The Chicago International Film Festival Television Awards honors the executive producer of TV’s hugely popular show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
Carol Mendelsohn’s résumé reads like a true Hollywood success story: she was a writer and producer for Melrose Place before becoming executive producer of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which resulted in her also producing the now-canceled spin-off series CSI: Miami and CSI: NY and creating her own production company, Carol Mendelsohn Productions. On April 10, the veteran writer/producer steps out from behind the curtain to receive the Commitment to Excellence Award for Television Productions at the 50th Chicago International Film Festival Television Awards.
“We’re always pleased to celebrate Chicagoans in the industry, and Carol is one of the leading voices in modern television,” says Michael Kutza, founder/artistic director of the Chicago International Film Festival. “The phenomenal success of all incarnations of the CSI franchise are a testament to her diligence and creative vision, and we couldn’t think of a more deserving honoree for the 50th anniversary of this competition.” TCW talked to Carol about the hit show that sparked a global fascination with forensic science and why she can’t wait to tuck into a deep-dish pizza.
What was it like growing up Chicago? Cold. But can’t complain – I live in California now. Chicago is the absolutely best place to grow up since there are beaches. And great parks. My dad grew up on the South Side, so he was a White Sox fan. We lived Near North, so my friends were Cub fans. I was one of the rare fans of both. In Chicago, you can’t beat the food and you can’t beat the people. But don’t try to beat the politics.
Do you visit home often? I still have family here, as well as friends I grew up with and met along the way. Midwest friends are friends for life. And I have to have my fix: deep-dish cheese and spinach pizza at Gino’s East. Nothing on the West Coast even comes close.
When did you realize you wanted to be a TV producer? I remember the day my family’s first TV set was delivered. It changed my life. Since then, I’ve spent an inordinate portion of each day in front of a TV – only now I get to decide what’s on it. I started writing in sixth grade. It was an apocalyptic novel, so I guess I was destined to write about death.
When did you move to L.A. and what were some of the early lessons you learned along the way? I didn’t move directly to L.A. I spent nine years in Washington, D.C., attending law school, practicing law and writing spec scripts when I realized I wasn’t cut out for the law. So I moved to L.A. in 1982 and kept writing specs. Back then, the only way to break into the business was through a great sample script. It’s the old adage: You want to be a writer? Keep writing.
How did CSI start? It came about in the middle of my career. I’d worked on several shows, spending most of the ‘90s writing and producing Melrose Place. The next pilot season, CBS hired me to write an off-strip Las Vegas soap opera. It goes without saying, there was a murder. My pilot didn’t get produced but Anthony Zuiker’s Vegas pilot did. CBS needed an executive producer for that show. So I signed on and the show, which didn’t even have a name, became CSI.
What research have you done for CSI and what have you learned? I’ve been to real crime scenes, autopsies, and seen many dead bodies. The bodies we make for the show look real, but I can assure you they don’t smell like the real thing – it’s a smell you’ll never forget or wash out. I’ve learned there’s no such thing as a perfect crime – you always leave a bit of yourself at a crime scene.
CSI has aired nearly 15 years. How do you keep it fresh? The sad fact is people never run out of ways to kill each other so we’re never short on inspiration. Also, science and technology continue to advance so there are more unique ways to solve crimes. But it’s the people working on the show who continue to set the bar higher every season.
What’s your favorite part about working on CSI? It’s an international hit, so I get invited all over the world as an ambassador of the show. Sometimes I give talks or interviews. I meet new friends and have a great time. And now, I get to come home for the 50th Chicago International Film Festival Television Awards. I couldn’t be prouder or more excited.
How does it feel to be honored for your work? As a writer, you always believe you labor in anonymity; the stars are the face of the show. So, it’s surprising to be singled out for doing what I love to do. But it’s always a little scary to come out from behind the curtain, even if it’s just to take a bow. I can’t thank Michael Kutza enough for this honor.
What other projects are your working on? My company had some great success on CBS with The Defenders and Dogs in the City, and we currently have a number of cable projects in the development stage. At this moment, my CSI partners and just finished a planted spin-off for a new CSI series revolving around a special agent in charge at the Cyber Crime Division of the FBI in Quantico, VA, who’s tasked with solving high octane crimes that start in the mind, live online and play out into the real world.
What advice can you offer women trying to make it in a male-dominated industry? Develop a Teflon shield and don’t let criticism or self-doubt consume you. Instead, use it as positive…a motivator. And, more than anything, trust your instincts. If you have an idea, speak up. When I was getting started, I’d whisper an idea, because I didn’t have the confidence to speak out loud. But some of those whispers were really great ideas. I quickly learned that you never get credit for a whisper.