Billy is featured in the February – March 2016 issue of Evanston Magazine.
Check out the article at the Evanston Magazine website Curtain Call – by Jake Taylor
Note: We have corrected the spelling of Billy’s surname in this article below.
Despite now entering his sixties, with a decades-long career in film, television, and theater, one thing is for certain: William Petersen has never forgotten his roots. Born and raised in Evanston, Petersen went on to make his name as Gil Grissom, the conflicted protagonist of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation—a series that went on to win award after award and spawn various spinoffs in the course of its glittering 15-season-long stint as a mainstay of primetime CBS.
Petersen’s quite the achiever: He became the highest paid member of CSI’s cast, reportedly making $600,000 per episode at the tail end of his turn as Grissom, and took his place on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, opposite the world-famous Musso and Frank Grill no less—but then turned his back on the small screen. Nowadays, he continues to pursue his first and possibly only love—treading the boards by way of the famed Chicago theater scene as a member of the legendary Steppenwolf Theater Ensemble.
What sets Petersen apart is his avid commitment to refusing to fit the traditional Hollywood mold, and his continuing insistence on only taking roles he feels would benefit him. In his alleged turning down of roles in Oliver Stone’s acclaimed Vietnam war-epic, Platoon, and Scorcese’s Goodfellas, Petersen’s career is reflective of the rebels he says he “always chose to identity with;” someone who doesn’t so much break laws as “go against the odds.”
In his staunch refusal to employ an agent in the cut-throat world of the silver screen, and his insistence on walking away from his huge contract with CSI in order to return to Chicago theater, Petersen certainly went against the grain—a feature he attributes to his native city and the attitude it distils in its residents. “Chicago,” Petersen says, “is a blue collar, middle-American city. It’s just real people.
Nobody has an agenda.” It’s Petersen’s own lack of agenda in his career that makes him such an intriguing figure, one who comes like a breath of fresh air among the tantrums and trappings of the pampered prima donnas we usually associate with modern Hollywood.
Petersen’s Evanston upbringing places him in good company: Bill Murray, John and Joan Cusack, and Seth Meyers were all either born or raised here. Petersen was the youngest of six children, and after attending Bishop Kelly High School in Boise, he was offered a football scholarship with the University of Idaho. Petersen found acting for the first time, when he realized he could gain extra credit points when helping out the drama department.
Soon, however, the fledgling actor discovered that performing on stage gave him the same feeling he experienced when playing football and yet he was able to have, in his own words, more of a “profound impact on people” through his work as an actor.
A short detour through the Basque country followed where he studied to be a Shakespearean actor, where he developed a lasting appreciation for the culture and language. Upon his return to America, determined to pursue an acting career, Petersen left Idaho to return to his hometown.
Involving himself in the burgeoning Chicago theater scene, he began to make his name as a talent to watch, capable of great drive and emotion.
Petersen looks back fondly on his childhood in Evanston. Never one to bend the knee to an authority figure, he was known to regularly skip class, more often than not to make his way down to Wrigley Field in order to catch a glimpse of his beloved Chicago Cubs. Nowadays, he still frequents games and is often invited to sing during the Seventh-Inning Stretch. Back then, however, Petersen was no stranger to a moment in the Wrigley Field spotlight; he once caught a wicked Don Kessinger foul ball, which led to him being suspended from junior high.
“The game was on WGN,” Petersen recalls. “Everybody watches opening day.”
His catch was broadcast across Chicago, seen by a vigilant neighbor and promptly reported to his unimpressed parents and teachers, whereupon Petersen “had to spend the last month of eighth grade cleaning the hallways with the janitors.” Was it worth it? “Yeah,” he says. “I’ve got a story now!”
It was this roguish desire to craft a story that formed the basis of Petersen’s love of acting. “I just want to be on the stage telling stories,” he says. In the years preceding his leading role on CSI,
Petersen established himself as a major player in the world of Chicago theater, and his stage career took him to many venues he continues to visit today—such as the Goodman Theater, where his part in an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana earned him a nomination for the Chicago-based Joseph Jefferson Awards.
He won the Award for Actor in a Principal Role twice, in 1984 and 2009.
