The Sad Downward Spiral Of Kristin Nelson, NCIS Actor Mark Harmon’s Late Sister

Jan 20, 2022 by apost team

Actor Mark Harmon has been a fixture on television for over 50 years. Most known for his role as special agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs on "NCIS" — who he played for 18 full seasons of the show — Mark has also appeared on a host of other loved TV shows. These include "The West Wing," "St. Elsewhere" and "JAG," where his "NCIS" character was originally introduced.

In fact, Mark has showbiz in his genes. The son of football star Tom Harmon and actress Elyse Knox, Mark also has two sisters, Kristin Nelson (née Harmon) and Kelly Harmon. Both of his sisters also made their careers in the entertainment industry — Kelly is a model and actress, while Kristin was an actress and painter. 

Tragically, though, Kristin — who passed away of a heart attack in 2018 — had a tough life plagued with marital woes, substance abuse and even estrangement from one of her children. Mark actually played a big role in trying to get his sister help and he even had temporary custody of her youngest son when she wasn't able to properly take care of him. Let's take a look at Kristin's tragic life story and how Mark helped her through it all.

Born on June 25, 1945, Kristin is the eldest of the Harmon children. While she was still a child of 12, Kristin first met the man who would go on to become her future husband, Ricky Nelson. The son of stars too, Ricky appeared on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" with his parents, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.

Fast forward a few years later and Ricky and Kristin were married in 1963 when she was 17 and he was 23. Just six months later, Kristin gave birth to their first child, Tracy. 

Kristin Nelson, Rick Nelson (circa 1963), (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

By this point, Ricky was a teen idol and after their marriage, Kristin even began to appear on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," which kickstarted her acting career. But despite being in the spotlight, the couple didn't refrain from growing their family, as they had three more children — Gunnar, Matthew and Sam.

After "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" ended in 1966, Kristin still acted from time to time. She appeared in an Academy Award-winning short film, "The Resurrection of Broncho Billy," and the TV series "Adam-12" among other projects.

However, she began to have problems in her personal life. Ricky was a bonafide rock star by this point and the party lifestyle the two of them shared began to spiral out of control. Kristin told People in a 1987 interview:

"We were hippie rock n' rollers. We did what everyone else was doing all those years."

Kristin added, "At first we were in it together," however, she said that "after a while we were totally messed up, both of us." She elaborated in the same interview: 

"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.”

Sadly, the problems not only took a toll on their health but also their relationship and their family. In 1977 Kristin and the kids moved out of their home after she caught Ricky cheating with two Los Angeles Rams cheerleaders, which he later claimed was a setup so that Kristin could win custody of the kids.

Rick Nelson, Kristin Nelson (1963), (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

But the couple were on-again, off-again for a while. Then in 1982, they divorced for good, however, their very-public breakup was fodder for the press, and the couple didn't hold back on their opinions of one another. 

During this time Kristin began to focus on painting but her substance abuse came back "quite heavily," as she admitted to People and she was often too inebriated to continue making art. At one point her youngest son, Sam was placed in the care of Kristin's parents. 

Then, tragically, Ricky died in 1985 in a plane crash, alongside his band and new fiancé. The sad news only made Kristin's behavior worse and although her eldest children had already left home, Sam still lived with her. One day, the then 12-year-old telephoned his uncle Mark in a cry for help. Sam's auntie Kelly told People in the same interview that he said:

"Help me! ... Get me out of here. I can’t take it anymore. My mother is like a hill. First she’s up, then she’s down." 

Unsure if Kristin was under the influence, Mark vowed to help his nephew. Days later, the "NCIS" actor found his sister grocery shopping and she was clearly inebriated. Soon after he managed to convince her to check into rehab. Kristin said in the same interview:

“Nobody but my brother could have talked me into this because I trusted him. A voice inside me said, ‘For once in your life, let somebody help you.’"

However, Sam wanted to be with his uncle, so a custody battle between Kristin and Mark ensued. The judge gave Mark temporary custody of Sam, while the case opened up a lot of the family's dirty laundry. Eventually, Mark dropped the charges and Kristin gained custody of Sam once again, however, she, Sam and Mark all had to attend counseling. 

Kristin Harmon, Ricky Nelson (1978), (Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

Thankfully, Kristin and Sam's relationship began to repair itself, and in an interview in 2016 — two years before her passing — she spoke about how they worked things out between them. She said:

"As you get older, things that were important aren’t important anymore. Problems aren’t problems anymore. You work through them, or you don’t. But for the most part, you hope to. I think we’re in a good way together, and we have a good relationship."

One year after the highly publicized custody battle for Sam, Kristin married TV producer and director Mark Tinker. Their union lasted for 12 years before they divorced in 2000. 

In her last decades of life, Kristin mostly stayed out of the spotlight. Then on April 27, 2018, she suffered a fatal heart attack. Her daughter Tracy made the news public when she wrote on her Facebook page:

"My mother, Kristin Harmon Nelson, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly last night. Love and light are welcome."

Kristin's legacy lives on with her children, who have all followed in their family's footsteps in the entertainment industry. Tracy is an actress, while Gunnar and Matthew founded the band, Nelson. Meanwhile, Sam is also a musician who started the band H Is Orange. Of course, her brother Mark and sister Kelly also continue on her family's ties.

Despite the difficulties that filled her life, Kristin found peace later on after she got sober. With the love of her family, who stuck by her even during the hard times, Kristin's memory lives on with them. 

Mark Harmon (2014), (Steve Granitz/WireImage)

Did you know the tragic story of Kristin Nelson's life? Pass this on to those you know so they can read about everything she overcame too.

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