Brian Dietzen never dreamed when taking a guest starring role in CBS’s wildly popular series, ‘NCIS’, that he would still be hard at work nine seasons later! As Jimmy Palmer, assistant to the legendary David McCallum’s character Ducky Mallard, Dietzen has established himself as a fan favorite. However, his work is not limited to the world of ‘NCIS’, as he has spent his time off set co-writing and producing the upcoming film, ‘Congratulations’. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with this star on the rise to discuss his roots in the entertainment industry, his work on ‘NCIS’, the creation of his first film and his work with the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
We want to give everyone a little background on you. It all started somewhere. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Chicago until I was about 7 years old, when we moved to Colorado. Most of my youth was spent in the hills of Boulder, Colorado.
Tackling a career in entertainment is often not for the faint of heart. What drove you to pursue a career in the entertainment industry?
I took my dad’s advice. He started his own company when he was about 21 years old. His advice to me was to figure out what you love to do and figure out how to get paid for it. I fell in love with acting at an early age. I did lots of theater in Colorado. However, Colorado doesn’t have a great job market for actors, so I decided to move west. Shortly thereafter, I was fortunate enough to find some good projects which led to some success!
Who would you cite as your biggest professional influences as an actor?
Jimmy Stewart, without a doubt. Growing up, I watched every one of his movies. I fell in love with his style, his fumbling and his realism. Who he was as an actor astounded me. It was from so long ago, I can’t find anyone whose acting stood up to the benchmark he set. There was some sort of quality about him that I really liked. I think that everyone who watches him thinks, “Gosh! I want to get to know that guy. I want that guy to be my neighbor!” Something about him really felt right for me and just looking into what he did as a person as well, he balanced a good career between film and theater and writing poetry as well. The fact that he followed his heart his whole life really astounded me.
You are instantly recognizable as Jimmy Palmer on “NCIS.” How did you originally get involved with the series?
It was interesting! In the first year, I got a call to go in and audition for a one day guest star. It was to be one scene with David McCallum and then you were out. I thought, “OK, this sounds fun and it is a great opportunity to work with a legend of TV!” I went in and I got the part! Nine years later, I am still doing the part! David and I worked really well together and then I started working with other members of the cast and things seemed to click really well. I am very blessed that it worked out the way in which it did! You never know where your next big job is going to come from. It could come from a one day thing or it could from a contract for seven years on a series. You really have to treat each job like it is the most important job. That job definitely turned out to be a good one for my career!
As you said, it all started with the one shot and grew from there. What type of research did you do into the world of forensics?
David McCallum has always been a big stickler for research and making sure that we know all of the anatomy that the writers are writing for us. We have a copy of “Grey’s Anatomy” right there on set, the book, not the TV show! [laughs] We’ve gotten really good at researching exactly what the words are which we are wrapping our mouths around. In addition, Craig Harvey is a liaison for the show — he is the LA County Coroner. Once a year, David and I go down to the LA County Coroner’s office to look into what types of technologies they are working with and what type of forensics they are using to solve or rule out crimes. Just in the nine years the show has been on, they have grown by leaps and bounds! It has been very interesting to see! It also reminds us that these are just ordinary people doing an extremely difficult and admirable job, helping the families of these victims. Once we realized that these guys talk about ordinary everyday things outside of their profession, it leant a new lightness to what could be a grave subject matter of autopsy. We have tried to infuse a lighter energy into our autopsy scenes and I think that is why they have been so successful over the years.
That is interesting and I think it really shows through. The show has such an organic feel to it and all of the characters seem to click on multiple levels, which is surely a big factor in its longevity. What’s the atmosphere like on set during a typical day of filming?
We have gotten to be friends on this show. It was pretty much that way from the jump. Day one — it seemed like everyone really got along. I am so happy that in year nine, not only does everyone still get along but we really, really like one another, appreciate each other’s company and are there for each other. When I tell people that I feel like I am bragging because there are not many shows that I know of which are getting ready to go into their 10th season where the cast not only still gets along but actually, genuinely likes each other! It is pretty fantastic and we all kinda know we are blessed in that regard and I think we all work really hard to ensure those things stay the same. There are certain things that evolve and change on the course of a show. Inevitably we have had many subtractions and additions to our show creatively, be it actors, writers or producers. The one thing that has stayed constant is that the actors, writers and producers are always there to back one another up and we never lose site of the fact that what we have now doesn’t come along more than once in a career — unless you are David McCallum! Then it does come along twice in a career! [laughs]
What characteristics of your personality do you think shine through in the character of Jimmy Palmer?
