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Brian Dietzen's life and career: From NCIS stardom to health struggles and family life in LA

The actor is internationally recognized for his portrayal of Dr. Jimmy Palmer in NCIS

Brian Dietzen as Dr Jimmy Palmer
Megan Bull
TV Writer
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One of NCIS' longest-serving cast members, Brian Dietzen is known and loved for his portrayal of Dr. Jimmy Palmer – a role that, if you can believe it, was supposed to last just one day. 

After making some "bold" choices in his audition, Brian was given the go-ahead, and after donning his iconic spectacles and joining Donald "Ducky" Mallard (played by the late David McCallum) in the lab, fans fell hard for the happy-go-lucky doctor. 

Brian Dietzen on NCIS© Getty Images
Brian Dietzen has appeared on NCIS for 20 years

Now, 20 years later, and Brian continues to thrive as not only a main cast member but a co-writer on the hit naval drama. And, of course, a lot has changed in that time too. After moving from Colorado to California, the actor now resides with his wife, Kelly, and their two children in LA.

From Brian's early childhood in Chicago, to his meteoric rise to fame on NCIS, private family life and health struggles, here's what we know about the TV legend.

Early Life 

Born in Illinois on 14 November 1977, Brian spent his early childhood in Chicago, before moving to Colorado at the age of seven. "Most of my youth was spent in the hills of Boulder, Colorado," he told Icon Vs. Icon

Brian Dietzen attends 27th annual PaleyFest in 2010© Getty
The aspiring actor grew up in Chicago, before moving to Colorado

From a young age, the star was infatuated with cinema and cites Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart as a major source of inspiration. 

As Brian recalls, it didn't take long for the acting bug to kick in, and thanks to some sage advice from his father, he was encouraged to follow his dreams, enrolling at the University of Colorado Boulder where he majored in acting, before moving west in pursuit of more opportunities. 

"I took my dad's advice. He started his own company when he was 21 years old. His advice to me was to figure out what you love to do and figure out how to get paid for it," explained Brian.  

Brian Dietzen smiling. He is wearing a black shirt. © Getty
Brian studied acting at the University of Colorado Boulder

"I fell in love with acting at an early age. I did lots of theatre in Colorado. However, Colorado doesn't have a great job market for actors, so I decided to move west. Shortly thereafter, I was fortunate enough to find some good projects which led to some success!" 

Among them, Brian would bag roles in the TV shows, My Guide to Becoming a Rock Star (2002) and Boston Public (2002). He also appeared in the musical romantic comedy film From Justin to Kelly, starring Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini. 

NCIS fame 

By 2004, Brian had been cast as Jimmy Palmer in NCIS – a role that would change his life forever. "I was a one day guest star. But what's funny is that because it was just a one day job, I decided to make some really bold choices when I auditioned," he said in an interview with Paul Semel

Brian Dietzen on NCIS© Getty Images
Brian was supposed to be a one day guest star on NCIS

"And they liked it so much that it turned into a ten-year job. Had it been for a starring role, I would've had to test for the network, and if I had done that, I probably would've made different choices. And I probably wouldn't have gotten the job." 

After taking on a recurring role for nine seasons, Brian was eventually promoted to a series regular in 2012. "I'm very excited," he told EW at the time. "After eight years of being with the show, I got a contract with CBS, and I couldn't be happier about it."

Diona Reasonover and Brian Dietzen on NCIS© CBS
He is now one of the longest-serving cast members on the show

A man of many talents, as of 2022, Brian has also written for NCIS. In a major milestone, the actor became the first of the main cast members to co-write an episode, beginning with 'The Helpers' in season 19. The episode proved to be a success, so much so that a year later, on February 13 2023, Brian's second episode as a co-writer debuted, titled 'Old Wounds.'

Brian Dietzen as Dr Jimmy Palmer on NCIS © CBS Photo Archive
As of 2022, Brian also serves as a writer on NCIS

Speaking to Variety about his work behind the scenes, Brian said: "The creative element of coming up with something and putting words in the mouth of these characters that I've known so intimately and so closely for so many years just seemed to make a lot of sense." 

Following the death of his close friend and co-star, David McCallum, in September 2023, Brian was confronted with a bittersweet task. Asked to write a tribute episode for David and his on-screen counterpart, Donald "Ducky" Mallard, Brian immediately said yes. 

