HELGENBERGER SAYS BUSINESS TAINTS PROFESSION
By Cynthia Werthamer
October 10, 1999
As actors go, Marg Helgenberger is not one to relinquish her life to her career.
“My life is pretty important to me, and I’m not going to sacrifice my life,” says the woman whom many remember best as the feisty K.C. on the 1980s Vietnam drama ‘China Beach.’ “I would rather have a better life than a better career.”
The reason she feels that way? “I don’t think the art of acting is necessarily an art. It’s so much tainted by business, and the creative types get frustrated by the demands of the business types. The creative ones suffer, and so does the rest of the country.”
Nonetheless, Helgenberger is doing work she enjoys, costarring with John Ritter and Megan Gallagher, another ‘China Beach’ alum in ‘Lethal Vows,’ a psychological thrilled airing Wednesday on CBS.
Helgenberger, 40, started her career in the small town of North Bend, Neb, beginning in school plays and what were called ‘speech and drama’ competitions.
“I never had a grand plan for how my career was going to be,” she says. “One thing just led to another. Though her parents wanted her to become a nurse, she continued acting, taking classes at a state college, then attending Northwestern University in Chicago.
“I kept getting cast as the lead,” she says. “A lot of the students were very single-minded and ambitious, and I thought if ‘I can do this here, I can probably make it.’”
Sure enough, a casting agent saw her in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and offered her a future in the soaps. Helgenberger told her she wanted to graduate from college first; when she did, there was a part ready for her as Siobhan Ryan Novak on ‘Ryan’s Hope,’ a role she played from 1982 to 1986.
Helgenberger, who’s half Irish and half German, “didn’t even think about” changing her name to something easier to pronounce when she entered show business. “Actually, people have a harder time with ‘Marg,’ which is pronounced with a hard G,” she says. “And sometimes a name that’s unusual and catchy can help.”
She sees a correlation between the honesty of keeping her name and the straightforwardness of her personality. “What you see is what you get for the most part. I’m pretty direct; I’m not a backstabber or a game player. But I am shy and reserved, which comes across as aloof, because I’m terrified.”
Her acting influences include Meryl Streep and Sissy Spacek. Then there is Al Pacino. “I remember having a crush on him at 12 or 13 when all my friends were having crushes on Shaun Cassidy,” she says.
Playing K.C. Koloski on ‘China Beach’ from 1988 to 1991 had a ‘big impact’ on her career. “It got me some attention and respect and also an Emmy Award,” she says. “It led to a lot of other projects for me. But TV is such a different place now than it was 10 years ago. There was a lot of stigma then against people known in TV to move on to movies.”
“Now the business has changed so much; it’s all about being the box-office movie of the week. It’s all about finances now. It was a lot about the storytelling and the acting.”
Her life outside of work consists of her husband, actor Alan Rosenberg (‘Cybill,’ ‘L.A. Law’), and their 9-year-old son. “If I just had my career, I think I’d be a fraction of who I am now,” she says from their Santa Monica home. She also exercises ‘a lot’ and plays jazz and blues piano.
Despite her leading roles, Helgenberger sees her real strength as a character actor. One of her favorite parts was a character role in ‘Thanks of a Grateful Nation,’ which gave her another chance to work with ‘China Beach’ executive producer John Sacret Young. “That role, more than any other role, made me an actor, she says. “It made me realize I was viable as a character actor. You have a lot more freedom than when you’re the love interest of Harrison Ford, for instance.”
Her goals? She would like to do another television series mainly because “you shoot in one place and work on one character for a period of time.” That would also give her the chance to stay near her family.
And though she’s never acted on Broadway, she wants to. “I’m very confident in my versatility,” she says. “The stage is really the actors’ medium. Once the curtain goes up, nobody has any control except the actors.”