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Why Michael Weatherly's DiNozzo Return On NCIS Season 21's Ducky Episode Is So Important

"NCIS" fans likely knew they were in for something special in Season 21 as the show honored longtime cast member David McCallum, who played Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard until his death in 2023. The Ducky tribute episode marks the return of Anthony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly), whose last appearance was in Season 13. It had been a while since audiences last saw him, and ultimately, he was the best choice for an "NCIS" cameo to lift people's spirits.

Season 21, Episode 2 — "The Stories We Leave Behind" — centers largely on Jimmy Palmer (Brian Dietzen), who worked closely with Ducky over the years. He's the one who discovers Ducky has died, leaving him in immense distress. However, DiNozzo is there to comfort him in the episode's final moments, and as Dietzen explained to TV Insider, it made a lot of sense to bring him back for that purpose. "This character, in addition to being close with Ducky, was Jimmy's good friend, so when he comes to visit, it is to help the person who's left behind. It's really to be there for his friend," he said.

DiNozzo doesn't have a ton of airtime in the episode, as he shows up and assists Jimmy with his bowtie while reminiscing about what a great man Ducky was. More than likely, many viewers shed tears throughout "The Stories We Leave Behind," so it was nice to end the installment on a lighter, more comforting note. 

Brian Dietzen got emotional writing the Ducky tribute episode

Michael Weatherly's Anthony DiNozzo may have been the only cameo in "The Stories We Leave Behind," but other former "NCIS" characters were represented in various ways. The episode confirms Leroy Jethro Gibbs' (Mark Harmon) current location through a letter he sends to Timothy McGee (Sean Murray). Pauley Perrette's Abby Sciuto also honors Ducky by sending a black wreath. However, the episode's focus needed to remain firmly on Ducky's — and likewise, David McCallum's — legacy. That was an emotional struggle for Brian Dietzen, who co-wrote "The Stories We Leave Behind" with Scott Williams. 

There wasn't much time between McCallum's death and Dietzen writing the script, and the story was particularly poignant, seeing how close the actors were in real life. "It gets me choked up because I'm thinking of David and how parallel David and Ducky are and how parallel our relationships were — Jimmy and Ducky, myself and David — in certain ways," Dietzen elaborated. 

With that in mind, it makes even greater sense why DiNozzo was an ideal choice to bring back. He and Jimmy have their share of great moments throughout the show, and since Ducky obviously couldn't be there to comfort Jimmy during a difficult time, DiNozzo makes for a solid substitute. Plus, Weatherly's cameo was well-timed, as a new "NCIS" spin-off centered on DiNozzo and Ziva David (Cote de Pablo) was announced shortly after the tribute episode aired. In a way, Weatherly's appearance honors the past and what Ducky represented on "NCIS" while paving a path for the franchise's future with what's bound to be another solid series.