The Truth About Mark Harmon's Custody Battle

On television, Mark Harmon has portrayed countless different characters. Of course, there's his legendary, long-running role of Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs in "NCIS." Who can also forget when he starred opposite Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis as the latter's boyfriend, Ryan, in the hit 2003 film "Freaky Friday?" Out of all the fan-favorite characters Harmon has played in his life, though, nothing gives the Hollywood star as much satisfaction as his real-life role as the dad of his two kids, Sean Harmon and Ty Harmon. The Emmy-nominated actor shares his adult children with his wife, Pam Dawber.

Harmon and Dawber, a fellow actor with credits in "Mork and Mindy," "My Sister Sam," and "Bewitched," became a couple in March 1986 after being introduced by a mutual friend, according to People. The couple got engaged following just months of dating, and on March 21, 1987, Harmon and Dawber said "I do" in a private wedding ceremony. The "NCIS" star and his lady started their family the following year in 1988 when their first son, Sean, was born that April. The pair's second child, Ty, arrived in June 1992.

From the moment Harmon and Dawber experienced parenthood, they made raising their children their top priority. Considering the "Summer School" actor is such a doting family man, you might be surprised to find out he was actually involved in a tumultuous custody battle. For all the details on Harmon's legal family woes, keep scrolling below. 

Mark Harmon and wife Pam Dawber fought for custody of his sister's 12-year-old son

In the 1980s, Mark Harmon was rising in the Hollywood ranks and picked up acting credits in TV classics like "Flamingo Road," "The Love Boat," "St. Elsewhere," and "Moonlighting." Behind the scenes, however, he was fighting to gain custody of his then 12-year-old nephew, Sam. As Fox News reported, Harmon attempted to be granted permanent custody in 1987 on the grounds his sister and the child's mother, Kristin Nelson, was unfit to parent. 

As Nelson struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, the "West Wing" alum fought to take in his nephew. Speaking with People in 1987, Harmon's sister admitted to drinking and using drugs "quite heavily" in the years following her 1982 divorce from ex-husband Ricky Nelson. The couple had married in 1963 and welcomed four children: Sam, Tracy, Gunnar, and Matthew. Due to Nelson's history with substance abuse, Harmon and with his wife Pam Dawber built a case against Nelson and took her to court.

As the Los Angeles Times reported, Harmon ultimately dropped his bid by August 1987, two months after Nelson completed a weeks-long drug rehabilitation program in June. The agreement by which Sam was returned to Nelson granted Harmon visitation rights.

Tensions between Mark Harmon and his sister lasted for years

The family rift between Mark Harmon and his sister, Kristin Nelson, seemed to be on the mend as they exited a Los Angeles County Courthouse arm-in-arm after the "Presidio" actor dropped his child custody case in August 1987. "Everyone will be working very hard on everybody being happy again," Nelson proclaimed, per the Los Angeles Times. Despite appearing to put their differences aside, tensions between the sides grew over time — especially between Nelson and Harmon's wife, Pam Dawber.

"Kristin apparently never saw Pam as a 'fit wife' for Mark, and the accusations got worse through the custody battle, as Pam obviously was supporting her husband," a source claimed to Radar Online. According to the outlet, it was "comments" that Nelson made regarding Dawber that "increased tension between the two sides," apparently referring to the claims made by Nelson's defense that Dawber allegedly used cocaine on the set of "Mork and Mindy," per the Los Angeles Times. "Mark pretty much never forgot what she said, as he is pretty protective over Pam," the insider continued.

By March 2017, fortunately, Harmon and Nelson seemed to have worked through their issues. "Kristin obviously now recognizes that her brother was trying to help her, and so the tension has somewhat been resolved," Radar reported. Per Fox News, the family reconciliation came a year before Nelson died of a sudden heart attack at age 72 in April 2018. 

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).