On today’s podcast, we present part 1 of my two-part interview with Carol Mendelsohn, the founding showrunner of the juggernaut CBS crime procedural, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. In this part of the conversation, Carol and I discuss the forces that shaped her values and influenced her as a storyteller, her entree into the world of television, the evolution of her career, the beginnings of CSI and how the core creative team discovered the show’s identity.

One last podcast note, last Tuesday, October 6 marked the 20th Anniversary of the series’ debut on CBS.

Kary Antholis:

Carol Mendelsohn, thank you so much for joining me today for this conversation.

Carol Mendelsohn:

My pleasure.

Kary Antholis:

One of my central aims in interviewing the storytellers behind the great crime and justice narratives of our time is to assess the artists values and crafting these prime dramas. CSI indisputably revolutionized the genre. What I’d like to do is just begin by having you tell me where you’re from and what were the forces, both positive and negative, that shaped your value system, your sense of the world and your sense of aesthetics.

Carol Mendelsohn:

Where I’m from did shape my sense of everything, my values, my aesthetics. I’m a Midwesterner, I’m from Chicago. And I grew up in a city where everybody has a story to tell. My dad was an attorney and his law partner was, allegedly, the major link between organized crime and the business community. So, my dad was pretty well connected politically through his law office and his law partners. I would go with him a lot of times to a breakfast on Saturdays, he would take me downtown and I would sit with police chiefs and fire chiefs and priests and politicians and judges, and just listen to them talk. They were the best storytellers, and so I just grew up loving a good story.

I also was an only child and I spent a lot of time in my head and I spent a lot of time making up stories, make believe. And my best friend in the whole world was my television. I remember the day the TV first arrived at our house, the first TV, and it was a big box, a big wood box with the smallest screen. We put it in the living room and I didn’t budge. I was probably three years old, four years old. It changed my life. And I think I was the youngest child ever to have a TV in their room because my parents just wanted me out of the living room. I was hooked on TV and I was hooked on all the crime dramas that were in black and white back then, and, I’m dating myself, The Thin Man, Mr And Mrs North and the Westerns. My parents would leave me alone for a few minutes and I’d stick on my cowboy hat and cowboy boots, my six shooters, and I would just get lost in the world of Westerns. So, that’s what I grew up on it.

I would sit in study hall, and it wasn’t that I was a bad student, but I would make up TV shows, The Big Valley, The Virginian. And I didn’t even know what I was doing at the time, but actually I was writing scripts in my head. And then I took a detour, and after college I went to law school and I was in DC for almost nine years.

Kary Antholis:

I want to go back because I find the idea that you were in school, making up stories in your head, fascinating. Can you tell a bit about sharing those stories with others, the idea of conveying a narrative to other people?

Carol Mendelsohn:

When I was at home and my friends would come over to play, I would share some of my storytelling abilities. I did, in sixth grade, ask my parents to get me a typewriter, and I started to write. I wrote end of the world kind of stories, which seemed very prophetic at the moment. I think it came from being an only child. It wasn’t that I wasn’t social, but I spent a lot of time in my head and making things up and creating scenarios and just, I guess, escaping. And then the stories that I would hear from my father’s friends, they were real lean-in stories. My dad, when I was young, he and his law partner represented all the hotels and casinos in Las Vegas. So, my dad would go to Vegas probably 23 times a year, and during vacations I would get to go. My mom would lay by the pool at the Riviera. I would lay for a while, but then I would meet my dad for lunch and I would get to be with all the guys.

I didn’t know at the time that they were mobsters, they were running the hotel. I just got to sit and listen to them tell stories. It was about other people’s point of view, the way other people live their life, and it just expanded me. But my frame of reference really where those conversations and television, because I have to say most of what I’ve learned about the world, and a lot of my values that I didn’t get just from being born in the middle of the country, came from television. And I always say TV brought me up.

Kary Antholis:

Can you remember when it was that you thought I want to be a full time writer, I want to be a full time storyteller? Can you remember that moment?

