William Petersen: From ISU to CSI
Spring 2010 Issue | By Chris Gabettas
For nine years, actor William Petersen portrayed Gil Grissom, the bearded and brainy forensic entomologist on the hit CBS crime drama, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
Before leaving the show in January 2009, Petersen had been nominated for a Golden Globe award, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and, according to Entertainment Weekly, was one of the highest paid actors on television, reportedly earning $600,000 an episode.
“Grave Danger”– The CSIs are in a desperate race against time to save a member of their team who has been kidnapped and buried alive, on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Pictured here are Marg Helgenberger and William Petersen. Photo: Robert Voets
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Ensemble members William Petersen and Ian Barford rehearse for Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of Endgame. Photo by Mark Campbell
It’s quite the resumé for a man who never intended to be an actor. He thought he might try politics or college football—until he spent a year at Idaho State University 37 years ago.
He lived in a small apartment across the street from a muffler warehouse. His favorite watering hole was the Syndicate Lounge, and he remembers streaking across the Quad with his buddies, tailed by campus police.
He liked ISU a lot and admired university president William E. “Bud” Davis.
“I campaigned for Bud when he ran for the U.S. Senate,” says Petersen, explaining how their paths crossed.
It was the summer of 1972. Davis—on leave from his presidential duties at ISU—and his campaign trust were looking for ways to mobilize Idaho’s young voters, particularly the new crop of 18-year-olds who would be eligible to vote in November’s general election.
They came up with the idea of the Great Idaho Pedal, a 1,000-mile bicycle trip from Bonners Ferry to Bear Lake, and recruited four graduates of Boise’s Bishop Kelly High School. Petersen was one of them.
Carrying backpacks and campaign literature, they rode their 10-speeds for seven weeks, dropping in on radio stations and newspapers throughout the state, helping Davis seal the Democratic nomination.
“We showed up at county fairs — we even rode to the state Democratic convention in Sun Valley. It was great fun,” says Petersen.
Davis, now living in New Mexico, says he even saw evidence of Petersen’s “star” quality back then: a good-looking teenager with curly hair and big smile, who helped capture the elusive female vote.
“If I had been elected, I would have wanted Billy to go to Washington with me,” says Davis, who lost to Republican James McClure in the general election that November.
William Petersen and others rehearse for a drama while Petersen attended Idaho State University. Photo by ISU Photographic Services
“Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda” – Gil Grissom (William Petersen) finds a disturbing creation on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Photo: Sonja Flemming
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“My losing that campaign ended his political career and undoubtedly propelled Billy to an entirely new life,” says Davis.
“Had Bud won, I probably would’ve gone with him,” says Petersen.
After the general election, Davis returned to ISU to resume his presidential duties, and Petersen followed in fall 1973.
“They’d built the Mini Dome and I wanted to play football, but I needed to improve my grades,” says Petersen.
At the suggestion of friends, including theater professor Chick Bilyeu (whom he’d met on the Davis campaign), Petersen signed up for a few theater classes in hopes of boosting his grade-point average.
He enjoyed his classes, the camaraderie within the department, and soon gave up the idea of playing football.
“Before it was sports and politics. Now I had a new love,” he says.
Peterson made $3 an hour as auditorium manager; he preferred working behind-the-scenes and leaving the higher-profile theater work to other students.
“I never intended to be an actor. I wanted to be a stage manager,” says Petersen.
Then, as a favor to a classmate he agreed to play Andy Hobart in a student production of Neil Simon’s Star Spangled Girl and took on the role of Sir Hubert Insdale in the musical comedy On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, directed by Bilyeu.
“Chick talked me into doing On a Clear Day. I had to sing with three other guys. I was completely freaked,” says Petersen.
After two semesters, Petersen left ISU, traveled to Spain to study Basque culture and perform Shakespeare’s Hamlet. When he returned to Idaho, he took on odd jobs — logging and working at a Boise truck stop — while performing in local theater.
Impressed by the vibrant theater scene in 1970s’ Chicago, he moved to the Windy City and co-founded the Remains Theatre Ensemble with a group of actors.
The 1980s began Petersen’s foray into films, starring as a rogue Secret Service agent in William Friedkins’ To Live and Die in L.A., and as an FBI agent in the first Hannibal Lecter film, Manhunter, directed by Michael Mann.
In 1999, the creators of the new crime drama CSI approached him to play the role of the show’s protagonist, who would be the lead investigator and supervisor of the Clark Country crime lab in Las Vegas.
Petersen thought the idea sounded interesting, especially in light of the O.J. Simpson trial, which had whetted the public appetite for forensics and the science behind crime-busting.
“I think we were all shocked when the show became a hit. We knew it would be good, but didn’t think it would be such a huge hit,” says Petersen, who also served as a show producer and named Gil Grissom after one of the original NASA Project Mercury astronauts Gus Grissom.
As for his decision to leave in 2009, he says, “I’d done everything. There was really no place for the character to go,” though he confirms discussions for a CSI movie on the big screen are in the works and he will likely reprise Grissom.
Currently, he’s back to his first love, performing live theater in Chicago. In April, he opened in a two-month run of Samuel Beckett’s End Game, performing with the renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
Petersen congratulates Theatre ISU on its 80th anniversary and says he’s often asked if he has advice for young actors.
“I tell them ‘do what you have to do to make it work, carve out a plan moment to moment, find a way to get there. Figure out a way to make it happen. If you don’t, you’ll do something else, like become a dentist, and that’s just fine,’” he says.