Home Entertainment Brian Dietzen on Co-Writing an ‘NCIS’ Episode Honoring David McCallum: ‘The Ritual...

Brian Dietzen on Co-Writing an ‘NCIS’ Episode Honoring David McCallum: ‘The Ritual of a Memorial Is Something I Wanted Everyone to Be Able to Share’


Brian Dietzen‘s Jimmy Palmer is now the chief medical examiner on “NCIS,” having taken over that function as the character’s mentor, David McCallum‘s Ducky character, slid into an emeritus role a few seasons ago. When McCallum died in September, it fell into Dietzen’s real-life lap to become something of a grief examiner, as he took on the duty of co-writing a farewell salute to Ducky — and to David — along with one of the series’ longtime executive producers, Scott Williams.

The tribute episode they came up with, “The Stories We Leave Behind,” airs Monday night on CBS. For many longtime viewers, Ducky’s memorial will be, well, tearducty, as elder fans, especially, remember not just McCallum’s two-decade run on the top dramatic series of the 21st century but a lifetime of roles stretching back to the actor’s star-making 1960s co-lead part on “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”

As McCallum’s primary scene partner for 20 seasons, Dietzen had a vested interest in celebrating Ducky for the third episode he has co-written for the show. (He talked about his writing debut for his series in an extensive interview with Variety almost exactly two years ago.) In this catch-up, he discusses wanting to provide both the audience and himself some catharsis with the double-duty on this episode… and what’s up for Jimmy Palmer beyond the current grief, with the show having the formerly bumbling character as one of its most solid rocks two decades into a historic run.

What was it like for you, to be co-writing a tribute episode, so soon after the death of the man you’d worked so closely with for 20 years?

You know, when you lose a friend, and then you process your grief by writing something immediately, that’s to be consumed by the masses — not writing and journaling about what you’re feeling, but writing something for performance, for public consumption… it was very strange in a way. But also very cathartic.

How quickly did the show move toward thinking about how to handle the death, and how did you come into the writing part?

We had this major work stoppage. It was the end of September that David passed away, so we were all walking the picket line out there, and I would meet tons of people who would come up and express their condolences, people who had been fans of his for decades and decades. We knew immediately we wanted to do something to honor the person, but also, of course, the character within the universe. Once the writers went back to work, Scott said he definitely wanted to write that episode, and furthermore, he wanted to team up with me to write it. This is our third script that we’ve written on together, and when he brought my name up, our showrunners Steve Binder and David North said, “Yeah, we’d love for that to happen — Brian’s worked alongside David more than anyone else, and then Scott has obviously written for him for years.”

You have some clips in the episode, but there are only so many you can work into 42 minutes when you also have to spotlight the team’s emotional responses… and have a crime, which no “NCIS” episode is ever going to go without, as a rule.

God knows we could have done a show where it was just clip after clip of David, and these wonderful, long diatribes that he’s had. But we wanted to make sure that there was something that brought the team together one last time with Ducky, and so we found a way to have this be something that Ducky had left undone, and that the team felt a need to honor their fallen friend by finishing something for him. You know, when you lose someone, it can sometimes feel like, “What do I do? What do I do with my hands? What do I do with my body right now?” And you can feel jittery, because this is a part of grief. And so our team actually gets to go into action, and not just sit in their distress but actually affect change in someone else’s life, and by proxy fulfill a wish of Ducky’s.

Was there anything that you specifically wanted to channel into the remembrance of the person or the character?

One of the biggest things that I wanted to talk about and explore had to do with the loss of any friend or a loved one, but that really works really hand-in-glove with the character of Ducky: He told so many stories, over the course of the last 20 years at NCIS, and that I think is what a lot of people remember that character for. I certainly will; me playing Jimmy Palmer, I listened to so many of those stories, some of them long, some of them very short and quippy. Ducky had a lot of those, and David had a lot of those over the course of his almost 70 years in Hollywood. The name of this episode is “The Stories We Leave Behind.” So that’s what I wanted to do to honor him, to recognize that those stories are earned and meaningful. You add ’em up altogether and you have a very full life, and that very full life is all we really leave behind to affect people; once we’re gone, those stories become our legacy.

The other goal was that I wanted a communal space — 42 minutes of time where all of his colleagues, the people that called him a friend, and the folks that have never met him but have known him for the last 60 years and watched him weekly on “NCIS” for the last 20 years — a space where we could all come together and share our sadness, and also share the joy that we got to know him, even if it was over a television set. I think the ritual of getting together and having a memorial for someone, whether you call it a funeral or a party, is really important, and it’s something I wanted everyone to be able to share, and I think David would’ve loved that… Grief is a powerful thing and sometimes feels like an awful thing, that recedes and comes back and recedes again. But I’m hoping that we’re left with a sense of hope by the end of this episode, and not just sadness that he’s gone, but also, boy, what a blessing that that he was here.

