Actor Robert David Hall

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CSI star tells the backstory of his passionate advocacy for people with disabilities and talks about achieving his lifelong dream—as a singer-songwriter-guitarist—with his new CD.

Although Robert David Hall has numerous TV and film credits, including extensive radio and voiceover work, he's best known for his coroner's role on the CBS hit CSI. He's also a gifted singer-songwriter-musician, whose debut EP, "Things They Don't Teach You in School," was recently released. During his teen years, Hall played in several bands and went on the road in his 20s. At age 30, he became a double-leg amputee as a result of a car accident, which changed the course of his career. He's a founder of I AM PWD and an impassioned advocate for the disabled.


Tavis: Robert David Hall is a talented actor who plays Dr. Al Robbins on one of TV’s most popular shows, “CSI.” He recently fulfilled a lifelong dream of getting into the music business by releasing the CD “Things They Don’t Teach You in School.” More on that in a moment. First, though, here is a scene from “CSI.”
Tavis: Robert, good to have you on the program. It feels like a “CSI on PBS” month. (Laughs) Fishburne, your colleague, was just here not too long ago talking about his new play, “Thurgood.”
Robert David Hall: My wife Judy and I saw that at the Kennedy Center in Washington and it’s tremendous. He’s out here doing it at the Geffen in Los Angeles.
Tavis: Right.
Hall: Laurence, I worked with him years ago on a movie called “Class Action” and when he showed up at “CSI” I couldn’t believe my luck. He’s just a tremendous man and a great actor.
Tavis: Since you were there from the beginning, what’s it like when an actor, no matter how talented he might be as a thespian, or she might be, when they show up to take the role that someone else has played and you’re part of the cast, how does the cast and how do you think the audience makes that transition?
Hall: I think the audience loved and still love Billy Petersen, and Laurence didn’t take Billy’s job, he created a new character. Billy has a certain energy and Laurence has that gravitas that you expect him to sort of be in control of the situation, so it’s the same show, but it’s got a different twist. It’s a lot like life. Things happen, things change.
Tavis: You’ve been there since the beginning on the program.
Hall: I joined on the fifth show of the first year.
Tavis: Exactly. Were you originally supposed to be there as a permanent member of the cast?
Hall: No, the first coroner didn’t like the job as much and might have had a little trouble pronouncing the 10-syllable medical words, so God bless my father forcing me to take three years of Latin. (Laughter) He forced me, too.
Tavis: I was whispering to you before we came on the show that – I was discussing this with somebody on the show recently as well – about the TV show “House.”
Hall: Yeah, Hugh Laurie.
Tavis: The actor Hugh Laurie. He walks on a cane on that show, but he uses it as a prop, so the cane – he does not walk on a cane in real life.
Hall: It’s hard to argue with Hugh Laurie’s success. He’s a brilliant actor, great musician also, but I like to see – this is personally and professionally – I like to see people with disabilities who are actors audition for roles like that. There are so few actual people with disabilities in front of or behind the camera, so the opportunities are scarce and we’re working hard to try to change that.
Tavis: I raise that, obviously, not to cast aspersion on him. He’s a great actor and it’s a great show. I think we both agree on that. I raise it only because I wanted to make a distinction that yours is not a prop. This is the way you walk around in real life.
Hall: I walk on two of these, two artificial legs.
Tavis: Show that again.
Hall: Sure.
Tavis: Can I see this again?
Hall: This is called a C-Leg and I walk on two artificial limbs. I’m pretty lucky I was a pole-vaulter in high school and college, so my balance is pretty good. There are 58 million people with some kind of disability in America, so it’s the largest minority, really, in America, and it flags behind in education and economics and jobs, so outside of “CSI” and outside of my music I serve on a couple of boards, and I’m trying to be a part of the movement that changes this.
Tavis: Where do you find the balance? On the one hand, Robert, you want to, as you said a moment ago, raise these issues, to use your voice, to use your celebrity to get more opportunities for persons with disabilities in this and other industries, for that matter.
Hall: Right, exactly.
Tavis: So one, you don’t want to shy away from what this is all about. On the other hand, you do want to be accepted as the actor, as the human being that you are, and not be denied opportunities or judged, have your skills judged by the fact that you happen to be a person with disabilities. How do you juxtapose those two things?
Hall: “CSI’s” been a great blessing for me. It’s been a platform that’s allowed me to go around the country and the world, really, and speak on issues of disability, but I’ve never – I’m a professional actor so I studied for years, I do theater. I never want to disrespect what got me here.
So I learn my lines, I learn my blocking and I’m grateful that I wasn’t hired by people who – they were just looking for a good actor to play a coroner, and they didn’t say, “Oh, he’s walking on artificial limbs,” or “Oh, he’s this or that.”
So I’ve been very fortunate, but there is discrimination that exists and it shows in the fact that one-half of 1 percent of words uttered on TV are spoken by somebody with a disability and 20 percent of the country has some disability, so there’s a gap there, Tavis, that people are still a little reluctant to talk about.
