HOUSE OF MIRTH
by Jamie Diamond
It doesn’t take a crack forensic detective to reach this conclusion about CSI’s Marg Helgenberger: In the case of her own family, they’ll die laughing
Some people spot dirt and run for the 409. Marg Helgenberger reaches for a quip. “I’ll collect it and send it to the lab for analysis,” she deadpans, referring to a blob of lord-knows-what that someone has tracked across her nice clean hardwood floor. Ah, yes – a woman who can’t leave her work at the office. As forensic detective Catherine Willows on ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,’ the season’s highest-rated new TV drama, Helgenberger routinely handles specimens a lot more taxing than dirt. In one scene she has to slip her hand into skin removed from a drowning victim’s hand so she can fingerprint it. “I take my hat off to the people who play those corpses,” she says. “They have to endure hours of makeup and then lie on a cold metal slab without moving a muscle or scratching. And they get ‘no’ glory!” Helgenberger knows this is both serious and funny. Like life itself. Which is why this down-to-earth Nebraska native and daughter of a meat inspector (she paid her dues on the meatpacking line) can empathize with life’s underdogs – she has played more than a few, including a cancer patient in ‘Erin Brockovich’ – and still find the humor in it all. There’s no dearth of ironic wit, and plenty of unbridled laughter, emanating from the two-story Mediterranean house in Santa Monica that she shares with her husband Alan Rosenberg (‘Civil Wars,’ ‘L.A. Law,’ ‘Cybill’), and their 10-year-old son, Hughie.
Make that laughter and music. Walk through the family room, which overlooks a banana tree garden and swimming pool, and into the living room, and there, in full view next to the grand piano – not hidden in some basement rec room – is her son’s drum set. “That tells you how she is,” says her ‘CSI’ co-star Gary Dourdan, who plays Warrick Brown. “Not a lot of parents can deal with a drum kit in the middle of the house. But Marg is easygoing, and that’s a great gift for a mother to give.” Another gift: When her son was studying drums, Helgenberger took piano lessons so they could jam together.
“I think you can see that the people who live here don’t take themselves too seriously,” says Rosenberg. “They may get a little sloppy sometimes, but they’re warm and welcoming. No place in our house is out-of-bounds.” Built in 1926 for silent-film cowboy star William S. Hart, their home does have a don’t-fence-me-in feel. Western art blends agreeably with Mexican accents, from ceramic tiles and pottery to a folding screen in the family room depicting Eve in the Garden of Eden, its hinges removed so it could be hung as three paintings above the couch. A narrow bench serves as a coffee table. “I don’t like anything that’s uniform or put together,” says Helgenberger. Asked whether there’s anything she collects, she guffaws (“her unprotected laugh,” friend David Chase, creator of ‘The Sopranos,’ calls it). “Dust!” she says.
Before moving to Santa Monica seven years ago, Helgenberger and her family lived in Hollywood next door to Jason Patric, who was then dating Julia Roberts. “Our home showed up in ‘The National Enquirer’ several times in articles saying, ‘Julia Roberts is living in a neighborhood populated by unemployed actors,’” Rosenberg wryly recalls. “It wasn’t very flattering, but we loved it.” The current house, with its large, sun-filled rooms and open floor plan, instantly spoke to both of them. “And it was in our price range!” says Helgenberger. Nothing has been substantially changed – except the backyard. “My pride and joy,” says Marg, leading the way outside. “Until two years ago, this was an ugly redwood deck and a black asphalt driveway.” Now all that has been transformed into a shady, tree-filled garden with a Mexican tile pool designed to echo the era of the house. There, in the concrete, is a date, inscribed by the garden’s builder. “I just couldn’t figure it out,” says Rosenberg. “He wrote ‘November 1977,’ and we did this two years ago. So I asked him why. And he said, ‘I wanted it to look old.’”
He can chuckle long and hard at that, but when it comes to décor Rosenberg generally leaves the driving to Marg. “He lets me decide on everything,” she says. “He’s pretty much, ‘Whatever you think, honey.’ He does have good taste. But like many men, he’d love to have a big-screen TV in the living room.” She screws up her face at the thought.
