‘NCIS’ Brian Dietzen Teases What’s in the Tribute to David McCallum

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Brian Dietzen, David McCallum

The premiere episode of Season 21 of NCIS concluded with Jimmy Palmer (Brian Dietzen) discovering that his mentor Donald “Ducky” Mallard (David McCallum) had died in his sleep and the last scene showed him sharing the news with the team.

Now, tonight, in episode two, the team will grieve the loss of Ducky but also honor him by working on one of his unfinished cases involving a woman whose father was dishonorably discharged from the Marines. By so doing, it also affords them the opportunity to share some of their favorite memories of the time they spent with him.

“It’ll be our team working to solve this case, and in doing so there are definitely going to be some memories, there are going to be some of Ducky’s writings that we’ll be able to check out that will trigger some flashes to wonderful scenes from Ducky in the past,” Dietzen tells Parade in this interview. “It’s definitely not a clip show, it’s definitely a show, though, that will highlight Ducky and what he’s done over the course of his NCIS career and how he’s interacted with his NCIS family.”

Because of the shortened season due to the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, Dietzen wasn’t originally supposed to co-author an episode this season, leaving the scripts to the writing team and focusing on his first job, which is acting. But when McCallum died in September 2023, it changed things. Executive producer Scott Williams decided he wanted to write a tribute episode and who better to work on it with than Dietzen, who had worked closely with McCallum since Season 1? So the two men sat down and figured out what the episode would look like once the WGA strike ended.

“One of the things that was really important to us was to highlight not just his interactions with our current roster on NCIS but also to highlight his interactions with past members of the NCIS family as well, so it was nice to be able to highlight some of those classic scenes and format the story and form the story around those,” Dietzen continues.

Related: Beloved NCIS Star David McCallum Dies

In the interview below, Dietzen talks more about writing the episode, how it came about, and making sure it not only honored McCallum and Ducky, but also the many fans who loved him.

David McCallum<p>Photo: Sonja Flemming/CBS </p>
David McCallum

Photo: Sonja Flemming/CBS

Did you have to ask for this episode?

Of course, we had the work stoppage because of the WGA and the SAG strike, so that shortened our season. We’re only doing 10 episodes this year as opposed to our normal 22-24. So, I had told Steven Binder and David North, our two showrunners, that I won’t be pushing for a script this year because we only have 10 episodes and we have a wonderful writing staff, I won’t butt in on that.

And then, unfortunately, when David passed away, Scott Williams said to the room, “Hey, I’d love to write a farewell to Ducky episode, and if it’s OK with everybody I’d like to bring Brian on as my writing partner, I think it’s fitting.” David North and Steven Binder both said, “Yes, absolutely, that’s perfect.” So, they asked me to write, and I said it would be an honor. Of course, I couldn’t pass that up. I’ll be honest, it’s a bit of a daunting task at first, but it’s an opportunity I would never pass up.

When you and Scott sat down, did you already have an idea? And what did you decide was the most important aspects that you wanted to cover?

The most important aspect, I think you would agree, is that we really wanted to honor two things. We wanted to honor this incredible television character that people have known and loved for 20 years, and we also wanted to honor this TV and film icon that people have known and loved for 60 years. So many folks that have come up to me after David passed away and expressed their condolences because they knew we were friends, and they would all say the same thing.

“Oh, I loved him when I was a kid” and “I watched him in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” or “I loved him in The Great Escape or The Invisible Man” in addition to a couple decades as America’s favorite medical examiner Ducky Mallard. So, there’s a lot of people I know who were mourning that loss in their own way, so I wanted to definitely pay respects to that.

And as far as how we decided to go about doing that, Scott and I both wanted to make sure we were still doing an NCIS show that has a case, and if there’s any way that Ducky can help us solve one last case, we’re going to do that. And then we’re going to have that case thematically link up with the loss of someone, so it wouldn’t be a direct, “Oh, this case is about Ducky’s life,” or something like that, but thematically it’ll be about what happens when we lose someone, and what the stories we leave behind mean to each of those people.

Related: Brian Dietzen on Co-Writing an Episode of NCIS in Which the Very Cool Alden Parker Gets Hot!

Are we going to need a lot of tissues or is it going to take a lighter tone?

You remember during COVID there was a time when people were having funerals, and you couldn’t travel to go pay your respects? I feel the same can be said for sometimes when people lose someone who’s a part of their life, but they don’t know them personally. So, a lot of people lost this character, fans of the show lost this character, and some people lost this idol that they’ve had since the 1960s, and there’s no real way to mourn them with other people.

I think this show will allow people to feel that loss together, so there’s definitely going to be some sad moments within it. But that said, we can’t just have this be 42 minutes of crying and tragedy, right? So there has to be some celebration and some recognition that each one of these characters is better for having known Ducky, and each of us as people are better for having known David, so those two things go hand in hand. So yeah, there’ll be some sad things, but I think there’s also going to be some things to celebrate as well.

