By Janet Weeks
Twenty-Five Million Clues
The cast of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has been called together to inspect a key piece of evidence in the Case of the Missing Media Hype. The location is a dimly lit set adorned with bloody fingerprints, WANTED posters, used bullet cartridges and a photo of a severed head. For a few minutes, there is silence as the actors read copies of a document provided to them by producers. Then they look up, smiling. Jorja Fox, 33, who plays criminalist Sara Sidle, hugs William Petersen, 49, who stars as enigmatic forensic officer Gil Grissom. The news: There has finally been a breakthrough. Variety, the entertainment industry’s premier trade publication, has at last published a story detailing the show’s rise to No. 2 television drama (behind ER) and its membership in the select “25 million viewer club.” Without adoring critics or sweeping awards-show wins, the dark drama (CBS, Thursdays, 9 pm/ET) about the unseemly sides of science, law enforcement and Las Vegas has become a megahit. “We’re not the press’s beauty queens,” says Gary Dourdan, who plays Warrick Brown, a forensic investigator and recovering gambling addict. “In our first season, [the show] didn’t have any money. The other shows on the network got all the bread. And we kind of came up fighting, like Mike Tyson, and just knocked everything out.” Now CBS is planning a CSI spinoff for fall of this year, possibly set in Miami.
A shout rings out: “Hey, it’s Gary’s birthday!” The group sings a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday,” and Dourdan, who is 35 this day, breaks into a wide grin. “I don’t think there’s ever been a birthday this badass,” he says.
The Finger Prince
Outside Petersen’s spacious trailer, chilly winds howl across the treeless landscape of Santa Clarita, California, the Los Angeles suburb that doubles as CSI’s Nevada setting. Inside, Petersen, who is also one of the show’s executive producers, listens to classical music and contemplates why the series is such a hit. “[It’s because] Grissom doesn’t believe people,” he explains. “The only thing he trusts is the physical evidence. And I think the world really wants that definition. They’ve played with religions and they’ve gone to different gyms. They’ve tried this diet and they’ve tried to get married. It’s just random, and people are sick of it. They want to know that something is real.”
Petersen isn’t fixated on the physical, however. With candles flickering around him, he talks instead about the spiritual. When he was 29, he cut his finger in half performing a knife fight in a Chicago stage production of Sam Shepard’s Tooth of Crime. He was taken to an emergency room and, after losing consciousness, saw an image of himself lying on a moving sidewalk, headed toward a white light. “The closer I got, the more I wanted to get there,” he says. “I could actually see and feel and hear love coming out of this light.” A voice said, “Stop it!” and brought him back to consciousness. Now, Petersen says, “I don’t fear the afterlife.”
Or the before-life. Not long after his near-death experience, a psychic astrologer told Petersen that in a former life he was heir to a large European land holding. (“Almost like a prince,” Petersen says.) But he lost his fiefdom when he fell in love with a peasant girl. The psychic then predicted that Petersen would make a lot of money in this life to make up for the loss. “And sure enough, five years later I started making money in movies,” says the actor (The Contender, Haven). Given CSI’s lucrative deal with TNN — the cable network paid a record-breaking $1.6 million an episode to rerun the series this coming fall — Petersen stands to fully regain his regal booty. “God,” Petersen says of the psychic, “he was right.”
Exhuming the Bawdy
Marg Helgenberger, 43, may be perfectly suited for her role as investigator Catherine Willows. Helgenberger (China Beach) and her character are both mothers. (The actress has an 11-year-old son, Hughie, with husband Alan Rosenberg of The Guardian; Willows, who is divorced, has a daughter, Lindsey, age eight.) Both struggle to balance job and family obligations. “For instance, we’re working this Saturday, which really sucks,” Helgenberger says. “I’m going to be missing my son’s basketball game.”
Neither is easily grossed out. CSI may be drenched in the truly disgusting — memorable episodes have featured decomposing pigs, rotted corpses and rooms covered with bloody mucus — but Helgenberger says she’s never been bothered by the material. “Gosh, have I been creeped out by anything? I don’t think so.” In fact, Helgenberger often finds black humor in CSI. She lets out a wild laugh when thinking about the previous week’s episode, involving a transgender serial murderer. “When we were making it, I thought, ‘This is just too kooky!’ The whole Paul/Pauline thing cracked me up… It’s dark subject matter,” she says, “but the situations are absurd.”