Stars From NCIS You Didn't Know Died

The following article includes mentions of a drug overdose and suicide.

It's rare that a spinoff of a television series becomes so popular that it eclipses the success of the original show that spawned it. Yet that's precisely what happened with a spinoff of CBS legal drama "JAG," which followed the exploits of a group of U.S. Navy attorneys. "NCIS" — an acronym for Naval Criminal Investigative Service — launched on the network in 2003 and went on to become one of television's all-time biggest hits. Not only did "NCIS" bring in big ratings for CBS, but it also held the distinction for many years as the most-watched TV show in the entire world. 

With "NCIS" renewed for a 21st season in early 2023, the series remains wildly popular with viewers, having spawned several spinoffs of its own: "NCIS: Los Angeles," "NCIS: New Orleans," "NCIS: Hawaiʻi," and even an Australian version dubbed "NCIS: Sydney." 

Over the course of all those seasons and all those shows, numerous actors have lent their talents to a franchise that's boasted a run of two decades and counting. But sadly, not all of them remain with us. To find out more, read on for a look at stars from "NCIS" you didn't know died.

Miguel Ferrer was still working on NCIS: LA when he died

Miguel Ferrer became a regular part of "NCIS: Los Angeles" in 2012, going on to appear in 115 episodes as Owen Granger. As the former NCIS assistant director for special operations, and the boss of NCIS Los Angeles operations manager Hetty Lang (Linda Hunt), Ferrer's character came to be integral to the show. 

Ferrer — whose parents were singer Rosemary Clooney and actor José Ferrer, while George Clooney was his first cousin — had stood out in numerous roles prior to that, including playing FBI pathologist Albert Rosenfield in "Twin Peaks" and the vice president in "Iron Man 3." Back in 2014, Ferrer spoke with TVFanatic about how much he was enjoying his "NCIS: LA" gig. "It's my third year with the show and every season the part's sort of increased and gotten more and more interesting so I'm really thrilled to just be more a part of things," he said. "The fact that they keep coming up with interesting aspects of the character really is terrific. I couldn't be happier."

The actor was still working on the show when he died of throat cancer in 2017 at the age of 61. "NCIS: LA" showrunner R. Scott Gemmill paid tribute to Ferrer in a statement to Variety. "Today, 'NCIS: Los Angeles' lost a beloved family member," Gemmill said. "Miguel was a man of tremendous talent who had a powerful dramatic presence on screen, a wicked sense of humor, and a huge heart."

Ralph Waite held a special place in the hearts of NCIS' cast and crew

Ralph Waite was already a television heavyweight when he was cast in "NCIS." In fact, Waite was best known for playing the patriarch of "The Waltons," a beloved TV hit that ran from 1972 until 1981. Other memorable roles included the father of Kevin Costner's character in "The Bodyguard," and a sadistic sailor on a slave ship in "Roots."

Waite first appeared in "NCIS" in 2008 as Jackson Gibbs, father of NCIS special agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon). He went on to play the character in a total of eight episodes in the series, making his final appearance in 2013. Waite died of natural causes the following year at the age of 85. "Everyone at 'NCIS' is deeply saddened by the passing of our friend and colleague Ralph Waite," read a statement from the show's cast and crew, as reported by USA Today. "Ralph was family to us, a tremendous talent and a very special man. We truly cherish the time we had with him. Our hearts and prayers go out to his loved ones."

A few months later, "NCIS" paid tribute to Waite in a special episode, in which Gibbs learns that his father has passed and returns home to attend the funeral. As executive producer Gary Glasberg wrote in a special guest blog for Entertainment Weekly, "We lost someone we truly cared about. And now it was time to let Leroy Jethro Gibbs say goodbye to his father, too."

Veteran character actor Charles Durning was an NCIS alum

Charles Durning only appeared in a single episode of "NCIS," but there's no denying it was a memorable one. Guest starring in the series' second season, Durning played Ernie Yost, a Second World War veteran and recipient of the Medal of Honor, who turns himself into NCIS and confesses to a 60-year-old murder. For viewers, Durning was hardly an unknown, as the so-called "king of character actors" was a two-time Oscar nominee with a voluminous array of stage and screen credits dating back to the 1950s. 

Apart from "NCIS," Durning's more memorable acting roles included: a lovelorn man wooing Dustin Hoffman's Dorothy in "Tootsie," a grizzled NYPD detective in "Dog Day Afternoon," the ridiculously corrupt governor in the big-screen musical "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" (for which he received one of his Academy Award nominations), and Pope John XXIII in a made-for-TV movie. Durning also had an extensive roster of Broadway credits, which began back in 1964 and was highlighted by his turn as Big Daddy in a 1990 revival of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." 

