William Petersen is leaving ‘CSI’ for the city — and the theater scene — that spaw

[17 October 2008]

By Rick Kogan

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

CHICAGO - The 14th hole at the Highland Park golf course is a 443-yard par four, slightly uphill from the tee before twisting right and heading downhill toward a green that is protected by a winding creek. It is a cruel hole, and one afternoon in the late summer of 2000 four men were playing it: the reporter, who would be me; Keith Moore, a lawyer married to actress Natalie West; Will Zahrn, a Chicago stage actor with some minor movie credits; and William Petersen, a legendary Chicago stage actor and movie star of modest magnitude.

Moore, Zahrn and I lived in Chicago and we were glad to see Billy, who was spending more and more of his time in Los Angeles. Everybody was always glad to see Billy. “It never mattered what Billy was doing in Hollywood,” says Moore. “He was always the same old Billy.”

Before the round, we had needled Petersen when he had to hustle back to his car for his phone: Oh, big man, big Hollywood star, can’t be away from the phone for a few hours?

Make no mistake. None of us was part of what could be called Billy’s inner circle. We had known him for years, though, through various romantic and professional affiliations with the Remains Theatre Company that he had helped found in 1979. Zahrn and Moore’s wife were members of Remains and had worked on stage with Billy. I had written about him and reviewed him. All of us had socialized with him and we tried, every summer, to get in a round of golf or two: Actors versus lawyer-reporter.

The fact was that I knew Billy’s daughter much better than I knew him. Maite Petersen - the name means love in Basque, the region of Spain where she was born in 1975 - is the only child of his first marriage, which ended in divorce a few years later.

When Maite was 14 she spent the summer in Chicago with her father and many of those days were spent in the Tribune Tower with me. She was an intern of an unofficial sort and wound up covering a few events and writing about them for the paper. She was a fine writer and a delightful kid. No less talented and charming, she is now a thoughtful adult.

“The first time I ever got a taste of the nightmare that it must be to be a star was when I was about 10, right after his first movie had come out,” she says. “My dad and I were out to dinner and all the while we were eating, these people kept coming over and just talking to us and taking pictures and otherwise ruining our evening. Where were we? We were at Disneyland.”

On the golf course that afternoon in 2000, most of the conversation was of the catching-up kind: How’s Maite? What’s so-and-so up to? What happened to whatshisname? How’s he/she doing with the booze?

There was not much talk about Billy’s movie career, which had started with big star turns in the mid-1980s, in “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “Manhunter,” but by this time had settled into a series of secondary parts in notable films such as a mobster in 1996’s “Mulholland Falls” and Jack Kennedy in 1998’s “The Rat Pack” and starring roles in small, forgettable fare such as “The Beast” or “The Staircase.”

Billy did, when pressed a bit, talk about the reason he needed his phone. He told us that he had filmed a pilot for a new TV series and was, at any moment, expecting to hear if it was being picked up by CBS.

“I play, well, it’s kind of a forensic investigator in Las Vegas,” he said.

“You mean you are ‘Quincy’ goes to Vegas?” Moore said.

“Hey, if you get it, can the three of us come on and play dead bodies?” said Zahrn.

Moore remembers: “There were lots of jokes about Billy being the guy who draws the chalk marks around the dead bodies. Billy had what’s called a ‘play or pay’ deal, meaning he was going to get paid a lot of money whether the pilot was picked up or not. He gave me the sense that it would be fine if it wasn’t. It didn’t seem like a TV series was something he was really eager to do. There was a lot of laughing.”

The laughter stopped on that 14th hole. We were standing over our drives, trying to determine who was away and how to negotiate the creek when Billy’s phone rang.

He held it to his ear, nodded a couple of times and then threw the phone over the fence and into the woods that bordered the left side of the hole. “(Expletive!)” he shouted. “(Expletive!”

“You didn’t get it?” asked Zahrn.

“No, I got it,” he said.

“OK,” said Moore. “What’s the show called?”

“‘CSI,’” said Petersen.

“Huh?” the three of us said collectively.

“‘C ... S ... I,’” he said, sounding a bit defensive. “Crime ... Scene ... Investigation.”

