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NCIS' Brian Dietzen On Co-Writing Season 20, Episode 14 - Exclusive Interview

As Dr. Jimmy Palmer, Brian Dietzen has been with "NCIS" since the show's inception, having started as a guest star in 2003 before eventually moving up to the main cast in Season 10. And while fans have enjoyed watching Jimmy grow and flourish on screen, behind the scenes, Dietzen himself is also thriving. In fact, he has co-written two episodes of "NCIS" so far, including tonight's episode, "Old Wounds," which airs on CBS at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT.

In it, supervisory special agent Alden Parker (Gary Cole) tackles a very personal case that threatens to send him over the edge emotionally. Dietzen co-wrote the episode with veteran writer (and "NCIS" executive producer) Scott Williams.

During an exclusive interview with Looper, Dietzen discussed the ease with which he stepped into the writer's room after starring on the show for 20 years. He also shared his thoughts on the cancellation of "NCIS: Los Angeles" and what it means for the flagship show's future.

Writing for Gary Cole's character was a highlight for Dietzen

The last time we spoke was right before Season 20 began, and now we're nearing the end of the season, so it's kind of full circle. You actually co-wrote the next episode airing, "Old Wounds," which is the second episode you've had a hand in writing.

Correct. I co-wrote the episode last year entitled "The Helpers," which was the show where Jimmy and Kasie inhale biotoxin in the lab.

This time around, which character were you most excited to write scenes for?

I was very excited to explore some of the origin story of where Parker comes from, Gary Cole's character. We've had a lot of peeks into Parker's behaviors through his constant changing of hobbies — bird watching, growing plants in his greenhouse, and picking up pastries for his team — and how much he openly values his team, telling people, "I want you to go have a healthy life, Jimmy. Don't stay here too late. If you're here when I get back, you're fired." I wanted to know where a lot of these behaviors came from, so I asked our showrunner, Steve Binder, if ["Old Wounds" co-writer] Scott Williams and I could explore that a bit. He said, "Please, go at it." These breadcrumbs are made to be picked up at some point, so we can figure out where they came from, and we had a great time exploring.

Do you enjoy writing for yourself?

Yes, I do. I enjoy it because I love my character's voice on this show. It comes out in a certain cadence and certain couplets that Jimmy Palmer speaks in that I'm very familiar with. I do enjoy that a lot.

I also enjoy writing for every cast member on this show. [In] this episode, Gary's character, Parker, is the star, and I would love to shine a light on every single one of these characters and say, "I want to do an episode just about you or about you two characters." We have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to our cast — a really incredible group of actors.

He credits the day-to-day writers for his writing success

What's the hardest part about writing lines for your own character?

I'll be honest — and this is more of a shout-out and a recognition to our writing staff — by now, through their hard work and talent and collaboration with these actors over the course of many years, the lines and how the characters speak feels pretty cemented within our world. When I write a line for Jimmy Palmer — say, in the bullpen scene — you go, "Well, that definitely couldn't be said by Agent Torres, because it wouldn't make sense," and vice versa. Jimmy would never say something the way that Torres says it, because of the way the writers have helped formulate Torres' character and the way Wilmer [Valderrama] has developed him over the years. I really like that. I like how there's a distinct fingerprint on each one of these characters. It aids in the formation of the script and makes it a lot easier, that's for sure.

Both on-screen and off, you and Diona Reasonover, who plays forensic specialist Kasie Hines, are besties, it seems, and she has also co-written an episode. Have you guys talked much about that shared experience?

You bet. We got to talk about it after I wrote last year, and she is an extremely talented writer. I remember reading a feature film script that she wrote, and I thought, "Oh, my gosh. Why is she not writing on our show? She's so good." I was very excited for her to be able to do it, and she got to co-write along with Scott Williams too, who's been my co-writer. It was such a perfect fit, and her show turned out so well. I hope to be able to co-write with her in the future.

Do you have any plans yet to co-write another episode?

Yeah — it won't be for this season, though. I've been chatting with our showrunner, Steve [Binder], talking about what we're going to get ready for next year. That's in the works right now, but nothing that's impending for this season.

He was a fan of That '70s Show before Wilmer Valderrama joined NCIS

You mentioned Gary Cole being the star of the show on this particular episode. What's it like working with him?

It is an absolute treat. I've been such a fan of that man's work for years, and it was great to be able to meet him and say, "Oh gosh, I'm so glad that you're just as good of a person as you are an actor." I was very, very eager to write for him. He's terrific.

