Actor Mark Harmon has been a fixture on television for over 50 years. Most known for his role as special agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs on “NCIS” — who he played for 18 full seasons of the show — Mark has also appeared on a host of other loved TV shows. These include “The West Wing,” “St. Elsewhere” and “JAG,” where his “NCIS” character was originally introduced.
But Mark is far from the only actor in his family — his wife of over 30 years, Pam Dawber is also a successful Hollywood actress. Dawber made a big impression in the industry in the ’80s when she starred opposite Robin Williams in “Mork & Mindy.” She went on to work on other shows including “My Sister Sam,” but after the couple had children, Dawber chose to sacrifice her acting career in order to raise the couple’s two sons.
But it’s not only his wife that’s also in the industry — Mark actually has showbiz in his genes. The son of football star Tom Harmon and actress Elyse Knox, the “NCIS” star also has two sisters, Kristin Nelson (née Harmon) and Kelly Harmon. Both of his sisters also made their careers in the entertainment industry — Kelly is a model and actress, while Kristin was an actress and painter.
Tragically, though, Kristin — who passed away of a heart attack in 2018 — had a tough life plagued with marital woes, substance abuse and even estrangement from one of her children. Mark actually played a big role in trying to get his sister help and he even had temporary custody of her youngest son when she wasn’t able to properly take care of him. Let’s take a look at Kristin’s tragic life story and how Mark helped her through it all.
Kristin Nelson, Rick Nelson (circa 1963), (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Born on June 25, 1945, in Burbank, California, Kristin is the eldest of the three Harmon children. While she was still a child of 12, Kristin first met the man who would go on to become her future husband, Ricky Nelson. The son of stars too, Ricky appeared on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” with his parents, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. The real-life Nelson family starred in the sitcom, which aired from 1952 to 1966, where they became famous for an idealized version of American family life.
Kristin attended a private girls school in Bel Air named Marymount High School, where fellow children of celebrities also went. While there she made friends with future actress Mia Farrow, who was one of her closest friends during these years.
Fast forward a few years later to when Kristin was 17, where she and Ricky, then 23, got married in 1963. Just six months later, Kristin gave birth to their first child, Tracy. By this point, Ricky was a teen idol and after their marriage, Kristin even began to appear on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” which kickstarted her own acting career. The two newlyweds even starred in a movie together in 1965 titled “Love & Kisses,” about two school-age teens who get married. A newspaper review at the time called their appearance in the film an “inspired casting” choice.
But despite being in the spotlight, the couple didn’t refrain from growing their family further, as they had three more children in the following years — Gunnar, Matthew and Sam.
After “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” ended in 1966, Kristin still acted from time to time. She appeared in an Academy Award-winning short film, “The Resurrection of Broncho Billy,” and the TV series “Adam-12” among other projects.
Rick Nelson, Kristin Nelson (1963), (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
However, it wasn’t too long before Kristin began to have problems in her personal life. Ricky was a bonafide rock star during the time of the late ’60s and ’70s and the party lifestyle the two of them shared began to spiral out of control. This happened during the counterculture movement of the time. Kristin told People in a 1987 interview:
“We were hippie rock n’ rollers. We did what everyone else was doing all those years.”
“At first we were in it together. I tried to be one of the guys, to fix the marriage by going on the road and being involved in road stuff that is really not good for anyone. After a while we were totally messed up, both of us. I got into therapy and so did he for a while but then he started not showing up. I tried telling my family, there’s a drug problem here and we’ve all got to help. But they totally denied there was anything wrong.”
Sadly, the problems not only took a toll on their health but also their relationship and their family. She said in the same interview:
“I wish I had been able to delve deeper then, to bring Rick along with me. I knew that if I didn’t leave, we would both die. I knew that I would just somehow try to make it for my kids. I couldn’t help Rick anymore.”
In 1977, Kristin and the kids moved out of their home after she caught Ricky cheating with two Los Angeles Rams cheerleaders, which he later claimed was a setup so that Kristin could win custody of the kids.
Gunnar Nelson, Rick Nelson, Tracy Nelson, Kristin Nelson, Matthew Nelson (1968), (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
But the couple were on-again, off-again for a while. Then in 1982, they divorced for good, however, their very-public breakup was fodder for the press, and the couple didn’t hold back on their opinions of one another. In her 1987 interview with People, Kristin admitted their divorce was “messy.” It also caused a strain on her relationship with some members of her family. She said her family “never found fault with Ricky,” that they instead blamed her for how things worked out. She claimed:
“They always blamed me for everything. As Roman Catholics, they’ve never forgiven me for getting the divorce. And they’ve never forgiven me for not being perfect.”
Kristin also said in a 1998 documentary about the Nelson family: “I spent my whole life fighting the fairy tale. First trying to be it, then trying to tell the truth,” in reference to her marriage to Ricky.
