Brian Dietzen on Getting to Write an Episode for ‘NCIS’ 19 Seasons In, and the Slow Evolution of Jimmy Palmer

If there’s always been an underdog on “NCIS” throughout its 19 seasons, it’s been the nervous, happy-go-lucky guy in glasses down in autopsy played since mid-season-1 by Brian Dietzen, who’s long done a lot with less screen time than some of the characters who aren’t lab-bound.

“People were sleeping on Jimmy Palmer, man,” says fellow cast member Diona Reasonover, who, as Kasie Hines, has considerable interaction with him on the top-rated series. “He’s kind of the undercover sniper of people’s favorite characters. When they’re listing their favorite characters, he always ends up in those top three, always.”

It’s not strictly about lovability: After initially arguably undervaluing the Palmer character. “NCIS” might have actually given him as big a character arc as anyone’s had on the show. Says executive producer and writer Scott Williams, “When I got onto the show on season 9, he was the comic foil who stuttered and stammered in front of Gibbs (the recently departed Mark Harmon), and this sort of naive, wide-eyed babe in the woods that was being, you know, administered to her ministered to by David McCallum. He could play that with his eyes closed, but after awhile, we needed to add some dimension to him, because Brian’s got chops for days. Now, his character has probably grown more than any other on the show, in terms of from where they started to where they are now.”

Dietzen has his own arc going for him, offscreen: With the Feb. 28 episode  “The Helpers,” he becomes the first actor in the nearly two-decade history of the show to co-write an episode. Not that he’s the first to take on any extra duties on the show, but actors have tended to think they want to try their hand at directing more than writing. “Rocky Carroll directs a lot of episodes of our show,” points out Dietzen, “and he’s phenomenal. — one of our best directors that we’ve ever had. But it’s not as though there’s a signup sheet where it’s like, ‘I’d like to do this.’”

As someone who’d previously written a feature as well as some shorts, Dietzen built up some confidence about taking those skills back to his day job.

“The creative element of coming up with something and putting words in the mouth of these characters that I’ve known so intimately and so closely for so many years just seemed to make a lot of sense,” Dietzen says. But even after show-runner Steve Binder gave him the go-ahead to pursue ideas a few years ago, he was as bashful as, well, the younger Jimmy Palmer about pursuing it, “because we have one of the most talented and under-appreciated writing staffs on television, so I thought that might be seen as hubris and I didn’t want to overstep, to be honest.”

Then, not many months before the pandemic hit, he had a life-changing moment: “I had a dual embolic stroke in my cerebellum, and my hands were all curled up, and it was terrifying. I remember getting rushed to the hospital and thinking, ‘Well, I don’t have a career anymore. I guess I’m gonna have to focus on writing, because I can’t speak.’” After three and a half hours, the blood clot in his brain passed — but the realization that he needed to make good on his writing dreams didn’t.

Williams was a natural co-writing choice for the actor. Feeling Dietzen was under-utilized, Williams became Jimmy Palmer’s champion by writing a game-changing 2017 episode, “Keep Going,” in which the character digs into his personal grief in the process of talking a character off a ledge. Williams knew that Dietzen’s mother had recently died and that he’d be able to tap into those feelings at the time. It happened again recently when the character of Jimmy’s wife, who had existed only offscreen for several years, was revealed to have died of COVID in an especially emotional episode.

How did the comic relief become the show’s grief whisperer? Says Williams: “In my mind, there is no more tragic figure than someone that is very light lighthearted and whimsical, and always looking on the bright side of things. And then when they get struck with a tragedy, watching them deal with it is really something. Brian plays that stuff so beautifully — you know, it hits close to home for him, and he’s not afraid to bring it to his work.”

The “Helpers” episode — named for Mister Rogers’ famous “Find the helpers” admonition to children — may get as heavy as those aforementioned turning-point episodes. It lands Jimmy and Kasie in some mortal danger as the two characters are exposed to a deadly biotoxin in the lab, coincidentally on the same that Palmer’s daughter is visiting the NCIS office, which leads to some father-daughter scenes through a closed door.

Of the way his character has grown over the years, Dietzen says, “Initially it was just the guy who says the wrong thing, but it’s hard to sustain that beat for 20 years,” he laughs. “There’s only so many times that Jimmy can say something out of turn and shirk away from Gibbs’ stare and be and like, ‘Oh my gosh,  I can’t look at him. I’m so embarrassed.’” Not that he’s knocking it as the part of his origin story that made a swath of America fall for him. “That beat is great. It’s so fun. But if that note plays too often… how long can you listen to a song with one note?”

Or, to put it another way: “How do you make a character change, but retain the same DNA that people loved initially? You know, not changing so much he’s unrecognizable — but you have to become a different person; otherwise you’re a cartoon character. That’s why we love Homer Simpson, right? He’s still Homer from season 1 in season 35. But I can’t do that because I’m human.”

Now, though, Jimmy is an on-screen dispenser of what Dietzen calls occasional “sage wisdom” — even as the actor that plays him, with his new, post-stroke focus, is learning from the sages in the writers’ room.

The pendulum has swung almost the opposite direction in recent seasons — albeit with plenty of attention paid to not splicing the aforementioned DNA — and it didn’t hurt in that development that his on-screen boss, the beloved David McCallum, has shifted to a different role that only has him appearing on a few episodes per year, requiring his no-longer-tongue-tied underling to step up.

Jimmy has also gone through some shit that has been really hard,” Dietzen says. “He lost his wife last year and he has said goodbye to multiple close friends on the show who’ve left or in certain cases have passed away. And so being someone who works with life and death so much, especially after Ducky moved on to become the NCIS historian, Jimmy really was faced with a lot more questions about mortality and that sort of thing, and became someone that people can come talk to about big life choices and questions. And some of those big things like relationships and love of family is what I wanted to get into in my episode that I wrote alongside Scott, and so we get to kind of explore what Jimmy has been going through since the loss of his wife.”

