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CSI Files

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Robert David Hall

By Kristine Huntley
Posted at April 27, 2009 - 3:55 PM GMT

Robert David Hall first showed up on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation as Dr. Al Robbins in "Who Are You?" and has been playing the crusty, lovable coroner ever since. In anticipation of Robbins' venture outside the morgue in the upcoming episode "The Gone Dead Train", Hall took the time to speak to CSI Files about what takes Doc Robbins out of the morgue and into the field, as well as the coroner's relationship with the newest team members and his projects outside of CSI, including an upcoming CD. Some spoilers ahead!

CSI Files: This season has brought quite a few changes to CSI. What was your reaction when you found out Laurence Fishburne was joining CSI?

Robert David Hall: I couldn't believe how fortunate we were to get such a great actor. He's like one of those wish list guys. I've been working with him now for six months. He is a generous, generous actor, and he brings kind of a gravitas to the thing. It's a different vibe from William Petersen (Gil Grissom), but I think it's a great one. The crew loves him because he's professional and respectful of everybody who's doing the job. And the cast, we're pretty well oiled--we've been working together for so long, and he just fit right in. The thing you notice about him is that he's very serious about developing his character. And I think that will pay off for the audience, too. He and I have a little camaraderie or chemistry based on the fact that we worked together all of those years ago, and I just like working with him. I loved working with Billy, but Billy wore several hats. He was also an executive producer as well as the star of the show, and he had pressures on him that Laurence doesn't have. There's no replacing Billy, but Laurence is his own man, and we're actually having a good time working with him. Me especially--I worked with him twenty years ago on a movie.

CSI Files: You worked with him on Class Action.

Hall: It was Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's movie, directed by Michael Apted. Laurence was Larry Fishburne back in those days, and he had done Apocalypse Now back when he was 14 or 15, and he was on Pee Wee's Playhouse playing Cowboy Curtis. My son is all grown up, but I remember I used to make pancakes on Saturday morning and we'd sit down and watch Pee Wee's Playhouse and there was Laurence Fishburne!

CSI Files: Ray Langston and Doc Robbins seem to have a rapport right off the bat. They really seemed to get along and bond right away.

Hall: The characters do because he's a physician who can also legally and medically perform an autopsy. And I think the two guys respect each other as medical professionals, but it turns out as we find out in this episode coming up, "The Gone Dead Train", they're both huge blues fanatics. So that's going to be revealed in the episode. They also have almost a Laurel and Hardy relationship when they get out of the lab. They're very professional guys, but there was a comedic element to this show that I just enjoyed. I think the fans of the show will enjoy it. It has the feel of an older CSI episode, but it's got some comic turns in it that made me laugh.

CSI Files: What can you share about the episode?

Hall: This particular episode really centers around Doc Robbins. He had four bodies in the space of three weeks where he can't identify the cause of death, and in nine years this has never happened. He's like me, Irish and Welsh, and he's not going to take it lying down. So he does something a little bit illegal: he sort of talks Catherine (Marg Helgenberger) and Langston into helping him go out of the lab to do a little more research to find out what happened, how these particular deaths occurred. The adventure ensues. Doc Robbins and Langston go on a road trip to Reno to illegally examine medical records. Doc Robbins goes with Catherine out to a trailer park where she's almost murdered by a person who has rabies. It's been very dry here in Southern California, but we were out on a Friday night and they decided the scene would look better in rain so I'm standing under this giant hydraulic hose for most of my scenes! I loved it. Most of the time I do all of my scenes in a day or two, and [in this episode] I got to work seven out of our nine shooting days. So I had a ball.

CSI Files: What about these four cases gets under Doc Robbins' skin so much?

Hall: He takes a great deal of pride in being part of the team. His job is to come up with very specific and very accurate cause of death to enable the rest of the team to gather up the evidence and codify it so they can catch the bad guy. At it's very core, CSI is white hats versus black hats. You go on the ride with us every Thursday night and we all together try to figure out, how did this thing happen? How did this person think they were going to get away with it? I think that's been part of prime mystery and drama for a lot of years, but you've never seen it from the point of view of the CSIs. So Doc Robbins takes it personally if he can't deliver powerful and exact information, and I think that's sort of the crux of the story.