“Gee,” said Zahrn, “what a ... what a snappy title. Good luck with that.”

Amy Morton, the great actress, who recently ended her run on Broadway in the Tony/Pulitzer-award-winning, Steppenwolf-spawned “August Osage County” by Tracy Letts, is one of Petersen’s best friends.

This is what she has to say about their shared profession: “Acting is a weird form of therapy, but you don’t get healthier doing it. In exploring different characters, you become extremely aware of certain pathologies and psychologies. You begin to understand human frailties, pain. I think this makes actors very empathetic people. That said, only crazy people want to be actors. We do something really weird. We pretend to be other people. We’re actually playing a child’s game. Children do it all the time. They pretend. So we know we’re weirdos. Think about it, this need all actors have to be exhibitionists and have people clap for you, to clap for you being somebody other than who you are.”

Born in 1953 and raised in Evanston, Ill, Petersen had what might charitably be characterized as raucous high school years. He wound up finishing high school in Idaho and attending Idaho State University on a football scholarship. He took and was hooked by some acting classes there but still dropped out, got married, traveled in Europe, came back to Idaho for a while and eventually returned home.

He took acting classes with Dennis Zacek at Victory Gardens Theater, got a few small parts and then earned his Actor’s Equity union card playing the title role in the Victory Gardens production of “Dillinger.”

Together with Amy Morton, D.W. Moffett, Gary Cole and others, he also founded Remains Theatre. “For a time we lived, breathed and ate together. It was all theater, theater, theater,” says Morton. “We’d put up sets by scavenging through Dumpsters.”

They did highly regarded work in such shows as “Waiting for Godot,” ” Moby Dick,” “The Tooth of Crime” and “Traps.” Gary Sinise, one of those who founded Steppenwolf Theatre in 1975, was an admirer. “I loved Remains, really loved them,” he says. “They were so challenging. We were always swapping actors. We shared the same sort of theater-as-guerrilla-warfare kind of idea, and Remains was doing more original work.”

They did much of this work in a wedge-shaped space in the Ginger Man, a tavern near Wrigley Field, until their growing talents and reputation landed them in larger venues around town.

“But thoughts of New York or L.A. never entered our consciousness,” says Morton. “It was all about the work and what play were we going to do next. None of us ever thought of or talked about becoming stars. We came together as a way to have more say in our own destinies, in order to make things for the stage. Making money wasn’t even a concern.”

In 1983, in the cramped upstairs space that was Wisdom Bridge Theater on Howard Street, Petersen found the role of his stage lifetime when he played condemned killer and acclaimed writer Jack Abbott under the direction of Robert Falls in “In the Belly of the Beast.”

Richard Christiansen, reviewing the play for the Chicago Tribune wrote, “The work of William L. Petersen ... is of such extraordinary achievement, and of such heroic stature, that it crosses the usual boundaries of ‘acting’ into an area of experience I found staggering.” I, reviewing for the Sun-Times, wrote that he gave a performance that would “haunt and linger forever. ... In a role that makes massive emotional and physical demands, Petersen is powerfully consistent. He falters not a bit, relents not at all. His character is perfectly and majestically realized.”

Petersen calls that role a “transforming experience.” It is one that would etch itself immediately and firmly into local theater history and led directly to his being cast in the starring role of a Secret Service agent out to avenge his murdered partner in William Friedkin’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” in 1985.

“Everybody was, well, pleasantly shocked when Billy got that part,” says Morton. “It came out of the f - -n’ blue. It sent a terrifying ripple effect through the company. But Billy went out of his way to be super generous and seemed very conscious not to be looked at as an a—hole. It’s OK to be proud, but if you start to get uppity here you’re going to be put in your place.”

As other film roles came his way - in “Manhunter,” “Amazing Grace and Chuck,” “Long Gone,” “Cousins” - Petersen remained committed to the stage, returning here often to star in a number of shows, including a Goodman Theatre production of “Night of the Iguana” and memorable Remains productions of David Mamet’s “Speed the Plow” and “American Buffalo.”

Remains eventually ran out of gas and money in 1995, but in 1998, Petersen and Morton appeared in the Victory Gardens premiere of Jeffrey Sweet’s “Flyovers.”

