Ted Danson, Marg Helgenberger

It's hard to imagine Sam Malone from Cheers needing a maggot wrangler. "I've never seen anything like it," Ted Danson says. Even with silver hair, the Emmy-winning actor looks like a kid who just pulled apart his first earthworm. "You can tell how long a human body has been decomposing by the size of the bugs crawling inside!" And the wrangler's got every variety. "It's incredible, until you think, 'Oh, God. We're talking about dead people.'"

Everybody's favorite TV barkeep is once again serving cold ones — only now he's zipping them inside body bags. The surprising new choice to head the Las Vegas crime lab on CSI brings an iconic face to the world's most venerable procedural. Danson, also known for Damages and Bored to Death, takes over for Laurence Fishburne as CSI's leading man in Season 12, and hopes to breathe some life back into the formerly top-rated series. 

Sitting in a conference room dotted with grisly crime photos on the L.A. set, Danson says his biggest challenge is, "How can a guy like me, who looks for the joy in every situation, make the transition to the land of triple homicides?" He shrugs. "And, hey, I'm also a hypochondriac and run from violence — we're talking major stretch."

At least everybody knows his name. As new CSI supervisor D.B. Russell, Danson, 63, appears to have transitioned nicely into a cast as tightly knit as any on TV. Three of his new work buddies — Marg Helgenberger (Catherine Willows), George Eads (Nick Stokes) and Paul Guilfoyle (Las Vegas police captain Jim Brass) — have been part of CSI's cast for all 250-plus episodes. That meant Danson had to work his charm even before he arrived on set. "He called me two or three times just to say, 'Hey, what's up?'" Eads says. "I was like, 'Not much. Um, who's this?' He's, like, 'It's Ted.' I go, 'Ted? Oh, Ted Danson! Sorry, man. How the heck are ya?'" (To further ingratiate himself, Danson has sprung for on-set massages and a shaved-ice truck for the crew.)

Helgenberger admits she raised an eyebrow when she heard he was coming to CSI. "You think Ted Danson and you mainly think comedy," she says. "But pretty quickly, I said, 'OK, yeah, that makes sense.'"

Word around Hollywood after Fishburne's departure last summer was that CBS would cast another intense actor. But with ratings flagging — the show finished at No. 30 last season among viewers ages 18 to 49 — it was time for a reboot. "We wanted to get back to the excitement of the first few seasons and Ted fits our needs exactly," says executive producer Carol Mendelsohn. "Having Ted around brightens every scene and adds a deeper emotional layer than we've seen in many years."

Still, even Danson was surprised. He received the offer last summer as he was waiting to see a movie in Martha's Vineyard, where he and his wife, actress Mary Steenburgen, have a vacation house. Danson had been looking for ways to avoid traveling for work now that he has grandchildren in L.A. A weekly gig on an established show was a no-brainer. "The lights in the theater were going down so I didn't have long to react," he says. "My first thought was 'Wow.' My second thought was 'Yes!'"

D.B. Russell isn't like other CSIs. After blustery boss Gil Grissom (William Petersen) and divisive newbie Ray Langston (Fishburne), Russell looks like Mr. Happy. His slowly unfolding backstory is that he's a former lit major and child of beatnik folk singers who comes to Vegas from Seattle with his still unseen wife and four kids. "What we love is that Russell is unconventional and at odds with authority, having grown up going to peace rallies and sit-ins," Mendelsohn says. "But he's also a devoted family man who thrives on the chaos of the lab because he's raising a bunch of teenagers."

To prepare for the role, Danson flew to Vegas to witness a real autopsy, a moment he calls a spiritual experience. "I held a guy's skull in my hands as another guy scooped his brain out," he says. "It was an incredible reminder of how valuable and fragile life is. This sort of work forces you to reflect on every moment you're alive."

Later on the set, Danson and Helgenberger, in requisite rubber gloves, are going through a box of evidence in the CSI lab. The scene is for an upcoming episode called "CSI Down," and they're looking for clues to track a murder suspect who just hijacked a medevac helicopter.

Helgenberger seems as cool as the steel table below her, but Danson is keyed up. He's flubbed a few takes and now wants to open the scene mid-sentence to make it feel more conversational. His agitation is useful since Russell is desperate to save CSI Morgan Brody (Elisabeth Harnois), who is on board the helicopter. Two more takes and Danson nails it. "In comedy, you never have to say, 'OK, so this is what we're going to do,'" he says afterward. "Here, the dialogue is all about laying pipe for the next scene. It takes some getting used to." Helgenberger is quick to defend him: "Ted's a pro. He already feels like part of the fabric of the show."

For more on CSI, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, October 6! Need to catch up on the action? CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: The Eleventh Season is now available on DVD (Parmount Home Entertainment). 

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