Carol Mendelsohn:

When I was six, we went to California for the first time for Christmas. And when we landed, I just said, “I’m going to live here someday.” There was an immediate connection between me and California. I was a kid that read movie magazines, back when they had movie magazines, at my aunt’s house and I just ate it all up. I watched old MGM movies. I just wanted to live in California and be in the entertainment industry. I didn’t quite know what that meant, but it was a pull.

But I went to college in the late 60s, early 70s, and there was a lot of turmoil in our country, and then just decided to be a lawyer. I went to law school and got a job in the Washington DC office of a Century City Law Firm. I practiced for five years, but about two years in, I just knew it wasn’t quite for me. So, I looked for writing classes and as luck would have it at the Watergate where my law firm was located, there was an AFI, and I could work until five minutes to eight at night and run to the AFI. It was a very eclectic class full of journalists from NPR, lobbyists and your Washington DC types. And it was the first time I wrote a script because that was the assignment, and I actually coincided it with quitting my job. But I started to write.

Kary Antholis:

During this time when you were contemplating making a move and you were taking the class at AFI, what were the films and television shows that inspired you and that you aspired to be able to be a part of telling?

Carol Mendelsohn:

I’ve always believed in heroes, even the anti hero. I think that’s why I always gravitated to crime dramas and Westerns. And if you could throw in a good dose of romance, that was my kind of TV. So, when I was young, it was Perry Mason, The Thin Man, Mr And Mrs North, always about detectives.

And in terms of my taste and film, back when I was living in DC, every Saturday there’d be a great film that would open and I would go. And I would usually go by myself. One of the first movies that I remember seeing when I was in law school, it was The Paper Chase. It was about a first year law student and every law student in all of DC was there. There were All The President’s Men, all the Paddy Chayefsky movies. There were so many incredible films. There were some screen entertainment kind of magazines, and in the back there were ads and there was a place called Script City and you could order scripts. It would like be $15, which is a lot of money, for a TV script and $20 for a feature. But I started collecting scripts.

Kary Antholis:

Fascinating.

Carol Mendelsohn:

The other thing was there were no computers. So, I would see these scripts and I wanted to write scripts and all I had was a typewriter. So, I would take out a measuring tape and measure the pages and the margins and try to emulate that and recreate it on my typewriter.

Kary Antholis:

What was the next step that got you in the door? What was your break, as it were?

Carol Mendelsohn:

I just decided I was going to go to California, to Los Angeles, and I did. By the time I got to Los Angeles, there was a screenwriting book that had been published. And one of the things it said was, “Write a script for a show you love.” It’s so different than now, when everybody wants original material. But pick a show that you love and write it, but write it so it stands out. So, my favorite show then was Remington Steele. I loved it. That’s what I decided to write. And it was about an elephant framed for murder. And at the very end of the episode, there was an elephant chase with Laura and Remington on top of an elephant.

When I was out in California, and this was about a two year period before I got my first writing job, every day my father would call me. And one day I got a phone call,  You’re going to get a job at MGM.” My father said, “You’ve got to call this number, tell them who you are, and they’re going to put you to work at MGM.” So, I took all the scripts that I had written, plus my Remington Steele, and I was in and out of the MGM parking lot in seven and a half minutes. I went in, I sat down, and that was the head of production at MGM. He asked me, “What did I want? And how was I related to Sidney?” And…

Kary Antholis:

Sidney?

Carol Mendelsohn:

“Sidney is my uncle and I want to be a writer.” And basically the meeting was over, but I left all my scripts on his desk.

Kary Antholis:

What was Sidney’s last name?

Carol Mendelsohn:

Korshak.

Kary Antholis:

Oh my goodness. Okay. Well, there you go.

Carol Mendelsohn:

Yeah. So I said Sidney was my uncle, which he wasn’t, and I left. And even the security guards looked like they were apologetic and sad for me. That night I went to bed and I had a dream. My mother had died when I was 16 and I had never dreamt about her since she had died. I was at a field and it looked like almost it was like a baseball field, but it wasn’t. And my mother took my hand and was leading me toward this field. And instead of being a baseball diamond, it was a circle, and there was a beach chair, one of those really low ones, that’re all close to the sand. And my mother never said anything. I took the chair and I put it inside the chalk circle and I sat down, and people came running up to me and said, “Get out of the circle, get out of the circle. There are these wolves in the circle and they’re going to eat you.”