Tavis: What’s the difference, assuming that there is one, Robert, between an African American actor trying to convince producers that a Black guy, a Black woman can play this role, even though it wasn’t written that way, that this ain’t what y’all had in mind?
When a brother or sister can play this – what’s the difference between you convincing them of that?
Hall: Respectfully, the civil rights movement for people with disabilities is modeled on the African American civil rights movement. I’m old enough to remember 1964. I was a junior in high school. But we’re 20, 25 years behind the progress that has been made by African Americans, but we model it on it because it’s very important to ask the question you just asked.
Why can’t an African American be a surgeon, a professor, a judge, a this, a that? Hey, it’s only been since 1967 that Bill Cosby was on “I-Spy.” We forget how recent this big light bulb went off in the heads of producers and casting people.
So I’m of the opinion – this is just Robert David Hall – I’m of the opinion that every group, including people with disabilities, has its share of geniuses and brilliant people and its share of losers. People get so crazy about trying to label this and that, and the fact of the matter is that people with disabilities have an awful lot to contribute.
I’m one of the few who’s actually doing it, not because I’m so special but because there’s been a reticence to push that.
Tavis: Since we’re making these parallels here, I know certain African American actors who I will not call by name who get tired of being asked the Black question. You ever get tired of being asked the disabled question?
Hall: Sure I do.
Tavis: You’re not going to slap me for asking about that, are you?
Hall: No, I’m not going to slap you, but I was brought up by parents who said you get more flies with honey than you do with a fly swatter, but I think you have to use both, myself. (Laughter) I do everything I can to be the best actor I can be, the best musician I can be. I try to take risks; I try not to let fear run my life.
I’m somewhat successful in that, but not always. But I do things outside of that. I belong to a couple of organizations, I’m on the board of the National Organization on Disability, I’ve served on amputee organizations, I’ve worked with my unions, the Screen Actors Guild, AFTRA and Actors Equity. I’ve been the chair of the Performers with Disabilities Committee for about 10 years.
We have a thing called IMPWD, it’s a program going on right now – inclusion in the arts and media for people with disabilities, and it’s acting and news. In fact, this Saturday we have a big conference in Hollywood called Lights, Camera, Access, and President Obama’s secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, is going to come and listen to us as we talk about the issues of trying to get people with disabilities in front of and behind the cameras.
Tavis: For those who are going to write me letters if I don’t ask this question, even though you have been asked this a thousand times – fans of yours, in fact, even, who don’t know how you ended up on these prosthetics, tell me the short version.
Hall: The short version is a drunk truck driver ran me over in 1978 and I was – I try to look at the positive. At least I was close to a trauma center. They don’t have as many trauma centers today as they used to. I’m alive because some great paramedics got me to UC Irvine critical care hospital and some great doctors and nurses kept this sorry guy alive.
It’s just not something you take lightly, and I try to be grateful for it without trying. I try to make it a part of who I am.
Tavis: Speaking of not taking things lightly, you take your music pretty seriously, don’t you?
Hall: I was a musician before I was an actor. My first memories of life are my mother doing the dishes and listening to the radio up on the counter, so I love all kinds of music but I happen to be kind of a roots country guy.
I just finished in Austin, Texas an album called “Things They Don’t Teach You in School,” produced by my best friend, Chris Wall.
Tavis: We just showed some pictures, while you were talking a moment ago, of your Opryland debut. How cool is that, to go to – for a guy who loves country-western, is there anything bigger than Opryland?
Hall: Well, it’s like Carnegie Hall for the middle class. (Laughter) They were so nice to my wife and I there, and there were 2,500 strangers and half of them were thrilled that the guy from “CSI” was there with a guitar and the other half sat there going, “Wait a minute, he’s an actor.” (Laughter)
As soon as I started playing I had the whole place in the palm of my hands and it was just – it’s the greatest feeling, that people – these are primarily songs that I wrote or co-wrote with Chris.
Tavis: I was going to say, you don’t just play, you write as well.
Hall: Well, that was what the exercise was for me. I had written these snippets of songs and never finished them, and my youngest brother, Steve, has been ill, and he said, “Why don’t you just finish these damn songs?” And I did, and I want to do it again and again and again.
Tavis: I’m sure you will, again and again. Anything Robert David Hall wants to do, seems like he gets it done. He ought to be and is for many of us an inspiration. His new CD is called “Things They Don’t Teach You in School,” and of course you can catch him on “CSI.”
Hall: We go back to work next week.
Tavis: Yeah, well, have fun.
Hall: Thank you.
Tavis: Your hiatus, the summer is over for you.
Hall: That’s right. (Laughter)
Tavis: Good to meet you.
Hall: What a pleasure, thank you.
Tavis: Glad to have you on.
Hall: All right.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm