Although he admits to never being a “science person” in college, Robert David Hall was hired for the fifth episode of the first season of CSI, just for one quick scene with show star William Petersen. Hall clicked with Petersen, the guy who played the regular coroner didn’t work out, and 10 years later, Hall is still uttering 10-syllable words and giving meaningful glances over corpses as medical examiner Dr. Al Robbins on the popular CBS drama. “All I can tell you is thank God I’m an actor and not a coroner,” says Hall, who loves that producers have let Robbins grow and even be a little quirky over the years. I talked with Hall, 62, to get some scoop about CSI secrets viewers don’t usually see for a feature in last week’s magazine, and we had a fun chat about the show and his role on it. Read below for the Q&A, and check out a clip from Thursday’s episode of CSI featuring Laurence Fishburne and Jorja Fox.
Photos courtesy of CBS
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Do you regularly keep up with the science of the show?
We’re born, we live, we die, and this focuses on the admittedly grislier aspects of that, but I try to be true to the science of it insofar as you can on a 44-minute show. I’ve done this for 10 years now so some of this stuff I’ve researched in the past, but if I ever have a word or concept I don’t understand, I have a few books: Anatomy for Dummies and other things. I’m a layman – my job on the show is to be the chief medical examiner of Las Vegas, but also to act as that interface between the audience and the science. I feel like Mr. Wizard in a way. The other characters have been around death and murder and mayhem, but the audience from the beginning of our show loves to take the ride. My wife covers her eyes when watching the show, and I remind her that it pays the mortgage, but I find it kind of fascinating. The last thing in the world I want to do is say, “Yes, I am now an expert on forensic pathology!” But I want somebody who’s in this business to not snicker too much when I do it.
What’s the coolest science thing you’ve learned recently?
Because I have such technical language, with my hard drive at my age I tend to erase last week’s episode to create more space for next week’s. We’ve been working on the spleen this week, and I’ve learned some of the functions of the spleen, I’ve learned the complications of a splenectomy — generally kind of an ordinary surgery. I fear I’ve learned 385 different ways to kill somebody. [Laughs]
Has there been anything in an episode that bothered you emotionally?
I myself was injured very badly 30 years ago in a fire, and we’ve had a few episodes where people were burned and those are the only times I’ve ever had a moment’s pause. Again, even though people love to be entertained by fiction, most people understand the difference between reality and an hour TV show. I do. Sometimes I’ll meet people in public life who’ll say, “You know, you could never solve a crime that quickly,” and I’ll go, “I think most people know that.” And people don’t fall out of airplanes and land on the Las Vegas strip too often, either.
We only get to see you and the crime lab five to 10 minutes an episode — 15 if we’re lucky.
I do get out in the field on rare occasions, which I love. But I still remember the first time I walked in there and I knew I was playing the character of Dr. Robbins. They have the tools that a coroner uses – the knives, the saws, the drills – and it suddenly hits you how end of the line this place is. There’s no pain pills or novacaine – this is the body shop of anatomy. It does make you think about mortality a little bit, although I try to have fun with it. I’ve tried to make my character a little bit like my father with a slightly weirder sense of humor. My dad passed away years ago, but he was in World War II and he taught me that somebody always had it worse off and somebody had it better off than you, and that death was part of the whole experience. The finality of the actual morgue is a strange thing.
How much has the CSI lab itself changed over your tenure?
The equipment’s changed. The lab itself, five years we were up in Santa Clarita [Calif.], and then when we moved to Universal five years ago, they took out four giant soundstages and they re-created what we had, down to the way the doors swung. Since the year 2000, we’ve introduced more sophisticated lab equipment – not just in the morgue but in the evidence gathering, such as the labs where they’re doing a lot of the weighing, measuring and analyzing of things with these gadgets. But in the morgue itself, they’re always testing the limits of censorship. Of course, in a real morgue, they don’t put giant sheets over the naughty bits of people, but I’ve done more quartering of skulls and I’ve done more sewing, which is complicated for me. And I’ve done more removal of organs. This is such an esoteric conversation. [Laughs]
Do you have a favorite piece of equipment to perform with?
I’m a musician so I played guitar in one episode and sung over a body in another. The scalpel is the most used item by any coroner, and your skill with a scalpel and a needle and thread are probably the two greatest things. But it’s fun to rev up the old bone saw once in a while.