And I said, “I’ll be okay.” And I kept moving my chair further and further into the circle, until I was sitting in the middle. And by this time there are dead carcasses and blood of wolves and everything all around me, but I’m okay. And I said, “I can leave here anytime I want.” And I floated up in a way, and I found myself in Chicago, in Lincoln park, which is where I have lived. Nobody was in the park, it was like early morning, just as the sun was coming up. It was like dewy and wet. And I was just skating over the sidewalk. It was the first time in my whole life that I ever felt bliss. And I said, “I better go back to LA.” And I woke up in my bed in LA and I said, “Everything’s going to be okay.”

And that Monday morning, I got a call from Lynn Loring’s office at MGM. She was running the TV department. The next morning, I got a call from the producers of Fame. And they said, “Come on in. We like your writing.” I went to MGM and this time I wasn’t in and out in seven and a half minutes. The showrunners were great. And they said, “We have a script that came in and we cut the writer off at the writer’s draft. You can rewrite it, but you won’t get any credit because of the Writers Guild And arbitration.” I said, “It’s fine. It’s totally fine.” And we were talking and talking, about a half hour into the meeting, they said, “You know what? We want to give you your own script.” And this is how it went. And that was the first episode I ever wrote, Coco Returns. Debbie Allen directed it. Milton Berle was in it in a fur coat and it was nominated for an NAACP Image Award. My father got to come out and we went to the NAACP Image Awards, but I lost to Miami Vice.

Kary Antholis:

Wow.

Carol Mendelsohn:

I wrote a couple episodes of Fame. And then they finally said, “Carol, there’s more to this world than Fame. We’re going to help you get an agent.” And I got my first agent, and my agent was connected to one of the executive producers at Cannell, Stephen Cannell. And it was like going to college again, working for Stephen Cannell. He had a lot of shows. He had A-Team, Rip Tide, Hardcastle and McCormick, you name it. 

Kary Antholis:

Amazing. When you said Sidney Korshak, was Sidney your father’s law partner?

Carol Mendelsohn:

Sidney had a brother, Marshall Korshak, Sidney and Marshall had a law practice. When my father graduated from the University Of Chicago, my father’s father had a friend who had a case. It turns out, my grandfather was a bootlegger. But anyway, there was a case and it had a $75 fee. My father’s fresh out of law school doesn’t know what to do with it. So, he went downtown to LaSalle Street and walked into Sidney and Marshall’s office. They had one desk, two chairs, and said, “I got this case.” And they made my dad a partner in the law firm. My dad was going to get $5, and Sidney and Marshall were going to get the rest. And that began my father’s career, and then Sidney and Marshall were very big in my life.

Kary Antholis:

Wow. Take me through the pivotal moments in your writing career, between the time of the Fame experience ending and the opportunity of CSI coming into your life.

Carol Mendelsohn:

I think I should start with something I carried in my wallet the whole time, when I moved from DC to LA. There was a TV guide article about Hill Street Blues, and about Barbara Hall, who was the first woman writer on Hill Street. She was a story editor, it was an interview with her, and I kept it in my pocket. And I think being a woman was probably the guiding force of my career because at the time I was at Cannell, there were very few women. At that time, something was happening in the industry, which was the networks were requiring that there be at least one woman on each writing staff. There were very few women that were writing action-adventure or crime dramas. And I became the token. So, I was the one woman on Wiseguy. I was the one woman in the room. The guys went to lunch together and I went to lunch with what we call the secretaries.

It proved difficult in my career because information is power and as a woman I was expected to perform as well as, or higher, than the men, but I didn’t always have all the information or the benefit of creative dialogue. So, from Cannell, I wrote for Tour Of Duty, where Lee Majors said to me, “Where’d you learn to write like a man?” Which was a supreme compliment at the time. And eventually I developed a project with OJ Simpson for NBC. It was going to be a mini series, a six episode short series, and it was called Frogmen. OJ had been a Seal and he assembled his team of young people to solve crimes. I wrote the script, we shot for three weeks in Puerto Rico, in LA, and six weeks later, OJ got arrested.