Jackie Hoyt has been writing for us for three years--she started off as a writers' assistant umpteen years ago, and I think she wrote a great script. And [Executive Producer] Carol Mendelsohn, who's kind of our queen mother, polished it. Nothing gets by Carol--she's really the reason we're such a great show. She hires the writers, supervises the writing, and writes a lot of scripts herself. She's at every casting session, she's at every planning meeting, she sets the tone for every season. In fact we just finished filming season nine, and I know Carol and [Executive Producer] Naren Shankar and some of the other producers are already behind closed doors trying to figure out the arcs for next year. As an actor, you can get as involved or uninvolved as you want to. I like knowing what the character arcs are and what they're planning for the season, but part of it is the surprise, too.

CSI Files: Three cast members departed CSI within the space of a calendar year, starting with Jorja Fox back in season eight.

Hall: Jorja Fox (Sara Sidle) was one of my closest friends on the show, and she just needed to move on in her life. I miss her every time I go on the lot, but she's surfing in the morning, getting ready to do some movie or something, and I think she's happy as a clam. It's wonderful to see somebody do what they want to do and be happy and I would have to say Jorja is quite happy.

CSI Files: Grissom and Sara were sent off in a really positive way, and in such a way that they certainly could return.

Hall: They didn't get heart attacks and die. If we have some sort of reunion show, I'm sure they'll come up. I was reading on the computer yesterday that Billy was saying something about a CSI movie, so I would wager that they would all be there for that.

CSI Files: Would you be up for a CSI movie?

Hall: Yeah! Of course, if it's the right script. If it's simply a way for someone to cash in...I don't know. Movies are fun. I've done movies and would like to do a few more, but I think that it will be determined by the two obvious things: a good script and fan interest. But I think our fans would like to see it. I'd like it to be such a great movie that somebody would say, "Well, I don't watch CSI, but this is a good film." That would really please me.

CSI Files: How did you get the role of Doc Robbins back in CSI's first season?

Hall: A wonderful casting director named April Webster who I've known for many years. They were looking for a one-show guest star coroner. I guess the first coroner they had on the show didn't work out, so they were just going to bring in an occasional coroner. So I didn't even really know what I was auditioning for; I met the producers and read the technological stuff I had to say and they said, "OK, great, you've got the one-day job." So I went in there and I had called ahead and said, "Can you arrange a visit for me with the L.A. County Coroner?" And they liked that. They set me up and I went and visited Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, who is a wonderful man. He's still the head of L.A. County forensics. He showed me around, gave me some pointers and was very kind. So when I got to the set to do the show, everybody liked what I did. Billy Petersen was complimentary and said, "Maybe we should bring him back." So they brought me back for three shows in a row, which they call an arc in the actor world. I did six, seven and eight, and they didn't ask me back for episode nine--they had another coroner come in. Then they invited me back for episode ten and I've worked every show since then.

CSI Files: CSI is a huge hit now, but it started off as something of the “little show that could.”

Hall: In the year 2000, CSI was the last show added by CBS. ABC had passed on our show and CBS reluctantly put us on the air on Friday nights that first season. And the show took off almost immediately. Overall, it's really humbling to be on such a successful show. My wife and I love to travel and I do a lot of speaking on disability issues around the country and wherever I go, they may not know my name [but] the people, almost to a man or woman, will come up and say, "Hey, it's Doc Robbins!" and they'll want to talk to me and tell me they like the show or tell me that their daughter is studying chemistry and wants to get into forensics and that their son wants to be a cop. It's almost always a positive thing. Somebody did a study and I guess more kids have taken science classes in high school since CSI. You hear so much about TV destroying people's minds, but I think there's been some good stuff that has come out of CSI.

You have to give something a little time to develop, but nowadays, a TV show gets about one or two airings and if it doesn't do really well they blow it away. I'm old enough to have started work when there were only three TV networks and no cable and now everybody is correctly talking about the way new technology is going to affect [television]. Are you just going to turn on your computer and pick and choose your shows off the air and maybe connect to be a big flat screen but do it all from your computer? I think that's sort of the way it's headed. We may be among the last of the so-called network hits. I keep my nose to the grindstone and just try to do a good Doc Robbins every week!

CSI Files: When did you become a regular on the show?