We were actually in Hawaii together when we were filming the "NCIS" crossover, and we went out to dinner, and I pitched him the idea for this episode, and he was game for it. He was ready to play. He said, "This sounds fun. This could be cool." He gave both me and Scott [Williams] feedback when the script came out, trying to craft it and hone it and polish it into something that was more honest for him and for his character. Being able to collaborate with him was an absolute treat, and he did not fail to deliver. He's a fantastic actor.

You also mentioned Wilmer [Valderrama]. What's it like working with him? Were you a fan of his from "That '70s Show"? Have you talked to him at all about his return to that breakout role via "That '90s Show"?

First off, who wasn't a fan of Wilmer's from "That '70s Show"? Let's get that out of the way. That was and remains fantastic.

I loved watching him on that show, and when we got introduced and we got to start working together ... he's my guy. He's such a good dude. I was so happy. Much like meeting Gary Cole, I was like, "I hope he's a good dude in real life." Well, he is, and we've become friends. Over the course of six years now, I believe ... we're sharing our lives by spending so much time on set together, and also working together and producing other projects. It's been an absolute delight. It's been wonderful.

It was great to talk to him while he was shooting on "That '90s Show." I've worked with Debra Jo Rupp before — I know her well — and she's an amazing actor. It was cool to see Fez come back and where they took him as a hairstylist. It was too funny. It was great.

Fez and Torres are two totally different characters.

Those two characters couldn't be further apart, which is awesome. That's what you want as an actor. You want to be able to diversify your performances and whatnot. He certainly has. It is cool to watch. Fez is definitely ... The jokiness of that character and the fun that he has with that, that's what we see when the cameras aren't rolling. Not Fez impersonations, but the lightheartedness of who Wilmer is, and the good nature. When the cameras are rolling, Torres is a bit more reserved, for sure.

He knew he was stepping onto a hit show when he first got the gig

The episode that airs after "Old Wounds" is the show's 450th episode, which is amazing.

Incredible, right?

When you first stepped into Jimmy's shoes, did it ever cross your mind that you'd be walking in them for 20 years?

Yes. Let me tell you why — because actors are delusional. You always think when you go in for a one-day guest star, "Maybe they'll like me a lot. I know I die at the end of the scene, but maybe they're going to have me recur, and maybe I'll be a ghost. Maybe this show's going to go for 20 years. Maybe I'll keep going. I'll be a series regular, and I'll have this and that." It's what keeps us going as performers, the internal optimism and hope for new projects and new opportunities in our future.

Perhaps I didn't think 20 years' worth of employment, but I certainly thought, "I'm hoping maybe this thing can recur. Maybe I can come back and play some more." But [when it comes to] shows that have gone as long as we have, the list gets shorter and shorter every year that we're on. I'm absolutely humbled to be a part of it and to be celebrating an amazing milestone. We're in some pretty rare air, and we know it. We don't take it for granted, that's for sure.

He's certain NCIS will be back for more seasons

It was recently announced that "NCIS: Los Angeles" will be ending its run. Were you surprised by that news? Have you talked to anyone from that cast since the announcement?

I've hit them up on social media and that sort of stuff. I had spoken to one of the cast members at PaleyFest last year, and they weren't positive they were going to be picked up this year, so they were absolutely ecstatic that they were. They were able to give the proper sendoff to the show that it deserves. I'm very happy that they get to finish the show the way that they wanted to.

I always will admire that cast. They are truly like a family. It's a great feat, what they've done. I'm super happy that they've had the run that they have, and I'm glad they can finish the way they want to.

How are you feeling about there being a Season 21 of the flagship show? Are you confident that there will be one? If so, where do you hope it takes your character in terms of storylines?

I'm fairly confident that it is going to be happening for our show. I'd like to think that if and when it's time for our show to end that we'll get the same treatment that "LA" did, which is to say that they'll give us fair warning to go, "Here's how we'd like to wrap it up this year," allowing us to do the sendoff we'd like. I'm pretty confident that we'll be coming back for Season 21.

As far as next year, I look forward to writing more [episodes] and seeing which characters get to come back for a visit. I would love for Michael Patrick Thornton, who played a character [in "Old Wounds"], to come back. He did an amazing job alongside Gary Cole. I'd love to see Elle Graper, who played my daughter Victoria last year, come back as well. I'd love to see a continuance of the family that we have here at "NCIS," seeing what they get into next and seeing what the next natural progressions are with Knight and Jimmy.

The "Old Wounds" episode of "NCIS" airs tonight, February 13, at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.

This interview has been edited for clarity.