Thanksgiving night on "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," it's a matter of Who as much as what.
CBS' hit Thursday series opens with the Who's classic song "Who Are You" and the surprise-filled Nov. 23 episode -- appropriately titled "Living Legend" -- features the British rock group's lead singer, Roger Daltrey, alongside William Petersen, Marg Helgenberger and the other regulars in a plot based on actual Las Vegas history.
"Mickey Dunn was an old-style mobster who really ruled the town in the 1970s," explains co-executive producer Douglas Petrie, who wrote the script from a story he devised with Carol Mendelsohn, a "CSI" executive producer. "He was a very charming guy who loved to be photographed. He was the rock star of mob bosses.
"His legend grew when he vanished one night, never to be seen again. He's grown legendary in the way Jimmy Hoffa and Elvis have. No one knows whether he's dead or alive."
The "CSI" premise links that to several fictional murders. "Ultimately," Petrie says, "what we're going to do is solve the original mystery of the disappearance of Mickey Dunn." The tale also was inspired in part by the 1963 mystery movie "The List of Adrian Messenger," which included cameos by Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster.
Similar star power was in mind for the "CSI" puzzler, and Mendelsohn deemed Daltrey a natural for it. "Ever since we first used the Who's music, we'd been talking about inviting Roger to be on the show," she reports, "and we just never had the right role. Doug joined the writing staff this season, and there was a meeting of the minds about the kinds of episodes we loved."
An approach that would let Daltrey answer the musical question "Who Are You" was conceived by Petrie, who notes, "It really goes back to the fun of classics like Agatha Christie mysteries or even the board game Clue, where you're led to continue guessing who's who and what's happening."
Serendipitous scheduling made Daltrey's "CSI" appearance possible. "We knew the Who was on tour," Mendelsohn says, "and we knew this (filming) would be somewhere in the middle of the U.S. portion, so we held our breath and crossed our fingers."
"Roger really came to play," Petrie adds. "We made him jump through hoops that I think would give a seasoned actor pause. There was a pretty fun buzz on the set right through the shoot. Everyone there is a really big Who fan; they know what he's done in the world of rock and roll, and his presence connects us to our most wild and rebellious teenage selves. Everyone who was there had a little more pep, a little more energy and a little more of the best kind of tension."
When the original"CSI" spawned "CSI: Miami," then "CSI: NY," returning to the Who's tunes was a foregone conclusion. Mendelsohn recalls, "When we were launching 'Miami,' the first suggestion was to use another Who song. We stopped and asked, 'Is that the right thing to do?' We all looked at each other and said, 'Yeah.' If truth be told, [CBS Corporation President and CEO] Leslie Moonves picked 'Baba O'Riley' for 'CSI: NY'."
And don't count out the Who's "Behind Blue Eyes" or even "Pinball Wizard" as a theme for yet another "CSI" show. The forensic-mystery franchise is holding at three for the time being, but Mendelsohn half-jokingly forecasts, "We think we'll go all the way through the catalog."