Durning died of natural causes in 2012, aged 89. During a 2008 interview with the Associated Press, while receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Durning shared the work ethic underlying his successful Hollywood career. "I never turned down anything and never argued with any producer or director," he said, as reported by USA Today.

Annie Wersching was just 45 when she died of cancer

Annie Wersching guest starred in a 2010 episode of "NCIS," playing deputy DA Gail Walsh. Discussing her role with TV Guide, Wersching described the character as "very ambitious and hardworking, yet she also has some drive to get part of her personal life going. So she's interested to see if anyone at NCIS is a prospect." As a frequent television guest star, Wersching later told Pop Culture Principle that her experiences tended to vary depending on the production. "Sometimes if your guest stint or your recurring stint is literally a scene or two, you are in and out so quick, you don't even have the chance to make relationships or bonds which can feel kind of strange," she explained. "... It depends show to show; some are more welcoming than others, but I have been really lucky."

Prior to that "NCIS" guest spot, Wersching was best known for playing FBI agent Renee Walker on the seventh and eighth series of Kiefer Sutherland's ticking-clock action series "24." Other notable roles included Lily Salvatore in "The Vampire Diaries," Emma Whitmore in "Timeless," rookie LAPD officer Julia Brasher in "Bosch," and the Borg Queen in "Star Trek: Picard." 

Her final screen appearance was in a 2022 episode of "The Rookie." In January 2023, Wersching died from cancer. She was just 45. "There is a cavernous hole in the soul of this family today," her husband, actor Stephen Full, stated in part to Deadline. "But she left us the tools to fill it."

Gregory Itzen played two different roles on NCIS

Gregory Itzen had the rare distinction of playing two different characters on "NCIS." He appeared in two Season 1 episodes — including the series' pilot — as Director Charlie of the FBI. He returned in the 17th season in 2020, this time in an entirely different role, a character named Spencer Downing.  

Itzen was a respected character actor with more than 180 screen credits, dating back from 1979 until his 2022 death during an emergency surgery at the age of 74. He'd experienced a heart attack seven years prior. As of this writing, "NCIS" has marked his final appearance onscreen to air, though two projects — TV series "The Pragmatist" and film "The Requiem Boogie" — have yet to be released. Of all those roles, he's remained best known for playing President Charles Logan on "24," but Itzen was also renowned in "Star Trek" circles for making five separate guest-starring appearances in various "Trek" shows over the years: appearing twice in "Deep Space Nine" (in two different roles), once on "Voyager," and twice (again, as different characters) in "Enterprise." 

Interviewed by in 2012, Itzen revealed that he'd come to embrace the somewhat obsessive form of fandom displayed by Trekkies. "I remember the characters' names and who they were, but people will come and ask the most intricate questions about the episodes. 'What was it like when you did...?' and I'll have no idea what they're talking about. These people are devoted and are huge fans, and it's quite amazing. ... So it becomes very nice. It's a warm experience."

NCIS was one of hundreds of credits for René Auberjonois

An examination of René Auberjonois' lengthy list of screen credits can be daunting; a sought-after character actor for decades, he racked up a staggering 231 film and TV roles during a career that extended from the mid-1960s until his death from metastatic lung cancer in 2019 at age 79.

Auberjonois appeared on "NCIS" just once, in a 2012 episode titled "Phoenix," playing NASA scientist Dr. Felix Blackwell. That was one of many memorable roles, with highlights including "M*A*S*H*" (not the TV series, but the 1970 film, in which he played Father Mulcahy), Clayton Runnymede Endicott III in hit sitcom "Benson," Odo in "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," and Paul Lewiston on "Boston Legal." Auberjonois also performed extensively on Broadway, where he got his start portraying the Fool in Shakespeare's "King Lear" back in 1968, just one of his 14 roles. He won a Tony Award for his performance as Sebastian Baye while starring in the musical "Coco" opposite Katharine Hepburn back in 1970. Meanwhile, the actor also had numerous credits in animated projects, most famously as Chef Louis in Disney's "The Little Mermaid." 

Of all his gigs, Auberjonois recalled "Benson" most affectionately. "It was the most wonderful job and for six years I worked a sitcom schedule," he told the Anderson Valley Advertiser in 2011, noting that the stability allowed him to pick up and drop off his kids from school each day, while the summer hiatus presented opportunities to return to theater. "It was a dream job," he added.