During the time of their divorce, Kristin’s substance abuse came back “quite heavily,” she also admitted. It was around that period that she’d focused more on her painting but she was often too inebriated to continue making art. At one point her youngest son, Sam was placed in the care of Kristin’s parents, as she was deemed unfit to look after him.
Then, tragically, Ricky died in 1985 in a plane crash, alongside his band and new fiancé. The sad news only made Kristin’s behavior worse and although her eldest children had already left home, Sam still lived with her. One day, the then 12-year-old telephoned his uncle Mark in a cry for help. Sam’s auntie Kelly told People in the same interview that he said:
“Help me! … Get me out of here. I can’t take it anymore. My mother is like a hill. First she’s up, then she’s down.”
Kristin Harmon, Ricky Nelson (1978), (Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
Unsure if Kristin was once again under the influence, Mark vowed to help his nephew. Days later, the “NCIS” actor found his sister grocery shopping and felt that she was obviously inebriated, which Kristin has always maintained she was not, rather that she was simply exhausted. Nevertheless, soon after Mark managed to convince his sister to check into rehab. Kristin told People:
“Nobody but my brother could have talked me into this because I trusted him. A voice inside me said, ‘For once in your life, let somebody help you.’”
However, Sam wanted to be with his uncle, so a custody battle between Kristin and Mark ensued. Kelly said:
“The intention was never to take a child away from its mother … The intention was to put Sam in a healthy environment where he could feel safe and go to school while his mother got well.”
Things might have started out with good intentions, but as the case progressed, things only got more ugly. The judge gave Mark temporary custody of Sam, while the case opened up a lot of the family’s dirty laundry. This included a cross-examination of Dawber, during which the judge pressed her on whether she’d taken ever drugs before.
According to reports from the time, the media had cast Mark as the bad guy in the situation and Kristin as the heroine. Combined with the fact that the trial was tearing the family apart, Mark decided to drop the charges and Kristin gained custody of Sam once again. Mark told the judge back then:
“We don’t want to go any further with this … Too much blood has been spilled.”
However, an arrangement was made for Kristin, Sam and Mark to all attend family counseling.
Mark Harmon, Kelly Harmon, Elyse Harmon, Kristin Harmon, Tom Harmon (1986), (Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
People reported that the general consensus was that it “was a typical family dispute and it should have been settled around the dining room table.” Thankfully, Kristin and Sam’s relationship began to repair itself following the case, and in an interview in 2016 — two years before his mom’s passing — Sam spoke about how they worked things out between them. He said:
“We’re absolutely close. … As you get older, things that were important aren’t important anymore. Problems aren’t problems anymore. You work through them, or you don’t. But for the most part, you hope to. I think we’re in a good way together, and we have a good relationship.”
He also opened up about his relationship with his late father Ricky. He said:
“My relationship with Pop was tricky. I loved him very much, I know he loved me very much, but we didn’t really get an opportunity to see each other that often. When I was growing up, my parents were going through a divorce … That happened all through my childhood.”
In the interview, Sam opened up about his music career and the influence of his father especially. He also said his mom is “incredibly creative” and that “(he’ll) call her and ask her about ideas and what she thinks.” Despite the tough period that Sam endured with his father’s death and then the custody battle for him between his mom and his uncle Mark, it’s heartwarming to know that by later in Kristin’s life they had made amends and were close.
Gunnar Nelson, Tracy Nelson, Matthew Nelson (1987), (Vinnie Zuffante/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
In her last decades of life, Kristin mostly stayed out of the spotlight. She remarried one year after the highly publicized custody battle for Sam when she wed TV producer and director Mark Tinker. Their union lasted for 12 years before they divorced in 2000.
One aspect of her life that Kristin found solace in was art, specifically her painting. When she met Tinker, he had asked her what she wanted to do with her life and she told him, “I want to paint.” Her paintings — which were done in the style of naïve art — were popular with celebrities. Her art career received a significant boost when Jacqueline Kennedy purchased her artwork titled “When the Kennedys Were in the White House”
Kristin kept her life private in the later years of her life and then on April 27, 2018, she suffered a fatal heart attack. Her daughter Tracy made the news public when she wrote on her Facebook page:
“My mother, Kristin Harmon Nelson, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly last night. Love and light are welcome.”
Kristin’s legacy lives on with her children, who have all followed in their family’s footsteps in the entertainment industry. Tracy is an actress, while Gunnar and Matthew founded the band, Nelson. Meanwhile, Sam is a musician who started the band H Is Orange. Of course, Kristin’s brother Mark and sister Kelly also continue on her family’s ties.
Despite the difficulties that filled her life, Kristin found peace later on after she got sober and was able to focus on her art and rebuilding her relationship with her children. With the love of her family, who stuck by her even during the hard times, Kristin’s memory lives on with them.
Mark Harmon (2014), (Steve Granitz/WireImage)
Did you know the tragic story of Kristin Nelson’s life? What about the fact that Mark Harmon was involved in such a difficult family drama before his success on NCIS? If you found this interesting, then pass it on to those you know so they can read about everything Kristin overcame too.