It was a show shadowed by the fact that Petersen and Morton had previously lived together for a number of years. “Our relationship was certainly passionate and certainly fun and at times tortuous. Fortunately, it ended well. Not angrily or bitterly,” she said. By this time she was happily married to Rob Milburn, the award-winning theatrical sound designer, and Petersen had been seriously dating a Chicago biology teacher named Gina Cirone for five years.

“I live in California so I can afford to do projects like this,” he told the Tribune at the time. “I’d rather be here than anywhere else. I still feel like an off-Loop rat.”

“Flyovers” would be his last appearance on a Chicago stage.

“I was not happy getting that golf course phone call,” Petersen says now. “There were two ways things could go. It’s a ratings dud and you’re on for three weeks and get canceled and, well, that’s embarrassing. Or, it’s a hit and I have to really work for a living. With plays and even movies, that kind of job only lasts three months. If ‘CSI’ was a hit, when was I going to be free to golf with my pals?”

It was not expected to be a hit, plugged into the CBS schedule as the last of any network show picked up for the 2000-2001 season.

“We went to New York for upfronts (meetings with the press and advertisers before each season),” says Carol Mendelsohn, one of the executive producers of “CSI” from its inception. “And nobody paid any attention to us. I really started to wonder, ‘Does anybody even know we have a show?’ “

In one of the lovely additions to the small-world files, Mendelsohn and I were high-school classmates and I have enjoyed watching her career, first as a lawyer and then as she moved into TV writing for “Hardcastle and McCormick” and “Wiseguy.” Later she was a writer/producer for “The Trials of Rosie O’Neill” and “Melrose Place.” She was thrilled when “CSI” came around.

She sounded charmingly high-school girlish when she said, “My first thought was ‘Oh, my God, Bill Petersen is the star! My girlfriends are going to be so jealous!’ That’s not to say that I hadn’t had a crush on him ... well, forever. I was a huge admirer of his film work and was very excited to be writing for him.”

That first episode aired on Oct. 6, 2000. It was an instant and huge hit.

Petersen played Gil Grissom, a night-shift team supervisor for the Las Vegas CSI unit that solves mostly unusual and mysterious deaths. He’s a scientist with a wicked if quiet sense of humor and a loner (mostly) with all manner of quirks and secrets. The show’s look was a distinctive mix of flashy camera angles and quick-paced editing, and it delivered the details with lots of high-tech gizmos, giving viewers graphic and intimate details of blood spray patterns, bullet trajectories and bodily damage.

“At the outset, Billy told us, ‘Don’t make me a hero,’” says Mendelsohn. “I was from a TV school in which the star is always the hero so I had to rethink everything. He was responsible not only for changing the nature of his character but the nature of the show. He wanted all the ‘CSIs’ to be seen as everyday heroes, just doing their jobs. That has always been the beautiful thing about ‘CSI,’ that Billy was able to create the intensely collaborative atmosphere of an ensemble theater.”

For its eight seasons “CSI” has been near or at the top of the ratings, averaging something in the neighborhood of 30 million viewers every week and spawning successful outposts (“CSI Miami,” starring David Caruso, and “CSI: N.Y.,” starring that other Chicago theater veteran, Sinise).

“The first season was like Remains times, well, times 23,” Petersen says. “It was like putting on 23 plays back to back to back to ... In retrospect, I enjoyed that. I can’t remember being as intense, desperate or committed. Then after a while it became like a smooth-running train. But then we had to ask, ‘Do we not care anymore?’ We had to retrench. We couldn’t let it slide. It was never about ratings.”

In this, his final season as the star of the show, Peterson will reportedly make $500,000 an episode, in addition to whatever sums come his way as one of the executive producers of the franchise.

He is not the first local actor to make it big, and one can find many examples of how some stars wear success: with estimable grace (see Mahoney, John, or Metcalf, Laurie) or like a neon sign (see Piven, Jeremy, or Cusack, John).

To hear those close to him (and not so close) tell it, success and stardom have not changed Petersen.

