William Petersen: Leaving Las Vegas

The 'CSI' star goes from entertaining 21 million people a week to 300

After 192 episodes and countless corpses, William Petersen said goodbye to the CBS hit "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" on Jan. 15. He leaves the show in the capable hands of his cast replacement, Laurence Fishburne, with the series still TV's highest-rated scripted program as it moves through season nine. Petersen chose to leave "CSI," a job that paid him a reported $600,000 per episode, for one that will pay roughly 0.1% of that -- on the Chicago stage, where it all began for the Evanston, Ill., native, who didn't burst on the Hollywood scene until 1985's "To Live and Die in L.A." While he retains his executive producer title on "CSI" and will continue to have a hand in the production (including the occasional guest-starring stint), he's seeking new challenges and a life apart from the weekly series grind.

A few weeks prior to receiving a star on the Walk of Fame, Petersen took time out to discuss his "CSI" past and theatrical future with The Hollywood Reporter's Ray Richmond over breakfast at one of his favorite haunts, Cafe Du Village in Larchmont Village.

The Hollywood Reporter: Let's talk about the timing of your departure from "CSI." Why now?

William Petersen: This had been coming for years. The decision wasn't made overnight. I'd been talking to our showrunners about the best way to play it all out. Mostly, I just wanted to do it right. And I feel like we did. We've left the show in great shape. But it was time for me to go -- to get back to the theater and use a different set of acting muscles.

THR: I assume you're not doing this for the money.

Petersen: (Laughs) No. I'll be going from playing in front of 21 million people every week to 300. Part of it is I just don't want the exposure anymore. It's too many cameras too much of the time throughout the day and year. At some point, you're the character you're playing more of the time than you are yourself. It's like, how long do I want to be this other person? Nine years is enough. It also just got awfully comfortable. I was paid a ridiculous amount of money. I could get my hours reduced if I wanted to. I could take a week off. It was all on my terms. I had a lot of opportunity to live a comfortable life, and that's what scared me.

THR: How so?

Petersen: I started to feel like I wasn't an aggressive actor anymore. I'd stopped reading books. It's just a level of lethargy. That's what had crept into my work. I admitted to the crew I was leaving because it had all become too safe. It's about challenging myself again. This job had run its course.

THR: So now you go back to Chicago and become a struggling actor again.

Petersen: Well, not exactly. I'm already set up to do a two-person play called "Blackbird" at the Victory Gardens Theater next July and August. Then the following spring I'm pretty sure I'll be doing another play that I can't announce yet. I'll do a play about every six months for the immediate future and then see how things go from there. It's good to get back into the theater. It had been a long time.

THR: What is it about being on stage that's so fulfilling?

Petersen: The theater is a lot more immediate and intimate. You go up there and tell your story. The story's over. You leave. You're done. You don't have to worry about carrying around the character with you all the time. Not that TV is unsatisfying. You get in and you shoot. Stuff goes on the air. You're always moving. We'd shoot eight pages in a day. In film, you can wait around all day long to do one thing. It can bore you to death.

THR: You've had great success in all three mediums, but you always seem to have had this take-it-or-leave-it mentality that few actors can get away with.

Petersen: I was lucky to have great producer-directors like Billy Friedkin and Michael Mann in my corner from the start. They had recruited me to come to L.A. and do "Live and Die in L.A." and "Manhunter" while I was still doing stage in Chicago. Then they went to bat for me and protected me. But it wasn't like I had this great desire to be in the movies. It was fun, but I didn't commit to even living in L.A. the first eight years I was here. I didn't even have an agent for my first four pictures.

THR: Seriously?

Petersen: Oh, yeah. Being in the movies was nice, but I never set out to be a movie star. The money and the fame have always just sort of gotten in the way. The great thing is, I've had a real run at all three mediums and to participate in them in a meaningful way. It's triggered me creatively and been rewarding artistically on many levels. I feel like now, at 55 years old, I can do anything. It isn't because the money gives me so much freedom. It's that the experience has given me confidence.

THR: You've never seemed to lack confidence. The word is you turned down a role in Oliver Stone's "Platoon" (1986) because you preferred to do an HBO baseball flick called "Long Gone" with Virginia Madsen.

Petersen: That's true. Oliver met with me and explained it was going to be six weeks in Thailand of playing Army games beforehand and wouldn't be much money. I thought, "Hmmmm ... I could play baseball in Tampa and have a hot blonde in my life ... or I could sit in a ditch with Willem Dafoe getting muddy." It wasn't that tough a decision. I also had a chance to be in "Wall Street" (1987), but Oliver wanted me to screen test, and I didn't.

THR: Weren't you up for a role in "Goodfellas" (1990), too?

Petersen: Yeah. I got flown in to New York to have lunch with Marty Scorsese. They weren't sure if De Niro was going to be available for their shooting schedule. That didn't work out. But my attitude in this town has always been that I'd rather have control of my life than be in anything. I'd rather say "No" and have it be my "No." You can control your own destiny. It can be done.

THR: Is there any role you were disappointed not to get?

Petersen: Only one. I did a screen test with Robert Zemeckis for "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" (1988). It was between me and Bob Hoskins and maybe one other guy. Bob was terrific in it. We wound up playing brothers together in a movie called "Passed Away" (1992).

THR: With the success of "CSI," I'll bet it's hard to go out incognito.

Petersen: There's nobody who doesn't recognize me now. That's the worst part of what "CSI" brought to my life. I can wear hats, disguises -- it doesn't matter. They always know it's me, and it happens in the strangest places at the strangest times.

THR: Such as?

Petersen: Tahiti. This was in 2004, after our fourth season. My wife and I landed in Tahiti, then on to Bora Bora and took a boat to this little resort. We headed to this hut where the bar was. It's the middle of the afternoon. We walk across the sand into this tiny place with a thatched roof. There's two Tahitians behind the bar. No one else in the joint. They turn and look at me, and at the same time they both shout, "Grissom!" I'd gone as far away from civilization as I could, and the first two people I meet know me.

THR: Except for the resulting lack of privacy, would you say that "CSI" has been a blessing in your life?

Petersen: No question. It was, for me, a true collaborative experience, like the kind you find in the theater. We were a dysfunctional yet very functional family. I leave it with no regrets.

THR: You aren't really entirely gone, since you're retaining your producer title.

Petersen: Whatever that means. I think my job now will be to see that the writers and actors are in sync. I might start looking at some scripts down the road. But right now, I'm just going to take time off. I'm going to Mexico for a week, then to Europe in April to just hang. I don't start rehearsals on the play until June.

THR: How closely have you followed the SAG contract situation?

Petersen: I'm a huge "Membership First" guy. It seems to me that all of the artists in all of the unions and guilds are getting screwed. What we're losing in the SAG contract is the middle class -- those who want to be actors and won't make much money but want to stick with it anyway. The studios and companies, meanwhile, get to have it both ways. They've got their $100 million movies where they pay Brad and Tom $20 million and everyone else works for scale. Then those who make the indie movies don't pay anybody anything. You're supposed to make 28 cents for the honor of working with Gus Van Sant. But the company behind, say, "Milk," winds up making a ton. The whole thing is a shell game, a con, and the actors are the ones who wind up getting jobbed.

THR: Does this have anything to do with why you've left "CSI" now?

Petersen: Actually, yes. I'm one of the fortunate ones, obviously. But when you have to live in that mentality of how the town works for so long, there's a need to get back to the simpler things. I also feel somewhat sated artistically. I don't know that I'd have to be doing anything four or five years from now. I'm just really happy to have gone out when I decided to rather than when they told me to. It makes all the difference in the world.