CSI STAR MARG HELGENBERGER BLINDS HER FANS WITH SCIENCE
The Orange County Register
Publication: Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
February 27, 2001
by Barry Koltnow
Marg Helgenberger always got a lot of letters from inmates.
Most attractive actresses in Hollywood receive correspondence from lonely prisoners, but Helgenberger probably got more than most because she was best known for her Emmy-winning role as a heroin-addicted prostitute on the celebrated television series “China Beach.”
Inmates seemed enamored of the character for some reason, and they usually expressed their affection in a variety of ways. One inmate sent a photo of himself standing in front of the prison with the note: “This is me in front of my palatial estate.”
But the letters arriving from inmates these days have a different slant.
With the sudden and surprising success of Helgenberger’s new TV series, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” the letters still express a certain admiration for the actress, but they also contain a legal message.
“A lot of the letters say something to the effect that if the police had paid more attention to people like us, then they (the inmates) wouldn’t be in jail,” the actress said during a break between scenes in her trailer on the set of “CSI,” which is shot on a soundstage in a rural area about 30 miles north of Los Angeles.
The “people like us” to which she referred are the crime scene investigators that Helgenberger and William Petersen portray on the first-year crime drama, which has been catapulted into the Top 10 since moving to its new Thursday-night time slot at 9 ET on CBS.
“CSI” began the season on Friday nights and did well enough (it was the season’s top-rated new drama) for CBS executives to believe that it, coupled with the phenomenon “Survivor: The Australian Outback,” could challenge the mighty NBC Thursday-night lineup.
“We thought the Friday-night spot was good for us because crime dramas have traditionally done well on Friday nights,” Helgenberger said, “going back to `Miami Vice’ and the beginning of `The X-Files,’ and continuing through `Crime Story’ and `Homicide.’ When they moved us to Thursday, we took it as a compliment that CBS believed that we could go against NBC.”
The network strategy apparently was right on the mark. Audiences, lured by incessant promotion during last summer’s telecasts of the first “Survivor” series, and corralled this season by the “Survivor II” lead-in, have taken to “CSI” in a big way.
The series, which has a different look and feel than other crime dramas, does not focus on shootouts and courtroom dramas. Each show is a complicated whodunit in which science, rather than a hard-boiled police detective, unravels the mystery and points the accusing finger at the guilty party. The show was inspired by the Discovery Channel’s series “The New Detectives.”
“I think the whole field of forensics has become fascinating to people in this country since the 1990s,” Helgenberger said. “No doubt it started with the O.J. trial, and has continued with other high-profile cases such as JonBenet Ramsey. Look how popular Court TV has become.”
Helgenberger’s character on the new series, Catherine Willows, is a tough, smart and sexy single mother who works the graveyard shift in the forensics lab of the Las Vegas Police Department. Each week, she and Petersen, whose characters have so far shown no romantic inclinations, sift through clues at a crime scene. It is clear that the evidence is the star of this network drama.
“The shows are pretty plot-driven,” Helgenberger said. “Most of the time, the actors are upstaged by what I call the science fair projects. But I adore the show, and I guess so does the audience.”
A native of tiny North Bend, Neb., a town of 1,200 people about 60 miles west of Omaha, Helgenberger appeared in school plays and began studying drama at a local community college before transferring to Northwestern University.
But first, the name. She wasn’t born with what one would call a memorable acting name that rolls off the tongue. Her mother named her Mary Marg (the “g” is hard, not soft, as in Margie), and the actress admits that keeping her real name has been a problem at times.
“It’s never pronounced right, but no one has ever asked me to change it,” she said. “Well, there was one time in college, when I worked as a weekend weather girl for a summer at a local TV station in Nebraska.
“The news anchor’s name was Joyce Eisenminger and the sports guy was Harry Knocklinger, and the station thought it was too much to ask the audience to swallow the Eisenminger-Knocklinger-Helgenberger Report.”
Leaving Eisenminger and Knocklinger in the dust, Helgenberger went to Northwestern and was starring in “The Taming of the Shrew” when she was approached by an ABC talent scout, who was touring the Midwest in search of talent for a new soap called “Ryan’s Hope.”
Less than two weeks after graduation, Helgenberger was playing an undercover cop on the soap, where she remained for the next three years. It was on that show that she met her future husband, actor Alan Rosenberg, who would go on to star in “L.A. Law,” “Civil Wars” and “Cybill.”
The couple has been married 11 years and has a 10-year-old son. It was a desire to spend more time with her husband and son that led Helgenberger to consider a return to series television.
Since “China Beach” left the air in 1991, Helgenberger has been busy making features and television movies. On the big screen, she appeared in “Species,” “Fire Down Below,” “My Fellow Americans,” “Bad Boys” and “Always,” although her best role came in last year’s “Erin Brockovich,” when she was mentioned as a long shot for an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a cancer victim.
On the small screen, she played Patsy Ramsey in the 1997 CBS miniseries about the JonBenet case, “Perfect Murder, Perfect Town,” and later played George Clooney’s love interest on “ER.”
“Most TV movies are filmed in Canada and most feature films are shot outside Los Angeles, and I just couldn’t take being away from my family anymore,” she explained. “I like playing different roles, which is why I prefer doing movies, but I needed the steady work of a TV series.”
And she almost found it with “Sopranos” creator David Chase, who wrote a pilot in which she would play a mom in the federal witness protection program.
“This was before `The Sopranos,’ and CBS passed on the show,” the actress said. “Of course, after the success of `The Sopranos,’ CBS suddenly became interested. It’s funny how that works. But, by that time, David was busy with `The Sopranos’ and I already had agreed to do `CSI.’
“I loved the idea of `CSI’ even before we started shooting. I loved it from the time I read the first script. It was provocative and edgy. I gravitate toward edgier material because it suits my nature. I guess I’m just that kind of person.”
Keep those cards and letters coming.
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