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'CSI' gets its man

But Laurence Fishburne knows fans may resent 'the new guy.'

December 10, 2008|Greg Braxton | Braxton is a Times staff writer.

As a devoted fan of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," Laurence Fishburne feels sorry for the act that has to follow William Petersen, the face of the long-running hit CBS show.

"I'm very much invested in 'The Bug Man,' " Fishburne said of his affection for Petersen's Gil Grissom, an entomologist who heads up the CSI investigative team but who is now leaving. "I mean, really, they can't kill 'The Bug Man'! Being a fan, I don't know how I'm going to feel when the new guy shows up."

By the way, the "new guy" is Fishburne.

The square-jawed actor, whose authoritative voice and distinctive features have made him a formidable force on the big screen ("The Matrix" franchise and his Oscar-nominated performance as Ike Turner in "What's Love Got to Do With It") and the small screen ("Miss Evers' Boys") and stage (a 1992 Tony Award in "Two Trains Running") for almost three decades is making his most unusual career move: joining the cast of the top-rated "CSI" as criminal pathologist Dr. Raymond Langston.

"CSI" producers say Fishburne was their first choice for Langston, who will be introduced Thursday in the first of a two-part installment in which Grissom abruptly announces that he's leaving the unit. Petersen's last episode is Jan. 15, in which Langston officially joins the CSI scientific forensics team as a lower level investigator.

Despite a bit of nervousness, Fishburne said he's excited and energized by his new project, adding that hooking on to a hit TV drama while he's still active in film and theater makes sense at this point in his career.

"I've tried to approach this with an open mind -- and a great deal of humility as well," said Fishburne, his closely cropped hair speckled with gray. "And I'm not fooling myself -- I am filling the shoes of a man who is irreplaceable. Once I recognized that, then I knew exactly what my responsibility was. My purpose is to serve the show. That's one of the most important things to remember. This is not about me. This is about the audience."

He added, "What's really wonderful is that the writing team has managed to introduce my character while also giving Grissom a beautiful send-off. The way he exits the series is very smart."

And although work has been pretty regular since his first notable role, as the beanpole-thin soldier in 1979's "Apocalypse Now," he said the weekly schedule of "CSI" will allow him to spend more time with his family -- wife Gina Torres ("24," "Alias") and their 18-month-old daughter.

"This comes at the perfect time in my life," said Fishburne. "I had always thought I would do something like this when I got to be 50 -- and I'm 47 now."

The transition to television -- and the ensemble "CSI" cast -- has been smooth. "The good news is that in the last six weeks, the focus has really been on Billy. So that has let me just quietly observe, showing up for work and trying to integrate myself as harmoniously as possible. And everybody could not have been nicer. "

He's also figuring out his new character: "I'm in the process of discovering who he is. It's a continual process. All I know is that I bring a certain gravity and weight to the series, and the writers and producers have carefully constructed a character that allows me to play to my strengths."

Fishburne, who has a contract to stay with the show for 1 1/2 seasons, receives an entrance worthy of a star. Though Langston is a professor, his character still has a sense for the theatrical. When he is first seen, he's in the shadows, preparing to conduct a class that will feature an interview via satellite with a serial killer (Bill Irwin). (Grissom sneaks into the lecture.) As he begins, a light illuminates Fishburne's face.

Co-executive producer Carol Mendelsohn said Fishburne's introduction was carefully mapped out. "A tremendous amount of thought went into that. We wanted our audience to have the same kind of anticipation of this guy that Grissom has. He's a man of magnetism and power who is leading the class into a very dark place."

Co-executive producer Naren Shankar said Fishburne was at the top of their wish list: "We proposed the kind of character he had never played before. We dropped a ton of DVDs on him, and he said he wanted to do this. It was such great encouragement to attract an actor of his caliber."

Fans of "CSI" should not expect dramatic changes in the show's format or structure. "The DNA of the show will remain the same," Shankar said. "Billy Petersen had always said this show is about people doing their job. Laurence will bring a new dimension and vibe to it."

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greg.braxton@latimes.com

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'CSI: Crime Scene Investigation'

Where: CBS

When: 9 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-14-DLV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence)

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