‘NCIS’ star Brian Dietzen opens up about having a stroke and heart surgery

Brian Dietzen started his acting career in the early 2000s and it only took him a few years to score his biggest gig: the role of Jimmy Palmer on NCIS.

Today, Dietzsen has starred in more than 330 episodes of the popular television show, with more certainly to come. Besides acting, the Barrington, Illinois native has also produced and directed several episodes.

At the same time as Brian rose to become a star of the show, however, he’s also suffered from some pretty alarming health issues.

So how did Brian land his role on NCIS? And what does his private life look like? Here’s all you need to know about him!

Being an actor sure sounds like a fantastic job on paper. You get to experience the excitement of being on set – sometimes in different locations around the world – work with really talented people, and try all manner of different roles.

Put simply, actors get to occupy the skins of people from all walks of life, including those they may have dreamed of becoming when they were young.

Brian Dietzen as Jimmy Palmer on ‘NCIS’

Of course, we all know that the acting business can be a rough environment. Just as with any other line of work, those who are successful must work hard to reach their dreams.

Harder than most, in many instances. When it comes to working in the entertainment business, it can take years, sometimes decades, before one lands a role they really want.

Naturally, this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with an actor’s talents, but rather about them being in the right place at the right time.

For some, though, a dream role can come sooner rather than later. Just ask Brian Dietzen, who scored the most significant role of his career after only a few years in the business.

Dietzen has starred on NCIS as medical examiner’s assistant Jimmy Palmer since 2003. He’s still going strong to this day – even if an alarming health issue that might’ve ended everything.

Here’s all you need to know about the prominent NCIS actor.

Brian Dietzen was born in Barrington, Illinois, on November 14, 1977. As a young kid, he knew that he wanted to become an actor when he grew up.

“Figure out what you love, and then figure out how to get paid for it,” Dietzen’s dad told him.

Brian Dietzen – early life and career

Dietzen started in the theater, doing school plays in elementary school. He starred in Christmas plays in second grade, and his interest only grew in high school. It was clear from the beginning that Brian had found his true passion in life.

Dietzen was also a singer in several punk rock bands during his high school and college days, and went on to study acting at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Graduating with a BFA in acting, began to perform with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and was honored with the UROP grant for Outstanding Achievements in the Creative Arts.

Besides his love for acting, Brian Dietzen also found a passion for writing.

“It’s kind of an extension of acting. It’s creating a script, it’s moving forward and expressing some sort of artistic vision. I went to school at CU in Boulder, and even there, I loved reading scripts,” Brian Dietzen explained.

“I loved studying the classics, studying the masters, and that sort of stuff. And moving out here when I started writing with my friend Abby Miller, we wrote a musical together, a feature musical.”

He added: “We realized, shortly thereafter, that it would cost millions of dollars to make that feature, so we decided to try our hand at writing something on a much smaller subject, and we came up with Congratulations.”

The film Congratulations was released in 2012, and was selected by over a dozen film festivals. It also won Best Feature awards from United Film Festival and New Filmmakers. However, Dietzen had already become a major star on a whole different show at that point.

Guest appearance on ‘NCIS’

After making the inevitable move to Los Angeles, Dietzen got his first big breakthrough through starring as a drummer in the series My Guide to Becoming a Rockstar.

Sadly, the series didn’t last long, and Dietzen moved on to make his screen debut alongside Kelly Clarkson in the 2003 film From Justin to Kelly.

Like many actors early in their careers, Brian mostly got minor roles or roles in smaller productions.

Then, in 2004, a guest appearance turned into the most significant role of his career. Brian had appeared on the hit show NCIS as medical examiner’s assistant Jimmy Palmer. He worked closely with Donald Mallard, played by David McCallum on the show.

Today, we know that Dietzen was destined to star in more than just one episode. But even though he’s been on the show for years, he stated that his first day on set was one of the most memorable of his life.

“One of the big, memorable days is my first scene here. And I was hired to do one scene with David McCallum, one day,” he told CBS.

“And I went in there, we had a nice juicy scene with David, where I was nervous, and I was working on a tape recorder. He and I played really, really well together.”

Made “bold choices” at audition

“It was very, very fun,” he added. “And I remember thinking: this was really fun for my reel. Goodbye. Fortunately, they brought me back, and I still have a job here and that was awesome, but that was one of my most memorable.”

Initially, Dietzen didn’t expect to return after making his appearance in an episode of NCIS. The actor had been hired to make a guest appearance, but it didn’t take long before he was called back to do more.

