CSI: NUMBER ONE WITH A BULLET
New York Post
November 10, 2003
By Michael Glitz
The top rated show on TV goes in for a close-up on Marg Helgenberger.
After three years working on ‘CSI’ and ‘CSI: Miami,’ producer Elizabeth Devine is finally telling the story of the Linda Sobek murder case.
A glamorous model and former cheerleader, Sobek was murdered by a professional photographer she’d worked with before, who then brazenly tried to outsmart the police until the body he’d buried could decompose enough to make criminal charges impossible. Devine worked on the case – which gained national attention – but never felt quite ready to bring that particular story to ‘CSI.’ Until now.
“I was dealing with a lot of my littler cases, cases nobody would know about,” says Devine, who worked as a criminologist for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for 15 years before becoming a technical adviser, writer and producer on the hit CBS show.
“Big cases are only big because the media picks up on them. I’ve worked hundreds of cases with your average moms or African American women and nobody knows about them and that’s just the way things work. I didn’t want to start by exploiting the cases of people that happened to be beautiful.”
For Marg Helgenberger, who plays Catherine Willows, the CSI investigator at the heart of this story, it was a chance to shine on a show where the stars are given few big dramatic scenes and must shine in more subtle, understated moments.
“It is challenging to not have stuff to really play,” says Helgenberger, 45 and the mother of one son. “That gets a bit frustrating and I must say a little boring from time to time. But in this episode I drive the story and I’m in almost every scene and had to retain a certain amount of focus, which is always really fun. You have to be on your game, every single day and every single scene.”
“In some of the processing scenes that we have to do, you kind of go through the motions to a certain degree,” she laughs, “because you’re upstaged by the props for the most part.”
Devine says this episode – ‘After the Show’ – is extremely faithful to the real-life case, right down to the fact that the photographer-suspect (played on the show by Martin Donovan) was clearly attracted to the investigator.
“The suspect was attracted to blondes, there was no doubt about it,” says Devine, who says they pumped up that one element to create more conflict on the show. “All of us who were blondes got a little bit creeped out by him.”
And, as always, Devine says Helgenberger – who plays a character that has a lot of Devine in her – brought unexpected moments to the script.
“She actually kicks him!” says Devine. “I didn’t write that and it’s really good. It was really, ‘I’ve had enough of you!’ When I first watched the dailies I saw that and thought ‘Alright!’”
For Helgenberger, who went on ‘Oprah’ to promote this episode, coming face to face with the mother of Linda Sobek was a sobering moment for an actress who rarely faces the real-life consequences of the sorts of murders her show explores every week.
“We found out the night before that the mother was going to be there,” says Helgenberger, who has won Emmy nominations for her role on the show. “I was very nervous about that, as was Liz. None the less, that’s the way they wanted to produce the show. She was actually in the audience. God bless her. Poor woman. I don’t know how you recover from something like that.”
“At least they caught the guy and he is serving life without parole. They busted his ass. But I don’t know; that’s not going to bring her back.”
One reason the episode is so disturbing and effective is because the character inspired by Sobek is a smart woman who is taken in and victimized by someone she knows. Too often, says Devine, people want to blame the victim so they can rest easier by assuming that someone who is murdered didn’t use common sense and put herself into a compromising position.
“I think it really shows that even a smart girl that really knows what’s going on can be manipulated and victimized,” says Devine. “It’s not always the girls that aren’t smart that get taken advantage of. You can be taken advantage of by people that you know and have worked for before. And that’s really scary. That’s what’s creepy about it. She knew this guy. She’d worked with him before. He ‘is’ a professional photographer. He wasn’t pretending to be one. And yet he victimized her and murdered her.”
“That’s scary. Because you want to think, ‘Oh, it had to be someone she didn’t know’ or ‘Why did she go off with someone she didn’t know?’ and that’s not what happened. It’s a very disturbing thing.”
For Helgenberger, who plays a character Devine describes as “me after 10 years of experience on the job,” the weight of doing this true-life crime justice worked in her favor.
“I felt the need to give this show the proper weight,” says Helgenberger. “That was actually inspiring. I know that may sound odd because the story is very sad and tragic. But from an acting point of view, it was inspiring.”
Mom in Nebraska
“Oprah could run for President and win by a landslide in my opinion. The power that woman has. I think this country would be a much better place if Oprah was running it. She knows all the right people. She’s beloved by so many.”
