Lynette Rice
October 01, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

It’s month two of production on the new season of CSI, and everyone involved is sweating bullets and bugging out. Today’s script calls for the actors to investigate a murder in a house that’s been tented and bombed with insecticide, so dead termites and cockroaches are scattered all over the set — in this case, a private home in a Los Angeles suburb. Meanwhile, the temperature outside just topped 100 degrees, and the director keeps shutting off the air conditioner because it makes too much darn noise.

But that’s not what really has everyone on edge. See, star Billy Petersen is about to give an interview, and when the veteran actor talks, people don’t just listen — they worry. Like last March, when Petersen told Playboy how he thinks his boss, Viacom copresident Leslie Moonves, would make a great guest corpse, or how CBS’ decision to launch the spin-off CSI: Miami would damage the franchise: ”It is the difference between organic chicken and chicken jerky.” With that, Petersen proved he was not someone who was going to toe the company line, no matter how much said company pays him (that is, $500,000 an episode).

Now Petersen’s agreed to talk again. But first, the star takes note of his publicist, producing partner, and assistant, who’ve all suddenly parked themselves just a few feet away. ”See these women?” he says, chuckling. ”They’re sticking close by to hear what I have to say.”

They should be, as the interview is taking place only a month after Petersen’s costars George Eads and Jorja Fox were fired — and then rehired — during an ugly contract dispute. But hey, there has also been a lot of good news for the CSI franchise lately: In May, the unbeatable original finished its fourth season as the No. 1 drama, averaging 25.6 million viewers, and over the summer CSI managed to kill the competition again in reruns (an increasingly rare feat, even for hit TV shows). Meanwhile, production began on a second spin-off, CSI: NY, starring Gary Sinise and Melina Kanakaredes, and in September, CSI launched in syndication on Spike TV. But before we get to all of that, Billy, tell us: How did you find out that George and Jorja had been fired by CBS?

”I read it in Variety,” he snaps. ”[CBS execs] don’t call anybody up! They call the press so they can be the first [to say], ‘This is what I’m doing.’ It’s very George Bush-like. It’s very much like how George and Dick Cheney operate.”

One of the women shifts uncomfortably in her chair. This is going to be a long afternoon.

When CSI wrapped last season, executive producer Carol Mendelsohn gave herself exactly two and a half weeks to rest in peace before thinking about death again. Then she consorted with criminologists and kicked it with some coroners, looking for inspiration for the show’s fifth-season premiere. She ultimately found it in CSI‘s pilot, created by Anthony Zuiker, in which viewers were introduced to the world of forensic medicine through the eyes of Gil Grissom (Petersen) and his new (and soon-to-be-killed) recruit, Holly Gribbs.

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