William Petersen Trades Forensics for Government Secrets on ‘Manhattan’

WGN America

When 2015 began, William Petersen had no plans to return to TV. “I wasn’t interested. I was doing theater,” he recalls. Yet the actor has been back twice—first as forensic specialist Gil Grissom on last month’s CSI finale and now as atomic-bomb cheerleader Col. Emmett Darrow on WGN America’s period drama Manhattan. We find out what changed his mind.

Why did you say yes to Manhattan?
I was already intrigued about the time period. I had just finished reading several books about the 1940s and World War II. And I had a book on the making of the atomic bomb. I didn’t know about the farewell to CSI yet—which is good, because I probably wouldn’t have done Manhattan. But I ended up doing both instead.

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Is Darrow based on a real person?
There was a general, Leslie Groves, who was put in charge of the Manhattan Project. He was the guy who named it—because he was working out of Manhattan at the time. He ended up having more power than anybody anticipated because the government kept dumping money into the bomb. So I think of Colonel Darrow as an appendage of Groves’s—a stand-in for the army presence that was required to get things done.

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Darrow has bigger plans for the bomb than just ending World War II, which makes him a pretty scary figure.
He sees the Cold War ahead and wants to get there first. Darrow doesn’t like the Germans or the Japanese, but he perceives Stalin as the real enemy. He’s determined not only to develop this weapon but also to use it. He thinks of the United States as he thinks of himself: If, at the end of the day, you’re not the biggest guy on the block, then you’re going to get beaten.

Were you pleased with how CSI ended?
Yes. We had such little time to do it, and we’d already lost the stages at Universal. So we had to re-create everything real fast in a little warehouse in North Hollywood using pieces of a set that had been torn apart. It was like the first year, when we were just trying to figure it out as we went along. I hope the fans also felt good about it.

 Manhattan, Tuesday, Oct. 27  9/8, WGN America