By MAXINE SHEN, New York Post
How do you make TV’s No. 1 show even better?
Just add Robert “RJ” Wagner.
The star of “Hart to Hart” and “It Takes a Thief” returns to TV this week for the 150th episode of “NCIS” in which he plays agent Tony DiNozzo’s (Michael Weatherly) father, Anthony DiNozzo Sr.
It doesn’t take a casting-whiz to see why these actors are perfectly suited to play father and son: They look a heck of a lot alike.
“Isn’t that a nice compliment?” says Wagner, 79. “I see it a bit, I do, and my wife [Jill St. John] sees it a bit, too. I think it was kind of serendipitous.”
The comparison comes as a surprise to Weatherly though. (Never mind the fact that he played a young Wagner in the 2004 TV movie “The Mystery of Natalie Wood.”)
In describing Wagner’s TV appeal, seemingly oblivious that it applies to him as well, says the 41 year-old actor, “he’s accessible and he’s got a little devilish twinkle in his eye, a little bit of that mischief.”
The two hadn’t met prior to filming “NCIS” and Weatherly admits to having been starstruck in Wagner’s presence.
“I have a man-crush on RJ. I was just a big fan,” he says. “Obviously I had spent some time studying him [for the TV movie], so I was just thrilled when they said that he’s going to be on it. I couldn’t stop smiling for a few hours.”
The fanboy in him came out during the first few takes they did together.
“Pauley Perrette [forensic scientist Abby Sciuto] had a great observation the first day we were working together,” Weatherly says. “After the first couple of takes, she said, ‘Michael. You’re not acting in the scene.’ I said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘You’re just looking at RJ like a fan.’
“It took me a few takes to get into the swing of it . . . I was self-conscious, I was really just starring at him going, ‘Wow, he’s doing that thing, I love when he does the eyebrow thing!,” he says with a laugh, adding, “I got better.”
The admiration, it turns out, was mutual.
“Michael is wonderful, I have a great respect and great compassion for this young man, I like him very, very much,” Wagner says.
“He knows everyone and everyone knows him . . . He’s lived a really interesting life and he understands television, so for him to come on our show and for me to stand between Mark Harmon and Robert Wagner, it’s kind of like being on Mount Rushmore,” Weatherly says.
For his part, Wagner says that being around such a dedicated and happy cast and crew was “much the way I felt when I was doing ‘Hart to Hart.’” (Both actors suspect that DiNozzo Sr. will make a repeat appearance down the line.)
While Wagner declined to divulge what happens during the episode beyond saying that it reveals a lot about Tony and Gibbs, Weatherly says that there are “some strong similarities” between the two DiNozzos.
“If you can imagine Tony DiNozzo without a gun and a badge and without Leroy Jethro Gibbs [Harmon] being the moral rudder to the DiNozzo ship, what you end up with is Tony’s father,” Weatherly says.
“He’s a tough guy. Mark Harmon and Wagner have some classic scenes, where they sit down, mano-a-mano, and just go at it.”
With 21 million viewers tuning in to each new episode, it’s hard to imagine how “NCIS” could get any more popular.