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Maybe crime does pay

The success of 'CSI' has brought big changes to its creator.

January 06, 2003|Michael E. Hill | Washington Post

The humble times weren't that long ago in the life of Anthony Zuiker. The nights spent hosting tram rides on the graveyard shift at a Las Vegas hotel. The days of back pain when he lugged bags as a bellhop.

The days right out of college when operating a Teletype machine at a brokerage firm was the best work he could find.

The time spent whipping up advertising billboard ideas for various Vegas concerns -- such as the one featuring three inflatable female dolls and the legend "Picking Up Airheads Just Got Easier," sold to a sex-novelty shop for $500.

Surely there would be better days.

And there have been better days. The young man who always displayed a persuasive way with words has gone from tram host to television mogul in less than a decade. At the age of 34, he's the creator and executive producer of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and its new companion piece, "CSI: Miami."

His huge success may not have been easy, but it has surely been sudden.

"My stepfather, David, would always tell me, when I was 14, 15, 16, that I was a good letter-writer," recalled Anthony Zuiker. "It first began when I was 15 years old and wrote a poem for a barber in Las Vegas to get his girlfriend back. And it worked! Suddenly, it's free haircuts for a year!"

Zuiker tells the story the way he tells all his stories, with enthusiasm, a bit of body language and an energy surge that says there's a yarn inside about to burst forth. "I soon became known as the guy that can write letters and get anything."

Zuiker wrote them for his stepfather, a maitre d', to get a design change in a piece of table-side, hot-food serving ware that was setting guests on fire. Soon he was getting $300 to write them for executives. At 19, he recalled, he could turn out letters that sounded like the work of a 35-year-old professional.

This talent took root in high school when Zuiker became interested in forensics, almost by mistake. "In high school I competed in forensics," he said. "Not medicine, but debate. I thought it was about 'Quincy.' I walk in and it has nothing to do with medicine, it's debate.... Since I was something of a class clown, I found myself in love with forensic speech."

Zuiker, a big fan of movies, liked to add dramatics to his class presentations, acting out characters, adding dramatic touches to his writing. His method won him state prizes at the high school level.

But later, having graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, with two degrees and looking for work in Las Vegas, Zuiker took on the appearance of a man not only looking for a better job but also for a creative outlet.

At 23 or 24, he recalled, he was a Teletype operator for a brokerage. There were days as a bellhop that played havoc with his back.

At 26, he was hosting tram rides at the Mirage hotel. Faced with an international clientele, he developed his own multilingual phrase book so he could greet almost anyone in their own language. And hey, maybe the owner of the place would notice his initiative and creativity.

Then the phone rang. It was a Hollywood talent agency. It seems one of Zuiker's friends from his forensics days, Dustin Abraham, now an aspiring actor, had been auditioning with material Zuiker had written for him, using a monologue about a horse race. The piece was landing jobs for Abraham.

"That was really good," Zuiker recalled the agent saying about the horse-race monologue. "Do you think you could write a screenplay?"

"Wait," said Zuiker, reflecting on his situation. "I'm at the Mirage, on the graveyard shift, making $8 an hour; I invent billboards for the heck of it, I'm writing letters -- and you want me to write a screenplay?"

That was the idea.

"I went to the bookstore and bought three books by Syd Field on screenwriting," said Zuiker, warming to the story of a pivotal moment in his life. "I began to write this movie ... 'The Runner.' Six weeks later, I had this movie that's actually pretty damn good."

Friends helped him get the script into the right hands. "We sit down," Zuiker recalled of this meeting, "and it's like 'Yeah, yeah kid, yeah, yeah. We'll see what happens.' "

The next day he got a call: Would he take $35,000 for the script?

"Done," said Zuiker. "It's like $35 million to me. I gave half to my friends and I'm off to California with $10,000."

"The Runner" would be a 1999 video release with an impressive cast -- Ron Eldard, Courteney Cox, John Goodman and Joe Mantegna.

And the film's script would serve as a calling card for Zuiker. He was offered a job doing a screenplay centered on the Harlem Globetrotters. "I still feel it's my best work," he said. But after 18 months the project stalled. "[It] broke my heart," said Zuiker.

Jerry Bruckheimer, who had produced "Top Gun," among many other high-profile films, was making his way into television. The head of the TV operation called, wondering whether Zuiker would come in to talk about possible projects.

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