LOS ANGELES – Three months ago while in the infant stages of creating his latest NCIS episode, writer Brendan Fehily decided to take a chance.
"The plot of this 350th episode is, we have a witness to a crime, and that witness happens to be blind,” he during an interview on location in California.
Fehily, who launched his career in Billings 17 years ago as a television news reporter, wanted to deliver a twist that NCIS never had.
"Now, you may ask yourself,” pondered actor Wilmer Valderrama who plays Special Agent ‘Nick’ Torres, “how a blind individual can be a key witness to one of our cases? Well, our actress officially becomes an ‘ear’ witness," Fehily told MTN News during a recent interview on the set of the show.
Fehily started writing this episode three months ago, then last month the cast and crew spent 10 days shooting it. He was also eager to increase the credibility of his blind witness.
"One of the ideas we had early on was, wouldn’t this be really interesting if we could cast a real blind person to play a blind character," Fehily recalled.
After sifting through candidates, NCIS flew actress Merilee Talkington, who is legally blind, in from New York City to audition. Fehily said she nailed it.
Not to be overlooked though, was Talkington’s challenge of moving through sets without bumping into boom microphones, tables or other props. So, here’s what she did.
“I wrote up a cheat sheet of about 20 different things that were just all the facts about my vision, and how it might apply to set.” She said between takes near the crime scene. “I prefer dark over lights. I might need a guide in certain areas. If you give me direction and there are lights up, I’m going to listen to you rather than look at you."
Brendan Fehily on the set of NCIS. MTN News photo.
Fehily says he spent countless hours of research to add credibility to Merilee’s character. One of his most valuable resources turned out to be a Youtube channel created by the blind. He also talked to members of American Council for the Blind, and contacted American Foundation for the Blind.
And his homework paid off.
"I got the best compliment ever when I met her for the first time,” Fehily recalled. “She sat me down and said, "Who are your blind friends? I know you must have a blind friend. And I said, ‘I don’t.’ And she said, ‘Well, you’ve really nailed this character.’"
Talkington has a similar memory of their first encounter.
"I think the first thing I said to Brendan was, ‘You have blind friends,’" she said. "He really shaped the character in a way that, it’s a person that I would know."
In this episode, the crime witnessed by Annie Barth (Talkington) involves a sheriff’s patrol car plunging into the lake.
“Our agents initially discount her because there are other sighted witnesses to the crime," Fehily said.
"She makes me understand, in her most clever way, how she came about this" said Valderrama, whose Torres character eventually works closely with Barth. "And in that process, Torres not only humbles himself, but learns to appreciate the unique skill."
"We realize that what she heard is actually a little more important than what other witnesses saw," Fehily revealed.
Then, a specific scene arrives that validates both Fehily’s homework and Talkington’s expertise.
"There’s a moment there where I need to ask for help, which is completely legitimate,” she said. “It’s by necessity. And he (Torres) has to help me, but he has to learn how to help me. So, we have this wonderful interaction of teaching. An educational moment. Then we get to why we’re there."
Talkington admits she was thrilled to be cast in the role.
"You just don’t see these characters on TV, and you certainly don’t see them being played by actually blind, low-vision actors," she said.
However, as a fan of the show, Talkington confessed this first appearance on NCIS felt a little more daunting. In particular, her first encounter with lead actor Mark Harmon who plays Special Agent Leroy ‘Jethro’ Gibbs.
“The first time I met Mark Harmon I actually got tongue-tied. Very tongue-tied,” she said, slightly blushing. “And he was so generous, and just hugged me, and said he was so glad I was here. After that, I was feeling like I was part of a family already, even though I was only going to be here for a few days."
NCIS wraps up its 15th consecutive season on CBS next month and has already been renewed for another year.