The first was for In the Belly of the Beast at the now-defunct Wisdom Bridge Theater, and the second came after a lead role in Blackbird at the iconic Victory Gardens Theater. Both performances could be seen as bookends to his longstanding turn as Grissom, representing his pedigree within the Chicago theater community both before and after his move to Los Angeles with CSI. Today, he can be seen performing with the Tony Award-winning Steppenwolf ensemble, based at their namesake theater, with whom he has starred in his most recent theatrical outing, 2013’s Slowgirl.
The first lead cinematic role came in 1985, opposite Willem Dafoe in To Live and Die in LA. The following year he played the protagonist of Manhunter, the first film to feature the character of Hannibal Lecter. Afterwards, Petersen said he was offered a raft of “cop movies” but that “they weren’t any good.” It was also during this time that he turned down Platoon, his reasoning being that “I didn’t want to sit in a ditch in the Philippines for no money.”
It wouldn’t be until the turn of the millennium that Petersen got his chance to hit the big time as forensic entomologist Grissom, and for a while it seemed his unwavering commitment to his own independence within the movie industry may well be the death knell of his career. His chance arrived as part of the CSI cast, where he stayed for nine seasons.
Petersen would go on to star in guest roles and cut his teeth as a producer in later seasons of the show.
Despite cementing his reputation as a talented television actor, and minor Hollywood heartthrob, Petersen’s heritage as a veteran of the stage proved crucial to his long-term involvement in CSI. His use of stage techniques to further his television career is unsurprising considering the fact that, in 1979, the youthful actor went so far as to create his own theater group, the Remains Theater Ensemble—including Gary Cole and Amy Morton who today act alongside Petersen once again as part of the Steppenwolf troupe.
From the outset, his intrinsic determination to stay true to his theatrical pedigree shone through his new status as a world-renowned star of the small screen. For Petersen, shows such as CSI were too focused on the network and the producers at the expense of the actors. He was determined to bring the spotlight back to the actors using techniques learned during his early career as a regular of the Chicago community. Carol Mendelsohn, executive producer for CSI, has since recalled how Petersen “wanted to re-create the ensemble feel of a theater company” and that his determination to achieve a collaborative feel, though difficult at times given the scale of the show, has been “an essential element” of the show’s enduring success.
Not content to just play a part, Petersen’s insistence on also taking on production duties for the show led to him becoming, in his own words, a “lieutenant” —a middle man between the network and the actors—drawing on both his years of experience working within theater companies and his idiosyncratic unwillingness to take a back seat when it came to his career and his integrity as an actor. This individualism culminated in him making the decision to leave CSI as early as 2007, as he worked closely with the show’s writing team to create a suitable ending for his character that would eventually happen two years later, just as the show was making Petersen a bona fide millionaire.
It’s a rare sight in Hollywood to see an actor give up a starring role at the zenith of his career, but Petersen says that for him it’s not through “the recognition or the awards” that he finds satisfaction but rather as being part of “a collaborative process.”
After nine seasons of playing Grissom, Petersen explains, he felt he was becoming “too comfortable.” For an actor who throughout his career rebuffed expected norms, his portrayal of Grissom became too safe, and amid fears that his career was beginning to stagnate, Petersen decided it was time to move on from the character who had made him a household name.
Does he regret that decision? In typical fashion, Petersen remains staunchly matter-of-fact, having told Entertainment Weekly that he “won’t miss Grissom. It was a complete life for me that’s reached its end,” he explains, “and it’s reached it in the right way.” It was time for Petersen to revisit his love for theater in a bid to recharge himself artistically.
While the healthy pay check Petersen picked up during his time on CSI gave him the freedom to pick and choose roles, his eschewal of future riches in a bid to combat what Petersen describes as a creeping sense of “atrophy” should be commended. Driven partly by his sense that portraying Grissom was becoming “somewhat rote” and also by his fear that if he “didn’t go back on stage at that point he probably never would,” Petersen’s return to the various theaters of his hometown further emphasizes his lack of agenda, borne out of his inherently individual, Evanstonian soul.
Dividing his time today between houses in Los Angeles and Chicago, Petersen says he’s very comfortable to work in TV, film, or theater, taking on whatever good roles are out there without the need to do a show just for the money. It’s clear that Petersen’s integrity as an artist remains as strong as ever, and the freedom he’s found off the back of his career-defining CSI run has another benefit: “The best thing is that I get to be home a lot more with my wife and kids,” he smiles. But home for Petersen will forever remain Chicago, and he’s finally found satisfaction in getting a chance to do plays again on his return to the Windy City–but it’s fair to say, in many respects, Petersen never really left.