“Billy always been a very talented, dedicated actor,” says Christiansen, who has chronicled Petersen’s career more closely than anyone. “And he’s always had a very magnetic, charismatic presence. A rare blend. And, incidentally, he’s always been a fine, honorable person.”

Always more a tavern guy than a nightclub partyer, more interested in the score of a Cubs or Bears game than in scoring, ever eager to lend a friend some dough, he appears unfazed by the “CSI” glare.

“I think age has a lot to do with it. He’s not the young stud anymore. He’s a grandfather now,” says Morton. “All the hoopla bores him. None of it is interesting to him. The money? That’s nice but that was never, ever what Billy was about.”

Still, success always has a price.

“‘CSI’ changed everything for him,” says daughter Maite. “I knew that when he visited Europe; so many people would be running after him on the streets that he needed security. In Los Angeles, he has to have a house with a gate because of all the people driving by, taking pictures, ogling.

“But I think he has endured the test of stardom. I am glad he is finished. TV is ridiculous, the amount of physical and emotional stress he’s had to withstand. Look, he’s not the president of the United States.”

Billy’s back in town. He and Gina, who were married in Italy in 2003, have two places in Chicago: a house on the Northwest Side and a downtown condo. Petersen has begun rehearsal for his first Chicago stage appearance in a decade, starring in “Dublin Carol,” a play by Irish playwright Conor McPherson that will run from Nov. 6 to Dec. 21 in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre.

“I did toy with a couple of other things during ‘CSI’ but the show was just too all-consuming,” Petersen says. “When it started, I told my agent, ‘Don’t send me anything. No scripts. Nothing.’”

“Dublin Carol” came to him through an old friend from the Chicago theater scene, Curt Columbus, who had gone on to become artistic director of Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I.

“I was visiting my mom back in Evanston and I got the flu for three days,” Petersen says. “I couldn’t do much of anything so I just I started reading the script and I just finally told myself, ‘I gotta do this.’”

“This” was the role of John Plunkett, an alcoholic undertaker in his 50s, described by one critic as “a defeated little man.”

“It’s this charming little Christmas story about alcoholism, divorce and death,” says Petersen, laughing.

In order to accommodate his desire to return to the stage, “CSI” wrote him out of a few episodes while he spent most of November and December of 2006 in Providence.

In order to accommodate Petersen’s understandable anxiety, Morton signed on as director.

Morton calls the play “small and sweet,” adding that “for the first couple of days of rehearsal, I think Billy was really nervous. It had been a long time. But then I realized, ‘Oh, he’ll be fine.’”

And he was. The reviews were good, as were the crowds.

“But Amy’s right,” says Petersen. “I was massively insecure. I didn’t know if I was capable of memorizing anymore. There was one night I really thought that I should just run away to Canada. It wasn’t far. Then I thought, ‘Boy, the entertainment magazines will eat that up.’ “

Keith Moore and Natalie West flew east to see the show.

“We haven’t really paid much attention to Billy on ‘CSI’, but if he’s changed at all you could have fooled me. When we saw him, it was as if we saw him last week and it had been years,” says West, who had a taste of stardom when she played Crystal for some years on “Roseanne.”

“Billy was his gregarious, self-deprecating self,” says Moore. “There’s nothing artificial about it. He can be the center of attention without the creepiness of seeming to need to be the center of attention. He was interested in catching up on what was happening with us and our kids. When you are with him for any exchange, he’s in that moment with you.”

If he hadn’t changed, the nature of his celebrity certainly had.

“‘CSI’ was a crazy success right away and there’s a big difference between being a star on the big screen and a star who comes into your living room every week,” says Morton. “People feel unnaturally familiar with you, not reluctant to get close. One of the big considerations in doing that play was that Providence wasn’t Chicago. Billy knew that it would be a circus here.”

Petersen agrees, saying, “Stardom is most uncomfortable for me in Chicago. In L.A., if people recognize me, they are too cool, or pretend to be too cool, to pay any attention. Here people act as if they are shocked to see you. They’re rubber necking. They are following me ... photos, autographs, grabbing.”

“I think a perfect day for Billy would be just hanging out in the neighborhood, walking his dog Bruno across a park, playing catch, having a beer, firing up the barbecue grill and watching the jets on their landing pattern into O’Hare,” says his cousin Chris Petersen, a teacher at Proviso East High School.

