Santa Clara University

Santa Clara Magazine
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Forensic investigator Horatio Caine lies face-down in a pool of blood. Who killed him -- and why? That’s what CSI: Miami writer and co-executive producer Barry O’Brien ’79 has to figure out. That, and how to bring Caine back to life.
FADE IN:

SEPT. 22, 2008. ONE OF 11 MILLION HOMES WATCHING THE SEASON PREMIERE OF CSI: MIAMI (SEASON SEVEN) -- NIGHT CREDITS ROLL. “Co-Executive Producer/Writer BARRY O’BRIEN” shows on-screen. TIGHT SHOT OF TV

Horatio Caine, the former Miami-Dade homicide detective turned forensic investigator, is flat on his stomach, his body sprawled on an airport tarmac. A pool of blood is growing; Caine doesn’t appear to be breathing. Close-up of his signature sunglasses lying on the ground, lenses shattered.

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Shattered: His trademark sunglasses broken on the pavement, investigator Horatio Caine is dead. Or is he?.
Photo: Courtesy CBS

Who fired the shot that felled Caine? Was it the powerful weapons smuggler, the just-released con, or the rogue FBI agent? Or, as the mounting evidence seems to suggest, was it a member of his very own team?

FLASH TO:
INTERIOR WRITER’S ROOM, SUMMER 2008 (FLASHBACK)

Caine is the character played by actor David Caruso, the lead in the hit CBS detective series CSI: Miami. And Caine is dead. He was gunned down in the final seconds of a cliffhanger ending to the previous season’s finale.

Now what? That is the daunting question before Barry O’Brien. His job is to bring Caine back to life, and do it believably, for the season premiere in September. O’Brien knows this will be a challenge, but he’s in a good place. He has a team of savvy and well-tested writers behind him. They are the “smartest and best” in the business, says O’Brien, who has been creating, writing, and producing television shows ever since he left the Mission campus three decades ago

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Trademark shades: Actor David Caruso, left, who plays Lt. Horatio Caine, with Barry O’Brien on the set of CSI: Miami. Says Caruso, “We couldn’t do the show without Barry. He is essential to the process.”
Photo: Charles Barry

Together, the writers develop a story line for the premiere that will hook CSI fans around the globe. Then it’s up to O’Brien to build on that foundation and write the script that will carry the first episode through and the series forward. But his work on this episode doesn’t end there; he will follow production from the first shot to the final cut. For O’Brien, it’s the involvement with the entire process that sustains his passion for the work.

CUT TO:
SEASON PREMIERE, SEPT. 22, 2008

It turns out Caine has staged his own execution in order to take down a conspiracy selling fused alloy bullets to gangs. We are just 15 minutes into the season premiere, “Resurrection,” and Barry O’Brien has succeeded in bringing Horatio Caine back to life. He has also introduced another criminal mystery that needs to be solved. What follows is the kind of suspenseful, sleek, conflict-laden, high-tech, gadget-filled story line that keeps millions of CSI: Miami fans coming back for more. Guns, stolen cars, explosions, nasty criminals, and shady informants all converge in this action-packed, highly stylized production set against a backdrop of Miami’s gangly palms and crystal blue waters.

DISSOLVE TO:
BACK LOT CSI: MIAMI, RALEIGH STUDIOS, MANHATTAN BEACH, CALIF. -- DAY

Don’t be fooled by the Florida plates and decals on the police cruisers parked outside O’Brien’s office. When I went to meet O’Brien last year, during his fourth season with the show, it was in Southern California. The set for CSI: Miami is in Manhattan Beach, about 2,300 miles from Miami-Dade County.

Dressed in jeans, a button-down shirt, suede jacket, and sporting dark shades, O’Brien exudes a sense of casual confidence that comes with knowing he is a valued member of a successful team of writers and producers whose creativity has helped to make CSI: Miami both an Emmy and People’s Choice Award winner. O’Brien’s individual talents have not gone unnoticed by his peers in the business either. He was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Mystery Writers of America Award for Best Television Episode Teleplay of 2008 for one CSI: Miami episode he wrote, “You May Now Kill the Bride.”

“A nice nod from a prestigious organization,” O’Brien says humbly.