Kary Antholis:

Wow.

Carol Mendelsohn:

We were still in the editing room. The prosecutors took everybody’s copies of the show, the video tapes of dailies and everything. And not mine, I still have them.

Kary Antholis:

Wow.

Carol Mendelsohn:

So, six weeks after we had wrapped production, it was over cause OJ was arrested. And I got a call from my agents, Paul Haas, and he said, “Melrose Place is looking for a writer.” And it turned out it was my good friend, Chuck Pratt. He had created Models Inc that year, and he knew I loved daytime soaps. 

Chuck had suggested me and everybody said, Well, Carol only writes men.” And Chuck’s said, “Believe me, she can write for women.” I met with Darren Star, and the next day I was on Melrose Place for the next five years. It was great. It was so great. Then what happened was, and this really launched my CSI career in a backdoor kind of way, Nina Tassler called and said that she wanted to develop a soap at CBS. Would I come in? She had an idea. I went in and met with her and Susan Berman, and Nina had read Susan’s book about growing up in Vegas. And Nina said she wanted me to write a show about an off strip casino and the family that ran it, and that Susan would collaborate.

Kary Antholis:

And what year would this have been?

Carol Mendelsohn:

99. At the same time, and I didn’t know it at the time, Bruckheimer and Jonathan Littman and Anthony Zuiker were creating CSI. It came down to the wire, and I happened to actually have been in Vegas when I got the news that they were going to film CSI and they weren’t going to film my show.

Kary Antholis:

And when did you get that call that it wasn’t going to go, toward the end of 99?

Carol Mendelsohn:

I think it was probably sometime in late January of 2000. I get home to LA and I get a call from Nina. And she said, “We want to keep you in the CBS family.” Which was so nice. And she said, “We’re sending you all the scripts that we’re actually going to film, pick one. We want you to executive produce it.” I thought great, and I started to read and before I could even read like one script, she called me and said, “We’re putting you on CSI.” So, I had a meeting with Billy Peterson, Anthony Zuiker, Jonathan Littman. I knew Jonathan Littman, he’d been my executive on Melrose Place. And it turns out Billy Peterson’s from Chicago, Anthony was born in Chicago and I think the Chicago connection helped.

I was offered the job, and I showed up, and it was the first time I was solo showrunner, and we had an incredible team.

Kary Antholis:

So, tell me about putting that team together and about taking what Anthony wrote in that pilot and turning it into a series that could sustain itself over 22 episodes and multiple seasons of 22 episodes.

Carol Mendelsohn:

I think when you walk into something like this, you don’t know how you’re going to do it. I learned a lot on the pilot, but yeah, then you have to hire a staff. I mean, who do you hire to write this? I interviewed all these writers and I ended up hiring a lot of young writers, and Ann Donahue. I didn’t know her, she lived three doors down from me. But I loved her writing, Picket Fences, she had done so many great shows. Anthony was a force of nature.

Kary Antholis:

Did you deconstruct the script, did you think about its core elements? Did you think about, okay, what makes a CSI episode, a CSI episode? Did you go about thinking about it that way?

Carol Mendelsohn:

The show from the beginning spoke to me and I can’t explain it other than my personal philosophy about TV, that certain shows, especially hit shows are organic living beings. They talk to that little voice we hear in our head. And from the beginning, I heard “Trust the show. If you do what’s best for the show, you’ll always make the right decision.” And the show spoke to me about what we’ve already talked about, really, about my values from Chicago, about spending time as a kid in Vegas, about heroes and scientists. We always said, and this was fundamental in crafting the show, that cops walk into a scene and look you in the eye. They’re trying to assess whether you did the crime. CSI scientists walk into a crime scene and they look down, they look down for evidence, and if they’re a good CSI, they always look up at the ceiling.