“I can’t wait for Billy to come back. He’s always been Billy. I have never observed anything but real and funny and direct stuff from him,” says Tim Anderson, an artist who lives in Chicago and has known Petersen for more than three decades. “He is exactly the same as he was when I first met him.”

Chris Petersen has a similar opinion and a reason for it: “Billy is still Billy largely because of a Midwest grounding sort of thing and his two families. His family is huge and he stays involved and communicative with as many of us as he can. His second family is Gina’s, this largely Northwest-Side clan, welcoming and diverse. They are all down-to-earth folks and Billy took the time to fit in with them. It wasn’t hard.”

Petersen’s wife is beautiful and the daughter of a Chicago cop. “I was a bachelor for 20 years,” Petersen says. “That just gets so old. What do you do on Sundays, family day, but sit around by yourself and watch sports on TV? Gina and her great family give me more than I could have imagined. I started dating her long before ‘CSI’ and she’s been one of the main reasons I’ve been able to stay grounded.”

So, undoubtedly is his grandson, Mazrik William Della Badia, who was born in 2003. When Maite and her husband, writer Carl Della Badia, lived in L.A. before moving to Boise, they saw a lot of Petersen.

“I never really saw Dad as a kid guy. He wasn’t around much when I was growing up,” says Maite. “But he seemed to love his time with Maz and they’d do something together almost every week, go to a museum, the park, a ballgame.”

There are all sorts of families and they are all happy or sad in their own ways.

A couple of weeks ago, Mendelsohn and Naren Shankar, also a “CSI” lifer, were in the process of writing the final two episodes of Petersen’s regular run on the show when she told me, “Even when we are just talking about these last two episodes, we started to tear up. I know he’s going to still be one of the producers and plans to be in the 200th episode (to be directed by William Friedkin), but such a large part of the success of this show is because of the kind of person he is. There is magic in Billy and Grissom. Everything we did was geared to Billy and he hasn’t changed through any of it. He’s humble, with his head on his shoulders. ... This is very emotional. I am going to miss him terribly.”

But for every L.A. tear there is a Chicago smile and the one on Dennis Zacek’s face is radiant.

“The first time I met (Billy) I knew there was talent and it has been thrilling to watch him grow. He always says he is my protege,” says Zacek, the artistic director of Victory Gardens Theater. “Billy gave the theater $250,000 for trap doors when we moved into the Biograph Theater (in 2006). He never forgets, and I am so happy he’ll be here next year doing this play with us. It is full circle.”

The play is “Blackbird” by Scottish playwright David Harrower, winner of the prestigious Olivier Prize for best new play of 2007. “I looked long and hard to find a play specifically for Billy,” Zacek says. “It is a very controversial show. On the surface it is about a 55-year-old man and a 27-year-old woman who meet 15 years after they have had a sexual encounter. That may seem salacious, she was 12, but it is a complex work. It will be wonderful to work with him again, and he is so good at playing damaged characters.

“There are some movie and TV stars - I will not mention names - who just cannot cut it on stage because they never cut their teeth on stage. With Billy, it is the old bike analogy, you never forget. He hasn’t been spoiled by all the success. He doesn’t need to do this play but he is doing it.”

Taping of Petersen’s last episodes as a regular on “CSI” - Laurence Fishburne will be the new star - finished on Oct. 10. He threw a party for the show’s 200-some staff members. Later that night an estimated 35 million people watched the season premiere, and now he is on his way back to town and to the upstairs theater at Steppenwolf that seats 299 people.

For those of you who wonder what’s in it for him, realize that before all the money and fame and having to hide behind sunglasses and a baseball cap, there was only one thing that mattered: The sound of applause. It was all there was and it was enough.

There are also 299 seats at Victory Gardens Theater and “Blackbird” opens there in July. That’s right in the middle of golf season, a fine time for a rematch, though none of us can remember the outcome the last time we played, that round eight years ago that was so rudely interrupted by a phone call.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/william-petersen-is-leaving-csi-for-the-city-and-the-theater-scene-that-spa/