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Maybe crime does pay

Washington Post

The humble times weren’t that long ago in the life of Anthony Zuiker. The nights spent hosting tram rides on the graveyard shift at a Las Vegas hotel. The days of back pain when he lugged bags as a bellhop.

The days right out of college when operating a Teletype machine at a brokerage firm was the best work he could find.

The time spent whipping up advertising billboard ideas for various Vegas concerns -- such as the one featuring three inflatable female dolls and the legend “Picking Up Airheads Just Got Easier,” sold to a sex-novelty shop for $500.

Surely there would be better days.

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And there have been better days. The young man who always displayed a persuasive way with words has gone from tram host to television mogul in less than a decade. At the age of 34, he’s the creator and executive producer of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and its new companion piece, “CSI: Miami.”

His huge success may not have been easy, but it has surely been sudden.

“My stepfather, David, would always tell me, when I was 14, 15, 16, that I was a good letter-writer,” recalled Anthony Zuiker. “It first began when I was 15 years old and wrote a poem for a barber in Las Vegas to get his girlfriend back. And it worked! Suddenly, it’s free haircuts for a year!”

Zuiker tells the story the way he tells all his stories, with enthusiasm, a bit of body language and an energy surge that says there’s a yarn inside about to burst forth. “I soon became known as the guy that can write letters and get anything.”

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Zuiker wrote them for his stepfather, a maitre d’, to get a design change in a piece of table-side, hot-food serving ware that was setting guests on fire. Soon he was getting $300 to write them for executives. At 19, he recalled, he could turn out letters that sounded like the work of a 35-year-old professional.

This talent took root in high school when Zuiker became interested in forensics, almost by mistake. “In high school I competed in forensics,” he said. “Not medicine, but debate. I thought it was about ‘Quincy.’ I walk in and it has nothing to do with medicine, it’s debate.... Since I was something of a class clown, I found myself in love with forensic speech.”

Zuiker, a big fan of movies, liked to add dramatics to his class presentations, acting out characters, adding dramatic touches to his writing. His method won him state prizes at the high school level.

But later, having graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, with two degrees and looking for work in Las Vegas, Zuiker took on the appearance of a man not only looking for a better job but also for a creative outlet.

At 23 or 24, he recalled, he was a Teletype operator for a brokerage. There were days as a bellhop that played havoc with his back.

At 26, he was hosting tram rides at the Mirage hotel. Faced with an international clientele, he developed his own multilingual phrase book so he could greet almost anyone in their own language. And hey, maybe the owner of the place would notice his initiative and creativity.

Then the phone rang. It was a Hollywood talent agency. It seems one of Zuiker’s friends from his forensics days, Dustin Abraham, now an aspiring actor, had been auditioning with material Zuiker had written for him, using a monologue about a horse race. The piece was landing jobs for Abraham.

“That was really good,” Zuiker recalled the agent saying about the horse-race monologue. “Do you think you could write a screenplay?”

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“Wait,” said Zuiker, reflecting on his situation. “I’m at the Mirage, on the graveyard shift, making $8 an hour; I invent billboards for the heck of it, I’m writing letters -- and you want me to write a screenplay?”

That was the idea.

“I went to the bookstore and bought three books by Syd Field on screenwriting,” said Zuiker, warming to the story of a pivotal moment in his life. “I began to write this movie ... ‘The Runner.’ Six weeks later, I had this movie that’s actually pretty damn good.”

Friends helped him get the script into the right hands. “We sit down,” Zuiker recalled of this meeting, “and it’s like ‘Yeah, yeah kid, yeah, yeah. We’ll see what happens.’ ”

The next day he got a call: Would he take $35,000 for the script?

“Done,” said Zuiker. “It’s like $35 million to me. I gave half to my friends and I’m off to California with $10,000.”

“The Runner” would be a 1999 video release with an impressive cast -- Ron Eldard, Courteney Cox, John Goodman and Joe Mantegna.

And the film’s script would serve as a calling card for Zuiker. He was offered a job doing a screenplay centered on the Harlem Globetrotters. “I still feel it’s my best work,” he said. But after 18 months the project stalled. "[It] broke my heart,” said Zuiker.

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Jerry Bruckheimer, who had produced “Top Gun,” among many other high-profile films, was making his way into television. The head of the TV operation called, wondering whether Zuiker would come in to talk about possible projects.

