Trouble for TV's top drama? The ''CSI'' cast tells all -- The show's stars talk about their bumpy salary negotiations and how they'll keep the hit series fresh in season 5

By Lynette Rice
Updated September 24, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

Two months into production on the new season of CSI, star Billy Petersen is about to give an interview. And when the veteran actor talks, people don’t just listen — they worry. Like last March, when Petersen told Playboy how he thinks his boss, Viacom copresident Leslie Moonves, would make a great guest corpse, or how CBS’ decision to launch the spin-off CSI: Miami would damage the franchise: ”It is the difference between organic chicken and chicken jerky.” With that, Petersen proved he was not someone who was going to toe the company line, no matter how much said company pays him (that is, $500,000 an episode).

Now Petersen’s agreed to talk again, just a month after Petersen’s costars George Eads and Jorja Fox were fired — and then rehired — during an ugly contract dispute. But hey, there has also been a lot of good news for the CSI franchise lately: In May, the unbeatable original finished its fourth season as the No. 1 drama, averaging 25.6 million viewers, and over the summer CSI managed to kill the competition again in reruns (an increasingly rare feat, even for hit TV shows). Meanwhile, production began on a second spin-off, CSI: NY, starring Gary Sinise and Melina Kanakaredes, and in September, CSI launched in syndication on Spike TV. But before we get to all of that, Billy, tell us: How did you find out that George and Jorja had been fired by CBS?

”I read it in Variety,” he snaps. ”[CBS execs] don’t call anybody up! They call the press so they can be the first [to say], ‘This is what I’m doing.’ It’s very George Bush-like. It’s very much like how George and Dick Cheney operate.”