive: 'NCIS' boss reveals the story behind spinoff & death of Gibbs' dad

Special Agent Gibbs (Mark Harmon) is joined by Special Agent Dwayne Cassius Pride (Scott Bakula) to solve a murder on the "Crescent City" episode of "NCIS."
Special Agent Gibbs (Mark Harmon) is joined by Special Agent Dwayne Cassius Pride (Scott Bakula) to solve a murder on the "Crescent City" episode of "NCIS."
CBS/Skip Bolen

"NCIS" heads to the Big Easy when Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) reunites with former colleague Special Agent Dwayne Cassius Pride (Scott Bakula) to solve the murder of a congressman, who was a part of their team when they were just probies. Tonight's "Crescent City" episode is the first of a two-parter that serves as a planted spinoff for a potential third "NCIS" series.

When the body of Congressman Dan McLane washes up in New Orleans, both the Washington, D.C. and the New Orleans field offices for "NCIS" are assigned to handle the case in conjunction with the FBI. So, Gibbs, along with Ellie Bishop (Emily Wickersham), joins Pride and his team, which includes Special Agent Christopher Lasalle (Lucas Black), NCIS Special Agent Meredith “Merri” Brody (Zoe McLellan) and Jefferson Parish Coroner Doctor Loretta Wade (CCH Pounder) to determine if the murder was politically based, or linked to McLane’s most well-known case, the arrest of the Privileged Killer, a serial murderer who targeted military and public servants.

In this exclusive interview with executive producer/showrunner Gary Glasberg, he reveals how the idea is based on a real-life NCIS agent, why filming in New Orleans makes this version of "NCIS" standout from the other two, and when and how there will be a tribute to Ralph Waite, who plays Gibbs' father Jackson.

Did CBS ask you to come up with a new series idea or was it your decision?

Every hiatus I sit down with Mark Harmon and we go through storylines for the next season that I want to do. In doing some research, I discovered that NCIS has this small little office in New Orleans because there is a tremendous military presence there on a regular basis. This office was run by this larger-than-life, fantastic individual, who is now retired, but he ran it for 25 years. For a long time, it was just him. Then it grew a little bit to two or three people.

But that intrigued me, and having the backdrop of New Orleans, and the color and the flavor of the city was really different and interesting to me. I pitched it to Mark as a sweeps episode. He looked at me and said, "That's a series." So we put together a pitch and went in with show-and-tell and music and all kinds of things to look at. People got excited so here we are.

If it does go to series, would you be the showrunner on both?

Yeah. I would bring in lots of people to help me because, goodness knows, you can't do this alone. They key would be to surround myself with fantastic people who can make it work. My primary focus would be the mothership and then to bring in other people to help me with New Orleans if it happens. Right now, I just want to get these two episodes on the air and see if people respond to them.

Several shows are shooting in Louisiana now. If this goes to series, might this be one? Or will it film in Los Angeles?

It's hard to tell. I think that New Orleans is such a character in this show and such a part of this show that we have to spend some time there, but I really don't know from a business standpoint at the end of the day, what would be decided. It hasn't been discussed beyond what went down for these two episodes.

How did you decide on Scott Bakula as the lead, and was there any thought to giving that role to a woman?

If you met Dwayne Swear, who the character is based on and who is a consultant on the show … I spent a tremendous amount of time with him and he is now a friend. You meet him and you are so drawn to who he is -- his eccentricity, his larger-than-life quality -- that it becomes a man right away. It started with him. It became his show to a certain extent. So because I had a starting point of this character and who this man was, so in my mind, it was always this man.

How does the story begin?

I wanted to come up with a story that directly connects Gibbs to Dwayne Pride and the backdrop that I came up with was that Gibbs was a probie under Mike Franks (Muse Watson), and there was another probie, Dwayne Pride, who was under the tutelage of an agent named McLane, and there was also an agent named Felix Betts (Stuart Margolin) that was part of this group. Together they formed the Fed Five, which was this powerful NIS or NCIS group of agents.

By inserting Pride into the folklore of Gibbs, I thought it would be a terrific backdrop and a launching point to get into the story for these New Orleans episodes. So McLane, who would have been Mike Franks contemporary, ends up getting killed. He became a congressman in his later years and ends up getting killed in this storyline. It is the investigation into his murder that brings Pride and Gibbs back together.

Is it just Gibbs and Bishop that go to New Orleans?

There is a tremendous part of this storyline needed the strong anchor of Tony (Michael Weatherly) and McGee (Sean Murray) working with Fornell (Joe Spano) in Washington. It is all part of the same storyline. I just needed them to carry the weight in Washington, while I send Gibbs down to New Orleans. He is told by Vance (Rocky Carroll) to bring someone along, and he brings Bishop.

If this goes to series, what will make it unique? How will it be different than "NCIS" and "NCIS: Los Angeles," so that we would need a third series?

I think once you watch it, you'll see that this city is so special and the backdrop is so different that it instantly changes the color and the feeling of things. That is what drew me to it in the first place. When you have a food-centric city, a music-centric city and there is an ease and a casualness to the way that the people of New Orleans present themselves and carry themselves, that changes the tone of the show. That is what drew me to it -- taking military-based crimes, which is what we always do, and setting it in this environment and against this backdrop -- right down to what you hear on the street. We ended up using real street musicians and recording them right there on the street -- ambient sounds -- recording that into what you're watching and seeing. Hopefully, that's what separates it.

How and whenare you going to deal with the death of Ralph Waite?

That's our finale. I had always planned a certain crime storyline that I wanted to do this season for the finale. Unfortunately, when Ralph passed, we decided to make it a huge part of our season finale. So, in addition to the crime we are dealing with, Gibbs will also be dealing with the passing of his father, going back home and dealing with the memories that are associated with that. We knew we had to do it and we wanted to do it justice, and not tag it on in some way.

Part one of the "Crescent City" episode of "NCIS" airs tonight at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.

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