I think that in every character that an actor puts together, you inevitably see something that comes from the actor, whether it is from their own neuroses or one of their best qualities. I like to think that in every character I create, I like to show some weakness because otherwise, if all you are going to show is strength, all you are going to have is some tight jawed dude who has no fear whatsoever. I don’t think that is very interesting to watch. Certainly some of my neuroses come through with Jimmy Palmer, as well as some of my humor. I think that Jimmy is really blessed within the writing on this team to be a guy who keeps things a little bit light-hearted. He doesn’t necessarily get down and out too often and, when he does, you know it is from something pretty grave. He is a light-hearted soul and I like to think that for the most part, I too try to think of things on the brighter side of life and I try to infuse that into the character. I took a lesson from Pauley Perrette and watching her develop the character of Abby. People just love her character because she is a beacon of light. She already served that purpose on the show, so certainly Jimmy Palmer is not that but I do like to make sure when it comes to Jimmy, he is not a stick in the mud!
You mentioned David McCallum and there is certainly no shortage of talent on “NCIS.” What have you learned from this very talented cast in your time together?
I think I can learn something from absolutely everyone in the cast. Obviously, David McCallum has such a huge resume, as does Mark Harmon and our guest stars — especially this year. The ones that have impacted me the most are Jamie Lee Curtis and Larry Miller. I think all of those people, the veterans of our industry, have a common trait. The first day that you are on set with them, you realize why they work all of the time. It is first and foremost because they are very talented but a close second is that they treat other people on the set, from the producers to the other actors to the crew, with a great deal of respect. From that comes a lot of positive energy and who doesn’t want that around you when you are working! It is just one of life’s golden rules, if you treat people well they will respect that and respect you in the process. For example, Jamie Lee Curtis, I sing her praises often because she is a very open and kind person on set. She is very quick to buy the whole crew ice cream or nice packages of nuts when she is on set visiting or doing a guest starring spot. She really is a tremendous person and I think everyone who works with her knows that. In addition, our own cast, between Michael [Weatherly], Sean [Murray], Cote [de Pablo], Pauley [Perrette], David [McCallum], Rocky [Carroll] and Mark [Harmon], I learn something pretty much every day that I go on set. We have such a talented group of actors and I am disappointed, quite frankly, that we don’t get recognized for the acting achievements of the show because I think there are some stupendous performances going on from my cast. I would love to see them get some more recognition for it. Regardless, I am excited to be working alongside them and like I said, each time I do have a scene, if I concentrate on it, I truly learn something every day.
Your work isn’t limited to “NCIS.” You also are doing a bit of writing and are a co-writer and producer for the upcoming project “Congratulations.” What can you tell us about that?
We just finished post-production, where the sound and everything got completed about two-and-a-half months ago. Now, we are just waiting on a premiere date of some sort. We are hoping to premiere at a festival sometime soon and are seeking distribution. The way it was born was with myself and my writing partner Abby Miller, who just this year had a great role on “Justified,” deciding we would write a feature film about the modern state of marriage. Here in California, we have a lot of questions these days with Prop 8, “What is marriage?” And, “What do people see marriage as?” The tale starts with a man asking his girlfriend to marry him and she says, “Why would you ruin this? You can’t unring that bell! You know I don’t want to get married and you do. Now we have to address this.” The question of it, “Should we get married or should we not,” really tears them apart and it seems as though it shouldn’t do that because it should just be about whether you love someone and that should be the true definition. What it comes down to is that people get stuck on what the definition is and it can really do a lot more harm than good. It’s interesting because I am married and I have two children and my writing partner does not, so we both came from very different sides of the coin. It was a blast to write. We shot it over last summer and we have some great cast members including Debra Jo Rupp from “That 70s Show” and Kevin Rankin from “Friday Night Lights,” “Unforgettable” and “Justified.” I am very, very excited for people to see it because it is a different side of myself as an actor. It is a far cry from Jimmy Palmer and quite a downer at certain times! [laughs] And at other times, it is pretty fun! It was a great project to be my first to produce and I am really looking forward to doing more. In the meantime, I just can’t wait for people to check it out! We are in the process of pounding the pavement right now and hopefully people will be able to see it very soon!