Helgenberger, 42, who grew up in tiny North Bend, Neb., and studied drama and speech at Northwestern University, broke into television with a role on the soap opera ‘Ryan’s Hope’ as a cop who worked undercover as a hooker. She went on to win an Emmy for her portrayal of the prostitute K.C. Koloski on ‘China Beach.’ And now she plays a character on ‘CSI’ who used to be an exotic dancer. So what’s with these TV casting directors?
“They see in me a corn-fed simplicity, and they also see something a little wilder,” she says. “There’s a dichotomy going on.” Might “exotic dancer” signal another profession? “No, it’s not code for ‘prostitute,’” she says, laughing. Her character, she points out, was an exotic dancer in the days ‘before’ lap dancing. “But I find it strange,” she adds, “that people are so willing to judge that profession, while it’s considered completely legitimate to be a movie star who makes out with several men a year – and is filmed doing so – so that millions of people can experience some kind of arousal.”
Her Midwestern roots no doubt help Helgenberger infuse her small-town characters with an unvarnished authenticity. Witness her role in ‘Erin Brockovich’ as a woman who lives in a double-wide trailer and who, thanks to contaminated water, is stricken with breast cancer and undergoes a mastectomy. The part was closer to Helgenberger’s heart than most. Her mother, a nurse, is a breast cancer survivor of 20 years. “She had both breasts removed, but she’s the kind of person who was able to reach out to other women who were depressed and suffering. I understand how your personality copes with the disease, and that’s what I focused on.”
Helgenberger met Rosenberg, 50, on the set of ‘Ryan’s Hope,’ on which he played the proprietor of the sleazy hotel where her hooker/cop hung out. “Margie was the most beautiful person I’d ever see,” recalls Alan, a die-hard city boy from New Jersey (who this afternoon picked up Hughie from school decked out in a black leather jacket with a cigarette tucked behind his ear). “She had four earrings in each ear and this aura around her.” Both were involved with others, but when they coincidentally met several years later in an L.A. bank, he asked her out. His car – a ’66 Bonneville convertible with moldy seats and chipped paint – was in such sad shape, he considered renting a new one for that first date. “But she liked that Bonneville – and to my amazement, she went out with me again.”
“Theirs is definitely a relationship of humor,” says Peter Weller, who directed Helgenberger in his Oscar-nominated short film ‘Partners.’ “I’ve known Alan for 26 years. He’s a funny guy, and she’s his biggest audience. They’re having a whole lot of fun.”
That’s true both when they’re alone and when they entertain, which is frequently. “I do throw one hell of a party,” says Helgenberger. One of her favorites is memorialized in a photo on the piano. “There’s Kris Kristofferson, Harry Dean Stanton and these musicians from Nashville,” she points out “We had an old-fashioned hootenanny!” Such festive free-for-alls hark back to her childhood: After a flood ruined the carpet in her family’s basement rec room, her father laid down a makeshift dance floor and suddenly the house became party central. “It was so groovy. Before homecoming bashes, after football games or proms, our house was ‘the one’ to hang out in.” One recent party she’s proud of celebrated Rosenberg’s 50th birthday. That’s when Helgenberger pretended to get sick at a baseball game and made her husband take her home. When he opened the front door – surprise! “She’s such a well-trained actress,” Rosenberg says, “she pulled it off.”
Helgenberger smiles as she recalls the moment. Hers is a life she could not have anticipated. “When I go back home and I see how far I’ve come, I really think, Wow, I guess I’ve accomplished a few things in my life.” She gazes out the window. “Sometimes,” she says, “I’ll be lying in my pool and looking up at the sky, or admiring my backyard, and I’ll say a little prayer of gratitude, because it could have so easily been the other way.”
“She can be earthy and solid and light at the same time,” says ‘CSI’ co-star Gary Dourdan. “With her quick wit, she’s pretty much the sharpest person on the set.”
“I feel like half a person when I’m away from him,” says Helgenberger of son Hughie.
“Marg loves to dance, to kick up her heels and have fun,” says her husband, actor Alan Rosenberg. “And at home she doesn’t allow boring conversations.”
“I like an eclectic room. It’s more real, like you did it, as opposed to a decorator,” says Helgenberger.
*A scan of the complete article, with photos, can be found here.