After Mark Harmon Sought Custody Of His Nephew, The Star’s Relationship With His Sister Was Ruined

NCIS star Mark Harmon is part of a family of famous faces. In fact, among his direct relatives are football players, models and actors. His sister Kristin, on the other hand, perhaps falls more on the side of infamy. And it’s probably thanks to the tragedy that has defined her life – and the major rift that developed between her and Mark.

It’s safe to say that the Harmons have conquered virtually every aspect of the entertainment industry over the years. Family patriarch Tom was a famous football player in the 1940s, for example, before becoming a popular sportscaster. Plus, he was married to actress Elyse Knox Harmon from The Mummy’s Tomb fame, and they had three kids: actor Mark, model Kelly and Kristin.

Of course, celebrities tend to mingle with fellow stars, and this perhaps explains why many of the Harmons hooked up with famous people. For example, since 1987 Mark has been married to Mork & Mindy actress Pam Dawber. And Kelly was once wed to John DeLorean – the man whose company created the iconic car from the Back to the Future movies.

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As for Kristin, meanwhile, she became involved with teen pop idol Ricky Nelson. He was the son of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, who became massive stars in the 1950s thanks to their sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Ricky began starring alongside his parents in the show when he was eight years old, and it was at the tender age of 12 that he met his future wife.

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was considered a wholesome, all-American type of show. And yet behind the scenes, the reality was a far cry from what was portrayed onscreen. Over the years, in fact, tales of addiction, scandal, trauma and tragedy would eventually emerge.

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When Kristin was 18, she became the wife of her childhood sweetheart Ricky. But it may have been a shotgun wedding, since at the time of the ceremony, Kristin was already expecting Ricky’s child. And in those days, of course, having a baby out of wedlock would have created a scandal. So, Ozzie and Harriet sprang into action.

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According to a 1998 documentary called Ozzie and Harriet: The Adventures of America’s Favorite Family, Ricky’s parents took steps to cover up the fact that the baby had been conceived before the couple had married. Indeed, with the assistance of the hospital at which the birth took place, they falsified records to create the misleading impression that the child, whom they named Tracy, had entered the world prematurely.

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Unfortunately, though, the union between Kristin and Ricky wasn’t to last. And after welcoming three more children, twins Gunnar and Matthew in 1967 and son Sam in 1974, the relationship began to fall apart. Apparently, the couple’s difficulties included arguments, an alleged incident in which Ricky cheated with two cheerleaders and, according to Kristin herself, substance abuse.

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Reportedly, both Kristin and Ricky had found it difficult growing up in the spotlight. “[Ricky] was a paradox. He was so charming, so manipulative. But he did not ultimately take responsibility for his life,” Peter Jones, the man behind the Ozzie and Harriet documentary, told The New York Times in 1998.

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According to Jones, Ricky “didn’t know how to be a grown-up, which was chilling.” But there was more. “He once said that he didn’t see himself getting older,” Jones added. “He believed that. In a way, he was trapped by his television identity.” What’s more, it seems as though Kristin had some similar demons.

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In 1987 – in the midst of her painful feud with Mark – Kristin gave People magazine an insight into her childhood. And it sounds as though her early years were rough. Kristin explained that her family had always counted on her being “a perfect person.” But despite her best efforts, she’d always felt like “kind of a pariah” among the famous Harmon family.

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Kristin found interactions with her mother particularly difficult. “I had a hard time with my mom,” she admitted. “I never cared much about being on the covers of magazines. She did – and cared about her children being there, too. More than once, I was told to pinch my nose so the nostrils wouldn’t flare. Her values are different.”

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In that same interview, Kristin also admitted that she and Ricky had enjoyed a certain lifestyle at the start of their romance. “We were hippie rock ’n’ rollers. We did what everyone else was doing all those years,” she said. “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.”

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And things got worse and worse for Ricky and Kristin. “After a while, we were totally messed up – both of us,” Kristin told People. “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.”

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Moreover, just two years prior to that interview, Tom Harmon had spoken to People about how he’d raised his kids. “I never spared the rod, and [Mark would] get whacked if he did something wrong,” he said. “But look at my kids now. They all know the difference between right and wrong, and there isn’t a druggie in the bunch.”

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Kristin began divorce proceedings in 1977 but subsequently returned to Ricky. However, this only delayed the inevitable. And in 1980 she filed again. By the time the split became official two years later, the couple’s substance abuse was common knowledge, and Ricky was on the verge of bankruptcy.

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In her interview with People, Kristin expressed regret about the divorce. “I wish I had been able to delve deeper then – to bring Rick along with me,” she said. “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.”

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And indeed, Ricky couldn’t be saved. Tragically, in December 1985 the musician’s private aircraft, which was known to have mechanical issues, crashed into a field in Texas. Nine people had been on board – including Ricky – and seven of them were killed. The only survivors were the pilots.

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Ricky was laid to rest at L.A.’s Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills Cemetery, after hundreds of his fans had gathered for a memorial service. But the battles between Kristin and her ex-husband continued even after his death. She was left nothing in his will, you see, and so she fought to gain control of the late pop star’s estate – only for a judge to rule against her.

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And throughout this time, drugs unfortunately continued to feature in Kristin’s life. As a result, Mark began worrying about his sister’s youngest child, Sam, who was living with Kristin following the bitter divorce. According to their sister, Kelly, Sam at one point actually phoned Mark up and begged him for help.

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Then, a couple of days after the alleged phone call, Mark and his wife, Pam, encountered Kristin on the street – and apparently, it seemed as though she’d taken drugs. “She was mumbling and stumbling and bumping into things,” Pam told People in 1987. And so, Kristin’s siblings began planning for her to go into rehab.

