As Jimmy Palmer on NCIS, actor Brian Dietzen has gone from a one-time guest to one of the stars of the show. But while he’s gotten this career boost on one of the biggest shows on TV, that success thankfully hasn’t gone to his head, as Brian has remained the same down-to-Earth guy he was when the show started eleven years ago. Or the same as he was when I met him seven years ago at a party for the video game Assassin’s Creed.
A few days after he finished filming the last episode of NCIS’ eleventh season, Brian and I had brunch at Home Café in Silverlake, where we talked about the season just past, how he went from a one-time guest to one of the stars of the show, and what his costar Pauley Perrette, who plays Abby, really thinks of him.
Right before the season began, Cote De Pablo, who plays Ziva, decided to leave the show. Now that the season is over, what impact do you think Cote’s leaving had both on the show and on the cast and crew?
I think it made a big difference. It was pretty tumultuous there at the beginning. We didn’t know she was going to be leaving. I don’t think she knew that she was leaving, This all happened at the eleventh hour.
But it’s like when you bake a cake. If you change one ingredient, it changes how the cake tastes. So this year was about adjustment, and adjustment on the fly.
What about on you and your character? Because Palmer didn’t interact a lot with Ziva on the show.
Story wise, I think it effected David [McCallum, who plays Dr. Mallard] and I the least. But it was still a good friend leaving, that’s where it effected the two of us more.
Do you think that the shake-up her eleventh hour departure caused may have invigorated things in some way? Because it did inform the first half of the season.
Yeah, it did. And I really enjoyed how DiNozzo and McGee had this little bromance thing going in the first half of the season, and how they and the writers played off having different people come in as temporary agents.
How many weeks after her last episode aired did you get a panicky 3AM phone call from her yelling, “WHAT DID I DO? WHAT THE HELL DID I DO?”
Ha! That phone call’s not come yet. But I’m glad I haven’t gotten that call. She felt it was time to leave, and more power to her because I want my friends to be happy. And every time I’ve talked her, she’s said that she’s happy.
Have you ever thought about leaving the show?
Honestly? No. I love my job. Now, I don’t have the work schedule that Mark [Harmon, who plays Gibbs] and Michael [Weatherly, who plays DiNozzo] and those guys do, I’m not there eight days to shoot an episode, and I’m only in about thirteen episode a season, so I have a lot more breathing room than they do. But I love the show, and I love the character. I love being able to play a lighthearted character who occasionally experiences drama, but is mostly there to be the novice or the everyman.
The show has since hired Emily Wickersham to join the cast as Ellie. Obviously, Ellie is very different from Ziva. What do you think adding Emily has done for the show?
Well, the Ellie character is a probie, which we haven’t had for a long time. I really like how, in the show, McGee has grown over the years. It wouldn’t work if he was still the same character he was when he first joined the show. But it’s also cool that we have a new probie.
As for as off camera, Emily is just a wonderful person. It’s funny, we’ve always had really good people on our show, and I’ve gotten along with all of them. We’ve been really blessed in that regard.
While the Ziva/Ellie switch has been the big change this season, the big one for your character is that he and his wife were going to adopt a baby. But, as we saw, the kid’s birth mother ultimately decided to keep the kid.
Which happens more often that you realize. It’s kind of crazy.
As someone who is himself a father, how hard was it to film those scenes?
It was wonderful… Well, it was wonderfully difficult. Just imagining one of my children being taken, on an instinctual, guttural level it makes me want to tear up just thinking about it. And I was appreciative that the writers were able to give me that emotional scene with Mark.
This is so cliché, I can’t believe I’m even saying it, but I did hug my kids more that night after doing that scene because you don’t want to imagine it ever happening to you.
So how did you originally get the role of Jimmy Palmer?
I was a one day guest star. But what’s funny is that because it was just a one day job, I decided to make some really bold choices when I auditioned. And they liked it so much that it turned into a ten-year job. Had it been for a starring role, I would’ve had to test for the network, and if I had done that, I probably would’ve made different choices. And I probably wouldn’t have gotten the job.
Okay, so you’ve gone from a guest star to a recurring character to being listed in the credits as “Also Starring” to now one a full-time cast member. Though, like you said, you’re not on every episode. But maybe that’s the next step.
Yeah, maybe I’ll just keep moving up. [laughs] And I’ll end up being the executive producer when we get to season twenty-eight.
Right. Now, as you’ve moved up, it’s obviously an accomplishment, but has there also been thoughts of, “Oh, do I want to make this commitment”?
Oh, absolutely. It is a wonderful career opportunity, but the more you commit to one show, the less you can do other things. So that thinking definitely goes into it, and I have those conversations with my wife. But because of how much I like working on this show, with this cast and the writers and the crew, it was a no-brainer.
Next season they’re doing a spin-off set in New Orleans. If they came to you and offered you a starring role in that show, and I mean you’d be in every episode and all that, would you do it? I don’t get the sense that you would.
I have no idea. I’m not sure. That’s a tough one to answer. I think a lo of what makes Palmer works is his relationship to Ducky.
Though if they asked me to guest star on that show, I would do that in a heartbeat.
Well, what I could see happening is that David McCallum decides to retire, at which point Palmer would take Ducky’s job.
