Robert David Hall is standing over a murder victim whose chest is sliced down the middle. He puts down the still-whirring, oscillating circular saw and carefully peels back the flesh covering the stomach and chest cavity, exposing the internal organs. Both of Hall's hands disappear into the squishy, bloody void to retrieve an organ. The analysis of the organ could provide the key to unlocking how the victim died and, when everything goes forensically just right, the organ analysis can also hold the key to the identity of the evil-doer who put an end to the victim's time on planet earth.
Robert David Hall is the mirror image of Dr. Albert Robbins, the Las Vegas crime lab coroner. Or is that Dr. Robbins who is the mirror image of Hall? It's really hard to tell, since they've been comfortable in each other's skin for a very long time - 15 years and 325 episodes, to be exact.
Hall sat down for an HNGN exclusive interview to talk about season 15 of "CSI," being perhaps the most prominent actor with a disability working today, the tragic accident that caused both of his legs to be amputated, his songwriting and music - including an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry - and, oh yeah, wearing seat belts.
The night before the HNGN interview, Dr. Robbins was standing at that crime lab autopsy table removing a lymph node from a murder victim in the then-most-current episode of "CSI." When he, with the precision of a surgeon, slices open the node, black ooze gushes out. The ooze, Dr. Robbins explains on the episode, is ink, absorbed into the victim's lymph node from a recent tattooing effort.
"The guy who created that intriguing effect and who is behind a lot of the medical special effects on the show is a wonderfully strange and talented man named Matthew Mungle," Hall explained. "His official title is special effects/makeup. He's been nominated for Academy Awards and he's won all kinds of accolades. He's essentially a 12-year-old kid in a 50-year-old guy's body."
"Matthew just loves doing this stuff. So, whenever we have a strange effect, I know that he has something to do with it. Then he'll confirm it by coming up to me, all excited about the effect. With the lymph node, he said, 'Ok, now, when you take the scalpel, be sure to cut it right here, that way the fluid will really squirt out.'"
"I thank God that I'm nearsighted, because a lot of the medical gore is lost on me while we're shooting it. But when I see it on the tube, it looks so real. People will see those effects on the show and then, when they cross paths with me, they'll say, 'Were you ever a doctor or in the medical field?" I tell them, "No. But that's sort of why I got into acting - it's fun to pretend. And, my God, we're pretending on the show."
Even so, Hall works very hard with the show's medical consultants to make sure Dr. Robbins comes across with a healthy dose of realistic believability.
"If I'm going over a script and there's something I don't understand or something that I want to make sure that I pronounce correctly, I'll go on the internet and check out a site like WebMD. I'm the kind of actor who likes to have a general idea of what I am really supposed to be doing, 'cause I don't like faking it."
"And, yes, we have wonderful medical consultants on the show who will tell us to hold a scalpel a certain way or move the slide on the microscope in this manner. They care a lot about the reality of the show."
To prepare for his role as Dr. Robbins, Hall has seen his share of real-life autopsies in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
"The very first autopsy that I attended in Vegas happened to have eight medical students there to observe. The coroner would pick up a body part and hand it to me and tell me to weigh it in these Tupperware containers. I figured he was trying to mess with me and I wasn't going to let him get the best of me."
But it wasn't Hall who reacted to the handling and weighing of body parts. A couple of the med students got sick. One gal fainted and hit her head on the wall.
"You know, with coroners and medical examiners being around death all the time, that has to have an effect on them. Being around death just the little I have in autopsies has had an impact on me."
"I can remember going back to my hotel room after the several autopsies in Vegas that day and I just had to talk to my then 22-year-old son. I called him and said, 'I hope you're wearing your seatbelt, 'cause I just looked at a kid your age in the morgue who wasn't wearing his seatbelt.' And he goes, 'What's the matter with you, Dad?'"
Now, when viewers see Dr. Robbins on "CSI," he has the professional aura of having done hundreds of autopsies.
So, what's ahead for this season for the accomplished coroner?
"Well, I'm a typical actor who keeps trying to get more scenes. We've always been part of an ensemble. We have nine people in the main titles now, so, obviously, Ted Danson and Elizabeth Shue, who are the stars of the show, get the bulk of the time. But I get two or three really good scenes each episode. And I comfort myself with the fact that I usually have the ten syllable tongue-twisters in my scenes."
In fact, it was Hall's ability to flawlessly deliver tongue-twisting medical jargon that caused his hiring for one scene in one episode to evolve into hundreds of scenes over the 15-year run of "CSI."
"I guess I fooled them (laughing). William Peterson was the star of the show at that time. I was just playing music, acting, going to acting classes, doing voice-overs, doing anything I could to try to scrape out a living, when I was hired for one scene on 'CSI.' It was their fifth episode. The show was brand new."
"The scene went well and I thought, 'Great. I got a paycheck. Thank God I can pay the rent this month.'"
