Press tour: Ted Danson brings a lighter touch to ‘CSI’

Ted Danson has an impressive body of dramatic work on his resume, from “The Onion Field” and “Body Heat” in his early days to “Damages” in recent years. Still, he’ll always be identified first for his comedy work, and the “CSI” team is counting on him to help add a lighter touch to the show as it enters its 12th season with him as the new lead.

At the start of the “CSI” press tour panel, showrunner Carol Mendelsohn introduced a brief clip featuring Danson’s character, DB Russell, cheering up a traumatized little boy with a silly magic act, and she suggested that was the tone the series would aim for as much as possible within the format – which, she admitted, requires “one or more dead bodies, or maimed” per week.

“A sense of humor, looking for funny, takes a certain kind of intelligence,” Danson suggested, “and it’s the same brain that looks for clues and solves things. I feel at home in a funny way, even though I’m not doing jokes. I feel I’ve walked into a perfect situation for me.”

It won’t suddenly be slapstick, but it will bring the show back to its roots from the early days with William Petersen, as opposed to all the serial killer angst from Laurence Fishburne’s two and a half season tenure.

“I’m excited to go to work again, and it’s been a while,” said “CSI” co-star George Eads. “We got so dramatic for so long that it seemed like every scene I was doing up there was fire and brimstone.”

Danson’s arrival was also enough to hold off Marg Helgenberger’s exit for another season. Originally, she had planned to leave the show at the end of the 11th season, but between Danson and “me having a hard time letting go,” she’ll stick around for this upcoming season, then exit.

Danson says he was told Russell “was kind of the Phil Jackson being brought in to handle a group of bright people who are on a slippery slope,” and Mendelsohn and producer Don McGill elaborated that Russell was raised by folk singers, home-schooled (or, rather, “van-schooled”) as they traveled the country, and has a more laid-back approach to the job.

“We were talking about the Phil Jackson analogy,” McGill explained, “and at ‘CSI’ we have this team of superstars, people who are passionate about what they do – but passion can sometimes lead you astray.”

(Minor spoiler alert) Russell will take over as the new supervisor of the “CSI” squad, with Helgenberger’s Catherine Willows getting demoted in the wake of what happened with last season’s serial killer storyline.

“There’s a little bit of resentment there,” Helgenberger said, “but Ted’s character so far is pretty endearing. He really has a unique way of looking at a crime scene. It’s been a nice kind of fresh perspective, and gets under everybody’s skin in a good way.”

Near the end of the session, Danson told what he called “my own lame ‘CSI’ story.” His father was an archaeologist in the Southwest, and he had spent a lot of time as a boy playing around his father’s digs and coming across skulls and other bones. Then when he was 11, he was out playing Army in the woods with some friends when they came across a skull with a bit of human hair still attached.

“And the archaeologist’s son said, ‘Cool! Let’s play Romans and Gauls!'” Danson recalled, laughing at his own youthful stupidity. Several hours later, he told his father, who flipped out and insisted on searching for the skull the boys had discarded. But the thing didn’t turn up for five years, at which point his father took it to the museum, recreated the skull’s face using modeling clay, put a photo in the newspaper and helped identify the man.

“Isn’t that cool?” Danson asked.