Perhaps one reason for this was how he approached the project of working on NCIS. Speaking with blogger Paul Semel in 2014, Dietzen revealed that he made some “really bold” choices when it came to his audition – which paid off.

“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,” Brian said.

As it happened, Dietzen was hired for more and more episodes. Naturally, being on a major television show, filming episode after episode, meant giving up the opportunity to pursue other projects.

Became a regular on ‘NCIS’

Brian, though, never looked back. In the end, he felt that he had made the right choice.

“It is a wonderful career opportunity, but the more you commit to one show, the less you can do other things. So that thinking definitely goes into it,” he added.

“But because of how much I like working on this show, with this cast and the writers and the crew, it was a no-brainer.”

In 2012 – eight years after appearing in his first episode of NCIS – Entertainment Weekly revealed that Brian had been promoted to a series regular on the show. 

NCIS was heading into its 10th season – and at that point, it had become one of the biggest television shows around.

In fact, NCIS became one of the most-watched shows globally, with millions tuning in each week.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, it’s licensed in more than 200 countries today, with numerous CBS spin-offs such as NCIS: New Orleans, NCIS: Los Angeles, and NCIS: Hawaii.

The show has also been nominated for three Primetime Emmys and won several other awards throughout its lifetime.

Brian Dietzen – net worth

Instead of appearing solely alongside David McCallum in his guest appearances, Dietzen has now worked with stars such as Mark Harmon, Pauley Perrette, and Sean Murray. According to Celebrity Net Worth, Dietzen has a personal net worth of around $2 million.

Most importantly – from an employee perspective – Brian Dietzen could relax after he got a big contract on the show. Not only that, but he now gets to appear in the opening credits, which undoubtedly pleased longtime fans of NCIS.

“I’m very excited,” Dietzen told Entertainment Weekly 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…. so far as I know, I’m safe, and a contract is a good thing to indicate that.”

Now, working on a television show means coming to set day after day, which sometimes must surely get pretty repetitive. Despite that, though he’s has appeared in over 330 episodes of NCIS, Dietzen still hasn’t lost his enthusiasm.

“I love going to work. We all have our down days, of course, but Jimmy Palmer is a guy who says, ‘I’m ready to go, and I’m excited to be here. It’s not about a nativity. It’s about optimism and a self-fulfilled happiness,” he told Starry Mag in 2019.

Dietzen suffers stroke

Yet despite the success with NCIS, Dietzen has sadly endured a rough patch of late with regards to his health. Just months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, Dietzen had a stroke that changed his life forever.

“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.

I was on the floor of my bathroom, throwing up, and I pulled out my phone, and I was like, ‘Oh shit, I can’t use my fingers,’” Brian Dietzen recalled in an interview with Variety.

“And so I said, ‘Hey, Siri, call Kelly,’ and called my wife. I said, ‘I need help.’ She said, ‘You sound like you have marbles in your mouth.’”

Brian managed to call 911 with the help of his voice command, and was thereafter rushed to the hospital. While in the MRI tube, he assessed his life.

“‘I don’t think there’s much that I’ve left undone because everyone that I love knows that I love them’ — that sort of thing. But then I was like, ‘Whoa, no, I can’t start thinking that way,’ and then I started trying to get my mind in the right place,” Brian said.

“And I could feel something happen in my brain, but all of a sudden, I could move my hands and start moving my tongue. I started doing tongue twisters.

They’re like, ‘Please stay still.’ But the clot in my brain cleared. And I was really blessed that I’d stayed really healthy and had a really healthy cardiovascular system.”

Watched the entire surgery on a screen

After stabilizing, Dietzen was sent to UCLA, where a test showed a hole between his atrial chambers that needed to be closed. He went into surgery right away.

What’s more, doctors informed him that it would be dangerous to take any anesthetic, so the NCIS actor watched the entire surgery on an overhead screen, and was thus able to see how they closed up the hole in his heart.

Luckily, he came out alive and was able to return to work. Most importantly, he reunited with his beloved family; his wife, Kelly, and their two children.

“And then 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?’ You go through all the scenarios — should I be on this show anymore? Should I move on, do something different? What’s going to make me happy?” he added.

“And 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, and be surrounded by these people that have supported me and that I support and love.”

We are so glad that Brian Dietzen managed to get through the scary incident with the stroke and is now back on his feet. Hopefully, we will see him in NCIS for many years to come.

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