EVIDENCE OF LOVE
Omaha Weekly Reader
Evidence of Love: North Bend native and CSI star Marg Helgenberger and husband Alan Rosenberg host a gang of celebrities in the fight against breast cancer.
By Patrick LaGreca
Travelling to Omaha has always been a major event for Marg Helgenberger. The star of television’s top-rated show CSI and North Bend, Neb., native grew up making pilgrimages to Omaha — then the cultural Mecca of her world. “When I got to be a teenager and we could drive, that [going to Omaha] was like going to Paris,” she said laughingly on the phone with the Omaha Weekly Reader. “There was nothing better than getting into our car and driving to Omaha for the day, for girls, teenage girls, who loved to shop.”
However, Helgenberger and actor husband Alan Rosenberg [The Guardian, L.A. Law] won’t be browsing at Westroads this trip. The duo will be hosting Marg and Alan’s Celebrity Weekend, a benefit to raise awareness-and funds-for the fight against breast cancer.
The Cancer Center at Jennie Edmundson Hospital will receive the proceeds from the three-day event that was inspired by Helgenberger’s mother, Kay Snyder, a cancer survivor of 21 years.
“Both of us have been involved in trying to raise awareness about breast cancers,” Rosenberg said. “It wasn’t long before Marg and I met when her mom was diagnosed. Marg’s mom’s medical history makes me concerned for Margi, so it’s something that affects me very deeply and of course Margi, in honor of her mother, and also as someone who is concerned for her own health.”
This year marks the fifth year for this particular event; however, the celebrity couple has been returning to participate in breast cancer awareness events in the Omaha vicinity for some 12 years. Helgenberger said she is eager to return to her roots every year and spoke fondly of her youth in North Bend and adolescent escapades in Omaha.
In high school, with the inevitable freedom spawned by a driver’s license, Helgenberger and her friends began their own forays into the big city. Primarily the trips were based around shopping, teenage girls that they were. “When I was really little they didn’t even have the Westroads. They just had the Crossroads and that was the really big deal. Then the Westroads opened and that was like candy – we couldn’t believe it, and there was a shop called the Hitchin’ Post & Wooden Nickel.”
As the girls matured, they discovered that Omaha was a regular stop for many major acts of the day – ranging from rock ‘n roll to comedy – and their destinations became the Civic Auditorium and the Orpheum Theater. “I saw everybody from Fleetwood Mac to Bad Company to Frank Sinatra, to Lynyrd Skynyrd…Peter Frampton… Occasionally I saw a couple of shows at the Orpheum,” Helgenberger recalled, “which is a beautiful, beautiful house. In fact, I saw Steve Martin there when he was just a standup – and he did that ramblin’ man thing with his banjo.”
Shortly before graduating high school, Helgenberger and her crew discovered the Old Market, which, being the late 70s, was still in a stage of germination. “I think probably when I was in my upper teens was when the Old Market started happening,” she said. “And of course that was always a blast to go down there – it still is, you know? Omaha was always fun.”
Upon graduation, Helgenberger enrolled in Kearney State College and though she enjoyed acting – she had done numerous plays and musicals in high school – she didn’t have her sights set on the theater as a long-term goal. “At the time I wasn’t really thinking of it as a career,” she said. “I just knew that – as I’ve always kind of done in my life – I’ve just kind of gotten on the road and let it sort of steer me.”
Inevitably the road steered her toward acting, and after two years at Kearney, a boyfriend told her about the theater program at Northwestern University. “I started reading up about it and found it had a great reputation,” she explained. “So I thought, ‘Lets see how I do there?’ and I applied.”
Even still, a career as an actress did not seem like an achievable reality. “I don’t think I ever really thought of … I dreamed about it,” she admitted, “but I didn’t necessarily think it was going to come to fruition… but it did.”
Eventually Helgenberger’s patience and Que sera approach paid off and she found herself working her way into the world of television. She landed work on the daytime drama Ryan’s Hope (where she met now-husband Alan) and eventually made her first major prime-time debut on the critically acclaimed show China Beach. Her portrayal of the character K.C. Koloski won her an Emmy for best supporting actress.
Nonetheless the job that propelled Helgenberger into her current stature of superstar and Emmy nominee for best actress is the leading female role of Catherine on CBS’s top-rated show CSI. Her character is a criminalist with a brilliant mind, a tough past – a Las Vegas dancer with a daughter and a less-than-ideal ex-husband-and a slightly cynical sense of humor. One byproduct of this misanthropic nature is that Catherine seems, from season to season, to have one particularly savory/unsavory evidence-gathering activity that becomes her signature.
“Every season I seem to have a specialty,” she explained. “The first season tape-lifting [picking up evidence by sticking a piece of tape to a surface and removing particles with the adhesive] was my specialty. The second season was collecting seminal fluid, and the third season I did a lot of swabbing people’s mouths. Now I’m doing a little bit of everything, swabbing and collecting seminal fluid,” she laughed.
“The other day I had my head in the toilet [gathering evidence], and I thought, ‘God this is so symbolic.”
