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Anthony DiNozzo's entire NCIS backstory, explained

lovable goofball and a major fan favorite, Anthony DiNozzo Jr. is a core member of the Major Case Response Team from NCIS' backdoor pilot until the end of season 13. Known for his vivid recall of '90s action films, lack of boundaries, and often being the recipient of Gibbs' famous head slaps, Tony is a talented agent who can come up with out-of-the-box solutions for a wide variety of dire problems. Serving as Gibbs' second in command, Tony later becomes a leader in his own right. While his teammates often roll their eyes at Tony's immature jokes, he is deeply loved by both his NCIS family and the show's fans. Sure, he can be an idiot, and yes, he gets on just about everyone's nerves from time to time. But when it counts, he's there for his teammates in every way that matters.

Though you might not guess it, due to Tony's lighthearted nature, he's gone through quite a lot. Even before he first sets foot in NCIS, in fact, he'd already experienced some truly dark passages in his life. Tony is initially hesitant to bring up his past, but several cases throughout the years force him to relive some of his most painful memories and trying relationships. From his family origins to his surprisingly impressive career in college basketball, this is Anthony DiNozzo's entire NCIS backstory, explained.

Creating the character

Anthony DiNozzo Jr. is introduced into the NCIS universe in "Ice Queen," the episode of JAG that serves as NCIS' backdoor pilot. The actor who portrays DiNozzo, Michael Weatherly, has said he was initially hesitant to portray NCIS' goofiest agent, because he was unsure if NCIS would share JAG's serious tone. However, show creator Donald P. Bellisario won Weatherly over: "I just wanted to meet him as a fan of like, Magnum, P.I.," Weatherly remarked, alluding to another of Bellisario's famous creations, "and then getting into [it] with him, I was like, this could work." Thus, Weatherly was talked into joining the show, creating the character we all know and love today. Weatherly filmed the backdoor pilot unsure if the show would be greenlit, let alone successful. 17 years later, it's hard to imagine NCIS without him.

Tony was initially written as a gritty, blue-collar guy from Baltimore, which couldn't be further away from Michael Weatherly's upbringing. "I'm the WASP from the boarding school whose instincts could only come from how to slip out when the dorm master has shut out the lights for the night," he said in a 2007 interview. Thankfully, the show's writers were able to incorporate at least some elements of Weatherly's actual upbringing into his character. Rather than being from a working class clan, Anthony's family are wealthy Italian-Americans from Long Island. We can't imagine Agent DiNozzo any other way.

Long Island roots

As his name suggests, Anthony DiNozzo's family has Italian roots. While Tony doesn't discuss his family in depth with his coworkers, he has occasionally mentioned his family's bootstrapped origins. His great-grandfather, who immigrated to the United States through Ellis Island, worked as a truck driver before starting his own transportation company. This is where the majority of Tony's family's wealth comes from — wealth he has been cut off from, due to complex circumstances. 

The show doesn't discuss where Tony himself was born, but can be presumed that he was born in New York. This is something he has in common with his actor, Michael Weatherly, though Weatherly went on to grow up in New England. Other parallels to Weatherly's own life, such as Tony's history of attending different prep and boarding schools, also pop up from time to time. But while Weatherly graduated from the prestigious Brooks School, Tony was kicked out of multiple institutions.

Little is known about Tony's mother, or the extent of her family's wealth, other than the fact that she died when Tony was a child and that both Tony and his father were then cut off from her family's estate. Tony describes his mother's nouveau riche taste in "Bete Noire," saying that she decorated five-year-old Tony's bedroom with a nightmare-inducing Louis XV theme, and that she would confuse Tony's pet Sea Monkeys with her mint juleps.

Money problems

Although Tony's mother came from money, Tony and his father don't see any of her family's wealth after she dies. While Tony still had a relatively safe and comfortable upbringing, especially when compared to some of his other NCIS teammates, like Ziva David, it was definitely not without hardship.

Tony's father, Anthony DiNozzo Sr., acted as Tony's sole caretaker after his mother's death. He was not well-suited to the job. DiNozzo the elder often prioritized his own work and life over taking care of Tony. Said work and life isn't even all that impressive: Although Tony's father lives lavishly and purportedly makes his own wealth as a businessman, it's revealed in the episode "Flesh and Blood" that his outward displays of prosperity are actually a front, and that Tony's dad is actually veering towards bankruptcy. While he does actually work as an entrepreneur — the lies don't go quite that deep — his business ventures often fail, and aren't entirely unlike the moves of a con man.

