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October 29, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT


Gary Sinise has starred in such films as Apollo 13 and Forrest Gump, for which he earned an Oscar nomination. He is the acclaimed director of 1992’s Of Mice and Men, and he cofounded the famed Chicago theater group Steppenwolf. But only now, as the star of CBS’ CSI: NY, is the 49-year-old actor facing one of the greatest challenges of his two-decade career: ”At the beginning, putting on plastic gloves was very hard,” Sinise says with a mischievous grin. ”But I’ve gotten very good at it.” His mastery of glove donning has been very good news for CBS and for its second CSI clone: NY, which averages 18.5 million viewers a week, has defied all early punditry by decimating Law & Order in its Wednesdays at 10 p.m. time slot.

Sinise is the latest in a line of film supporting actors who’ve finally found success as leading men — on television. ”There was a time when I thought [film fame] was important,” says Sinise, who, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, projects a boyishness that is the antithesis of his CSI persona. ”It was, ‘Why didn’t I get that part?’ and it was, ‘Well, you’re not famous enough.’ I thought, ‘God, I guess I need to get a bigger name.”’

But over the past few years, as the film offers got ”kind of lean,” Sinise avers that he made peace with his career arc. It’s easy to believe: The actor is far more mellow and forthcoming than he was eight years ago, when he was trying to capitalize on Forrest Gump‘s success. That doesn’t mean he made it easy on CBS when negotiating for the role of Mac Taylor, a terse investigator haunted by the death of his wife on 9/11. Says CSI creator Anthony Zuiker of the drawn-out talks: ”I was having a nervous breakdown.”

CBS first approached Sinise in February, after Andy Garcia and Ray Liotta passed on the role. ”I wasn’t thinking about settling down and playing the same character,” Sinise says. But he was charmed by Zuiker, who assured the actor that unlike David Caruso’s character on CSI: Miami and William Petersen’s on the original, Taylor’s personality would be as important as the cases he solved. Still, charm only goes so far: Six weeks later, Sinise hadn’t signed on even as the show was in preproduction. The actor’s issues were ”about deal points,” says CBS president Les Moonves, ”but they were also about his quality of life. One of the things he wanted was to [film] in the Valley so that he could get to his kids faster at the end of the day.” CBS conceded, and in April, Zuiker remembers, ”Gary called and said, ‘Buddy, we’re going to give this a whirl.’ I almost started crying.”

But several episodes in, Zuiker had to renege on one of the crucial selling points, informing Sinise that CBS was far less interested in character development than in mystery solving. Unlike his colleagues over at CSI who make a drama out of oversleeping, Sinise was nothing but gracious. ”I think in my subconscious I knew,” he says. ”You can’t suddenly throw a brand-new version of CSI out there and hope it flies. You have to rely on the blueprint that makes those other two shows work, which is one of the reasons I decided to do it in the first place. It was walking into a known commodity.”

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