Clever gags aside, the biggest question the ‘discerning’ television audience has regarding CSI is why, amongst the current cesspool of reality programs and run-of-the-mill sitcoms, is this drama continuing to out-perform virtually every other program on television?
The answer, strangely enough, lies in the concept of realism. Not necessarily fashioning a realistic plot or subject matter-unquestionably not the alleged realism of so-called reality television-but the realism that was intrinsic to its original creation.
“It [the show] was created by a young guy named Anthony Zuiker,” Helgenberger said, “who was a total novice to television [writing]. But he had a very imaginative mind, was a Vegas native and had a desire to be a writer. His wife loved a show called “The New Detectives” on the Discovery Channel, and she said, ‘Take a look at this show, I think there might be something in here.” So he started riding around with criminalists in Vegas.”
Conceivably this chain of events might appear typical, but in the world of corporate television, this germination process is aberrant. This ‘organic’ evolution – an attitude that eventually carried over into all of the elements of the show – is what Helgenberger credits for the program’s astronomical success.
“Anthony, being the novice,” she explained, “[meant] a lot of people had their hands in nurturing the show along and developing it.” The fact that so many people participated in the early stages created a group of individuals that had something vested in the project. They had created their own entity, and they were determined to see it succeed.
“The CBS green-lighting the pilot…it was the last pilot picked up – it was the last show picked up-and it just kind of had this magic surrounding it,” Helgenberger said. “It was all very organic, and everybody believed in the show. I don’t think you can have a wildly successful show when the personalities don’t all come together in some kind of serendipitous way. The show just clicks and it clicked from the beginning. Everybody gets along and everybody is very secure and confident in what they do. I think that [is what] happens with any wildly successful show.”
Proof positive of Helgenberger’s ‘organic’ theory is the program’s red-headed stepchild CSI Miami. The same premise, or ‘formula,’ was prescribed by network executives in an effort to create a test tube version of the original megahit. Though the show was good enough to garner better-than-most ratings – then again so does Fear Factor – the product has nowhere near the charisma of the original.
“I think that the Miami show was a demand by the network in an effort to have an instant hit,” she said. “From a business point of view, I certainly understand their thinking. It was clear the [original] show was a phenomenal success the first season. Even when they reran the show it did huge numbers. They would put us on every night of the week, or they would put us on whenever a show was cancelled, or whenever a show was flailing, and the ratings would go back up.”
Even with the full backing of the studio from the very beginning, and the huge coattails of the parent show to latch onto, Helgenberger said she believes there is no comparison between the two programs. “I just feel anytime something comes out of a business,” she said, choosing her words carefully, “you know…I hesitate to use the word greed, but, in other words, it didn’t come from an organic place. I think it’s an uphill battle to get any magic, and that’s why I think it doesn’t necessarily have the chemistry, the cast doesn’t have the chemistry that ours does.”
“It doesn’t have the look,” she continued. “It just doesn’t have a soul like our show. But I don’t mean to be disrespectful to that show at all,” she added sincerely. “I don’t have anything against anybody personally at all. I just would rather have the [original] show just be by itself and enjoy the wild ride of success. But we’re in a different era now, when it’s really just kind of about finding out what is successful and duplicating it again and again and again. It’s not just the Miami show. There are a lot of other shows that are both on CBS and produced by Bruckheimer that are almost the exact same show but with a slightly different premise and a different cast, and there you have it.”
Helgenberger, however, is by no means a television naysayer. She thinks that the variety alone available on television today is positive and that the industry is just going through another transformation. “I actually happen to think there are some really good shows on TV,” she said adding quickly “not that I’m a big TV watcher. But the fact that there are so many options for viewers – you know when I was doing China Beach – there really weren’t very many options, and now there are.”
In reference to the omnipresent reality TV, she doesn’t deem it the end of western civilization, but she does question the use of the word ‘reality.’ “The reality TV…I think that’s just a phase,” she explained. “I understand it from a business point of view, but it really is pathetic. Let’s face it, I can’t stand to watch it – the dating shows [for example] – they’re just stupid. There’s nothing real about it. Our show is more real than some of these dopey shows.”
As part of Marg and Alan’s Celebrity Weekend, the two are offering some reality theater Friday September 5, at the Rose Theater. Helgenberger and Rosenberg will present a one-time performance of A.R. Gurney’s The Love Letters. Tickets are available through the Rose box office.
The ‘celebrity’ part of the weekend’s events includes actors Dennis Haysbert (24, Far From Heaven), Robert Kind (Spin City), Robert Hayes (Airplane), R. Lee Erney (Full Metal Jacket), and many more names from the entertainment industry.
In addition to the Friday night performance of The Love Letters, other events include:
Sept. 6 – Harrah’s hosts The Survivor Celebration. Tickets available at the Jennie Edmundson Volunteer Department.
Sept. 7 – Celebrity Golf Championship at the Dodge Riverside Golf Club. Open to spectators. Tickets available at Hy-Vee food stores, Harrah’s gift shop and the Dodge Riverside Golf Club in Council Bluffs.