“The Stories We Leave Behind” – Pictured (L-R): Brian Dietzen as Jimmy Palmer, Katrina Law as NCIS Special Agent Jessica Knight, Wilmer Valderrama as Nick Torres, Diona Reasonover as Forensic Scientist Kasie Hines, and Gary Cole as FBI Special Agent Alden Parker. Photo: Michael Yarish/CBS

You and your lab partner, Kasie (Diona Reasonover), have an interesting scene, where you discuss guilt that comes after a death over not having fully expressed feelings. And then that scene ends with an “I love you.” It’s like you’re telling the audience that we should feel good about actions having proved love… but hey, maybe we should be going beyond that with words.

Yeah. I’ve experienced that before and I have loved ones that have experienced that before, where you lose someone and you go, “Oh, man, did they know?” When my mom passed away, did she know how much I loved her? And of course she did, but still the question persists, and it still nags at you. And I think there is that moment for Kasie of saying, “You know what? I do love you.” It doesn’t hurt to say. There’s an “Our Town” sort of thing that happens there where it’s like: “Why are these people not saying they love one another every moment of every day? If I were able to go back and do it again, I would be doing that in a heartbeat.” And I love that idea that if if your eyes are open to (learning from) that, then maybe you savor that moment a bit more when you get to connect with someone on a Saturday morning, or the sandwich tastes a little better, and there’s something about life that you will look at and appreciate more than before you had lost anyone.

What were some of your thoughts about David, observing him up-close for almost 20 years? He had huge fame at an early age with “Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” then fell out of sight, then seemed to have a very casual relationship with the limelight when it came back to him, less intensely, in his career’s third act.

A lot of us would marvel at how young he seemed. You know, he was cast in this show when he was 70 years old, and everyone said, “Oh, he looks like he’s in his late 50s” when we started this show. And the guy had it figured out. He knew what stressed him out, and he avoided that. I remember saying, what’s the secret to the longevity and that sort of stuff, and he said, “I try not to stress myself too much. You know, if I find things that do stress myself out, I try not to do those things, or I try to get help with those from other people.”

I was talking to his wife, Katherine, last month, and she said, “I’ll never forget when he was 70 years old, coming to me and saying, ‘Catherine, my people want me to go audition for this thing, this new Don Bellisario show. I don’t know. Do you think I should do another TV show?’” And she said, “Ah, yeah, go, you know, you’ll enjoy it. You’ll have a good time. Who knows how long it’ll last anyhow.” And then that turns into a 20-year gig. It was interesting that when we were, gosh, maybe in our 10th season, he had just finished a writing a novel that became a New York Times bestseller (“Once a Crooked Man”). He was voicing two different cartoons that were major hits for the Disney Channel, and a couple different video games as well. And he was portraying Ducky on the No. 1 show in the world. I was in my mid-30s at the time, and I thought, this 80-year-old man is making me look so lazy. He just wanted to keep going and keep working; he really enjoyed it.

But I think that some of the balance that you’re kind of alluding to — that he didn’t crave to be some rocketing, huge superstar — was that he loved his family more than anything. And I think that’s where his heart was a lot, and I’m so glad that over the past five, six years, he was able to spend a lot more time not just in California but in New York with all of his grandkids. He had a wonderful grounding that way.

David had been pretty much full-time with the show through the 15th season, and then he got on a semi-retirement path, it seemed, cutting his workload down to being on just half the episodes in a season, then six, then three, remotely. From the outside we didn’t necessarily know whether that was being realistic about what he could do health-wise, or whether that was just wanting to enjoy life. But fans did appreciate that he didn’t leave the show outright.

And what was incredible was that he was largely a very, very healthy person, keeping himself well. I mean, he was doing Pilates. And he still just hit the scenes hard. I mean, the scene that keeps being shown for these promos is a scene from a show where the character of Gibbs has just left (in the opening stretch of the 2021-22 season), and Jimmy is having a tough time with that and says, “We just lost Gibbs. Bishop just left, and I lost Breena last year, and I’m just about ready for people to stop leaving. I’m having a tough time here.” And David says — or sorry, Ducky says — “Change is the essence of life, and our pain is a small price to pay for his peace.” That scene, when we filmed that, that was probably one of the last handful of scenes that he and I got to film in person together. He just knocked it out of the park. And that was him at 88 years old, and just tremendous.

So, as far as him pulling back and wanting to do less, I think it had very, little to do with health or ability or anything like that, and much more to do with “what’s smart for my life, what’s good for me — but I never want to stop doing this, because it feeds my soul, it feeds my creative energy.” He always had been and always will be an actor. But he also wanted to just spend time with family. And he was so encouraging of me in my journey in taking over the role of medical examiner on the show. He couldn’t have been more supportive and more kind.

Brian Dietzen and David McCallum. (Photo by Monty Brinton/CBS via Getty Images)
CBS via Getty Images

As someone who was his primary scene partner, you had a great introduction to the public, since an audience that had watched him for decades was going to be riveted to the few scenes they got with David every week, but with you as foil, he was not going to be sucking up all the oxygen.

And he was certainly very giving with his scene work. With all of that said, he was also a veteran, and a guy who knows the tricks of the trade, and how to get great coverage and that sort of thing. I learned so much from him over the course of this period of time. So if once in a while, if all of us are standing on one side of the body and he walks to the other side because he knows he’ll get a great single shot of himself, you learn from that sort of thing, too!

To focus on Jimmy for a minute, the character has been considerably elevated over the years. His personal life has been highlighted. What do you foresee for any of that this season or going forward?

Jimmy’s been on on such a ride. Over the course of the last few years, Jimmy certainly has seen some tough stuff between obviously the biggest event of his life, which is the loss of his wife during COVID, and then his team shifting. And then, with the addition of Gary Cole and Katrina Law, there’s a very different team dynamic that this show has right now, and I absolutely love it. Being able to have Jimmy actually fall in love is great to play — not to mention, I get to do more scenes with Katrina Law, who’s an absolutely fantastic actor, and we work very well together. So we will definitely see some advancement of the Jimmy and Jessica storyline. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everything’s smooth sailing all the time. He loves her enough that he blurted out “I love you” in front of an entire bullpen full of people, and she was kind enough to say it back, later in the episode. But, yeah, there’s gonna be some stuff that they’re gonna go through that maybe is some growing pains, and maybe even some bigger stuff than that.

I’ve also already shot some stuff this season that is just some terrific, classic NCIS comedic stuff that I love digging my teeth into. Our writers have really given ussome incredible scenes to do. We have this truncated season of only 10 episodes, so everyone kind of feels like, “Oh, I get one at-bat, basically, this year,” and everyone swings hard and swings for the fences. Not to pat ourselves on the back too much, but when I read these scripts, I’m like, man, it’s just banger after banger. So, yeah, the comedic bits have been fantastic, the Jimmy and Jessica stuff has been great, and then, of course, you know, the crimes… There’s always the crimes.

It’s still a little surprising to see an inter-office romance treated comfortably on “NCIS,” for anyone who remembers the Tiva years, when the romantic tension between Tony and Ziva was always paramount and those lines into clear consummation wouldn’t be crossed. Then the audience got a real romance on the sister show, “NCIS Los Angeles,” and it seemed the franchise got a little friendlier with the idea that this doesn’t have to be played purely as torture. You can see why for a lot of years the show did not lean into anything like that, but at the same time, maybe the audience enjoys some contentedness.

Yeah. I think that started with Don Bellisario, who was right with the conventional wisdom that said, for a long time, well, you have to have the tension of will they or won’t they? Because if you consummate that relationship, then there’s no more tension. That was the thought process for a long time. But I think, right now, man, audiences are really smart, and audiences also really like to see the positive. Again, not that there won’t be bumps. But when you get home from like a long day at work or you just want to have your family time together on Monday nights and sit around and watch your “NCIS” family play, there’s something to be said for it being pretty cool to see a relationship where there’s an emotional maturity about it, and they’re lifting each other up. You know, there’s something that’s, like, “Ahhh, that feels good,” you know? Because there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t feel so good right now.

No one can appreciate more than you the irony that, as a former bit player, you are one of the rocks of “NCIS” — along with Sean Murray, a year-one anchor the show’s O.G. viewers depend on.

Oh, I called it from day one! I got this one-day guest star role that I was gonna go audition for and I was like, “If I play my cards right, this is gonna turn into over two decades’ worth of work.” No, of course I couldn’t know, but I’m just happy and blessed to still be playing a character that’s changed and evolved quite a bit. And people keep enjoying the stories that we’re telling, and if we keep telling good ones, then I think hopefully they’ll keep ordering some more.