Brian Dietzen on Co-Writing an Episode of ‘NCIS’ in Which the Very Cool Alden Parker Gets Hot!
Just like his character, the unassuming Jimmy Palmer, has turned out to be a man of a mystery on NCIS—most notably surprising his co-workers when he quietly got his medical degree so he could replace Ducky (David McCallum) as the medical examiner, then when he became engaged to and married the very hot Breena (Michelle Pierce), and now, when he’s dating Jessica Knight (Katrina Law) —so too is Brian Dietzen, who plays Jimmy, a man of surprises.
The most recent was when he moved behind the scenes to write episodes of the military law enforcement drama, and on Monday night, his second episode, “Old Wounds,” which he co-wrote with Scott Williams, will be airing, and in it, there’s a bit of the origin story of why Alden Parker (Gary Cole) was compelled to leave the FBI and take over as team leader following the retirement of Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon).
The story begins with a heist of a transport of millions of dollars’ worth of opioids, and when Parker sees the stamp on the pills, he goes ballistic and deserts his team at the c***e scene because he knows who is responsible for the d***s—and even on his return the next day, he is not the birdwatching, pastry-loving Parker that we have come to know.
“What is so interesting about this series is that Steve Binder, our showrunner, along with the rest of our writing staff, have done a wonderful job in developing all of these idiosyncratic behaviors alongside Gary Cole’s terrific performances,” Dietzen tells Parade in this exclusive interview. “
For Dietzen these idiosyncratic behaviors and habits raise questions such as why is Parker so kind to his team, why does he bring in pastries, why does he like birdwatching?
“It seems as if he has a new hobby every few weeks,” Dietzen continues. “In many ways, that has served to be almost the anti-Gibbs in a certain way. So, I decided to say, “Let’s ask questions. Where was that born from? Where do these behaviors come from? Why does he place his values in these things?” In doing so, Scott and I got to develop a cool origin story for why he is this way, why he is the character we’ve come to love over the last two years.”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Dietzen, who previously wrote the movie Congratulations, has a terrific cast to say the words that he puts down on paper.
“The wonderful stable of actors that we have, I love writing for every one of my castmates because they’re all so damn talented,” he says. “When Gary Cole came in, I thought to myself, ‘Man, I’ve enjoyed his work for years and I would love to write something specific for him. Maybe something that’s a little bit outside of the wheelhouse for this cool character of Parker that he’s developed.’ Boy, he did not disappoint.”
During our chat, Dietzen also talked about the partnerships on NCIS, casting a disabled actor to play a disabled character, the Jimmy-Jessica romance, the Jimmy-Kasie partnership, and the upcoming 450th episode.
There’s an actual theme in this episode that goes all the way through it in regard to the importance of partners. Why at this point in time in this series is that the focus of this episode?
I think that it’s a huge thing for the history of our show. NCIS has always been based around this family, that it’s a work family. I think, especially when you have new members of your team, with Katrina Law and Gary Cole joining this last year to play Agent Knight and Agent Parker, I felt as though a revisit to knowing that not only are we a family, but people really do have your back, actual partnerships, it’s something that is an ongoing theme. Whether it’s Jimmy and Kasie (Diana Reasonover) getting poisoned last year or Tony (Michael Weatherly) and Ziva (Cote de Pablo) having one of the closest partnerships ever years ago, it’s something we’ve always had. I really wanted to explore that specifically with Gary Cole’s character.
The actor who plays Jeremy Brighton in your episode, his name isn’t on the tune-in information for the show, so I wasn’t able to look it up. When that was being cast, did they look for a disabled actor?
Yeah, his name’s Michael Patrick Thornton. He’s an absolutely terrific actor. He does use a wheelchair. He is talented beyond anything. We were so fortunate to have him be able to work with Gary. I remember talking to him and saying, “I’m so glad you’re here,” and he said, “Boy, I’ll tell you what, man, I get two three-page scenes with Gary Cole on network television. Normally, you don’t get those long of scenes. Man, it’s juicy stuff, I wouldn’t pass this up no matter what. This is fantastic.”
As it turns out both Gary Cole and Michael Patrick Thornton share a common history, which is that they both were involved with Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. So, while I’m not sure whether their paths crossed at the theater or not, I know that that’s the common history that they have together. Michael did an amazing job. He actually went off to do A Doll’s House on Broadway the day he wrapped on our show. When we were developing this character, I said, “I really want to see some representation of disabled actors on our show.” It was important to me. Our casting and the network and our producers all said, “Yes, let’s make this happen for sure, it’s very, very important.”
Delilah (Margo Harshman) started out as somebody who could walk, who ended up in a wheelchair, so that happened that way.
We, of course, didn’t know that Delilah’s character would become disabled, so we have an able-bodied actor in Margo Harshman, who’s wonderful. But, yeah, introducing a new character who does use a wheelchair, I thought it was important that we have an actor who uses a wheelchair portray him.