“I really don’t watch much network TV,” said Zuiker. His tastes run to HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” VH1’s “Behind the Music,” E!'s “True Hollywood Story,” MTV’s “Cribs” and cable news for the stock reports. What would he say to Bruckheimer’s people?

Then his wife, Jennifer, pointed him to the Discovery Channel’s “The New Detectives: Case Studies in Forensic Science.”

It became the template for “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” Zuiker spent five weeks riding along with Las Vegas forensic investigators, which reinforced his enthusiasm.

Bruckheimer’s people liked the idea and they went to ABC. The executives there passed. It was beyond the pitch period for Fox and NBC, he said, so off they went to CBS.

“I walk in, I sit down, take off my glasses, shut my eyes,” he said, closing his eyes as he recalled and re-created the pitch to CBS executives. “I’m going to tell you a story about the world of forensics. Forensic medicine. There’s a character, Gil Grissom, he’s the head of the unit. He seeks truth by.... " He opens his eyes. “They loved it.”

They gave him three weeks to write the pilot. Then came a meeting with actor Billy Petersen. Who? said Zuiker. Billy Petersen -- he was in “To Live and Die in L.A.”

Zuiker and Petersen talked for three hours. They both had Chicago roots, loved the Cubs. Petersen, as Zuiker tells it, had been saying no to TV projects for seven years but loved this one. Petersen’s interest, Zuiker said, was a key to getting the show on the air.

The other actors came on board to create a cohesive ensemble and the show went on the air in the fall of 2000. Marg Helgenberger, Gary Dourdan, George Eads and Jorja Fox play Grissom’s forensics field team.

He credits “CSI” executive producers Carol Mendelsohn and Ann Donahue with teaching him a lot about writing for TV.

And Donahue credits him with changing the way crime stories are told on television.

“He’s so new [to television],” said Donahue, “that he doesn’t know the rules, so he can break them. His pilot script had flashbacks in it. A veteran writer knows that if you’re using flashbacks, you’ve told the story wrong. His flashbacks have changed TV.”

“CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” flashbacks and all, debuted that fall in the 9 p.m. Friday time slot. Six months later, the show was moved to Thursday night, where it would compete for audiences with the likes of “Will & Grace,” NBC’s hit comedy.

“CSI” soon became the hottest drama on network television, rising to the top of the weekly Nielsen ratings and rivaling the long-running favorite “ER.”

This fall, “CSI” spawned “CSI: Miami,” with David Caruso. It is consistently a top 10 show. Zuiker serves as an executive producer on both series.

While the shows are in production, weekends belong to his family. In a typical week, he flies back to Las Vegas on Friday nights. Saturday mornings, he and Jennifer ride horseback. That evening is date night, a movie and dinner. Sunday is lavished on their son, Dawson, who’s 2. On Sunday evening, it’s TV until 11, then a flight at 8 a.m. Monday.

Zuiker’s schedule and his left arm will become a bit more crowded with the arrival of their second child. A tattoo on his forearm has the letters A, J and D arranged around a Z. A fourth initial is due soon.

Contemplating his transition from the tram period of his life to his emergence as a TV titan sends Zuiker into serious reflection.

Back then, he was 26, had UNLV degrees in philosophy and communications and was struggling.

A shakeup at a brokerage, he recalled, had cost him a shot at becoming a stock salesman. He sought a job at the Mirage hoping to catch the eye of Steve Wynn, who owned it then. He landed the tram night shift, bringing him into contact with lots of folks who’d just lost money and weren’t in good moods. What was he doing there? He knew he was creative and talented. Where did he go wrong?

“What gives? What did I do?” wondered Zuiker. “When I was in college, a cheerleader had cancer, and gave a speech in which she talked about needing $15,000. I sold board games and raised the money. She died a month later.

“A friend from high school lost a hand in an accident at UNLV,” he added. “I got my forensics friends together, did some skits, and raised $12,000 for him.

“So I did good things. I was a good kid. I loved my mother. So why am I 26 and on the tram making $8 an hour? ... I was almost to a breaking point mentally. I didn’t know why God had given me this talent and wouldn’t allow me to utilize it.”

Now he looks back on that time as so many training days, preparation for playing “in the big leagues.”


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