Laurence Fishburne steps in to save CBS' top-rated series ‘CSI'

Rick Bentley
CSI - 9 p.m. EST Thursday - CBS
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

LOS ANGELES - After Jan. 15, Gil Grissom's bug-studying, evidence-sorting, murder-solving ways come to an end on "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." William Petersen, who has played Grissom since the CBS series launched in 2000, leaves the series with little pomp and circumstances.

The loss of the show's central star could have sent shivers through the show's creators, producers and a few network executives. It has been a great ratings run with Petersen. But there are no guarantees viewers will keep the procedural show top rated with such a big hole in the cast.

Here's a television tip: The best way to plug a big hole is with a megastar.

Enter Laurence Fishburne. The man who put the cool in "The Matrix" and the smarts in "Akeelah and the Bee" will become the show's central star.

Executive producer Carol Mendelsohn says when you have an actor of the caliber of Fishburne, there's no reason to worry.

"It has been a pure joy and so exciting for us," says Mendelsohn during an interview on the set of the CBS show. "When Laurence agreed to do the show you could see every member of the crew and the writers patting themselves on the back and doing a little dance because we must be doing something right."

Sure, Fishburne is one of the top box-office draws in the film world, even if all you were to look at is his work in "The Matrix" trilogy. But it's still a lot of pressure on any actor to expect him or her to keep a network's top-rated show from losing viewers.

That's the kind of thing that could make a person nervous. Fishburne's response to whether or not he is feeling any pressure is to the point.

"No," Fishburne says in the kind of commanding voice that invites no further discussion. He was invited to be part of the cast and has been welcomed with open arms.

Who wouldn't greet Fishburne warmly? He's an imposing figure, even seated in a chair in the Las Vegas Police Department set on the Universal Studios lot. He's cordial, often bordering on friendly. He's also confident, in control and very cool about the profession he has embraced since 1972.

"CSI" needs Fishburne more than he needs "CSI." Despite having the edge, it didn't take a lot to convince Fishburne to take on the weekly role.

"I heard how wonderful the ensemble was. How wonderful the crew was from (executive producers) Carol (Mendelsohn) and Naren (Shankar) when we first met in New York six months ago. I heard what a well-oiled machine the crew was. You could pretty much see from any of the advertisement for 'CSI' this ensemble was very, very close knit and really solid," Fishburne says. "The good news is that everything I have heard is true. This is a wonderful family of people who have been doing a wonderful job of storytelling. It has been a very harmonious kind of a meeting of old and new."

Fishburne is no stranger to television. His small-screen work ranges from the iconic Cowboy Curtis on "Pee-wee's Playhouse" to guest spots on "M*A*S*H," "Miami Vice" and "Hill Street Blues."

Even so, there's a big difference between having a one-shot role to being the star of a weekly TV series with more scientific jargon than an MIT mixer. Having to turn out a new show every week can be a grind.

"I have heard a lot of people talk about this grind of series television. I have not seen it yet," Fishburne says.

Petersen's departure after this week's episode doesn't mean Grissom will be gone forever. Fishburne jokes that Petersen told him he would be back just to make sure "I did not burn the joint down."

Fishburne's casting on "CSI" does more than just add a big name to the cast. Network television has been a near-wasteland when it comes to blacks in major roles. Fishburne understands the importance of his casting to the racial landscape, but he doesn't think it was the reason he was offered the role.

"The good news is I was asked to join this company because of my intelligence and because of my gifts of an actor. For that I am extremely grateful. The fact that I happen to be a man of color is ... I like to think of it as a bonus," Fishburne says.

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