Fans have speculated that part of Tony's braggadocio (and, perhaps, his childlike eating habits) stem from the insecurity he faced at home following his mother's death. Early on in adolescence, it appears that Tony learned to use his confidence, good looks, and athleticism to get what he wanted ... because no one else was looking out for him. Today, he is beloved (at times begrudgingly) by his team for his arrogance and charm, but those traits were hard won indeed.

Tony's daddy issues

The first time the NCIS team mentions the infamous Anthony DiNozzo Sr. is in the episode "Silver War," in which the case at hand involves Civil War artifacts. Gibbs tells the team (including Ziva, in her first case as a Mossad liaison agent) that Tony should be a valuable asset on this case, because his father is a passionate and experienced Civil War reenactor. Tony doesn't exactly have fond memories tied to this pursuit: Years prior, the elder Anthony DiNozzo would bring Tony along as a child and make him carry the "poop bucket" during reenactments. Unsurprisingly, Tony expresses disdain at the thought of working a Civil War-related case.

After Tony's mother died, Anthony DiNozzo Sr. struggled to connect with his only child. Father and son also didn't get much face time in, as Tony was often shipped off to boarding schools and summer camps. As adults, Tony and his father have a somewhat icy relationship — audiences don't even see Anthony DiNozzo Sr. onscreen until season seven. Memories of Civil War reenactment are some of the few Tony has of his dad, and they're not all that warm and fuzzy.

DiNozzo Sr. has worked with NCIS on several cases, including a mission where he goes undercover with Ziva. These cases give the DiNozzo men the opportunity to build a more open relationship. As Tony says, he loves his father, despite his lackluster parenting — they just need to learn to communicate.

A troubled child

As anyone who's met Tony might be able to guess, he has a troubled educational history. He was sent to, and then kicked out of, a number of boarding and prep schools as a child and teenager: At some point, he was expelled from six schools in four years. Eventually, he graduated from the Remington Military Academy, a fictional, boys-only military school located in Rhode Island. Remington is the only school he wasn't expelled from, and was a place in which he explored his talents: While Tony was at Remington, he played varsity basketball and participated in the school's color guard. His year there wasn't without trial, however — Tony was bullied by the school's secretive Honor Guard. He later returns to Remington with the NCIS team to investigate the murder of a Remington alumnus.

After graduating from Remington, Tony attended Ohio State University. There, he played varsity basketball, joined the Ohio State chapter of the Alpha Chi Delta fraternity, and even made it to the Final Four of the NCAA championships. Unfortunately, his athletic career was cut short when he broke his leg during a game of football. He graduated from Ohio State with a Bachelor of Arts in physical education. According to a personnel file posted on CBS' website, Tony continued his education by taking typing classes at a women's college while working in Washington.

Tony's beat cop days

Before becoming a fan-favorite "very special agent," Anthony DiNozzo got his start working as a police officer. Just as he'd bounced around different boarding schools and summer camps as a teenager, Tony moved around the country, working with different cities' police departments. He first worked as a cop in Peoria for two years, before moving to Philadelphia's police department. After 18 months in Philly, he moved to Baltimore, where he worked as a homicide detective. During his days with the Baltimore PD, Tony's demeanor was just as boisterous as it is during his tenure with NCIS — if not more so. He was also close with his partner, Danny, who had an upbringing quite similar Tony's, down to losing his mother in childhood and coming from money, but not having access to it.

While working as a Baltimore homicide detective, Tony had his first encounter with his future boss, NCIS special agent Gibbs, while handling a money laundering case. In the season eight episode "Baltimore," fans learn that Tony decided to quit the force after finding out his beloved partner was actually a dirty cop. Tony is later forced to revisit his past when NCIS is called in to investigate Danny's death.

Not long after quitting the Baltimore police force, Tony applied to work for NCIS and became a probationary agent, working for none other than Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

Transitioning to NCIS

Tony started at NCIS the same way his teammates did — by being a "probie." However, by the time we first meet Tony within the NCIS universe, he has graduated to Senior Special Agent within Gibbs' Major Case Response Team. 

