“NCIS”’ Brian Dietzen talks franchise’s 1,000-episode legacy and teases jaw-dropping season finale

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“It’s hard to get a better gig than this,” the actor tells EW about his role as bespectacled medical examiner Jimmy Palmer.

The NCIS-verse aired its 1,000th episode tonight, and for Brian Dietzen, who plays lovable medical examiner Jimmy Palmer, “A Thousand Yards” wasn’t just the perfect way to honor the CBS show’s longevity. It was also the latest in a long line of episodes created with a team he’s proud to be a part of.

“I love these people that I work with, and our crew that's been together with us for 21 years, a lot of them all the way through from the beginning to now,” Dietzen tells Entertainment Weekly. “I think you can see that camaraderie and the comfort and familiarity. It comes through to viewers.”

In a season shortened by the Hollywood labor strikes, Dietzen says the cast and crew turned lemons into lemonade with an inventive 10-episode season that culminates in a pulse-pounding finale.

“As per usual with NCIS, it's gonna leave a lot of people with their mouths wide open after the credits start to roll,” Dietzen teases. “I think everyone's pretty damn proud of what we put together.”

Below, the actor and writer, who co-authored this season’s emotional tribute episode to Dr. Mallard and David McCallum, talks about this major TV milestone, the shape of the season to come, and how the medical examiner in the Harry Potter glasses evolved into a romantic lead over 21 years.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations on the 1,000th episode! How does it feel to be a part of that legacy?

BRIAN DIETZEN: Oh, my gosh, think about 1,000 episodes. That's some pretty rare stuff. It feels very humbling to be a part of something so humongous, you know, and to have any small part in helping in its success. So yeah, it's incredible. It's definitely some “pinch me” type of stuff.

I imagine! Well, I'd love to talk about the episode itself. Let me start by saying, poor Leon Vance [Rocky Carroll]. That man has suffered.

No kidding. We've got a few people like that on our team who've gone through the wringer, but I think none more so than Leon Vance. And, you know, you couldn't get a better actor than Rocky Carroll to play him. I mean, he just embodied that man and like you said, he’s gone through the wringer over the last 16, 17 years. I just love watching Rocky Carroll. I could listen to him read out of a phone book. So good. It's always an absolute pleasure to have a story where Vance is a central character.

The episode throws it way, way back. How important was it for everyone involved in the show to honor the deepest of those deep roots?

Well, I think you’ve got to honor everything. There are a lot of people. Those 1,000 episodes don't happen without over 1,000 people working behind the scenes over the course of these 21 years, not just on our show, but on our sister shows as well. So I was really, really happy when I was reading this script to see some shout-outs to past characters that are no longer on the show and also past storylines that meant a lot to the fans and meant a lot to us as NCIS family members.

The ending, it just got me. It’s one thing to read it in script form, but then when you get to see it, and see how visually it all comes together with the music swelling and you're showing some of these seminal moments from the history of NCIS and also simple moments like Gibbs helping a kid build a tree house. You know, the stuff that made NCIS what it is for two decades. And you're reminded that this is how we got here. Yeah, it definitely got me.

I would love to talk about the evolution of Jimmy Palmer over 20 seasons. What is it like as an actor to embody a character who’s growing professionally and personally over two decades?

It's really interesting. Obviously, it's not something that's generally done in most actors’ careers, you know? With procedural television like this, that character has a new story to tell each week, and he has to remain similar enough that people can recognize him as the character they've grown to love. But he needs to change a bit over time because that's what it means to be human, right? We grow and change. As an actor, what makes it interesting is to find those changes that are gradual and really playing the long game with it so that it doesn't seem like just overnight, oh, gosh, Jimmy's changed so dramatically from season 10 to 11, or from season 20 to 21, that those things make sense and still seem organic. It’s been a delightful challenge to play. And it’s not just me accepting that challenge.  It's our writers who are looking constantly at ways for our characters to evolve and to push us as actors. It’s definitely a group effort.

<p>Sonja Flemming/CBS</p> Brian Dietzen on 'NCIS'

Sonja Flemming/CBS

Brian Dietzen on 'NCIS'

When you started on NCIS at the end of season 1, did you anticipate your character being the core romantic pairing on the show at some point in the future?

Yes, we all saw this coming. From season 1, the assistant to Donald Mallard, we were like, “That guy. That kid right there. The guy with the Harry Potter glasses. That's the guy that's gonna have the lead romantic relationship.” [Dietzen laughs.] No, of course not. That was never a thing. It was kind of a punchline that no, there's no way that guy could be the one to get the girls. But it's been nice to see that evolution for Jimmy for sure, and for him to find happiness has been great.