As part of that celebration, will there actually be a funeral? Because that would allow for some past cast members to return.

Right, there is a funeral. There’s a funeral, though we won’t show it. We’re showing people going off to the funeral, we won’t be at the actual funeral. As far as people returning, what was really important was showing that everyone within the NCIS universe, meaning characters that are current and also characters that are past, past members of our family are represented there within it.

Whether that means sending notes, tokens of appreciation and love or whether that means we’re flashing to a scene between two of these people, we wanted to make sure there’s a lot of representation. And not just amongst our show either, there’s going to be some callouts to some other field offices as well. We took a lot of notes from a lot of people on how to have that representation there, I hope people like it.

Brian Dietzen, Sean Murray<p>Photo: Sonja Flemming/CBS </p>
Brian Dietzen, Sean Murray

Photo: Sonja Flemming/CBS

Related: Daniela Ruah Returns to the NCISVerse

David is technically the last original cast member. How did he help you grow as an actor? What did his mentorship mean to you?

I learned a lot from David. We were close friends, and considering the amount of work that we did together, it was quite a bit. I had come from theater before I’d done NCIS. I’d done another TV show and a couple movies, but really what I’d done primarily is theater. And he was the same, he came from theater as well before Man from U.N.C.L.E. and also after, and so he provided a lot of encouragement and a lot of lessons on how you work in front of a camera versus theater.

And also, just the constant refrain of we’re here to entertain, and we’re here to be quality control, too, to make sure that what we’re putting out into this world is actually going to be really good and really entertaining, and if it’s not, it’s our job to make it so. I remember this one time we were doing a show together, and I won’t say when it was because I’m not sure I could recall it. But we got a script, and the prior script wasn’t all that great, I’ll be honest. There’s been a couple over the years where you go, “It maybe doesn’t play that well for us,” but then you see it on TV and go, “Oh, actually it turned out really well.”

But this particular script we got, he said, “I don’t know. I don’t know if I like that.” He was uncertain about it. And I said, “Well, it’s okay, we’ll make it better.” And he looked at me and he goes, “No, Brian, if you have too many of these bad scripts in a row, it can be really bad for a show. You can go from being the No. 1 show in the world to nothing in the course of a month.” And I was like, “David, that’s a little dramatic.”

And then it was only later that day I realized that that’s what happened in his career, you know? He was on the No. 1 show with The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and he said they took their eye off the ball and they stopped challenging themselves and by the end of that fourth season they were off the air. So, his constant refrain was come prepared and come ready to swing hard, you know? And that’s what we always did together.

Related: Wilmer Valderrama on Who Nick Torres Is Willing to Die for in the NCIS Season 21 Premiere

It’s interesting, as David did fewer episodes and Palmer’s role grew and he became the medical examiner, it seems like a few of Ducky’s traits came with the job, like the storytelling. How did the metamorphosis of Palmer come about?

Well, I think that you spend enough time with someone, you start adopting some of their traits, you know? They say that people start having the same idiosyncratic behaviors of their partners or spouses. Or sometimes people, they spend so much time together, they start to look like their dog, and so I think definitely Jimmy picked up a lot from Ducky over the years.

If you look over the course of Jimmy’s history on the show, the one constant with Jimmy is that he’s always asking questions. Always. And you can’t think that someone would be asking questions of someone for 15 years and not really pick up on the answers and take them to heart. So, if he’s picking up on those answers and taking them to heart, it would make sense that some of Ducky is going to play through, and some of his mentorship is going to be evident in Jimmy’s behavior.

Brian Dietzen<p>Photo by Sonja Flemming/CBS via Getty Images</p>
Brian Dietzen

Photo by Sonja Flemming/CBS via Getty Images

We don’t want to spoil it, but we do want people to tune in. It’ll be a very special episode, I’m sure.

I certainly hope so. I hope that it’s received in the way that it was intended, which is honoring a pretty great person and saying, “We miss you.” And allowing other people to experience that loss as well, you know? There’ll be some tears and stuff, but hopefully by the end, people will say, “Oh boy, they did him proud.” That’s my biggest hope.

Do you worry more when you write a script than one you just act in?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I’ve got to say it’s interesting though, this episode. Usually when we’re filming an episode that I’ve helped in writing, there’s some joyous, “Oh my gosh, look at this,” and they’re doing this and they’re making this better than what I thought it would be and all of that. This one felt a lot different, you know?

It was an atypical show because I certainly didn’t want to write this, no one wanted to write this episode, right, because that means we’ve lost someone. So yeah, it had a different vibe to it, but I think that we succeeded in not getting bogged down in just the loss of it, but also experiencing the celebration of who Ducky was to all of these people.

NCIS’ tribute to David McCallum and Donald “Ducky” Mallard will air tonight at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.

Next, Everything You Need to Know as NCIS Heads Into Its 21st Season