Within the Major Case Response Team, Tony often works as Gibbs' right hand man and second-in-command within the team. Gibbs and Tony develop a mentor-mentee bond, and, at times, even something of a father-and-son dynamic. When Gibbs occasionally needs to attend to matters without the Major Case Response Team, he leaves Tony in charge ... much to the chagrin of his coworkers. But the strength of their bond cannot be denied, no matter who grumbles. Notably, Gibbs is the only person Tony allows to give him a signature smack on the back of the head — most often deployed when Tony says something inappropriate, or goofs off while on the job. Gibbs employs many other elements of tough love while mentoring Tony, which certainly seem to work. Some teammates even make jabs at Tony for becoming more and more like Gibbs throughout the years.

When Gibbs briefly leaves the team at the end of season three, he personally appoints Tony to be his replacement. After he returns, Tony is given the option to lead his own team. He elects to stay and keep working under Gibbs' tutelage.

A movie reference for every situation

Tony's love of movies began with his mother, who used to take him to movies frequently before her death. One of his most treasured memories is of watching the holiday classic, It's A Wonderful Life, as a kid – though his taste in film becomes a whole lot more action-oriented later in life.

While working with NCIS, Tony often takes elements from the case at hand, or from his coworkers' personal lives, and relates them to his favorite films. Tony's love of movies is probably one of his most charming traits, since it often adds a bit of comedic relief to the grisly cases the team has to work on. When referencing a movie's lines, he'll often mimic the original actor's tone and accent in his delivery, although his impressions are typically mediocre, at best. He's also a fan of cop shows, evidenced by the times he mentions Magnum P.I. and Airwolf, both of which were produced by NCIS creator Donald P. Bellisario.

Every so often, Tony's love of film actually makes a major difference in his work. When Gibbs is taken hostage in "Bait", Tony uses the plot of 1994's Speed to get the hostages out safely, by looping the surveillance footage the criminals are using so they won't notice the NCIS team intervening. Gibbs has a somewhat Machiavellian view of Tony's tactics, once saying about Agent DiNozzo, "You may not admire his methods, but you gotta love the results."

Tony's tough luck in love

Although Agent DiNozzo often flaunts his crass view of women, he usually doesn't have a hard time flirting with the fairer sex on and off the job. However, some women Tony has dated understandably revile him for his boorish behavior. Several women even prank Tony after he dumps them.

Tony also has a history of harboring romantic feelings for coworkers, as evidenced by his relationships with Special Agents Kate Todd and Ziva David. Throughout seasons one and two, Tony and Kate often tease one another, but mostly keep their relationship professional, until Kate's death at the end of season two. In the season nine episode, "Life Before His Eyes," Gibbs sees an alternate timeline in which Kate wasn't killed and she and Tony eventually marry and have a child. In reality, Tony mourns Kate long after her death, even naming his pet goldfish after her.

Tony's will-they-won't-they relationship with Ziva, dubbed "Tiva" by fans, spans more than 10 seasons. The two agents begin flirting with one another almost immediately during their first meeting, and they grow closer once Ziva joins the team as a Mossad liaison. By season 10, Tony and Ziva's actors were promising that "Tiva" would finally be addressed — but while Ziva and Tony do share a kiss, Ziva eventually departs NCIS, leaving little possibility of them sharing a relationship. However, Tony later learns that Ziva conceived a daughter, Tali, during the brief time they were together.

From frat boy to very special agent

Anthony DiNozzo is well known — and, in fact, beloved by fans and his coworkers — for being rambunctious, goofy, and even outright immature. But that's not all there is to this multifaceted agent: Anthony undergoes some major character development as the series winds on, ending his time on NCIS as a very different man than the one who first appeared in the show's backdoor pilot. 

When his character was first introduced, he was often criticized by fans (and female characters within the show) for his chauvinistic attitudes toward women and his inability to take anything seriously. It's not hard to understand why, even if you've always been fond of Tony — dude is not everyone's cup of tea. However, in later seasons, Tony's boyish arrogance softens into something more mature, and even wholesome. Tony's attitude towards women changes, as well as his opinions on technology in the office. Like Gibbs, Tony is less technologically literate than some of his colleagues, but in later seasons, he can be seen using technology to help solve cases. He's not using these gizmos to the extent that, say, Abby Sciuto is, but still.

Tony's immaturity and pranks add some much-needed comic relief to NCIS' complex stew of genre. But as Tony gets older, he grows into a more measured goofball. These changes, in tandem with the little pieces of his backstory doled out over the years, make him the memorable character fans know and love.