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12 Quick Questions for Rocky Carroll

‘NCIS’ star is leaning into his summer hiatus

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Kevin Lynch/CBS

Veteran actor Rocky Carroll, 59, just wrapped up another season playing Leon Vance on the long-running CBS hit show NCIS. The Cincinnati native is looking forward to his summer hiatus, and he tells AARP how he plans to spend his time, why he decided to study acting and how he’s gearing up to celebrate his 60th birthday.  

The show’s season finale airs May 22. Have you finished production?

We just wrapped. It’s almost like the public school year: We start in July and we go until April of the following year. Our show’s a bit of a dinosaur. Most new series now, a full season can be 13, 15 episodes; we still do more than 20 episodes. People always ask, “Are you going to do any projects during the hiatus?” Well, the fact that I have a little bit of job security because the show is 20 years on the air, I just like to take it easy and try to regroup and recharge my batteries between now and July.

What do you do to recharge?

I try to be outside as much as I can. I love to play golf and go fishing. It’s a 20-minute drive to the ocean, so I’ll probably be on a fishing boat somewhere in Catalina as soon as [I can].

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What do you fish for?

Whatever is biting. As the water warms up, there’s all sorts of fish. Everything you can order in a sushi bar is what I fish for. I do keep [what I catch and] give most of it away. On charter fishing boats, they will filet and bag it so by the time you get off the boat you can literally put it on the grill when you get home. You don’t have to spend hours trying to debone it and all that stuff. It’s really more the sport. I can go to the grocery store if I really want to eat fish. It’s being out in the elements, on the water. … What most people don’t understand is that even on a day when you don’t catch any fish, it still beats most things in life.

Did you start fishing as a kid?

I did. Me and my dad used to fish back in Ohio. I fished every little lake and farm pond growing up as a kid, and then once I moved to Southern California, my first time fishing on the ocean was when I was in the cast of Chicago Hope. I fell in love with the ocean. That’s been my passion ever since I was a little kid.

Are you any good at golf?

Nobody’s good at golf. Only professional golfers are good at golf. That’s why we play. Last year I took my first trip to Scotland to golf with a bunch of the guys on the crew of our show. Golf is a thing you never say, “Well, I pretty much mastered it, I don’t need to play anymore.” It’s to me — I love playing it — the greatest metaphor for life I’ve ever experienced. Just when you think you got a handle on it, something comes along and you’re like, “Ugh, I have to start all over again.”

spinner image rocky carroll as vance standing with mark harmon as Gibbs in a still from n c i s
Rocky Carroll stars alongside Mark Harmon in the CBS drama “NCIS.”
Sonja Flemming/CBS via Getty Images

Had you kept in touch with your Chicago Hope costar Mark Harmon prior to working with him again on NCIS?

No, it was a bit of a reunion. I went in to meet the producers, and I tell people: The good thing about my interview for NCIS [is that] I only knew one person connected to NCIS, and that was Mark Harmon. If you’re going to know one person, and be friends with one person, it’s good that it’s the star of the show. I was a Mark Harmon–approved hire.

You now direct episodes as well. How does that compare to acting?

The days I’m working as an actor, it’s almost like a holiday. I just come off my trailer and I go on set and somebody tells me where to stand and I play the character. As director, you're the first one there and the last one to leave. Acting, you’re pretty much responsible for yourself and your character; directing, you are the royal wedding planner — you’re responsible for everything. You’re not only responsible for the actors, you’re responsible for the layout of the scenes, hair, makeup, wardrobe, all the elements.

You graduated from Webster University’s Sargent Conservatory of Theatre Arts in St. Louis. Not every actor pursues formal training. Why did you take that path?

At a very early age, all the actors that I looked up to, that I idolized and thought, Hey, I want to do this — they all had some common thread. Meryl Streep went to the Yale School of Drama, Marlon Brando was a member of the Actors Studio — they all had some form of training. I always thought that’s what you do if you’re going to be really good at what you do. It’s one of few professions where you can just wake up one morning and proclaim yourself a professional actor. You can’t wake up and proclaim yourself a professional dentist because you’d get arrested, but as an actor somebody says, “You got a nice look. You should go to Hollywood.” … [But] if you can sit down and by osmosis play the piano, just think how much better you’d be if you had formal training.

You played the trumpet back on the ’90s TV series Roc. Would you consider yourself musical?

I learned to play trumpet for the role in Roc. I haven’t picked up the trumpet since then. I’m an actor who knows how to sing well enough to stay out of trouble. You won’t catch me in an off-Broadway production of Pippin anytime soon. Actors do a little bit of everything. I’ve stayed in the business and stayed relevant for 33 years because somebody told me a long time ago: “You need to do a few things well. Learn to cook several dishes.” So that’s always my mantra.

Did you have a backup plan if acting hadn’t worked out?

I tell my daughter [Elissa, 22] all the time [that] I was a strange kid. At age 7, when I was lying in the grass in the front yard of my house, I looked at the sky and said, This is what I’m going to be. I had three dreams: The first dream was to be middleweight champion of the world, the second dream was to be on TV and the third dream was to play second base for the Cincinnati Reds. I got one out of three worked out.

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Speaking of boxing, with the nickname Rocky [given name Roscoe], did you ever box?

I trained, but I never got in the ring and boxed. When I was on Broadway, I went to a boxing gym right above the Port Authority [Bus Terminal] in New York City. I trained regularly because I always thought boxers and swimmers were the people who were in the best shape. I always had an affinity toward boxers. I thought boxers had a certain sort of commitment — a singular sort of approach to what they do. The training was grueling, and you have to stay laser-focused if you're going to do that. I always tried to mimic that approach. I always admired all the components of what it took to be a boxer, but I realized at a very early age [that] getting hit in the face for a living is a hard way to make a living.

You turn 60 this year. Any birthday plans?

I plan to be on a boat somewhere between here and Mexico fishing for tuna and yellowtail. I’m going to have a group of family and friends and take them to an Airbnb or a hotel near the ocean, maybe in Mexico or San Diego. It will be several days. There will be a fishing trip, a party, a nice dinner — and just celebrate. I have a very small circle. As I get older, I don’t need 60 friends around me. I need a handful of really solid people around me. It’s easy to plan a party when you only have a handful of people you concern yourself with.

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