Is writing and producing something you envision yourself doing a lot more of in the future?
Absolutely! I love it! I am not one of those guys who can sit down and write for 12 hours a day. I really admire people with that tenacity when it comes to writing. I like to write when something really hits me and I just have to sit down and get it out! Personally, I just love collaborating with people. “Congratulations” was a highly collaborative project. We had Juan Cardarelli and Eric M. Levy onboard to direct it as a tandem. Between the four of us, Jaun, Eric, Abby and myself, we wrote the entire script from page one and it was a blast! It was great to sit there and creatively come up with anything that we could and the same goes for shooting the film. There was not a standard hierarchy of it starting or ending with the decision of one person, which is the beauty of doing an independent film, you can kinda make it what you want. Our film ended up being very communal. I really look forward to doing that again and again.
Tell us about your work with the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (www.www.chla.org), which is another cool aspect of your career.
CBS called me up and asked me if I would like to come over there this past Christmas to hang out with some of the kids right before Christmas and help hand out some of the toys and whatnot. Some really great sponsors like Mattel came out and offered up some really great toys for the kids. It was one of those things that was nice to do and it was nice to meet some of the people. It was CBS reaching out and it was a really wonderful experience. I met a couple of really great kids there that day. One was a 15 year old who was really looking to find a Playstation. He had a big surgery coming up and his dad was looking for a Playstation for him. I reached out to Sony through a contact of mine and asked if they could send over a Playstation and some games for him. Not only did Sony do that, they also sent over a huge box full of things! It really lifted his spirits and got him excited and happy. I saw what it did for him and what it did for his spirits and I thought, “It never hurts to ask!” So, I asked Sony if they could outfit the whole hospital. I knew they needed new TVs and things like that. I also knew about the new Playstation Vita’s and I thought they would be great for some of the kids that are at the hospital in isolation and couldn’t have contact with the other kids. It just goes to show that you will miss out on 100% of the opportunities you don’t take! They said, “Absolutely!” They got a cool partnership going with Children’s Hospital and they donated new TVs, 30 Playstation Vita’s and hundreds of games. It was fantastic to see that many of these kids who are stuck, isolated in their rooms without any kids to play with get to interact with other kids in other rooms with the Vita’s and play games with them! It was a really great, great thing that Sony did and I am looking forward to doing some more stuff with them in the future. As far as Children’s Hospital goes, anytime I can lend them a hand, I do. Just going through and visiting with the kids there is something you just can’t do enough of! I have two kids of my own right now and I see what some of the parents are going through. Anything you can do to brighten a kid’s day who is going through something that no child should have to is time well spent!
What is the best advice someone has given you so far in regard to your career that you can pass along to aspiring actors?
I think the constant reminder that I got was from Mark Harmon and it has really served me well. He said, “With this show you are on, NCIS, it is going to be great for your career but you always have to keep the mindset that you are going to continue making your career.” — as in, do your job well while you are here, have as much fun as you can, do the best job you can but continue to make your career outside of here. I think that has served me really well in fueling me to create my own projects. What it means to me is that if you get a job that is fantastic but it is not the end goal. The end goal is the marathon, continuing to get the next thing. Even if you get a great job, continue working on your own stuff outside of it and continue to make contacts outside of it. This career path really rewards tenacity! If you can continue to work, work, work, even if it doesn’t look like it is going to pay huge dividends, working and putting energy into your career will pay off in the long run!
What is the best place for people to catch up with you online and in the months to come?
You can always follow me on Twitter and I am on there quite a bit. It’s @briandietzen, pretty creative, I know! [laughs] And you will be able to catch me this Fall on CBS on “NCIS.”
Thanks for your time today, Brian! It has been great talking to you!
Right on! I really appreciate your time!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.