A Chat with Brian Dietzen (“NCIS”)

He’s played a drummer on the short-lived WB sitcom “My Guide to Becoming a Rock Star,” and not only did he survive the experience of co-starring in “From Justin to Kelly: With Love,” but he actually speaks fondly of it. He’s Brian Dietzen, but you probably know him best from his role as medical assistant Jimmy Palmer on CBS’s long-running drama, “NCIS.” What started as a one-shot appearance quickly turned into a steady gig for Dietzen, with Mr. Palmer gradually working his way out of the background and into his very own subplot, but now he’s actually going to be the focus of an episode. We spoke to Dietzen about how his character has evolved over the years, how this spotlight show came to pass (and why it took so long), and how fondly he feels about those pre-“NCIS” gigs nowadays. Stay tuned for…

Brian Dietzen: Hello, Will?

Bullz-Eye: Yes…?

BD: This is Brian Dietzen.

BE: Hey, man, how’s it going?

BD: Good! How are you doing?

BE: Not bad. Good to talk to you! You know, I was checking out your bio, and you’ve got a ridiculously diverse resume: Shakespeare to sketch comedy.

BD: Yeah, exactly. You gotta do whatever you can.

BE: And I understand it all stretches back to playing an evil elf in an elementary school play.

BD: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s right. That’s when I knew: when I made Santa feel bad for himself and people cheered.

BE: “This is what I want to do for a living.”

BD: Exactly.

BE: So…Jimmy Palmer is finally getting the spotlight!

Spaced

BD: Yeah, on the 13th is an episode called “About Face,” and the whole episode opens, basically, with Jimmy getting a gun stuck in his face at a crime scene, so the whole team is depending on him to remember not only the face but also the name on the passport that he saw at the time. So it’s kind of cool. It’s seeing how an average joe, a guy who’s not used to being in the line of fire, deals with that sort of thing, and also how a team deals with it, too. How Gibbs and Ziva and McGee and Tony, all of them, deal with someone doing that to their guy. So it’s interesting. It’s a really fun episode, and I get fantastic scenes with absolutely everybody in the cast. It was wonderful. I got to watch a heck of a lot more than the average Jimmy schedule… (Laughs) …which I’m sure you know is not too terribly much! And I also got to work with Rocky Carroll, who’s been playing the assistant director, Vance, and he was absolutely wonderful to work with, too. So, yeah, I think it’s going to be a very good episode. I’m hearing really good things so far; they’re editing right now.

BE: So with this script, was it something they’d been tempting you with for awhile? “Don’t worry, we’ll give Jimmy the spotlight eventually…”

BD: Yeah, actually, (writer) Shane Brennan and I…I spoke with him earlier this season, and he said, “Yeah, we want to have a Jimmy episode. We want to have one that throws Jimmy in the spotlight.” But he didn’t give me any particulars beyond that. But then once the writer’s strike hit, I kinda figured, “Well, all bets are off. If they can do it, they can, that’s wonderful. If they can’t, I understand, because they have other story deadlines to meet.” And they came up with one free spot in the season, I think, after they got back from the strike, so from what I’m told by the writers, pretty much everyone got together and everyone had a piece of this one. I think there’s, like, nine writers working on this one.

BE: Wow.

BD: Yeah, they all kinda said, “What kind of Jimmy scene would you like to have?” And they all wrote one. So I ended up with a ton of stuff to do, which is fantastic.

BE: The role of Jimmy has really evolved over the course of the show. For the first three seasons, really, you were really just a glorified background character, but in the fourth season, you and Agent Lee started to, uh…

BD: (Starts laughing)

BE: …”build a relationship.” And I think you “built it” everywhere possible within NCIS headquarters. (Laughs)

Spaced

BD: Yeah, we were fooling around! Well, I was brought in during the first season for a one-day role on the show, and it was fun and it was great, and I got to work with David McCallum right off the bat, y’know? I had a really good scene with him. So they asked me back the next week…and then the following week. And then there was the hiatus, and when I came back, I think I did something crazy like 19 out of the next 20 episodes. But, yeah, it was really nothing more than a really good scene with David here and there, doing crimes scenes but not really getting to spread my wings a whole heck of a lot. But like you said, yeah, last year I definitely got a lot of screen time with Agent Lee. And… (Laughs) …the story on that one has kind of been abandoned, I think, at this point.