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Kristin, meanwhile, denied that she had any substance abuse issues. “What Mark and Pam saw was an extremely exhausted individual,” she told People in response to Pam’s comments. “I’d had a relationship go bad – a good, long-term relationship – and I hadn’t slept for four nights. Also, I’d been going to a diet clinic because I was up to 142 pounds, and I wanted to be thin for [my daughter] Tracy’s wedding.”

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Plus, Kristin alleged that it had been diet pills – not hard drugs – that had caused the episode that Mark and Pam had apparently witnessed. “They give you liquid stuff, powdered stuff and some pills. I still don’t know what it all was, because it was not labeled. I honestly didn’t know it was making me crazy,” she said. “My kids noticed it. So did my friends. But to my way of thinking, I wasn’t abusing drugs. I was very innocent.”

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Eventually, Mark managed to convince his sister to start rehab at a clinic called New Beginnings. But Kristin made it clear that she wanted to pay for the stay herself. “Nobody but my brother could have talked me into this,” Kristin informed People. “Because I trusted him. A voice inside me said, ‘For once in your life, let somebody help you.’”

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But while Kristin had agreed to go to rehab, Mark believed that her condition wasn’t improving. Apparently, you see, Kristin continued to refute that she’d used narcotics. And instead, she maintained while at the facility that she’d been taking prescription medication. The whole family became increasingly concerned for Sam, too, who reportedly seemed to be suffering as a result of his unstable environment.

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And so, the Harmon family made the difficult decision to fight in court for Sam’s custody. “The intention was never to take a child away from its mother,” Kelly informed People in 1987. “The intention was to put Sam in a healthy environment where he could feel safe and go to school while his mother got well.”

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In court, Mark was given interim custody of Sam, and Kristin was told that she had to stay at least 200 yards away from her brother and sister-in-law. And during the hearing, Mark reportedly exchanged some heated words with the judge. “I want this child to see his mother,” the judge said, according to People. “This child does not want to see his mother,” Mark answered.

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Multiple media outlets covered Sam’s custody case, and the scrutiny was intense for the family. But the sympathy of most commentators lay with Kristin – rather than Mark. Apparently, the latter was irritable and wouldn’t answer reporters’ questions, while Kristin seemed to be staying calm and acting politely despite the stress that she must have been under.

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Things became even more problematic for the Harmons, meanwhile, when Pam was questioned. She was asked whether Mark and herself had taken pill bottles from Kristin’s house and given them to Mark’s lawyer, and she admitted that they had. Kristin’s lawyer then began questioning Pam as to whether she herself had ever taken drugs.

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Pam denied the accusation but allegedly appeared shaken by the line of questioning. And the next day, Mark brought proceedings to an end. According to People, he approached Kristin’s lawyer and told him, “We don’t want to go any further with this. Too much blood has been spilled. This is an unconditional surrender.”

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So, Kristin was given custody of Sam, with Mark being permitted to visit him. The three of them consented to undergo group counseling, too. And according to People, Mark and Kristin were even witnessed leaving court with their arms locked together. It appeared as though events had reached the most peaceful ending that they could have done under the circumstances.

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In the years that have followed, though, Harmon has seemingly never spoken to the media about the custody battle. In fact, he’s always maintained his privacy and that of his family very fiercely. “It’s not even a choice. It’s who we are,” he told Closer Weekly in 2018. “We stay at home – a lot. I’m not a Twitter guy or a Facebook guy. Our sons aren’t into that, either.”

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However, Sam – the little boy at the center of the court case – did speak out eventually. In 2016 he told Medium, “When I was growing up, my parents were going through a divorce that lasted about seven years.” He added, “I think I’m being conservative when I say seven years, because it feels like forever. That happened all through my childhood.”

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Plus, the death of Sam’s famous father had understandably taken a major toll on him. “The whole thing was very hard to wrap my head around. And for a long time, I was lost,” Sam admitted. “I didn’t have a clue about what had happened, who he was, who I was [or] who my family was.”

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What’s more, Sam explained in the interview that his relationship with his mother had healed over time. “We’re absolutely close,” he said. “She lives in New Mexico, so it’s a little bit of a trip to visit her. She’s incredibly creative. I’ll call her and ask her about ideas and what she thinks.”

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However, in 2017 RadarOnline reported that Kristin was “gravely ill” in hospital and that her brother Mark was “refusing to see her before she dies.” They quoted a “family insider” as saying, “Almost two years ago, Kris took a bad fall and had to have fluid drained from her skull to relieve pressure on her brain. Mark was aware of it but chose not to visit her.”

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Whether or not this particular story was true, Kristin did pass away the following year. And her daughter, Tracy, subsequently wrote a tribute post on Facebook. Tracy is another member of the family who has gone on to achieve success in the acting world: she’s perhaps most famous for her role in The Father Dowling Mysteries.

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Tracy’s tribute to her mother was very touching. “No one could light up a room like she could – or a conversation – or lead an army of friends into joyful noise like she could. If you knew her, you knew this,” she wrote. “She knew where the party was, she was the party, she didn’t just know the cool people, she was the cool people.”

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“[My mom] was a lesson – like many of our mothers are – in how to be and not to be,” Tracy continued. “She never ever ever said she was sorry, but one day after a hellacious fight the night before, I came home from school to find her on my floor, wordlessly painting a tiny mural on the wall of the tiny bathroom in my dollhouse.”

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So, fans may never know whether or not Kristin and Mark ever fully buried the hatchet before she passed away. But as Sam put it when talking about his mother to Medium, time heals a lot of wounds. “As you get older, things that were important aren’t important anymore. Problems aren’t problems anymore,” he said. “You work through them, or you don’t. But for the most part, you hope to.”

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