"I didn't know the behind-the-scenes drama that was going on. They were trying to find a coroner. The first one that they had cast didn't work out and Peterson looked at me and said, 'He'd be a good coroner.' And suddenly the next week I was back playing another scene."
"I ended up doing 16 episodes that first year. They made me a regular at the beginning of the second year. Then they put my mug on the front of the show, in the intro, at the beginning of the third year-and I haven't looked back."
But Hall confesses that he is looking forward toward this season's storylines.
"I will get out of the morgue a couple of times this year, which I, personally enjoy a lot. Believe me, I'm not complaining about anything. The show is such a gift, but last year I had an episode that pretty much focused on my character, where I went down to Mexico and met up with my counterpart, a Mexican coroner, played by a wonderful actor, Julio Mechoso. He and I bonded as people, the two of us. We became friends doing the show."
"It's kinda rare to see Dr. Robbins all the way through an episode, but it does occasionally happen. I'm sort of an important functionary. I have to tell them 'they went that a-way' and here's the medical reason why it happened - now go catch 'em."
Successful and confident today, Hall remembers all too clearly the summer day in 1978 that changed his life forever - the summer day that almost killed him.
"I was in a small foreign car and I was on my way to sell it. I was thrilled about selling that car, because I was going to buy my first new car. I'm driving in Orange County on the 405 freeway. It's a perfectly warm, dry day in July. A guy, who was spending his first day in California, was driving an 18-wheel dirt truck filled with top soil. The guy had apparently stopped for a six-pack lunch and he lost control of the truck."
"They were doing a lot of work in that area of the freeway, so he plowed through a chain link fence that separated the north and south lanes. And I was the unlucky guy going north when he was going south. He hit me head on an ran the truck over the car."
"Miraculously, I survived the actual impact, which probably should've killed me. Ten minutes after the crash the gas tank exploded and the car went up in flames."
"Only because there were some really brave people on that freeway am I alive today. It takes a while, especially on a crowded L.A. freeway, to get an ambulance to you. A gentleman who had just retired as a welder had a giant fire extinguisher in his truck. A younger man helped him. They managed to put out the fire. They didn't quite know where my car was in the wreckage, but they could hear me screaming."
"Shortly thereafter, the paramedics arrived and did the ol' jaws of life routine. They got me out of the crushed car and I was laying out on the freeway. Everybody thought I was dead. I remember thinking that I was so pleased to be able to see the sunshine. The paramedics were pumping me full of stuff. Fortunately, there was a critical care burn ward about 20 minutes away. That closeness of the unit made the difference for me."
More than 65 percent of Hall's body was burned. His face had to be reconstructed.
"I spent about five months in the critical care ward getting amputations and skin grafts. The summer of '78 was a tough one, but I came through it on the other side."
What gave you the determination and the strength - after having both of your legs amputated - to want to come through on the other side?
"When you're in the hospital, it's a process," he explained in the voice-over quality voice he uses in the cartoons "Ben 10: Alien Force," "Batman" and "Superman," and in "CSI: Videogames 5 and 6."
"The doctors and hospital personnel first have to save your life. Then they have to evaluate what's next and what can be done. Then they put you in occupational therapy to see if you can go back to your regular job. I thought they were going to try to give me a tin cup with pencils and put me out on the street (laughing)."
"I'm pretty sure no one else who had been in this particular hospital in occupational therapy told them, 'Well, I want to be in radio and I want to act and play guitar and write songs.' When they heard me say that, I'm sure they said, 'Sure he does--and do not increase the drugs on this guy. He's already flying."
"Those months in the hospital were a journey. Kind of a dream, in a way. I was so motivated to get back to anything other than hospital stuff. That motivation probably helped me focus a little bit. I think the accident gave me focus and discipline. It took away stuff, but it gave me a greater drive than I might have had. The following February I went back to my radio job. I was working in radio and playing in a band at night in a bar before the accident. The playing in a band got put on hold after the accident."
Hall, who today walks comfortably on two prosthetic limbs, experienced another life-changing event in 1991. This one was much more pleasant than the one in July of 1978.
"I was working in radio, writing copy, doing voice-overs, taking an acting class or two," he recalls. "Life is such a funny thing. For one of my jobs, I was working at a KNX-FM in Los Angeles and the news guy, Christopher Ames, and his wife were closet screenwriters. They were working on a movie script and in the script they included a character loosely based on me and my accident."
That script turned out to be for "Class Action," the mega-hit movie starring Gene Hackman and Laurence Fishburne. So, when it came time to cast the part in the movie that was based on Hall's tragic wreck, he was a shoo-in for the part. Right?
Like Hall said, "life is a funny thing," and landing the role of accident victim Steven Kellen - a man maimed when the gas tank of his car explodes in an accident - was not a slam dunk at all.
"I actually had to audition to play myself. At that time, I had a few acting credits, but nothing super impressive. I managed to 'fool' the director, Michael Apted, and so I got to play a character based somewhat on my own life experience."