And so I knew these were different kinds of characters. It wasn’t a cop show. That’s what we were trying to find, and I think that’s what Danny Cannon was so successful at finding when he shot the pilot, that Grissom’s character, that scientist. It’s the first line of the pilot. The cops are saying, “Here comes the nerd squad.” And that became a guiding principle. These aren’t cops, they’ll have their run-ins  with the cops, but these are the best looking, smartest, coolest dressed nerds in the world. And Vegas. CBS did not want the show to be about Vegas. They wanted it to be Anywhere USA. I didn’t agree. And Anthony moved from Chicago to Vegas when he was six months old, his world was Vegas. I loved Vegas, I spent so much time there. We wanted to make Vegas a character. We would fly down the Strip at the opening and veer off into neighborhoods into, in essence, Anywhere USA. I believed that the show was going to become more and more about Vegas, and it did because we explored the underbelly of Vegas.

In terms of hiring writers, it turned out to be a great writing staff, though I was criticized roundly by every agency in town because I hired three lower level writers. And then there was an Ann, Anthony and I, it was a staff of six. Bruckheimer said one thing to me, “Take the audience into a world. They may not understand all the dialogue and all the science speak, but they will love it. You have to be authentic. Authentically create this world of crime scene investigation.” That meant we needed a real CSI, and that’s probably the smartest thing I did on the show and got us some great tech advisers. And we really told stories that were grounded in reality, but the science of it was so interesting, and the secondary characters were always so interesting, and sometimes the right people all come together at the perfect time.

Kary Antholis:

By the end of breaking the third or fourth episode in the room, did you have a sense of certain rules for the show, certain act break rules or story arc rules or character rules, rules about the fact that you don’t go home with these characters, but you get like little drips of character definition? How did all of that evolve?

Carol Mendelsohn:

So, many rules. We would tell some of the story in flashback, we call them recreations. The first one that we would show you, we would take a crime and we would show you whatever path the evidence was leading us down at the beginning. That would be our recreation or a flashback, but we’d always have to say, is that true or not true? You will get to the truth at the very end of the episode. Since they were flashbacks and recreation’s about evidence, how do you visualize the evidence? Because for scientists, the evidence is speaking to you. The evidence never lies. Well, we have these rules about how many items, like if you saw a crime scene and there’s a gun on the floor, and there’s a vase tipped over and a dresser rifled through, and the carpet has blood on it, how many of those elements do you need to show in each recreation or flashback?

Well, by the time we got to about episode three or four, Danny Cannon came to me and said, “We are never going to be able to shoot the show because your recreations are taking days to film. There’s so many elements.” And I said, “I hear you, but then you need to come into the writer’s room and tell us how to write visually, how to think visually.” And Danny came in and he sat with us and we all became filmmakers. And I think one of the breakthroughs for our show, we hired a tech adviser, Liz Divine, and Liz was a supervisor in the Investigative Unit at the Sheriff’s department crime lab. She was still working at the Sheriff’s department, but she said she would talk to us. And this changed the show.

We had offices that had no walls. We weren’t even in an actual studio, we were in a warehouse, and we sat on the floor in Ann’s office and Liz Divine told us a story. And she told us about a quadruple homicide in Pico Rivera, and we asked her to take us from her beginning of her day and how she got the call out. She was fierce. She was one of the only women. She walked us through that case. She walked us through pulling a double. She was in that crime scene, and it was horrific, for more than 24 hours. Suddenly we understood what it meant to be a CSI. We had already made a pilgrimage to Vegas, we had been to the Vegas Crime Lab. We had Dan Holstein, who was the real life Gill Grissom. And between those two pictures that we had, we started to see the show, and that episode that Ann wrote was nominated for all sorts of awards, because it was like you were standing and walking with those CSIs.

Kary Antholis:

Which episode was that, was that like the fourth episode?