Brian Dietzen as Jimmy Palmer and David McCallum as Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard on NCIS © CBS Photo Archive
Brian co-wrote a special tribute episode to his dear friend and co-star, David McCallum

Talking to TV Line, he explained: "When David passed away, Scott Williams, my co-writer, volunteered to do this episode and he said to me, 'I thought it was only right that you co-write with me.' And then everybody in the room said, 'Yeah, that's perfect. That's what should happen.' And I said, 'Absolutely, I'd be honored to.'" 

Speaking about the team's approach to the episode, Brian noted: "Scott and I talked about it, and decided we still wanted it to be an NCIS show — it wasn't going to be entirely a clip show of 'Ducky's Greatest Hits.' 

"We wanted to have a case, and thought we should come up with a case that's thematically linked in some way to losing a valued and loved team member. So we came up with this concept of how, when we're done with life, the stories that we leave behind are what's important. What's important is what's left to our loved ones."

MORE: Mark Harmon's life and career: From NCIS stardom to on-set feuds, Pam Dawber marriage and incredible act of heroism

READ: Pauley Perette's life and career: From NCIS stardom to Mark Harmon feud, health struggles and retirement from acting

Health struggles 

Brian was rushed to hospital in 2020. The star, who was in his early forties at the time, experienced a dual embolic stroke, resulting from a blood clot in his brain. 

Brian Dietzen attends the CBS 2012 Winter Press Tour at The Langham Huntington Hotel © Getty
The actor suffered a stroke in 2020

The NCIS star had been at home at the time of his stroke, collapsing on the bathroom floor, in what he called a "terrifying" ordeal. Opening up about the experience in an interview with Variety, Brian recalled: "My hands were all curled up, and it was terrifying."

After losing control of the muscles in his hands and face, Brian used his Apple Watch to call for help. "I'm going to say something that's going to sound like an advertisement and it's not. But the Apple Watch saved my life," he said. 

Brian Dietzen attends the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' 22nd Annual Hall of Fame Induction Gala at The Beverly Hilton Hotel © Getty
Brian managed to call for help using his Apple Watch

"I was on the floor of my bathroom, throwing up, and I pulled out my phone and I was like, 'Oh —, I can't use my fingers.' And so I said, 'Hey, Siri, call Kelly,' and called my wife and I said, 'I need help.' She said, 'You sound like you have marbles in your mouth.'"

According to Outsider, Brian's life "hung in the balance" for three and a half hours, with his loved ones waiting and wishing for the blood clot to pass. Thankfully, the actor soon regained the movement in his hands and tongue, and the blood clot in his brain moved on.

"After all that happened, they're like, 'You're very, very healthy, you're in your early 40s; you shouldn't be having a stroke," Brian said to Variety. "So we went to UCLA, and finally, I got a test that showed that I had this hole between my atrial chambers that needed to be closed." 

Following the diagnosis, Brian underwent cardiac surgery to close the hole in his heart. It was a success. Finally, on the mend, Brian's health issues made him sit back and take stock of his life. "Over the next six months as everyone was sitting at home, myself included, I started asking those questions of, how do I want to affect the world? And which stories do I want to tell?'" he reflected. 

Brian Dietzen as Jimmy Palmer and Katrina Law as NCIS Special Agent Jessica Knight in NCIS© CBS Photo Archive
The experience made Brian realize that he wanted to focus on writing as well as acting

"I realized there's no reason why I can't tell really great stories and branch out and still do what I love on this thing [NCIS], and be surrounded by these people that have supported me and that I support and love."

Ultimately, Brian's stroke and subsequent surgery inspired him to pen episodes for NCIS, with his first premiering in 2022. His latest – a tribute to the late David McCallum – aired in February 2024.  

Family life in LA 

Brian and Kelly Dietzen married in 2004, and together they share a son and a daughter. While the family are extremely private, the NCIS star – who typically posts about his work – has given fans a glimpse at his personal life on Instagram.

Brian Dietzen and his wife Kelly close up© @briankdietzen
Brian and his wife Kelly

Sharing a photo of his wife Kelly, in 2022, Brian wrote: "Happy Mother's Day to you all. Today, our family is celebrating this woman right here. You're the best, Kel. Our kids lucked out by getting you as their mom." 

Brian Dietzen and his wife Kelly on a hike© Instagram
The couple married in 2004 and share a son and a daughter

He also revealed some of his children's hobbies in a post uploaded in November 2022. Sharing a photo of some golf personalised golf wedges, he wrote: "Shout out to my guy @anthony.taranto for decorating some amazing new Callaway wedges for me. Kiddos names! Musical notes for my daughter, and an Overwatch logo for my son!"

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