‘NCIS’ Star Brian Dietzen Says Writing David McCallum Tribute Episode Helped With His Grief | Video

The actor also tells TheWrap about staging the big Episode 2 surprise cameo and why Mark Harmon missed the reunion

Note: The following story contains spoilers from “NCIS” Season 21, Episode 2.

Brian Dietzen knew helping to write the “NCIS” tribute to David McCallum would be the best way to honor his longtime scene partner’s memory — that it would help him process his real-life grief was an added bonus.

The actor co-wrote the emotional hour of the CBS crime procedural alongside Scott Williams, chronicling the team’s loss of the beloved Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard. The storyline echoed reality as McCallum, who played the role of Ducky since Season 1, died peacefully in his sleep on Sept. 25, 2023. He was 90.

“I’ve lost a few people in my life, but never have I sat down and written a script or a story about them in the weeks following their departure. It was very odd… but helpful in a way,” Dietzen told TheWrap in an interview ahead of the episode’s debut on Monday. “A lot of the grief of losing a friend is softened by the fact that he’s a 90-year-old man who lived so much life.”

Dietzen recalled feeling honored when asked to help craft the farewell installment, a tall task to properly celebrate the beloved medical examiner-turned-NCIS historian, along with a real-life Hollywood legend. The episode, titled “The Stories We Leave Behind,” opened with Jimmy (Dietzen) arriving at his friend’s home in the morning to discuss a break on a case he was working on, only to find Ducky had died in his sleep.

“That was the toughest day that I had as an actor,” Dietzen said. “It took a village to put this together. I always felt like we were all in this together. That felt like the first time during the whole process where it was just me and David. That really hit me hard, I was a blubbering mess.”

The episode featured classic callbacks to some of Ducky’s most iconic moments from the series, as the old footage brought back some other beloved characters to help celebrate the doctor’s legacy — including Mark Harmon’s Leroy Gibbs and Pauley Perrette’s Abby Sciuto. But the episode also gave fans a surprise return in the present day: Michael Weatherly’s Tony DiNozzo appeared in the last scene for a heartwarming moment with Jimmy before attending Ducky’s funeral.

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Brian Dietzen in “NCIS.” (Michael Yarish/CBS)

“Every idea under the sun was thrown out [for this episode.] From having every ‘NCIS’ cast member from every spin-off come together in a huge funeral theme… nothing was off the table,” Dietzen said. “Those things can be very logistically difficult obviously, but we wanted to do something special… Michael said he would absolutely love to come and reprise his role as Tony.”

Dietzen noted how none of the old clips that played during the episode featured Tony, an Easter egg of sorts for his present-day cameo. He also said that Mark Harmon had been in talks to reprise his role as Gibbs, but was ultimately not available due to a scheduling conflict.

“I think everyone would love to see Gibbs make an appearance at some point. That is such a beloved character, TV history,” he said. “I’m really happy with the way [the scene] turned out. The way that it works with Jimmy and Tony. There’s an intimacy to that and there’s a familiarity to that.”

Dietzen further explained the specific choice of revisiting Ducky’s Season 19 speech during the episode, in which he reflected on letting Gibbs go after Harmon’s exit from the series.

“[Jimmy] is mourning the team’s loss of Gibbs and before that Bishop (Emily Wickersham) and before that the death of his own wife. But Ducky comforts him by saying, ‘Our pain is a small price to pay for his peace,’” Dietzen recalled. “I wanted that to be the last thing that we hear Ducky say in this episode, so he can seemingly eulogize himself, in a way. That was one [moment] that I felt strongly about and that stayed in the whole time.”

“NCIS” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CBS. Episodes stream on Paramount+ the day after.

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