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'CSI's' 'Professor' Fishburne Has A Lot to Learn

By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Laurence Fishburne is thrilled to be joining the cast of CBS's "CSI," a TV series he'd never been interested in enough to watch, to play a character he doesn't seem to know much of anything about, including the name. The Oscar-nominated actor is supposed to start shooting early next month.

And it was news to Fishburne that taking this role to sorta, kinda replace William Petersen as the lead actor on one of the country's most-watched series would be a rare instance of a minority lead actor cast in a television drama series.

Presumably, he knows how much he'll be making to replace Petersen, who reportedly was one of the best-paid actors working in TV, in the new role that right now is being called just "The Professor."

We're guessing Fishburne's agent also spelled out for him how important the procedural crime drama is to the health of CBS as, with an average audience of about 17 million, it is the network's most watched series. Petersen, who has headlined the show since its debut in October 2000, asked to bow out this coming season, though CBS programming chief Nina Tassler said last month we will not have seen the last of his character on the show.

Fishburne is supposed to make his debut on the upcoming season's ninth episode, which, the producers said yesterday, they had on their books for mid-December. But you and I know CBS would never waste an episode like that on December, and a publicist doused that flame at the end of a news conference call, saying no date had been set for the transition. So expect it to happen in early '09.

So, early yesterday CBS staged this news conference call with The Reporters Who Cover TV to herald the bit of casting and, taking a page from the "How to Undo Spoilers" book of information management, to mostly un-say what Tassler told the news media about the character when she addressed the summer TV press tour weeks earlier.

Fishburne, meanwhile, was on the call, mostly giving out big stage laughs -- hahaHA! -- being extremely affable, and sounding clueless.

At Thank God We're Still Working Summer TV Press Tour 2008, Tassler said the new character -- the one we now know will be played by Fishburne -- "is an outsider coming into the CSI unit. He comes in not immediately as the boss, but he has an interesting genetic profile that in certain sort of medical contexts, they've noticed that many times serial killers have that same genetic profile."

She said, "This gentleman knows this about himself and is sort of on this journey . . . to discover who is his true character."

Naturally, reporters on this call wanted more details on this juicy bit of character development.

One reporter asked Fishburne how he would play someone with the same genetic profile as many serial killers.

"Well, let me just say, I have no knowledge of such a biological profile, nor would I be at liberty to discuss it if there were such a biological profile," Fishburne said in response to one such question. "I'm really excited I'm going to be joining this team. We have a lot of stuff to work out," he said, including "what's the character's name?"

Show executive producers Carol Mendelsohn and Naren Shankar took issue with a reference by a reporter to the whole "genetic" profile/serial-killer thing. The media had "misreported" that information, Shankar said. "It's nothing as simple as 'he's got the genes of a serial killer,' because there is no such thing."

Happily, one of the reporters, the Philadelphia Daily News's Ellen Gray, pounced on that like a piranha on raw meat, noting they had with perfect accuracy reported what Tassler had told them last month.

The producers apologized.

According to CBS's announcement, from which a whole lot more information was gleaned than from the conference call, Fishburne will play "a former pathologist who is now working as an itinerant college lecturer, teaching a course in criminalistics. His focus is on understanding criminal behavior, how and why people commit acts of violence -- tendencies he disturbingly sees within himself."

In the course of a murder investigation, "The Professor" meets the CSI team and "ultimately joins the Las Vegas Crime Lab as a Level-1 [i.e., lower-ranking] CSI," CBS explained.

One month ago, Tassler said the new character "doesn't come in at the beginning as the head of the unit. He comes in [as] an outsider, someone who is ultimately going to work his way up within the team and ultimately become the head of the unit."

During yesterday's phone call, however, when a reporter asked if Fishburne's character will head the team, Mendelsohn began to tap-dance:

"We're in the process of creating the character, but the initial first blush, we thought that it was so interesting to have our new CSI come in as a CSI-1 . . . someone knowledgeable in their own right . . . someone who hasn't been to a lot of crime scenes," she responded.

Of course, you and I know CBS isn't going to shell out the kind of bucks it takes to get Fishburne so that he can play a newbie on the team for very long.

Asked whether he is a fan of the "CSI" franchise, Fishburne said, "I am now."

"To be perfectly frank, I said to Naren and Carol when we met here in New York I felt a little stupid and embarrassed that I hadn't watched the show prior to having a meeting with them."

But, not stupid or embarrassed enough to sit down and watch an episode first.

However, he reported that when they sent him episodes, he did, in fact, watch them. "[The episodes] were really, really engaging, and really wonderful, and kind of dark and moody, like the work I've actually been involved in. And I thought . . . 'Wow! This will work!' . . . So I'm very excited."

In its announcement, CBS reminded reporters that Fishburne became a star for playing the lead role in John Singleton's "Boyz N the Hood," snagged an Academy Award nomination for his role in "What's Love Got to Do With It" and played Morpheus in "The Matrix" and its sequels. More recently, CBS added, Fishburne was nominated for a 2008 Tony Award and won a Drama Desk Award and Outer Critics Circle Award for his starring role in the Broadway production of "Thurgood."

But, in the extensive bio, the network forgot to mention he'd already worked on another CBS series, the kids' show "Pee-wee's Playhouse." Its star Pee-wee Herman, a.k.a. Paul Reubens, caused the network some embarrassment when he was arrested for indecent exposure.

Happily, Fishburne did not forget, and as the network had forgotten to prep him not to mention the show CBS would rather forget about, he did mention it. To wit, he said this will be his first regular work on a TV series since the '80s, when he noted he was on the "wonderful" show "where I played the psychedelic Cowboy Curtis." You could hear the reporters smiling.

One columnist asked Fishburne to comment on the fact his hiring makes him one of the highest-profile actors of color on television -- an industry not noted for on-air diversity.

"I have to really sort my feelings," Fishburne said. "It's the first time anybody's mentioned it to me."

The columnist asked if he could give Fishburne his phone number so that once he'd sorted out his feelings on the subject, the actor could tell him what they were.

"No," Fishburne responded pleasantly. "Don't worry about it -- I'll let you know."

A giggly female reporter wondered whether working on "CSI" would improve Fishburne's investigative skills off the show, like figuring out "who stole the milk" at home -- generally not of concern once you have stopped having roommates, you know, like when you get out of college.

"Maybe. We'll find out," Fishburne said -- and props to him for resisting the urge to scream.

"Okay -- awesome!" the reporter gushed.

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