How different is it when you’re acting in this show and people are actually saying the words you’ve written?
Yeah, that was a trip to have that happen last year for the first time on our show. I’ve written film stuff before and that sort of thing, but I’d never had television scripts of mine produced until last year. And now this year. It’s wonderful. It’s great to hear, but the part that is the absolute most rewarding is not just our actors, but also our other writers, our producers, our post-production producers, everyone brings their A-game and elevates what’s put on the page. What’s on the page, okay, I may be happy with it, but it’s what the whole team does together through performances, through the cinematography, through the sound editing that really lifts the script up and elevates it into something that it could never be if it was just 58 pages sitting there on the counter. So, yeah, none of the script really means anything without the hard work and amazing talents of the people that work on it. We’re pretty blessed to have those people.
How good are the pastries that they bring in as part of Alden’s character?
I’ll tell you what, I think both Wilmer (Valderrama) and Katrina did not have to have lunch the day we filmed that scene because they had a lot of takes of them chowing down the pastry. It was pretty, pretty tasty. Pretty flaky, crunchy, delightful. It’s crusty on the outside and yet a little more tender on the inside, a flaky delight that’s covered in sugar. I made the choice for Jimmy Palmer that since he’s downtrodden, when he comes in, he takes one but he’s not going to take a bite right away because he’s a little down. I was happy by the end of sh00t1ng that scene that he didn’t consume a dozen of those.
In going with the partnership theme, Jimmy and Kasie have formed this special bond, as well. Do you think that started in the episode in which they were locked in the lab and dying and waiting for the anecdote? Or was it because they’re just in the basement together?
Yeah, I think there’s a little subterranean crew there. They’re the lab coats duo. They certainly share a lot of similarities because of that and their delightful lack of field training. I think that they’ve been through a lot prior to that episode last year where they were in the basement poisoned. They had been held hostage in a diner. Prior to that Kasie had come to Jimmy a number of times, including when her mother was ill. He had come to her, as well, when he was going through tough times. I think that they’ve always served as one another’s sounding boards and I’ve really loved seeing that friendship flourish over the years and having such a tight-knit duo down there is fun for us to play and fun for the fans to see, too.
How is the romance going between Jimmy and Knight? We don’t see a lot on screen. We get little innuendos. How do you, as a writer for the show, imagine they’re doing behind the scenes?
I think it’s going pretty well. I think that one of the things that both Katrina and I said when this was presented to us was, we’d like to take the characters in this direction. Both of us were game for it because we really enjoyed doing scenes with one another. She’s such a terrific actor and we love playing together on screen. I think one of the things that was important to both of us in saying, yes, was, “Yes, we would like to do this, but we’d like for it to be a mature, grownup relationship.”
Photo: Sonja Flemming/CBS
Also, let’s have it be healthy. Maybe it’s not something where they’re making eyes at one another for several years and then, unfortunately, it’s a tragic loss when one of them leaves. We wanted something where they could back each other up and display something that was healthy. That was on full display a few weeks back when her character came in and very lovingly said, “I didn’t mean to push you. And if I did, I’m sorry. I realize that by saying that I want to spend more time with your daughter that I might be pushing you too fast into this,” and Jimmy opened up and said, “No, you’re not. It’s not your fault, it’s just hard when you lose someone.” She’s there for him. It was a very adult conversation and it showed how they cared for one another and had one another’s back.
I like to think that even though we don’t see it maybe on a weekly basis that that’s how things are progressing off screen, as well. That’s kind of the cool thing that we haven’t really seen in this show up until now. I think it’s great, I really enjoy it. Also, our show, as much as we’ve had romances here and there, that’s never been the dominant aspect of this show. It’s been about the characters, the cases, it’s been about the family. I never expected that relationship to dominate, but when it does take up some screen time, boy, I really do enjoy those scenes.
The 450th episode of NCIS is coming up. How special is that?
It’s a huge milestone. I’ll never forget, I think at our 200th episode, I overheard Michael Weatherly doing an interview. He was asked, “How does 200 feel?” He smiled and jokingly said, “Hey, it’s great, we’re halfway there.” All of us started laughing because that’s ridiculous, who’s going to make it to 400 episodes? And here we are at 450. I’ve got to say as a guest star in the first season for one day, I didn’t see this happening. But these things happen.
The 450th episode in its content is not a retrospective in any way. It’s going to be another solid NCIS episode. It’s going to be more a continuance of the universe as opposed to looking back and seeing how far we’ve come. I have a feeling if and when we get to episode 500 that’ll be something pretty darn special. But, like Michael said, we’re halfway to our goal now.
Maybe Mark will come back for the 500th.
NCIS airs Monday nights at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.