BE: Yeah, I wondered about that.

BD: I’m not really sure. I’ve talked to the producers about it, and they said, “Well, we want to wrap it up. We want to figure out how to bring it back and possibly give some sort of…maybe not a sense of closure, but an explanation as to what’s going on.” Maybe the relationship’s progressed beyond this and they don’t have to fool around here anymore, or what. But I think that whole relationship was kind of borne out of necessity. When you’re spending 20 hours a day someplace, like these people often do for NCIS, you do what you can when you can. (Laughs) You’ve gotta have your play time, and I guess that’s what they were doing. But we’ll see. I certainly hope they bring Liza back. Lisa Lapira is a fantastic actress. But, yeah, this year, they’ve been expanding upon the character of Jimmy a little bit more here and here, too. A couple of weeks ago, we found out that he used to be a veterinarian, so he kinda took over when they brought a dog in, and so he operated on a dog. Yeah, so we’re learning things left and right about him, and in this episode on the 13th, we’re just going to learn an absolute boatload. It should be fun. Very, very fun.

BE: And, y’know, even in those early seasons when he wasn’t necessarily doing a whole lot, he always had a reliable place. Either he made a nervous joke that got blank stares, or he was there to react off Ducky’s comments.

BD: Yeah, definitely. He’s definitely Mr. Reliable. I love working with David McCallum, because we’re both theater guys, and we both like rehearsing a lot beforehand and coming up with new, interesting bits that we can do. So he always goes to bat for me, if you will, and asks, “Well, can I have Jimmy in here to do this, that, or whatever?” So that he has more to do within a scene. A scene works a heck of a lot better when you’re not just talking to a dead body. When you have someone else there just to discuss things with, it works better, and the show works better. And that’s always been the strength of the show. It isn’t necessarily because, “Oh, we have really strong cases, and everything’s ripped from the headlines!” Everything in this show is pretty much ripped from the characters. I mean, the characters are really what make this show sing, and the strong people and relationships are what make this show different from the other procedurals. So I feel very fortunate and blessed that this character is starting to get a little bit more time, and the audience is going to get to know him a little bit more as well.

BE: It seems very much like the cast of “NCIS” is like a family, because I got to meet several of the cast last year, and everyone was just so nice and immediately ready to talk about the show and their fellow actors.

BD: Yeah, it’s a trickledown effect. When you have a good captain of the ship, everyone else pretty much falls in line, even if it’s not a conscious effort. You look at Mark Harmon and you see how hard the guy works, and you see there’s no complaining or diva star mentality about the guy. And that really has a big effect on the cast, y’know? When you see that the number one guy is there more than anyone else and works more than anyone else, he sets the tone, and it’s a very positive tone. You kinda can’t help but go to work and be happy with what you’ve got, because everyone else kinda falls into line that way, and it makes for a very easy work situation. Not to mention that we all get together and have dinners and visit each others’ kids and that sort of stuff. It’s a wonderful, wonderful group of people, which is very rare. Usually, when you have that, you get canceled pretty quickly. Because everyone really likes each other, it’s some sort of…karmic payback or something? (Laughs) I don’t know. But in this one, we’re really lucky. We all really love each other, and, y’know, we’re going into our sixth season already. It’s pretty great.

BE: It’s a show that…well, flying under the radar isn’t really the best description for it, given how successful it is, but it doesn’t necessarily get a huge amount of press love. But it’s consistently strongly rated, and the quality of the episodes is always consistently strong as well.

BD: Yeah, well, this past week…I just looked at the ratings this morning, and we were the #3 scripted show. They have the “American Idol” and the two “Dancing with the Stars” shows, but behind that, we’re the #3 or #4 show, generally. And I think it’s because we have such a very strong fanbase. And it’s odd to see, but our numbers have actually grown from our 4th to our 5th season. Substantially. And that doesn’t happen on a whole lot of shows. You usually start doing well in your 1st season, maybe peak out in your 2nd or 3rd, and it starts dwindling a little bit. But ours have gone up, which is a different trend. And I think it’s just word of mouth, because you certainly don’t see…we don’t have bus ads and we don’t have billboards. We don’t have any of that stuff, for reasons which that are far beyond my hands. (Laughs) But we also don’t get a ton of promo time on TV, though we do get our fair share. But every show wants more, as do we. But, yeah, I think it just has to do with a very, very strong fanbase and the fact that they’re not…people aren’t shy about telling their friends, “Oh, hey, you’ve gotta watch this show: it’s about people. It’s about crimes and stuff, and that’s fun and great, but it’s also about people.” And I really like that. I really like the fact that people are getting excited about that.

