Can Laurence Fishburne save CSI and make the case for black leading men on network TV?
LOS ANGELES, Calif. -- Months ago, when I asked Laurence Fishburne whether joining the cast of CSI might help TV networks reverse network TV’s really bad track record on featuring actors of color in starring roles, he couldn’t say.
Now, after weeks of filming and days before he will take the lead of the highest-rated fictional show on network television, Fishburne has an answer. And it comes straight from the president of CBS.
“It’s the question I asked (CBS TV president) Les Moonves when I agreed to take the job,” said Fishburne, an Oscar-nominated actor (The Matrix, What’s Love Got to Do With It) who will be the first black man to lead one of CBS’s hit CSI franchises when star William Petersen appears in his last show tonight.
“As I said to you back then, I hadn’t really stopped to think about it . . . but the response I got from Les was (think about) Dennis Haysbert on The Unit. The good news is that I was asked to join this company because of my intelligence and my gifts as an actor. The fact that I happen to be a man of color -– well, I like to think of it as a bonus . . . in the way I think of the man who will become our president.”
As his distinctive baritone rumbles across the room, the assorted producers and CBS executives packed onto the forensic crime drama’s set for a Monday press conference look almost giddy at the prospect of having such a well-known name join the cast just when they need him most.
Petersen’s quirky, paternal forensic technician Gil Grissom walks into the sunset tonight, taking the linchpin of CBS’s most successful series with him. Despite pulling a salary that made him one of TV’s highest paid actors, Petersen’s frustration with playing the same character for eight years was widely known, so his decision to leave the show was a surprise to almost no one.
Donated by companies who value an episode as free publicity for their $500,000 machines, the devices may feed the “CSI effect” in which average citizens expect forensics to be employed too often and too quickly for routine crimes. But producers insist the gadgetry also makes science a little more cool for kids and other viewers, leading to more forensics courses established at colleges and a spread of scientific techniques.
But it's Fishburne who the cast and crew hope will keep fans glued to the set during one of the most-watched leading man switches of the year. Just ask Liz Vassey, a Tampa-raised TV veteran (Maximum Bob, The Tick) who now plays Wendy Simms on the show.
"I’m talent struck by Laurence . . . it’s like somebody didn’t tell him he’s Laurence Fishburne," she said. "He cares about people on a level you don’t experience with a lot of actors. It’s as if he has perspective. He takes the skill seriously and the job seriously, but he doesn’t take himself seriously . . . You can tell there’s a lot going on in his head."