Linda Sobek (sic) – the model
Meeting the mom – “I went along to Oprah with Liz Devine who actually worked at the sheriff’s department for 15 years and is now one of our producers. She actually worked that case. We found out the night before that the mother was going to be there. I was very nervous about that, as was Liz. None the less, that’s the way they wanted to produce the show. She was actually in the audience. God bless her. Poor woman. I don’t’ know how you recover from something like that.”
“At least they caught the guy and he is serving life without parole. They busted his ass. But I don’t know, that’s not going to bring her back.”
Butt print – “Oh my God. Liz brought all these gadgets and Oprah’s people said, ‘We’ll have Oprah sit down and – ‘ and Liz said, ‘ No, no, no, no , nooo. I don’t think you should have Oprah sit down.’ I’d never done it before. I mean, you could see details. Hang on a minute…”
Fun on the show – “I must admit, the LA Times prints the TV ratings every Wednesday morning. When I get the paper, I go to the Calendar section first and look at that. [laughs]. I’m not ashamed to admit that every time I see that number one ranking, I get a little kick.”
China Beach – “That was a great show. Every day was an adventure. It was almost the antithesis of ‘CSI’ in terms of style and tone. That was completely character driven and very, very dramatic and emotional and filled with a lot of heart. Our show is obviously very cerebral and plot driven. But I do think one of the reasons we’re number one is obviously the cast has chemistry. So I think the characters are fun and mysterious and interesting to follow and all that.”
“It’s always a challenge come Emmy time. Not that whomever wins doesn’t deserve it, but they don’t really honor [low-key work], they tend to vote for the stuff that’s very dramatic, not the subtleties of processing.”
Henry Fonda – a fellow Nebraskan.
Worried couldn’t find another good show like China Beach – “Oh of course. And age is always a factor, too. Let’s face it. This is a very youth driven market, television and movies. It’s a youth driven society, sadly, because I don’t think that’s the case in a lot of other countries. The biggest hit in my career – to date, anyway – happened when I was 40 and I think television, more so than films, is much kinder to mature women. And we’re sort of still considered babes. We’re not the token girlfriend, which is mostly what you’re relegated to, unless you’re a big established star in movies. That’s what you’re relegated to in film – the wife, the girlfriend, the victim.”
“This kind of hit certainly doesn’t come around very often. God know how many shows ours has spawned. They’re looking for hits and with CSI, clearly people can’t get enough of forensic science.”
“There were a couple of people at the network who really championed CSI, one woman in particular named Nina Tassler (sic). She believed in the project. I don’t know if she’s ever been given a whole lot of credit and she’s the one that nurtured it.”
“When I read the pilot, I said, ‘This is great; this is the one.’ But when I saw the pilot cut together, I said, ‘Wow. If the network approves of this, this is a hit.’ You can ask anybody who saw me in that screening. I just knew it was provocative and compelling and fresh and all the right adjectives you need to capture an audience.”
“The writing is unique and fun and interesting. We’ve inspired all these schools to start forensic science classes. I’ve taught five classes in my son’s seventh grade science class.”
“There are a lot of rape kits that go unprocessed because there’s just not the resources to make them happen. Now there’s awareness about that because of our show and fundraisers for rape investigations so more guilty guys can be put behind bars.
No big acting scenes – “It is at times. It is challenging not to have stuff to really play. That gets a little bit frustrating and I must say a little boring from time to time. But nonetheless I enjoy the character. And we do have quite an open door policy with our producers on the show. Hey, I’m not sure about this particular scene. They always listen and do that with every actor. That makes it fun, that real creative collaboration.”
This episode – “Yes, it was. This episode. I drive the story and I’m in almost every scene and had to retain a certain amount of focus, which is always really fun. You have to be on your game, every single day and every single scene. Whereas some of the processing scenes that we have to do, you kind of go through the motions to a certain degrees [laughs] because you’re upstaged by the props for the most part. This script is really good.
“The suspect is the photographer, has a thing for me from the moment he meets me. So I play good cop, in terms of being charming with him to get what I need and then I bring it on with the evidence and nail his ass. Martin Donovan plays the guy and he’s a wonderful actor. Ken Fink directed it. It was a different format for our show because from the beginning you almost know it’s the guy. The guy that we busted pretty much everyone assumes is guilty. We just have to gather the proper evidence and collect it in the proper manner. I like it when we shake up the formula a little bit.”
Real life case – “Gosh, yes. Absolutely. I felt the need to give this show the proper weight. That was actually inspiring. I know that may sound odd because the story is very sad and tragic. But from an acting point of view, it was inspiring.”
