Here's a recently shot scene from an upcoming episode of CSI. The setting: a somber courtroom, where a prominent Nevada congressman stands accused of a beautiful young woman's murder. In the front row sits Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger), sheathed in a low-cut blouse and tight pants. Hmmm...upon examining the evidence, there appears nothing out of the ordinary here. But wait, someone's moving into the witness box to testify about the case... Uh, is that Morpheus from The Matrix wearing a pinstripe suit and tie?
Yes, something is definitely off with TV's most popular drama. What's missing, of course, is William Petersen, a.k.a. Gil Grissom a character so beloved by his audience that CSI, nine seasons in, is still the No. 1 scripted show on television, averaging 21.3 million viewers per week. Petersen, however, is now living some 1,700 miles away in Chicago, where he's resumed a career as a theater actor, playing to audiences of only 300 people. With his final CSI episode set to air Jan. 15 on CBS, Petersen is saying goodbye to the show and character that made him very, very famous and very, very rich. For nine years, he's had it all. And that was exactly the problem. ''The reason I'm leaving is because I'm afraid I'm becoming too comfortable,'' says Petersen. ''It's CSI they pay me a lot of money, and I don't have to work very hard anymore. I've got it all figured out. And I just realized, God, as an artist, I'm going to atrophy. You do anything for nine years, it becomes somewhat rote. I didn't want to be on the show because they were paying me money and I liked the money. I didn't want to be on the show because it saved me from having to go look for other jobs. Just didn't want it. It was too safe for me at this point. So I needed to try and break that, and the way to do that, for me, is the theater.''
NEXT PAGE: ''I won't miss Grissom. And I hope that the audience won't miss him either.''