What Jimmy brings to the show is a huge part of what makes me love NCIS, that kindness and patience and optimism. Do you see that as an important component to a show with as much action as NCIS generally has?

I think it's vital. I really do. You can have an episode of NCIS and it's very action-filled, and you'll have people say, “I wish they had more comedy in this.” You'll have one that's very silly and people will say, “I wish they'd be a little more serious.” But that’s what makes our show go. Those things complement each other really well. And when we have that light-hearted nature, that optimism, it does set up the audience pretty well for a sucker punch that happens here and there that takes your breath away. Like when Vance falls to the ground and he’s been shot [in “A Thousand Yards”]. That’s not something you saw coming. I think the show does a really good job of setting up those moments, and the comedy, the light-hearted nature and the optimism, is integral to that type of storytelling.

What is it what is it that made you want to include writing in your arsenal of skills? [Dietzen co-wrote “The Helpers” in season 19, “Old Wounds” in season 20, and Ducky’s season 21 tribute “The Stories We Leave Behind.”]

I've always loved writing, and I have a huge appreciation for our writers and what they do. This show is not an easy show to write. Anybody who steps up to the plate and says, “Hey, I want to try this thing,” I say hats off to you. Including the history of the characters, the interactions, the optimism, the heart and the soul of what the show is, it's hard to get all those things together.

So I was really happy when I submitted some writing samples to our showrunner Steve Binder and he said, “Hey, if you want to try it, go ahead.” So I teamed up with Scott Williams for “The Helpers” and we just went with it. I wanted that optimism, that thing that NCIS does so well, which is people looking after their own. I was really happy with the way that it turned out. And I was happy that I got to write again, two more times in the next three years.

I’m curious what kind of discussion went into putting you in the writer's room for the Ducky tribute episode.

Obviously, that was the episode that no one wants to write because it means we've lost someone that's so near and dear to us, a member of our family. And Scott, from what I understand, stood up and said “If we're going to do a Ducky tribute episode, I'd love to be a part of that.” Scott's has always been so good at writing for David, and he said, “I think that it's only right if Brian joins me on this. We’ll write this thing as a team.” I had already said I don't need to be taking scripts away from anybody else when we have such a such a truncated season, but everyone in the room said “No, that seems right that Brian should be a part of it considering how closely he and David worked over the years and how close they were as friends, too.” So I was beyond honored to throw my hat in the ring for that and to add whatever I could to it.

<p>Michael Yarish/CBS</p> Brian Dietzen on 'NCIS'

Michael Yarish/CBS

Brian Dietzen on 'NCIS'

Have you seen a difference over the show's run in how people react to you when you're just walking down the street?

I have to say, those glasses did a lot of work for a long time. It was one of those things where I never got recognized, but now when I'm traveling to see my family in Colorado and/or Illinois, I definitely get stopped, a bit more so in the Midwest than I do in Los Angeles. But it's great. People don't stop you because they hate your show. People only stop you because they like it. So it's really been nice.

What can you tell us about what’s in store for the rest of this season? 

There's plenty in store there. It's only a 10-episode season, right? It just kind of feels like each of our writers kind of only gets one at-bat, and they're really swinging for the fences and they are not disappointing. One that's coming up pretty soon here highlights Gary Cole's character Parker in a way that, to me, is some of the funniest stuff I've seen in a long, long time on the show, just situationally funny. Having read it, I can't wait to see what Gary does with the material.

Will you be glad to get back to a more traditional season next year, or are you hoping this will roll over into “let's keep swinging for the fences” with some new approaches?

Our cast and, more importantly, our crew really depends on working day in and day out on our show, and we really, really love it. I'm proud of the season that we put together in spite of two major strikes in Hollywood, and I can definitely speak for our crew and the rest of our cast when I say we're looking forward to a full slate of 22 shows, 22 different stories, and a full season's worth of work for all of us. Maybe we can take some of the lessons that we learned this year and apply them to a full 22, yeah. I'm hoping that we hold each other to high standards and we keep making some good stories because it’s hard to get a better gig than this when you're working with people that you care for, and you really love what they do artistically as well. I'm very, very excited for everyone to join us next year to have 22 fresh episodes — you know, building toward episode number 2,000.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NCIS airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.

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