Being at son’s school – “He’s kind of a shy kid but I think he was glad I was there. And Liz was with me, thank goodness. She’s the real deal; I’m just the wannabe. I taught his class and then I taught five other classes. He kept coming by, he’d sort of nudge me and then say hi and leave. It was sort of cute. My identity was Hughie’s mom. Oh yeah, that’s Hughie’s mom. That’s how I introduced myself..”
Hiatus – “I haven’t done anything on my hiatus. I was offered a Miramax movie last spring. But it shot in Puerto Rico right before we went to war. It just wasn’t right – although I really wanted to do it. It was Puerto Rico doubling for Cuba during the Fifties and the revolution. I’ve auditioned for a couple of things and gotten very close on things that I really wanted to do. One was an Alexander Payne movie, another fellow Nebraskan. It’s the movie he’s shooting now. Election is my favorite of his movies.”
Autopsy – “It was … many things. I met with a medical examiner, the Clark County medical examiner outside of Vegas. I met in his non-descript, boring office. Then you go behind a couple of doors and … man, you walk into the chamber of horrors. You descend into hell. There are corpses everywhere. Everywhere! It is bizarre. You are just face to face with reality. I was speechless and of course the smell is pretty intense. There are various freezers: the decomp freezer, which is basically for decaying body parts. I actually witnessed two autopsies at the same visit. One was a fresh corpse. I hate to use all these terms. Dead body at the Hard Rock. The other autopsy was of a [decomposed] body and ohhh, I don’t know if I want to ever repeat that experience. That was pretty startling. I remember the coroner’s assistant was playing the Violent Femmes and burning some kind of incense. He looked up and me and said, ‘This ought to be illegal, don’t you think?’ And then he went ‘Sliiiiccceeeee.’”
Blood in the freezer – “I don’t, but I guess seeing what she did and knowing, you just uh.”
“I started a book club about five years ago. Our book selection is American Pastoral. I’ve sort of been a little negligent. But I have a pretty good excuse. My son was bar mitzvahed on Sunday. It consumed me. It became my full-time job and CSI became my part-time job. It ended up being 225 people and a lot of people from all over the country. It was great and he did a good job. I was really proud of him.”
“I want to read Steven Bochco’s book because he’s a friend of ours. I had never read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and don’t ask me how or why that happened. But that is one of the best books of our time. Such wonderful, wonderful writing. Then we read In Cold Blood, because Truman Capote was a childhood friend of Harper Lee. Scott Wilson plays my father on CSI and he plays one of the killers in the movie, so he was our special guest. They actually shot in the farm house where the family died.
“I love music. I’m always asking our music supervisor what’s going on in England because he’s English and we use a lot of English bands. I love my boys, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club because they’re friends of ours. They’re just a great American rock and roll band. Morcheeba. The Peek Show. Darkness. The Libertines. I haven’t heard the new Strokes; I’m interested in that. Oh how is the Liz Phair album? [makeover] What’s up with that? Liz Phair and Jewel. They were kind of folkie and then they became like everyone else.”
“I can sing all right. I’ve done a few musicals in my day.”
“I played a character named Susan the Swan in a stellar production of ‘Danny and the Dark Green Dinosaur.’ I had a little solo. It was a little musical we did when I was probably nine, in grade school back in Nebraska. I has this big, long paper maiche neck and that was the first time I got up in front of a group of people. I was terrified. I didn’t start liking and excelling and feeling comfortable in front of people until I was a junior or senior in high school. I did ‘Once Upon a Mattress’ and I played the princess in that and had a good time with that. I was getting laughs!”
“We did an episode last week about plushies. It was kind of a breezy episode and I had some fun things to day, dry.”
*Note: There was a notes section on Liz Devine too but I’m just focusing on the parts where specifically mentions Marg.
Marg – She just always brings it. She always brings something I didn’t anticipate. She actually kicks him! I didn’t write that and it’s really good. I liked it. It was really, ‘I’ve had enough of you!’ When I first watched the dailies I saw that and thought, ‘Alright!’ I love that she just went that extra step.”
“Catherine Willows is what I was after ten years of experience. You’ve got kids and kids keep you grounded. It’s much harder to do the job when you’re single because you’ve got nothing to distract you from it when you get home. It’s a really difficult job and if you think about it all the time it’s going to get to you. Catherine knows she’s good at her job. She struggles with being a single mom, which I do too. She’s got spunk and she’s willing to get in someone’s face.”
President- “Marg was all about trying to talk her into running for president.”