Fall TV preview: ''CSI'' -- How the crime procedural will solve murders without its ''King,'' William Peterson

Returning Drama
Starts October 9, 9-10PM, CBS

William Petersen has a magnificent trailer. Parked just a few steps from the Universal soundstage where reigning Thursday-night ratings champ CSI is filmed, the 40-foot retreat with leather furniture, custom cabinetry, and a spacious back bedroom is specifically designed to keep Petersen happy — as if such deluxe accommodations (not to mention the distinction of being one of TV’s highest-paid actors) would be enough to keep him probing synthetic corpses for years to come. But it’s not. ”I’ve been an actor for 35 years, nine in [the role of Gil Grissom],” says Petersen, 55. ”I don’t have to die in this role, do I?”

He’s not actually waiting for an answer. Petersen has already decided that episode 10 (airing in January) of CSI‘s upcoming season will mark the end of his run as a series regular. While eager to find new challenges in theater and maybe even cable, Petersen knows his departure may not sit well with the show’s 17 million fans, especially given the high-profile exits of Jorja Fox and Gary Dourdan last season. ”We need to have new life, new blood,” says Petersen, who will retain an executive producer credit on the drama. ”It will be good for the show, and good for the writers, to have new characters. And that will be good for the audience.” Exec producer Naren Shankar tries to be equally reassuring. ”It’s natural for shows to go through change,” he explains. ”The beauty of CSI is that internally, it’s very strong. We’d like to think that as much as the cast has created wonderful characters, the show is the star too. People tune in to mysteries, complex characterizations, plot twists, and great crime solving. That will continue.”

Of course, those Sin City murders don’t solve themselves, which is why the producers made it job one to recruit another marquee star to replace Petersen. Actually, make that someone who’ll follow Petersen, since no one can really replace ”the King” (Petersen’s not-so-ironic nickname on the set). ”It’s not like we’re hiring another person and calling them Gil Grissom,” explains Shankar. ”I think you’re making a terrible mistake when you think of a new character in those terms. ‘We’ll make him exactly like Gil Grissom except he hates bugs!’ We’re not doing that. The new person has to be his own character.”

Since bringing back Liev Schreiber’s Michael Keppler was clearly not an option (”It’s too bad we killed him because he and I could have rotated,” quips Petersen), the producers put out feelers to John Malkovich and Kurt Russell before setting their sights on Laurence Fishburne to play a research pathologist-turned-college professor with an appetite for crime: He’s got the genetic profile of a killer! His yet-to-be-named character will join as an entry-level CSI and work with Grissom in the 9th and 10th episodes. Fishburne, who hasn’t done a regular TV gig since appearing as Cowboy Curtis in Pee-wee’s Playhouse in the late ’80s, admitted to reporters that he felt ”a little stupid and embarrassed that I hadn’t watched the show before. But the episodes they sent to me were really engaging and dark and moody, like a lot of the work I’ve been involved in.”

Lauren Lee Smith (The L Word) will also join the cast in episode 3 as a young and sarcastic CSI named Riley Adams. But perhaps the most noteworthy season 9 addition is a blast from the past. Jorja Fox — whose character, Sara Sidle, walked out on both her job and her engagement to Gil — will return, just 11 months after quitting the show, to help solve the murder of Dourdan’s Warrick Brown. ”Even though I agreed to make myself available in the future, I was surprised to be coming back so soon,” admits Fox, 40, who was vacationing in Costa Rica last March when she received the call to return to CSI. Fox knew that Petersen was negotiating his exit but had no idea that Dourdan was leaving too. ”It was definitely an ‘Are you sitting down?’ phone call. Like, ‘How many rum punches have you had?”’ Since the show was trying to make up for lost time due to the 100-day writers’ strike, Fox headed to set last May to film this season’s first two episodes. Though excited to be back (she’ll appear in another episode this fall), Fox admits that things are way different from how she left Sara in November. ”This is probably the most in the dark I’ve been in the history of my character, even when I did season 1 and there was just a paragraph description,” says Fox. ”We’re very much in uncharted territory.”

That’s because the show has never had to account for the departures of three major characters. Warrick’s tragic arc is wrapped up in the premiere (Dourdan is back for the episode), but Sara still has some personal business to attend to — namely, that Dear John letter she left for Gil before fleeing the lab. As far as Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) and Nick Stokes (George Eads) are concerned, Sara left to visit her mom in San Francisco. Fox is loath to spoil it for fans, but suggests Sara’s relationship with Gil is about to take an unexpected turn. ”There’s definitely more to say about this,” teases Fox. ”When you see the premiere, all bets are off. By the end, everyone’s going to be rethinking their idea of the characters.”

Which brings us back to the million-dollar question facing CSI this season: How will Gil be leaving Las Vegas? Fortunately, death is not an option. ”I didn’t want to get the four-episode brain tumor, the countdown to Grissom’s death,” says Petersen. Unfortunately for Gil/Sara fans, a wedding is unlikely. CSI has never been one to play up the soapy aspects of its characters — the most romantic moment to date was when Sara rubbed goop off Gil’s face in season 2 — so it’s doubtful the show will start now (though we’d gladly settle for more sexual tension between Gil and Melinda Clarke’s Lady Heather, who’ll return in episode 5). ”You cannot try to create what you think the audience wants,” explains Petersen. ”If you try to appease them, it’s gonna feel hollow and false. All we want to do is the right things for the character.” Which are? ”There are important changes happening in Grissom,” Petersen continues. ”He’s solving crimes, he’s trying to deal with losing Sara and Warrick. He’s not someone who’s used to dealing with anything personal. That goes to the heart of what we’re doing right now. Where does he end up?”

Just as important is where exactly CSI ends up once Petersen is gone. Fox, for one, is not so sure she wants to know. ”For me, it’s not going to be the same show,” she says. ”It’ll never be the same again with the loss of Billy. He’s the protagonist, he’s the eyes of the show, all roads start and end with him.” Of course, Petersen doesn’t plan to completely disappear: He’s promised to return for the occasional episode and will still have some input as an executive producer, starting with the 200th episode this spring, which will likely be directed by his good friend William Friedkin. Beyond that, Petersen just can’t say — not that he seems to care. Sitting in his trailer recently while taking a break from shooting, the actor freely acknowledges his great run on CBS but talks of his departure without a trace of sentimentality. ”My decade of helping to create CSI has come to an end,” he says simply. ”If I put another decade in, there won’t be anything else I’ll know how to do. I’m an actor, not an icon.”