The big question that’s been looming for more than a decade, and doesn’t look likely to be settled any time soon, as “NCIS” remains the top-rated scripted show on television, against all odds: When will there come a day when there’s finally a time to do an autopsy on “NCIS” itself?

But before we get to that, what episode are we on, anyway? “Gosh, I think we’re about 430?” Dietzen guesss. “Now you have me curious. I’m looking it up — let me see.” He checks his phone. “We are on 418 right now. … I remember that hundredth episode of ‘NCIS,’ and Michael Weatherly had this T-shirt on. And it had like a little television and the number 278 on it. It was for something else; I have no idea what it was related to. But he goes, ‘This is the number of shows we’re going to film of this show.’ And then he’d start laughing, as though 278 episodes was ridiculous. And we’ve blown way past that marker.

“But we’re in some really rare air, I think, here, and I don’t think it’s lost on any of us how blessed we are to keep doing this — and not only keep doing it, but to actually still enjoy it after this long. It’s pretty great.”

It lasted long enough for him to fulfill a dream he only allowed himself to acknowledge in the past couple years, even as he concentrated his writing efforts on outside projects and possibilities.

“I’ve always wanted to ask myself, ‘What would Torres say in the situation?,’ or Kasie or whomever. And now I get to do that. and not only do I get to do it, but I get to learn while doing it from a very close friend — and then also the entire writing staff, who I can count many of them is as long-term friends, because we’ve had the same crew for quite some time. We do have three new folks this year (in the writers’ room) who I’m getting to know now and have been great hires. And I’ve always had a deep respect for the people in my cast, but I think it got deeper by being able to write words for them, and to see how they come in and really hit hard and then swing for the fences.”

“You get these moments in your life where you just go, ‘Man, if I want to do this thing, I’ve just got to just stop waiting around for something to happen for me and just make something happen.’ I think a lot of people hit that during the pandemic, you know? Like you’re stuck in your house the whole time and going, wow, lots of people are getting very sick and a lot of people are dying, and what am I doing?’” Dietzen also had a close friend in the music industry die from brain cancer a few years ago, which heightened his sense of carpe diem before he had his own health scare.

And in case anyone is wondering, Dietzen’s health went back on the upswing after his stroke, but not without some major surgery.

“I’m going to say something that’s going to sound like an advertisement and it’s not, but the Apple Watch saved my life. I was on the floor of my bathroom, throwing up, and I pulled out my phone and I was like, ‘Oh shit, I can’t use my fingers.’ And so I said, ‘Hey, Siri, call Kelly,’ and called my wife and I said, ‘I need help.’ She said, ‘You sound like you have marbles in your mouth.’” He was able to use the voice command to call 911 next. In the MRI tube, he assessed his life: “‘I don’t think there’s much that I’ve left undone, because everyone that I love knows that I love them’ — that sort of thing. But then I was like, ‘Whoa, no, I can’t start thinking that way,’ and then I started trying to get my mind in the right place. And I could feel something happen in my brain, but all of a sudden I could move my hands and start moving my tongue. I started doing tongue twisters. They’re like, ‘Please stay still.’ But the clot in my brain cleared. And I was really blessed that I’d stayed really healthy and had a really healthy cardiovascular system.

“After all that happened, they’re like, ‘You’re very, very healthy, you’re in your early 40s; you shouldn’t be having a stroke.’ So we went to UCLA, and finally, I got a test that showed that I had this hole between my atrial chambers that needed to be closed.” He had the surgery right away, and reminded the doctors that it would be dangerous for him to take any knock-out drug, so Dietzen ended up watching the entire surgery to close up the hole in his heart on an overhead screen. He returned to work afterward — at his behest — just in time to get a few episodes in before production shut down due to the pandemic… and felt grateful that he was able to get it in just under the wire before surgeries became a rarer luxury in 2020.

“And then over the next six months as everyone was sitting at home, myself included, I started asking those questions of, how do I want to affect the world? And which stories do I want to tell?’ You go through all the scenarios — should I be on this show anymore? Should I move on, do something different? What’s going to make me happy? And I realized there’s no reason why I can’t tell really great stories and branch out and still do what I love on this thing, and be surrounded by these people that have supported me and that I support and love.”

Although Dietzen won’t be getting another writing credit in before at least the 20th season, Williams felt he was a storytelling natural — and just needed to learn some basic lessons about writing dialogue in a minimalist fashion. Says the EP, “I love our cast as a whole, but Brian’s always been a guy that’s the most collaborative and — without being dictatorial; without saying ‘I want it this way’ or the way — he’s always asking very good smart questions. He was so helpful and so collaborative in that episode [2017’s ‘Keep Going’] that I was like, ‘Oh, for sure, you’re going to be writing an episode before long. And when we did it, I really enjoyed the process with him. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

The “NCIS” franchise is one that made the decision to acknowledge COVID on the show, with masks going off and on… and ultimately, in the case of the mothership, a death that was supposed to be wrenching, even if viewers hadn’t seen the wife character in a while

“I heard from a lot of people saying, ‘I’m so glad that you did that and you paid respect to those who passed during this time,’” says Dietzen. “I think that definitely deepened who Jimmy was and is — when you have a loss like that, it’s a demarcation line. ‘This is me before this happened and me after this happened.’ I felt that when my mom passed away about six years ago. It’s like when someone’s born, too — you have a life before kids and life after kids. And that stuff is addressed in this episode that I wrote with Scott as well. There’s a lot packed in there, and I’m really glad that not just our show runner but also the network hav been so supportive of telling those stories, because they’re important.”

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