"So, my first movie had me acting with Gene Hackman. That's not the easiest thing to do. But somehow I muscled my way through it. I learned a lot from all the people in the movie. For me, essentially, I was getting paid to learn. It was like six years of acting class jammed into six weeks."
As you immersed yourself for all those weeks in the role that was, for all intents and purposes, your story, was there a sense of art imitating life?
"Yes, there was. The emotion of playing that role was kind of odd, because part of me doesn't want to relive that piece of my life. But the actor part of me knew that what I was being paid to do was to be a guy who had been in a bad accident. I learned in portraying that role how far I can get into what happened to me and how far I need to remain a bit distant from what happened to me."
When did you realize that you could draw upon the tragedy that took your legs and, in turn, be an advocate for the disabled?
"I had a little notoriety before 'CSI,' because there are not too many people with disabilities working in the acting business. However, I never wanted that kind of notoriety. You know, 'Isn't he great for a guy with no legs.' That kind of thing."
"But 'CSI' gave all of us on the cast a pretty big spotlight. I'm not Mr. Altruism, but at some point I realized that in a small way maybe I could help somebody else. By sharing a portion of my story or by talking to people, for reasons that amaze me, sometimes people respond to it. And if it helps somebody else get through a tough time, then I'm all for it."
"I've got some amazing letters from people saying that it helped them to know that I was able to move on after my accident. So, I think it would be selfish of me to hide what happened to me."
One of the most prominent disabled actors working today, Hall is constantly giving advocacy speeches and appearing before various organizations. He serves on the Board of Directors of the National Organization on Disability, and was honored by California State Leaders for his contributions as one of the Founders of I AM PWD (Inclusion in the Arts & Media of People with Disabilities). He is also National Chairman of the Performers with Disabilities Caucus for SAG, AFTRA and EQUITY.
Do you see any change within the acting industry, or the public in general in relation to people with disabilities?
"It's still a tough thing," he acknowledges. "You know, our impulse as human beings is to feel sorry for someone who has gone through a tough time. I think most people who have visible disabilities, or disabilities at all, in my experience, by and large, want to be treated as human beings, first."
"I am careful to say people with disabilities, rather than the disabled or the handicapped. It makes a difference, because those are labels. And I think fear, ignorance and labels are our biggest enemies."
"We all have our waterloos and hopefully we'll conquer most of them. But I think we need to find what we can do that is a positive. For me, it's trying to keep working, trying to write songs, keeping my wife happy, having a relationship with my son - I love him - and having relationships with my friends. So it's doing stuff. It's going forward. It's not retreating. When you start retreating, then you really start dying."
"When I talk to people I try to give them a little bit of me and then I try to be sensitive to what is on their minds."
What's on Hall's mind a lot nowadays is playing his guitar and writing his songs.
"I love acting, but I think my greatest dream centers on these questions - 'do I have a great song in me and will people react positively to what I do musically?'"
"In acting, if you're not a writer, you're taking someone else's words and trying to bring them to life. And if you're competent, you can do that. And if the writing is really good, it makes you look really good. But when you sing your own songs, you lay yourself out there and say, listen to what I wrote. You know, it may be corny, but writing a song that touches people in some way--makes them cry, makes them laugh--is thrilling to me."
Hall recorded his debut album, "Things They Don't Teach You in School," in July 2010. He wrote seven of the songs, including the title track, and co-wrote two more. He and his band performed the title track on CBS's "The Late Show with Craig Ferguson."
Later in 2010, Hall performed two of his songs at the historic Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. The Opry, the longest running live radio show, has showcased country music's superstars - from Hank Williams Sr. to George Strait - and the hottest newcomers for 89 years.
"That was one of the highlights of my life. They couldn't have been nicer to me. The Opry band is simply some of the best musicians I have ever run across. Being in the Ryman was like going to church. It was amazing. When I performed there it was a packed Saturday night. Half of the audience was thrilled to see that guy from 'CSI.' The other half had their arms folded and they were sort of skeptical. But I remembered the words to the song and I sang it pretty well and the guitar stayed in tune-all the stuff that musicians worry about. And I think I won the arms-folded half over."
Hall paused, then said, "You know, there really is some sort of mystical vibration going on in the Ryman Auditorium. You can really feel the ghosts."
"I hope to appear on the Opry again. I've been writing songs and I think I have about ten pretty good ones now. I'm just trying to squeeze out the time to get the right people involved to help me record the songs."
As the HNGN interview came to an end, Hall summed up the success of the long-running "CSI."
"The premise of the show was strong in the beginning. Our ratings aren't quite as great as they used to be, but we have a good core audience of faithful fans. And I think that it's great, after all these years, that people still want to go along for the ride."
Hall revealed what would be the best thing that could happen to him in the near future.
"That my wife and myself maintain good health. And, as a father, I want my son to stay healthy and work on finding his passion. I think finding your passion is the key to making everything else work. I want my son to be a happy guy."
And do you still want your son to wear his seatbelt?
"I do, but he's 32. What am I going to do at this point?"