Billy Petersen, who started in Chicago theatre, wanted a playwright on the CSI staff. To get some candidates, he called friends who were running the Geffen Playhouse, where God’s Man in Texas had been produced. They gave him three names. The first two were Pulitzer winners who (so I heard) didn’t want to drive the 30 miles north of L.A. to the studios where CSI was filmed. I, however, had a full tank and made the drive. It was the beginning of a thrill ride few writers ever get to experience.
My first episode was a freelance, “Butterflied.” For six weeks, executive producer Carol Mendelsohn let me come to the studio every day to observe production. Every meeting, every department was open to me. It was generous of her, and wise.
I didn’t feel comfortable in the writers room at first: everyone knew what they were doing, and I struggled to think of ideas to pitch that weren’t either derivative and predictable or too arty and poetic. So I didn’t talk much. Naren Shankar and Eli Talbert broke the “Butterflied” story with me in the room contributing more seasoning that steak.
My first draft was 15 pages too long. I overheard Carol and Naren: “He’s obviously a good writer, but it’s a mess.” The rewrite was arduous: five intense, twelve-hours days locked with Carol in her office along with Anthony Zuiker, the creator of CSI. Director Richard Lewis, popped in from pre-production with his ideas, including the one that gave the episode its emotional depth: to use an actress as the dead girl who was a doppelganger for Jorja Fox, who played Billy’s secret love interest on the series. When the episode aired, it was the number one show of the week (a not infrequent occurrence for CSI). Fans sent flowers to me to show appreciation. One of the other CSI writers grumbled, “Nobody else ever got flowers.” I not only got the flowers, I got a new career. And I learned how to write a TV show.
For seven high-flying seasons I was part of the number one show on television. It’s still the most popular show in the world. Executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer demanded feature-quality film every week, and we had a fantastic (and challenging) time doing it.
In addition to the iconic regular cast, I worked with legendary movie directors Quentin Tarantino, William Friedkin and Martha Coolidge, and award-winning actors such as Laurence Fishburne, Faye Dunaway, Liev Schreiber, Robert Guillaume, Tippi Hedren, Tim Conway, Jennifer Tilly, as well as Broadway stars Bill Irwin, Anita Gillette, Len Cariou, Faith Prince, and Harriet Harris… so many others.
When my contract was up, I felt the need to grow beyond the crime lab and procedurals. CSI would go on years, and if I wanted to have a long career, it was time to try something different. Five years later, I was delighted to be asked back as consulting producer on the two-part series finale, titled “Immortality,” working in the room with CSI creator Anthony Zuiker, who wrote the script, and co-EP Liz Devine. It was a perfect way to honor the series that gave me so much.
With CSI creator Anthony Zuiker, co-EP Liz Devine and assistant Jack Gutowitz in the series finale (“Immortality”) writers room.
David is the writer and executive producer of “Dolly Parton’s Mountain Magic Christmas” coming to NBC this holiday season.
David is on the committee raising funds for The Hollywood Arts Collective, 151 units of affordable housing for artists in the heart of Hollywood. Learn more and donate at https://entertainmentcommunity.org/HAC