The two main soundstages for the show are housed in nondescript threestory office buildings. But pass through the glass double doors at the entrance and there is little that resembles corporate life inside. Before we reach the cavernous soundstage, where headphone-wearing crew members scurry about, we pass a room where the props and special effects are created. One of the crew tells us he is in the process of trying to figure out how to assemble a particular type of explosive for an upcoming episode. His challenge: how to make the device detonate without injuring himself or the stunt double.

INTERIOR: O’BRIEN’S OFFICE ON BACK LOT OF RALEIGH STUDIOS
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The office: Even if the action and characters are stylized, the science is the real deal.
Photo: Charles Barry

O’Brien sits at a desk in a corner office with a nameplate on the door. Leather couch and chairs fit comfortably in the room. Window overlooks a golf course that adjoins the back lot.

O’Brien is a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. Has been his entire career. He was studying business at Santa Clara University when he first gave television writing a shot. In his dorm room in McLaughlin Hall, and later in his off-campus apartment, he would write scripts for television shows and send them to people whose names he saw in the credits at the end of sitcoms.

“The only smart thing I attribute to myself is that I didn’t send the scripts to names at the top of the crawl,” O’Brien says. “I sent them to names in the middle -- people I thought might actually respond to me.”

O’Brien’s creativity and ambition paid off. Toward the end of his senior year, an associate producer for Happy Days contacted the 22-year-old and gave him the break he needed. “I was like a game-show winner,” he says, recalling how he felt when he was invited to pitch story ideas for the show, one of the decade’s biggest hits.

The summer after graduation, O’Brien drove down to Los Angeles to meet with Paramount executives. “The biggest shock for me was when I got to the gates of the Paramount lot and security had my name. I’d been cleared!” he says. “It was like getting a key to the city. I think I hugged practically everyone I met.”

O’Brien’s enthusiasm carried him through that first meeting, when he pitched one of several story ideas. “They asked what I had. I said, ‘What if Fonzie had to put his grandmother in a home?’ They said, ‘Great, let’s do that.’ I said, ‘But wait, I have more.’ They very nicely advised that I should quit while I was ahead.”

O’Brien’s wealth of story ideas led to more Happy Days episodes as well as a number of other hit sitcoms early in his career, including Silver Spoons, Joanie Loves Chachi, and Perfect Strangers. (Though he confesses that one idea he had for Happy Days -- wherein Potsie dies -- never got off the ground. Memo to budding television writer: Don’t kill off a main character in the sitcom.)

O’Brien boasts of another significant role in television history: “I have the distinction of writing Teri Hatcher’s first television show,” he says proudly. It was an episode of The Love Boat in 1977. “She was a singing mermaid in an episode I wrote.”

These days, Hatcher plays a divorced mother on the darkly comic -- and hugely popular -- soap opera Desperate Housewives.

Just as in any good television drama, O’Brien’s career took an unexpected turn a decade ago when he sold a half-hour dramatic pilot to NBC called “Pointers.” The story centered on a troubled teenager from Los Angeles who goes to live with his estranged mother in a small town in Colorado. It was an unfolding tale of cultural collision, redemption, renewal, and hooking up with girls. While the show was series contention for a while, it never got picked up. For O’Brien, though, the experience of working on the show was a kind of catharsis. Up until then, his work had been largely writing laughout- loud sitcoms.

Nevertheless, O’Brien makes it clear he has nothing against the sitcom-writing experience: “A gang of people sitting around a large table, eating bad food, and trying to out-joke each other. It’s raucous, it’s loud, and often the funniest stuff is inappropriate for the script you’re writing,” he says.

That world is also where he got his break, and where he brushed elbows with some of the legends in the business, including producer Garry Marshall. Still, at this particular time in his career, dramatic writing became his calling.

While creating television dramas is a collaborative effort at the start, when story ideas are generated and characters developed, the actual task of writing is a solitary process, O'Brien says. There is the writer, a computer, and a deadline. "For me," O'Brien says, "a sense of purpose arrived when I began writing drama."

After “Pointers,” O’Brien was hired by the Spelling Company to develop series material. The opportunity allowed him to spend time with company founder Aaron Spelling. “He had an office bigger than my house,” O’Brien says, “bodyguards, and a rugby team of assistants.”