Oh, I’m convinced he’s going to live longer than me. He’s the most productive octogenarian on the planet. He’s currently editing his book, which is a novel, a 300, 400 page novel; he does voices for cartoons and video games; he was in the last Diablo game. It’s crazy.
While NCIS is the first regular gig you’ve had, it’s not the only thing you’ve done. You were also in the movie From Justin To Kelly.
How often do your NCIS coworkers bring that up?
I remember when Michael first heard that, I think Pauley told him, he started dancing around and making up songs he thought would be in it.
Yeah, that was incredibly fun, that was fun movie to shoot.
But I’ve oddly never had anyone recognized me from it.
Have the writers on NCIS ever tried to put in a joke about Palmer being into Kelly Clarkson?
Were it not for American Idol being our competition, I think maybe. [laughs]
As you said, you’ve never been recognized from that movie. But you also look very different in real life than you do on NCIS. Has this prevented you from being recognized when you’re out and about?
Here and there. More so when I go to Colorado or Chicago.
Dunno. Maybe people in L.A. just don’t pay as much attention to that stuff.
Oh, you don’t mean specifically Colorado or Chicago, you mean when you get out of L.A.
Yeah, yeah. Those are just the two places I visit the most because my family is there.
I’ve told this story before, but there’s been times when I’ve been out with Pauley, and we get approach by someone who says they’re the biggest NCIS fan ever. So Pauley will ask me to take a picture of her with them, and right when I’m about to take the picture, Pauley will say, “By the way, you know that’s Jimmy Palmer taking the picture, right?” and they end up with a picture of them in the middle of saying, “What?”
But I also, you know me, I don’t act like Jimmy, either. It’s like how Mark doesn’t act like some hard-nosed marine.
Which makes it funny when you see him on a talk show, and he’s smiling and acting like a goof.
Oh yeah. Rocky Carroll’s probably the biggest departure from his character because he’s the most affable, kind-hearted, open guy you’ll ever meet, but on the show he has to be the rock that Gibbs knocks up against once in a while.
Now, in preparing for this interview, I asked Pauley to give me some dirt on you…
…but all she came up with was, “His RIDICULOUSLY chiseled bod and abs!” And she capitalized “RIDICULOUSLY,” by the way. She then said that she kept bugging the producers to have you talk your shirt off in an episode, and when you did, people went nuts. When that happened, did anyone say anything about how Ned Flanders and Groundskeeper Willie on The Simpsons are also deceptively cut?
Yeah [laughs], after that aired, my cousin texted me, but it was just the line [in his best Groundskeeper Willie voice] “Grease me up, woman!”
Pauley also said, “I think he’s one of the greatest humans on the planet.” Since she qualified it by saying “human.” I take to mean that you’re not as good as a pig or a rat or a sloth. How do you respond to that?
Ha! I think… [laughs].
My daily wish is to be the man my dog thinks I am. Because she thinks I’m the greatest thing ever.
Nice. You and I have talked a lot over the years about video games. You’re a big fan, but you’re also friends with Jesse Stern, the former co-executive producer of NCIS who wrote such games as Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Battlefield 4, and Titanfall. But you’ve never, as far as I know, done a voice for a game. Why haven’t you hit Stern up for a job?
It’s funny, I did ask him if there was anything in Battlefield 4 I could do, and they were pretty late in the casting, but there was one thing…except it turned out to be a role for a fifty year old man. And I have a young sounding voice as it is.
But I’d love to do a voice for a game. I’m actually just now starting to go on voiceover auditions.
So if you could do a voice in any game, what game would you want to do a voice for?
But I think the best video game voices I’ve heard has been some of the Valve stuff, like Portal.
A bunch of your NCIS co-stars have done voices in animated DC Comics movies. Pauley Perrette was the voice of Lois Lane in Superman Vs. The Elite, David McCallum was Alfred in Batman: Gotham Knight, and Mark Harmon was Superman in Justice League: Crisis On Two Earths. Have they ever approached you?
No. But now that you mention it, I’d make a kick ass Jimmy Olson.
My son is just starting to get into DC Comics. Well, as much as a four-year-old can.
Does he know this weekend is Free Comic Book Day?
No. And he won’t. [laughs]. But there’s a lot of characters who’d be awesome to play.
Like The Flash. The Flash was awesome when I was growing up.
Okay, so you haven’t been asked to be the voice of Batman or a soldier in Titanfall. So what impact has NCIS had on your career? Have you gotten offered better movie roles or endorsement deals?
No. No, to be honest. I wish that was the case. But that’s okay. I don’t mind going into rooms, meeting people, and earning it through auditions. I would say it’s opened more doors, but in terms of offers, I’m not at the Mark Harmon level yet.
So besides NCIS, what else are you up to?
Well, a film that I co-wrote, produced, and starred in called Congratulations is now on iTunes. That was fun to do. It was great to flex different muscles because it was a different thing from being Jimmy Palmer.
And then, this summer I’m working on a documentary about the Wounded Warriors softball team. There’s a camp each summer for amputee children where they teach them how to run and play ball, but they also teach them that their disability isn’t something to be ashamed of, it’s something that they can live through and prosper through. And when I met them, I just thought there was something we could do, and it would also make a heartfelt, human documentary about the team and these kids.
Is the team made up of kids?
No, the team is made up of veterans who are all amputees. I played with them at a charity game in Washington D.C.
We’re going to shoot some stuff this June through next summer. Should be really cool.