Hall: At the end of the first season, they made Eric Szmanda (Greg Sanders) and me regulars. And at the beginning of the third season, they put Eric's and my face at the beginning of the show with everyone else, which was a great moment for me. I'm a huge admirer of Billy Petersen of course, but it's wonderful working with Marg and Paul Guilfoyle (Jim Brass) is one of the great character actors. George Eads (Nick Stokes) is a great guy. George just had some surgery. He had pretty serious back problems.

CSI Files: How's he doing?

Hall: He's out of the hospital and recovering nicely I'm told. My wife Judy and I sent him some flowers. He is a strong camper so I think he's going to be good as new, but he's got at least a month and a half, two months [of recovery]. This whole hiatus we're taking, George will be in therapy doing what you've got to do after back surgery. He's a strong guy, and he's been working in pain for a long time. I admire his courage. It will be good to have him back.

CSI Files: Did his work load get lightened at all because of his back injury?

Hall: He didn't really tell anybody until towards the end of the season. That's the way actors are--you don't want anybody to think you're in pain or fragile or anything.

CSI Files: Do you have any favorite episodes or any favorite Doc Robbins moments?

Hall: You know, it's funny--as a very pragmatic actor, I love every time I work and get paid for it. I loved the episode we did with Quentin Tarantino called "Grave Danger" at the end of season five. Quentin let me go crazy and I had so much fun. I had to autopsy George Eads and I was throwing his organs all over the morgue and it was pretty fun. I liked the episode in season seven when Billy Petersen and I were autopsying Danny Bonaduce ("Built to Kill, Part Two"). We were rehearsing the scene and I just started singing the autopsy like it was a blues song and Billy started laughing and the director said, "Do that!" So if you look at that episode, I'm singing all about the blunt force trauma blues. That got a lot of notice.

It's funny what you remember. I've done so many autopsies [but] the human moments are things I remember. Some shows I'll have to show the body of a child to a grieving parent, and that's tough. In my mind, that would be one of the toughest jobs you would have. Those have stuck with me. I remember autopsying four Buddhist monks on one show, and I had to explain to Grissom all about the Chakras. That was a really beautifully filmed scene and I liked that a lot. But I remember some of the funny stuff: Billy and I chasing a rat around the autopsy room.

Jorja was always very serious, Marg is a voluptuous woman--it's always nice working with her. [With] Billy [it would] depend on his mood--some days he'd just be exasperated because the autopsy scenes he thought sometimes slowed the show down. But we had a good relationship and there were times when I would have to fight him a little bit verbally with some things, and those ended up being good scenes. He was the philosopher and so was I, and my character loved to tell bad jokes to him and he would groan. There are a lot of memories after nine years, and I hope we're going to make a few more.

CSI Files: With Laurence Fishburne and Lauren Lee Smith (Riley Adams) coming in, things have changed a bit in the lab.

Hall: Lauren Lee's a great gal, too. She's a Canadian actor and I think brings a different edge than Jorja or Marg have. I've enjoyed my scenes with her. I've had five or six scenes with her and [she's a] very professional woman and boy, she's confident and she knows what she's doing.

CSI Files: What do you think Doc Robbins makes of her? We've seen her joking with him about Facebook one day.

Hall: She'll tease me. I almost feel like her quasi-hip uncle some days but let's be real: Doc Robbins thinks that he's lucky to be able to interact with Catherine Willows or Riley Adams. It's nice for a heterosexual man to see beautiful women. It sort of breaks up the monotony of what he does all the time, which is cut up dead people. And she's young and full of spirit; they're both intelligent people so they like to joust with each other. And I think he's starting to feel paternal towards her. He likes her, wants to see her stay safe, but he likes the fact that she's really a good CSI. She's really brave, too. She really knows what she's doing and has real courage when it counts.

CSI Files: We really saw that in "No Way Out", the episode where she and Langston were taken hostage.

Hall: Exactly. That was a fascinating episode I thought. It showed courage under fire I thought because the young kid could have snapped at any time.

CSI Files: Doc Robbins went out of his way to find Langston a little home in the morgue by giving him a small office. What do you think made him go above and beyond for the new CSI?

Hall: I think he related to him as a medical guy. I think Doc Robbins missed Grissom, but I think Doc Robbins is a little bit pragmatic--he recognized in Langston another amazing spirit. Everybody else was testing Langston, and he wanted to be kind of a counterbalancing force and it wasn't much, but he wanted to give him his own space and make him feel a little bit at home. But I think Robbins might have been a tad lonely. These other people are always out in the field and doing the dangerous stuff and he's most of the time stuck there in the lab. And so at least here's a compadre, somebody who will appreciate what he does. So I think as in life, Robbins is recognizing in Langston someone he might be able to share a little conversation with as well as some of the appreciation of some of the finer points of what he does.

