‘CSI’ Goes Off the Beaten Path With Robert David Hall

“CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” goes off the beaten path with an its episode coming up Feb. 5, titled “De Los Muertos.” “It’s definitely unusual,” reports the series’ Robert David Hall. “It’s not your typical spotless morgue and, you know, all of the highfaluting scientific stuff we do.”

De Los MuertosThe storyline also shows a different, more personal side to Hall’s coroner character, Dr. Al Robbins, as he must head down to Mexico to autopsy the teenage daughter of a wealthy friend. She has died in what may or may not have been a cocaine overdose. With the good doc is Nick Stokes (George Eads). “He provides the muscle,” says Hall. “He really shines in the episode.

“It just turned into a really special thing. Our production people blew me away — they built this amazing-looking Mexican morgue,” he says.
East L.A. locations doubled for the Mexican border town where the action takes place. Hall says he’s never enjoyed working with a guest actor more than he did Julio Oscar Mechoso, who plays Doc Robbins’ south-of-the-border counterpart.

“It felt so good while I was doing it. You want to keep your fingers crossed,” he says. “Maybe some good things will come out of it. Tom Mularz, one of our younger writers, wrote this script. It’s exhilarating.”

The fact that Hall could still find “CSI” duty exhilarating is indicative of the series’ remarkable retention of quality over its 14 years — a particularly unusual feat in this era of disposable television.

“I think there is going to be a next year, too — 15 years — which is pretty exciting,” he tells us. Nothing is official, but Hall surmises that Ted Danson wants to come back, as well as Elisabeth Shue.

Hall admits that, had he been told back when “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” began, that it would last 15 years, “I would have thought someone was on drugs to say that.”

The major changes through the years — most obviously, the cast changes that could have sunk the show — wound up giving it fresh life, acknowledges Hall. “Even though Laurence Fishburne was only with us two and a half years, he made a huge impact. And then when Ted and Elisabeth came on, they got it immediately — Ted especially.

“I think the casting changes we made came from a strong place rather than a desperation place,” Hall observes. “You go with what works, but you have to push the envelope a little bit.”

He’s watched original “CSI” leading lady Marg Helgenberger’s new series, “Intelligence” and enjoys it. “She’s as lovely or more lovely than ever. She does a great job,” he says. And of ex-leading man William Peterson, he says, “Billy’s doing a play here in Los Angeles in February,” and he’s looking forward to it.

They don’t stay in close touch. “We all have our own lives,” is how Hall puts it. “I’ve spoken to Billy once or twice and I see Marg on occasion — but we care. We spent a lot of time together. You wish them well.”

Another change for Hall: “After 15 years I finally retired as the head of the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA Performers With Disabilities Committee. It was time for some new blood. But since SAG and AFTRA merged, I’m there for whatever they need vis a vis disability issues. I’m still on the board of the National Organization on Disability in New York City, one of the largest disability advocacy organizations in the country.”

Hall’s prosperous and well-respected career transcends the fact he is a double amputee. (In 1978, an 18-wheel truck crushed his car and his legs had to be amputated after the accident, which also caused burns over 65 per cent of his body.)

Has he seen improvement for actors with disabilities in the industry? “In some ways, sure,” says Hall. “But I think there’s still a large disparity in employment for people with disabilities — qualified people with disabilities — so, as long as that’s the case, we’ll have to keep working on it. You have to stay at the table. As soon as you walk away, you slide backwards.”

Now, he points out, there is an influx of newly-disabled veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — and that adds a new urgency to the efforts to open doors of opportunity. He is hoping that the disability community can move forward against discrimination as have the gay community and people of color.

“If someone says, ‘He’s disabled,’ I’m okay with that, because I think I’m professional and good at what I do, and I want other people to get the same opportunities I’ve had,” says Hall, who is also a husband — he married wife Judy in 1999 — and father to grown-up son Andrew.

Hall, who recently filmed a movie called “Rock Story” with Eric Roberts, playing the congressman husband of Joyce DeWitt, looks forward to doing more movies and plays “when ‘CSI’ is finally over.” He also has the musical side of his career, with live performances and his lively and listenable Americana album, “Things they don’t teach you in school” (cq) of 2010, and another album in the works.

But for right now, “I am so excited about this episode on February 5th. I think people will see Dr. Robbins in a different light.” After 14 years, that’s saying something.