CSI: NY will celebrate its 100th episode on Wednesday (Nov. 19) night, but on a conference call with the press, few reporters wanted to talk to Hill Harper about his CBS hit. Instead, they wanted to discuss one of Harper’s friends from law school.
That friend? An up-and-coming politician named Barack Obama.
"It was Harvard Law School and I looked up to him a great deal and that’s not jut because he’s taller than I am," Harper recalls. "I looked up to him because he had taken five years off between undergrad and grad school. We met basically the first week at school, at Harvard, actually on the basketball court. I was playing basketball to blow off some steam and there’s a gym at Harvard Law School called Hemingway Gymnasium, which is just basically for the Harvard Law students and the funny thing about Harvard Law School is that the library is full and the gym is empty. Is there playing playing by myself and basketball’s one of those things where it’s always more fun to do with somebody else and in walked this tall, skinny guy named Barack Obama. We struck up a friendship."
It was that friendship, plus a confidence in Obama’s leadership abilities, that led Harper to spend much of the past two years on the campaign trail, starting in Iowa, where he just happens to have been born. That hasn’t stopped him from appearing regularly as coroner Sheldon Hawkes on CSI: NY, though his commitment to Obama required some coordination with the show’s creative team.
"That conversation started 21 months ago, but it really started with me asking them to donate to the campaign," Harper laughs. "That was the icebreaker, saying, ‘Hey, I’m doing a friend for my friend from Harvard. His name’s Barack Obama and I need you guys to donate to the campaign.’ Some of them said ‘Yes.’ Some of them said ‘No.’ But at least they understood that this was something I was serious about."
Harper credits producer Vikki Williams with helping him work out his shooting and campaigning schedule over the months.
"It’s a lot of moving logistical pieces, because certainly I wasn’t the only one requesting time for different things," he notes. "Obviously a lot of the cast members have a lot of interests an a lot things that they do, awards that they get and places they have to go, it’s a lot of juggling, so I have so much respect for what they do in putting together a production."
And Harper’s commitment to the Obama campaign wasn’t just the occasional smile-and-wave guest appearance.
"It’s been a lot of planes. I’m on the Platinum Executive list on every single carrier, I have a feeling," he laughs. "Just flying in and flying out and whenever I’m not shooting, I’d be flying somewhere to do some campaigning in some state. And a lot of radio, I needed to get on and do a lot of radio and sometimes I’d be call-ins and sometimes that would be in person and occasionally I’d do TV, like Larry King or Geraldo or CNN or Fox News or MSNBC, stuff like that."
In addition to his J.D. from Harvard Law and his Masters in Public Administration from the school’s Kennedy School of Government, Harper has written two books, so he isn’t just a TV star. But he acknowledges that being on a hit show has its advantages.
"There’s a real blessing to doing the show, because you reach a huge audience. And it’s really helped, for instance, during this campaign, being able to speak to bigger and bigger groups about what I was interested in," he says. "It’s also great for the books I’ve written, being able to go out and sign books and do talks, motivational talks. There’s a wonderful ancillary benefit to the show that way, that I’m reaching a huge audience."
As for that hit show, Harper had to wait until after the questions to interject a little CSI: NY love.
"I love doing CSI: NY and I love playing Dr. Hawkes because I love breaking stereotypes, I love being the most intelligent character on the show," he says. "I love being the character that all the other characters have to come to for answers and we don’t see that image being portrayed enough, as far as African-American males are concerned, on television and now we’re going to see that image in the White House and I think that’s fantastic and I’m glad we’re going to see it on CSI: NY. "
He adds, "Hopefully they’ll give me a girlfriend soon, so I can be smart and be cool."
The CSI: NY 100th episode airs on Wednesday, Nov. 19 at 10 p.m. ET on CBS.