CSI Files: Doc Robbins has something of a protégé in David Phillips (David Berman). What do you think Doc Robbins' take on David Phillips is?

Hall: It's funny, in this episode that's coming up, David does his first solo autopsy after nine years and Doc Robbins has to sign off on [it]. Robbins has been kind of tough on him at times and crusty, but he loves the young man. David Berman has grown a great deal as an actor and as a character. I think Robbins wanted to be tough on him the way some of our parents were tough on us. He recognized a talented person, but he wanted David to be less tentative. And I think that David has become more sure of himself as the years have gone on, and I think he'll continue to grow.

CSI Files: Those two had a bit of banter in "A Space Oddity".

Hall: That's the one where I gave him the Vulcan head choke. He as an actor can do playful very well. It's nice light relief sometimes. Doc Robbins will roll his eyes and say, "Okay, David, down to earth, let's get back to it." When you're young, you're looking for relief from the tedium of what you're doing. Wally Langham (David Hodges) did a good job, and Liz Vassey (Wendy Simms) as well. Liz is also just a beauty and a delightful human.

CSI Files: Earlier in the season in "Let It Bleed" Doc Robbins and Wendy clashed when she claimed he brought her tainted evidence.

Hall: That was funny, because this is where acting comes into it--my feelings about Liz Vassey are very positive. I think she's just a tremendous woman and a very fine actor. But the scene called for Doc Robbins to really bristle at her. It worked out okay at the end because we caught the guy and everything worked out. I like those scenes. I like the confrontation scenes, and her character was not going to back down and I wasn't going to give an inch and I thought that made for an interesting scene. I hope the fans liked it.

CSI Files: Do you think that had an effect on their relationship afterwards?

Hall: I don't think it's in the nature of Robbins to hold a grudge. He never forgets anything but he would never hold a grudge. He's kind of super loyal and has known Catherine Willows the longest of anybody. Even though he has known Wendy longer than Riley, he has more of a relationship with Riley. I'd love to have more scenes with Liz because it's fun. It also adds another layer to the show. She's got a thing going with Hodges, too.

CSI Files: What do you think Doc Robbins makes of Hodges?

Hall: I think Robbins thinks Hodges is as screwy as they come! I think Doc Robbins thinks Hodges needs medication and a lot of counseling. David Hall thinks Wally Langham is a remarkable. I'm friends with Wally Langham's son, Alex, and Wally is not only a great actor, he's a great father.

CSI Files: It really seems like the cast on CSI has come together so well and that it's truly an ensemble show.

Hall: I went to high school for four years and college five years, and I've worked longer on CSI than I went to high school and college. We don't necessarily hang out or party, but I think we're all really kind of close. And some of us have been here since the beginning of the show or close to the beginning and it's like co-workers. We all have lives, we all have heartaches and successes. The word 'family' is used way too much by people, but I think we have kind of a family here.

CSI Files: In addition to your work on CSI, you've got a CD coming out this summer!

Hall: I went down to Austin last summer and recorded an album primarily of my own songs and I've been busy trying to get album art and all of that stuff together. It's going to come out in a couple of months.

CSI Files: What can you tell me about the sound?

Hall: Austin, Texas has kind of a sound of its own. I wanted to do an acoustic album. Some people think it sounds a little country; I think it's more an Americana songwriter type of album. There are twelve songs: seven are mine completely, two I collaborated with a producer on and then I did three other covers. But it's a pretty heavy Austin band. I play guitar and lead guitar acoustic, I've got one of the greatest violin players in the world--a guy who plays for Lyle Lovett and George Strait, a man named Gene Elders. I've got a steel guitar player named Cindy Cashdollar who plays with Van Morrison and other people. I've got a couple of great bass players. The engineer is also the drummer, a man named Merle Brigante. Merle played with Crosby, Stills and Nash. I was playing with some great people. My friend Chris Wall produced it, and he did a wonderful job. I had one of the best times of my life doing it.

The writing and recording was the fun part. All of the business parts [are work]: you have to register songs, you have to get your CD cover together, you have to take tons of photos and do all kinds of stuff. Chris Voelker did all the album art for my CD and he's an amazing photographer. Just finding the time to do that right [is hard]; it ends up costing more than you think. Almost everything is download now, so I'm trying to get a good website together and talk to iTunes. Some people will want to buy a CD in a digipack environmentally friendly format. I hope by the end of July I can have this all together.

CSI Files: Will you be playing live?

Hall: I hope to. I'm going to maybe do a release thing down in Austin. We start filming again at the end of July, so I'll probably only be able to do weekend gigs after that. But I love to play and I've got some incredible bandmates, guys that have played with me for many years. I'm not much of a gardener, so this is what I do! And I'm still doing all of my disability stuff. I'm the Screen Actors Guild head of Performers with Disabilities and I serve on a couple of other boards. So I still go around the country and speak on disability issues and that's pretty rewarding for me.

CSI Files: What do you think is the biggest challenge today facing actors with disabilities?

Hall: Getting auditions. There still is unspoken discomfort with bringing in [disabled actors]. I don't think just because you're disabled, you should get an audition. But just because you're disabled, you shouldn't be stopped from getting an audition either. I can tell you from my own career, people I started with used to get five times as many auditions as I did. I'd get the occasional angry disabled activist audition or the crazy guy in the wheelchair audition, but I had to get older before they started seeing me as a judge or a professor and finally as a coroner. We all worked real hard to try to open up some doors of opportunity, not just for actors but for writers, directors, crew people. There are a lot of qualified people with disabilities out there, and I want to see the really good ones get a chance to work.

It's bigger than acting. If you had a child in a wheelchair, you would want her to get a chance to go to law school or medical school or become a stockbroker. It used to be when society looked at people with disabilities, they gave them nice little jobs making pencils or working as computer programmers or something. And now, especially after a war, people with disabilities start saying, "It's fine to work in the mailroom, but what if I want to work in the boardroom? What do I do?" And I think society is starting to respond to that a little better. But Hollywood still has some difficulties dealing with the thought that people with disabilities might actually want to work in this business. That's the other thing that I love about CSI: they didn't care about my disability. They looked at me as the best guy to play Dr. Robbins and I will be forever grateful for that. And I think it's a two way street. I'm happy about it, and I think they're happy they hired me.

I think life has a way of sorting these things out, too. I know a number of actors with disabilities who are frustrated at not being able to get auditions or agents and I want to be a small part of trying to help make that a better situation. I'm not good at tooting my own horn here, but Thursday I'm getting an award along with John Levy the casting director and a woman named Brenda Hampton, who did Providence. We're being honored by the Performing Arts Studio West--that's a group that [gives] developmentally disabled kids acting lessons and things like that. Many of their kids have gone on to get roles on TV and films. So they were kind enough to notice my work and what these other folks have done.

CSI Files: Getting back to CSI, what would you like to see in the future for Doc Robbins? Is there any aspect of his life you'd like to see explored?

Hall: I would like to see a little bit about this wife he supposedly has. He has a wife and three daughters. I want to see more out in the field. That's just Robert David Hall speaking. I really trust our writers to come up with interesting stuff. I think Doc Robbins has a past, and your past sometimes comes back to haunt you. They could certainly deal with that. I would like to see Doc Robbins get another episode, or go overseas, go to London and get involved in Sherlock Holmes type things or something. But by and large, I love the subtlety that they write for him. He's a complicated guy; he's definitely old school, but he's not afraid of new technology and new thinking. He has some bizarre sides. They said once that when the whole death business gets too much for him, he goes to a strip club by himself, which I thought was kind of interesting. They've never shown it; they've never shown him in Vegas, where the others you'll see at casinos. I'd like to see Doc Robbins continue his good work, but also I like the testifying in court stuff, and I like the conflict stuff. They had talked for a while about doing a thing where Jack Klugman came on the show and he was like an old mentor of Doc Robbins; I don't know if that's going to happen or not. But I think he's a character rich for exploring many things. They never talk about Doc Robbins' physicality and if they do or don't, that's okay with me. I don't mean to sound too sappy, but I want to see the show succeed. And I want to see Doc Robbins continue to be a part of that.

Discuss this interviews at Talk CSI!

Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Kristine Huntley is a freelance writer and reviewer.

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