O’Brien cultivated his drama-writing skills on the Fox series Judging Amy, which he describes as a “great creative experience.” He wrote a number of episodes and heard them read aloud every Monday by the cast. He learned to both “defend and reshape dialogue in very vocal and spirited debates,” as he puts it, with Emmy- and Tony Award–winning actress Tyne Daly.

MATCH CUT: INTERIOR SOUNDSTAGE
SCENE: LAB AND OFFICE SETS

On this particular set of CSI: Miami the walls and floors are chrome colored, accented by shafts of dramatic, pastel light along the walls. The set has a feel that is something like industrial New Age. This is where the forensic crime lab and interrogation rooms are filmed. One room, encased in glass, is dedicated to surface computing. No desktop monitors or keyboards here; digital images are projected onto walls and glass tabletops, and the user controls the computer with a wave of the hand. High-definition images are displayed floor to ceiling. It feels as though we’ve been transported a decade into the future.

High-tech forensics are central to the show. In the season premiere, crime scene investigators used a machine that can extract DNA from unusually small samples. In this episode, the sample comes from the minuscule shaving of skin left behind by a man who made a quick escape after robbing an armored truck. The team successfully identifies a suspect and brings him in for questioning. Another piece to the hour-long drama solved.

The scene may be fiction, but the science is real. “From the smallest minutiae to the big picture, it is all researchdriven,” O’Brien says.

Forensic journals are stacked on O’Brien’s desk, while binders filled with general research and articles from online magazines line the shelves. It’s essential that the team stays on top of the latest DNA techniques and ballistic advancements. O’Brien pulls out an article from Science Daily about a new forensic process for fingerprinting that allows scientists to gather more information about a print beyond identification. “We may use that at some point,” O’Brien says. Then within the same breath, he adds, “No, we’ll definitely use that,” clearly excited about the finding.

FLASH TO END OF SEASON PREMIERE
Just as the premiere for the seventh season of CSI: Miami draws to a close, Horatio Caine walks onto the scene, gun drawn. A yacht is moored alongside a Miami pier. Onboard: Ron Saris, husband of Caine’s ex-wife, and the bad guy who has been selling the fused alloy bullets. Saris shoots at Caine, misses. Caine fires back, a single shot. Special effects take over: The shot explodes like a rocket from the barrel of Caine’s gun, the bullet blasts up the gangplank like an arrow, across the deck. The shot misses Saris but punctures a propane tank above the boat’s cabin. The steel skin of the tank ripples in slow motion. Then: Caine turns, puts on his sunglasses, and walks off the dock, leaving the mayhem behind. One of Caine’s detectives looks at him in disbelief. The detective asks if this game ever ends. Caine closes the show with one of his iconic one-liners. In a low, calm voice he says, “No, and it never will.” CAMERA RISES; God’s point of view of Horatio Caine. Warrior. Hero. Resurrected.
FADE OUT.
CUE CREDITS AND SOMBER CLOSING SONG: “A SONG FOR OUR FATHERS” BY EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY.
END OF SHOW
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Her TV show draws 160 million viewers worldwide. Last year, she celebrated her Sweet 16 with 100,000 guests at Disney World. And she’s here because Barry O’Brien asked one question.

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From the Mission City to Tinsel Town

Barry O’Brien attributes much of his success as a television writer and producer to the life lessons he learned in the classroom and on the gridiron while an undergraduate at Santa Clara. As a legacy student, with two brothers, an uncle, and three cousins who all attended SCU, the San Francisco native was no stranger to the Bronco family. But he points to three men in particular who exerted a profound influence on his Santa Clara experience:

Theodore Mackin, S.J.—taught ethics and asked O’Brien, then a sophomore majoring in finance: “What are you going to do with your life?”

John Privett, S.J.—taught television production in the old studio in St. Joseph’s Hall and showed O’Brien how to tell a story on-screen.

Pat Malley—coached O’Brien as a tight end on the football team. “He was developing potential that transcended athletics,” O’Brien says. “I was just happy to be there. I was 230 pounds of slow, white guy. It was the perfect place for me.”

Karen Crocker Snell
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