BE: I mentioned to one of the cast members that my only problem with the show is that I live in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, so anytime there’s a case that takes place here, it’s invariably at an address that I know, and, dammit, it doesn’t look like that!

BD: (Laughs) You’re probably noticing quite a few California oaks.

BE: Yeah, exactly. “Strange, I don’t remember seeing those palm trees…” (Laughs) Well, I’ve got a few questions about some of your other work, if you don’t mind.

BD: Sure!

Spaced

BE: You were in “My Guide to Becoming a Rock Star.” Did you bring any specific drumming influences to your role?

BD: Yes, I did, actually! I was a drummer for about five years before that; I’d being doing a bunch of punk bands and stuff in Denver and Boulder, Colorado. I moved out to California, didn’t have an agent or a manager at the time, so I wrote to a casting director named Patrick Rush, and he brought me in just to meet me on this role as a series regular. I didn’t have a SAG card or anything, but a week later, I moved up to Canada to become a series regular, lived up there for a year, and shot the series. It was absolutely wonderful, a great time. And by the time we’d got three or four episodes in, me and some of my friends in the show actually could play all our songs pretty well. So it was nice. It was a really, really fun time. It was getting to be a rock star but not have to actually do all the rock-star kind of stuff, like touring and getting into drugs and stuff. (Laughs) I could actually just pretend to be a rock star for a few hours a day, then go home.

BE: So who were your drumming influences?

BD: My drumming influences…let’s see. First and foremost is Ginger Baker. I’m a big fan, obviously. I think Blind Faith was probably one of the greatest bands of all time. You know, they’re playing at Madison Square Garden?

BE: Yeah, actually, we did an interview with Steve Winwood not long ago.

BD: Oh, gosh, I got my dad the DVD of “Live in Hyde Park” when they did it in ’69, and, oh, gosh, it’s just amazing to watch! He was kinda the first drummer that I really admired, because my dad listened to it all the time. And then, after that, I started really liking punk drummer, the really fast pace and the really fun stuff. And I got hugely into Green Day…before they were Green Day. Like, when they were touring around and I could see them at local venues with 50 people. I’m a huge Tre Cool fan. I thought he was just absolutely great. And then after that, I really like…well, every drummer likes Carter Beauford from the Dave Matthews Band. He kind of blows you away, to say the least. The guy just has these ridiculous talents, and he’s blowing bubblegum the whole time! (Laughs) It’s just ridiculous! It’s just nuts.

BE: We’re putting together a piece for the site where the music writers are participating in a fantasy band draft…

BD: Oh, nice!

BE: …and our music editor picked Tre Cool for his drummer.

BD: That’s cool! I have a friend who’s in a band called Rooney, and he said that he hung out with Tre on a tour, and he said, “Man, I sat down with that guy, and…there’s certain times you meet people and you think they’re just cocky or whatever. I didn’t think Tre was cocky when he was talking about drumming; he just knew that that was the one thing in his life that he could do better than anyone else. And to be honest, he could, y’know? And it’s not him trying to show anybody up. He’s just very secure in the fact that he works really hard at it and he has a handle on it. He just knows how to do it really well.” He said he was a very nice guy, too. I always like hearing good stories about people whose talents I admire, because I always hope they’re not assholes in person. (Laughs)

BE: So…you were in “From Justin to Kelly: With Love.”

BD: Oh, you bet I was! Have you seen that? Has it changed your life yet?

BE: I have not. In fact, I was just going to say that it’s definitely a cult movie, but I’m not sure if it’s the good kind of cult movie.

Spaced

BD: (Laughs) Well, don’t watch it unless you’re ready to have your life changed. But, yeah, that was an absolute blast to do. It was basically ten weeks of paid vacation, and how can you go wrong with that? I also got three or four weeks of rehearsal time before that. It was wonderful. I got to work with Rob Iscove, who directed it. Y’know, he’s done tons of stuff, tons of Broadway stuff and also a couple of good movies as well. I got to meet some wonderful actors, including Anika Noni Rose. She’s gone on to do wonderful things at the box office, and right now she’s on Broadway, doing “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and she’s blowing everybody away. But, yeah, it was an absolute blast. I think I had a feeling at the time, “Okay, yeah, it’s just a campy, fun thing that I don’t think anybody’s going to take seriously.” And, uh, I think I was right. (Laughs) I think I was right. It’s funny, but some of my friends from that – Katherine Bailess and Greg Siff, who were other supporting actors on it – they get recognized by little kids all the time, because, y’know, it’s become a good DVD movie for parents…y’know, it was like the pre-“High School Musical”…and they look in the movie like they do in everyday life. They asked me what I wanted for my character. They told me I had to be shorter, because I couldn’t be taller than Justin. You can’t have the nerd guy be taller than the lead. So I was hunched over, I put on a Gilligan-like fisherman’s hat, I put on these huge, thick-rimmed glasses, and I was a complete and total knob! So I’m happy to say that I’ve never been recognized on the street as Eddie, while they’re having kids come up and say, “Hey, you were with Kelly Clarkson!”

BE: Well, it’s certainly an appropriate character name, because you were definitely playing the Eddie Deezen role.

BD: Yeah, exactly! But sometimes movies come along like that, and they don’t do phenomenally at the box office, obviously, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that it was just a fantastic experience. It was very, very fun to do. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. It was really a blast.

BE: And I guess the last question is, have you ever worked on a pilot that didn’t take off but you thought deserved to?

BD: Well, I would say that…well, probably the show that didn’t take off was “My Guide to Becoming a Rock Star.” We kind of got the short end of the stick that year. That was the year that “Smallville” premiered, and another called…I think it was called “Glory Road.” Was it called “Glory Road”?

BE: Well, it sounds familiar, but there was also a movie called that, so that might be what I’m thinking of. (Writer’s note: further research reveals that the show in question was actually called “Glory Days.”)

BD: Well, at any rate, we premiered, and our numbers were…eh, so-so. And the following week, our numbers just about doubled, so we were getting a little bit of a fan base going. And then we got canceled the next week. So it was one of those things where you just go, “I’m not sure what happened behind the scenes.” I don’t think it was necessarily because of the numbers. I think it’s because the show just wasn’t given enough of a shot. But that was also one of those cases where everyone on the show really liked one another. We had a really good time, and I’m happy to say that I made some true livelong friends from that. Kevin Rankin is probably one of my best friends, as is Lauren Hodges. And John Ricci, who did “Will and Grace” for a long while and is now doing “30 Rock.” So it’s really nice when you get a group of people together like that who get along so well. But the karmic fate had us! “You have a good time, we’re going to cancel you!” I wish that one could’ve gone on for longer, but, hey, if it did, I wouldn’t be on the show I’m on now. Things happen for a reason.

Spaced

BE: Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.

BD: You, too, man!

BE: I should be at the CBS party in a few months for the TCA tour, provided the actor’s strike doesn’t derail it.

BD: Oh, gosh. Yeah, I…I don’t know. What do you think about that?

BE: I don’t know. The majority of the reports I’m reading make it sound as though it’ll be resolved before it comes to the strike, but they said the same thing about the writer’s strike for awhile, too, and look what happened there.

BD: Yeah, I just…I know that nobody wants it to happen, but I think that no matter what, even if you don’t want it to happen, you have to keep up appearances that it’s going to happen. Otherwise, you lose all your bargaining power. But this last one just hurt so much, and the writers looked so bad coming out of it to the rest of Hollywood, like, “Oh, those are the guys who put us out of work!” So I certainly hope SAG doesn’t get put in that position. Hopefully, they’ll get it all sorted out.

BE: A friend of mine, John Sloan, is an actor out there, and during the writer’s strike, he said, “Man, I don’t want to have to go back to doing commercials. I’ll do it if I have to, but I really don’t want to.”

BD: I know the feeling! (Laughs) But when there are mouths to feed, you gotta do it!

BE: Well, as I say, hopefully I’ll get to meet you at the CBS party, but either way, it’s been good talking to you.

BD: You, too, man! Take care!

  

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