NCIS: LA guest star Vachik Mangassarian died from COVID-19

Vachik Mangassarian's history with the "NCIS" franchise actually extended all the way back to its predecessor "JAG," in which he played the chairman of a Muslim tribunal council. Of Armenian descent but born in Iran, the actor appeared in the first season of "NCIS: Los Angeles," playing Egyptian arms dealer Sadiki Hassan, and then in the 10th season of the same series, this time as a guy impersonating the president of Iran.

In addition to his various acting roles — which included such TV series as "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" — Mangassarian was also the anchor of the radio and television show "The Armenian National Network." Mangassarian's second "NCIS: LA" guest spot, in 2019, was also one of his final roles; he'd go on to appear alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in 2022's "Moving On," but he died that same year at age 78 from complications of COVID-19. 

Prior to his death, reported the Daily Beast, Mangassarian had posted numerous anti-vaccine memes on social media. According to a rep for the late actor, he was eventually vaccinated for the virus — albeit reluctantly, agreeing to get jabbed in order to maintain his ability to work onscreen. "I know about his original stance," his manager, Valerie McCaffery, explained to the outlet, "but after I had a talk with him, his desire to work became more important to him."

Bruce Gray was familiar to film and TV viewers

Bruce Gray was another actor who first acted in "JAG" before venturing to "NCIS." In the former series, he appeared in a 2002 episode as a brigadier general. In the latter, he guested in the first season as CIA assistant director Jonathan Overmeier.

Gray work in film and TV in both the U.S. and Canada, where he was raised. Among his many credits are "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," as well as the Canadian drama "Traders," in which he starred in all five seasons. Gray also held recurring roles in "Queer as Folk," "Medium," "Falling Skies," and "How I Met Your Mother." In his younger days, he performed in theater in both New York and London. "So often you hear actors say they won't go [to an audition] for just a few lines," Gray told the Toronto Star in 2011. "I worked three projects every day in a row in two different countries, all from parts that originated from just a few lines."

In 2017, Gray died at age 81 after a brain cancer diagnosis. One of his final projects was released that same year, the indie film "Don't Talk to Irene." "Bruce was not only an amazingly talented actor, but an incredible role model on set," that movie's producer, Alyson Richards, told The Hollywood Reporter. "He charmed the entire cast and crew of 'Don't Talk to Irene' with his warmth, generosity, and incredible wit."

Michael Gilden's death changed the life of an NCIS star

Born with dwarfism, actor Michael Gilden played numerous roles typically reserved for little people, ranging from an Ewok in "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi" to a Philip Morris page in "Pulp Fiction." On "NCIS," he guested in two 2006 episodes as Marty Pearson, a scientist who worked with NCIS forensic scientist Abby Sciuto (played by Pauley Perrette). Sadly, the CBS show was Gilden's final acting credit; he died at age 44 in 2006, with his death subsequently revealed to be a suicide.

Interestingly, Gilden's tragic death led to a friendship between his widow, fellow actor Meredith Eaton, and Perrette, with whom she bonded after his death. "We have been through so much together," Perrette said during an interview with "Entertainment Tonight." Eaton added, "Out of tragedy I believe comes some triumph. It's hard to see it in the moment, and one of the biggest gifts that I've been given is Pauley as a friend, 'cause she's been an anchor for me."

Eaton, in fact, went on to guest star in four episodes of "NCIS" as Carol Wilson, with both women enjoying the opportunity to work together. "I've never played a character like this," she said of her "NCIS" role as a CDC immunologist and Abby's old friend, which she'd also portray in an episode of "NCIS: New Orleans."

Ravil Isyanov's acting career was cut short

Ravil Isyanov's journey through the world of "NCIS" began when he guest starred in a 2001 episode of "JAG," and continued when he played a different character in a 2006 episode of "NCIS." However, it wasn't until 2013 that the Moscow-born actor really made an impact in the franchise, when he made his debut as Russian mob boss Anatoli Kirkin in "NCIS: Los Angeles." The character proved to be a fan favorite, and Isyanov reprised the role six more times over the years, with his final "NCIS: LA" appearance in 2021.

When Isyanov was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he shared the news with the producers of "NCIS: Los Angeles." "He knew that his future looked bleak because of the cancer," the actor's manager, Frederick Levy, later told People, adding that Isyanov felt that "if they wanted to write him off, they might want to do it, soon." With that knowledge, the series' writers crafted a two-episode arc that wrapped up the character's storyline. "I just thought it was really sweet that they were able to give him a proper send off," Levy added. Isyanov died at age 59 in 2021, just a few months after filming his final episodes of the show.

That was not his final screen role, however; Isyanov also portrayed director Billy Wilder in the posthumously released Ana de Armas-starring Marilyn Monroe biopic "Blonde," as well as the 2022 dramedy "25 Cents Per Minute." Other notable credits included "The Americans," the 007 flick "GoldenEye," "24," "GLOW," and "The Last Ship."

Heath Freeman's cause of death was sad and shocking

Actor Heath Freeman had appeared in a handful of television shows before he was cast as Benjamin Frank in "NCIS." Featured in one 2003 episode, the character was a gemologist and ex-boyfriend of Pauley Perrette's Abby Sciuto. Freeman went on to guest in a number of TV dramas, including the likes of "Bones," "The Closer," and "Without a Trace." By the mid-2010s and early 2020s, however, his credits had shifted to obscure low-budget movies, such as "The Wicked Within" and "Terror on the Prairie." His final onscreen appearance would be the posthumously released 2023 movie "Outlaw Johnny Black."

In 2021, Freeman died at the age of 41. "A brilliant human being with an intense and soulful spirit, he leaves us with an indelible imprint in our hearts," Freeman's manager, Joe S. Montifiore, said in a statement released to CNN. "His life was filled with deep loyalty, affection, and generosity towards his family and friends, and an extraordinary zest for life. He was extremely proud of his recent film work and was very excited for the next chapter of his career."

A few months later, TMZ revealed Freeman's death was the result of an accidental overdose, caused by a toxic combination of liquor and drugs, including alprazolam, cocaine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, and oxycodone.

Nina Foch played the mother of an NCIS series regular

Nina Foch was a film and television veteran when she made her first of two guest-starring appearances on "NCIS" in the second season. Her role was a big one for fans, playing the imperious mother of NCIS medical examiner Donald "Ducky" Mallard. She reappeared to reprise the character, Mrs. Victoria Mallard, in another episode during Season 3. 

For Foch, "NCIS" was just one of more than 170 screen credits, extending all the way back to the early 1940s. Decades later, she recalled churning out film noir B movies in the '40s as if working on an assembly line, telling the Los Angeles Times, "It's extraordinary how fast we made them. You'd shoot an entire picture in 10 or 12 days. We worked six days a week. There was no turn-around time back then, so you'd work into the evening, go home for six hours and then come back to work again. The movies were called noir because no one had the time to light anything." Starting her career in movies, including starring alongside Gene Kelly in "An American in Paris," she soon became a fixture on television screens from the 1950s to the 2000s. Over the years, her numerous TV guest spots ran the gamut from "Dr. Kildare" to "Bull," in which she had a recurring role. 

After an acting career spanning six decades, as well as decades of work as an acting and directing coach, Foch died in 2008 at the age of 84 from complications from myelodysplasia, a blood disorder. 

Sam Sarpong's short life ended tragically

Sam Sarpong appeared in just one episode of "NCIS" back in the series' first season, as Bobby Jackson. That was just one of over 70 screen credits for the London-born actor, who went on to appear in a variety of films and TV series after that, including such series as "Bones," "24," and posthumously in "American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson." Sarpong was also a successful model, serving as the face of Tommy Hilfiger's fashion brand for several years. In addition, he co-hosted MTV's "Yo Momma" for three seasons alongside Wilmer Valderrama. 

Things took a tragic turn for Sarpong in 2015, when he climbed outside the railing on the Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena, California and died by suicide. He was 40. "It is sad and troubling when an individual has become so despondent that he or she feels their only option is to end their life," Pasadena Police Chief Phillip Sanchez said in a news release, as reported by Us Weekly. "These incidents can often have a significant impact on the victim's loved ones, first responders, and the community as a whole. My prayers go out to the family."

David McCallum played Ducky for 20 seasons on NCIS

For David McCallum, being cast as medical examiner Donald "Ducky" Mallard in "NCIS" was a late-in-life gift. After all, prior to that, the British actor was best known for portraying Russian spy Ilya Kuryakin in the massively popular TV series "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." — which ended its run in 1968. While McCallum maintained a busy slate of television and film work after that, he never expected that he'd be in his 70s when he landed the role that would become his most iconic. Yet that's precisely what happened, thanks to the show's enduring popularity.

In 2018, McCallum — then 85 — took to Facebook to reveal that he would work on "NCIS" in a part-time capacity so he could spend more time with his family as he slowed down. "I am delighted to say that I have reached an agreement with CBS for Dr. Donald Mallard to stay with 'NCIS' for Season 16," he wrote. "Once again it will be a limited schedule." In fact, McCallum continued making regular appearances on the show, including the 20th season finale in May 2023. 

That September, he died of natural causes at the age of 90. Among the many to pay tribute was his longtime "NCIS" co-star, Mark Harmon. "David lived a great, full, long life," Harmon said in a statement to TVLine. "I was in awe when I first met him and all of us on the show were honored to have toed a mark opposite him."

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