Carol Mendelsohn:

By then it was the seventh episode. It was called Blood Drops. And it was about a family, quadruple homicide. I have to say it was directed by Ken Fink and it was just beautiful. I mean, so contrasted with the gruesomeness of the crime scene, the beauty of his filmmaking. Grissom walked up the steps of the house, talked to the cops. A uniform was upchucking. Grissom walked into the house. The lights are on. He turned to a cop and said, “Were the lights on when you came in?” “No, sir.” And Grissom turned the lights off because that’s what a CSI would do. You want to see the crime scene as the killer saw it. And we began to get inside the minds of a real CSI, and it changed how the writers room worked. It was really such a hard show to figure out the science. Josh Berman, who was on our writing staff was a genius at taking complicated, scientific information, being able to digest it, and we could put it into interesting dialogue.

The crew loved the show so much too, everybody was invested. And when we did an episode about electricity, who were our consultants? Our electricians on the set. Everybody did their part on our show, everybody invested, and I’ve never been part of something like that. I think our initial success, which was surprising, I think, even to CBS, we premiered on a Friday night after The Fugitive, CBS said to us if you retain 75% of The Fugitive’s audience, we’ll consider you a success. It was in the old days when you’d call into a Nielsen number, the next day, 05:30 in the morning, I’m talking to Billy Peterson and we’re all talking to each other. The Nielsen numbers are in, we got a way bigger rating than The Fugitive, but I don’t hear from CBS. Not at 06:30, not at 07:30, not at 08:30. I think it was around 10:30 in the morning, I get a call from CBS, “We didn’t call you earlier. We thought the Nielsen computer was down.” And that was the beginning of CSI.

Kary Antholis:

I want to dive into the evolution of the show and into the characters, but I want to pick up one question, which is the structure of the narrative, the structure of each episode, what are the models for it in the world of film or television? An obvious reference point is Sherlock Holmes because of the deductive reasoning, but were there other television shows that influenced the way that you or the folks at Bruckheimer talked about structuring the model episode, or that Anthony brought to the table in your early discussions about the show?

Carol Mendelsohn:

I think so much of our structure and visuals were influenced by Jerry Bruckheimer and the kind of shows and movies that he made. The structure never truly deviated. There was always a teaser, and always something unexpected, the Sherlock Holmes of it. And we’d end it with Grissom and he would have a Grissom-ism, something witty and funny. And in terms of the look of the show, I think bringing premium filmmaking to television was unique, and that was Jerry who just said, “I want, when people are turning the dials, I want people to stop and know that this is a Bruckheimer show.” So, it influenced wardrobe, it influenced set design, it influenced the filmmaking style. The visuals were as important as any dialogue and we weren’t afraid to be silent.

That doesn’t happen a lot in TV. We had to tell a story with an image. We have a scene in one of the episodes where Grissom is in an autopsy cleaning a body, and I made a decision that that two and a half minute scene would be silent. It was Grissom and it said so much about his character, the respect that he shows to the deceased, to a dead body. It was something we had heard when we were doing CSI New York and we were at the crime lab in Jamaica, Queens, “When you die, every man is a King. Every woman is a queen. That’s how you treat people.” And you don’t see that a lot on TV.

Kary Antholis:

Were there markers along the way, at the end of each act break, that you wanted to be here by the end of act one, here by the end of act two, here by the end of act three? Were there any kind of rules that way?

Carol Mendelsohn:

No, there really weren’t. We would let the story speak to us. We would come up with an idea, we would get excited about something and we would tell the story that needed to be told. And maybe we were able to do it because the show was successful and no one was telling us not to. Yes, we always had a teaser and we always worried about our act breaks because we wanted the audience coming back. But the story itself dictated the structure.

Kary Antholis:

So interesting. It’s fascinating because many of the procedurals from that era were very tightly structured. When you look at Without A Trace, you look at Law And Order, you look at Criminal Minds, those shows had very distinct structures. But from being a fan of the show, I can’t really tell you what the structure of a CSI episode is, except it’s got a lot of science in it.

Carol Mendelsohn:

I just want to say that Billy Peterson came from the Remains Theater in Chicago. He was a theater actor and he held us to a very high standard. Marg Helgenberger, Emmy Winner, Paul Guilfoyle, George Eads, Gary Dourdan, Jorja Fox, these actors, they could go so deep that we owed it all to them and they inspired us. CSI broke new ground and I think part of the reason was that we all surrendered to the show and what the show wanted to be.