MARG HELGENBERGER: THE CSI STAR TEES OFF AGAINST BREAST CANCER
Golf for Women
By Karen Karbo
She helps nail the bad guys as the star of TV’s number-one drama, ‘CSI.’ Now Marg Helgenberger is taking on a new foe: the disease that almost claimed her mother. And she’s using golf to crack the case.
Marg Helgenberger arrives for lunch with wet hair, explaining that she’s just come from a spinning class. She’s wearing a T-shirt and white jean jacket, a pair of caramel-colored capris and a pair of tiny gold hearts on a gold chain around her neck; they say ‘beloved’ in Chinese, she explains. The necklace was a gift from Alan Rosenberg, her husband of 14 years and the star of the TV series ‘The Guardian.’ “Alan gave it to me for Mother’s Day,” she says. “Wait, no. It could have been after a fight. Do you like them?”
In ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,’ the top-rated CBS show in which Marg plays Catherine Willows, a Las Vegas stripper turned investigator who traded her tassels for a thermocycler, the governing mantra is follow the evidence. This is also a mandatory procedure when interviewing celebrities, who generally want to be portrayed as friendly and unpretentious (few actors want the word to get out that they’re high-maintenance and self-involved).
Follow the evidence. Helgenberger arrives for lunch on time, with no cell phone in sight. The choice of restaurant is hers, Provence Café on Santa Monica’s chic but laid-back Montana Avenue, where ultra-thin women scurry down the street with rolled yoga mats tucked under their arms and clothing stores sell plain white T-shirts for several hundred dollars. At the end of the street, a mile or so away, the horizon is bound by a serene strip of the Pacific Ocean.
More evidence bolstering Helgenberger’s reputation as a down-to-earth chick largely unchanged by Hollywood success: ‘CSI,’ which has garnered a slew of Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, is currently on hiatus – “but I’m not,” laughs Helgenberger. She’s renovating her family’s house, planning son Huey’s fall bar mitzvah and, best of all, getting ready to head to Pebble Beach for a long weekend with Alan and Huey, who is now 13. “I love that course,” she says. “And it’ll give me a chance to get in some serious playing time before the tournament.”
“The tournament” is Marg and Alan’s Celebrity Weekend, a two-day charity golf event the couple hosts each September at The Dodge Riverside Golf Club in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Dodge Riverside is located about 60 miles east of North Bend, Nebraska, where Helgenberger grew up and where her mother, Kay Snyder, still lives.
Helgenberger is the first to admit that celebrity tournaments are a dime a dozen, but this one is close to her heart. Proceeds of Marg and Alan’s Celebrity Weekend benefit the cancer centers at Jennie Edmundson Hospital in Council Bluffs and Methodist Hospital in nearby Omaha. The funds are allocated to support the fight against breast cancer. The couple started the tournament five years ago at the suggestion of a friend whose wife had survived breast cancer. Today it is one of hundreds of golf-related events across the U.S. that raise tens of millions of dollars for breast cancer research. Helgenberger’s mother, Kay, is a 23-year breast cancer survivor and proud of it. “Ninety-nine percent of recovery is attitude,” says Snyder.
Her daughter seconds that emotion: “My mom survived because she has a tremendous work ethic and a great deal of faith,” says Helgenberger. “She’s an adventurer at heart.”
It was that attitude that carried both mother and daughter through Snyder’s diagnosis and recovery. Helgenberger was a junior at Northwestern University when she received a phone call: Her mother had discovered a lump in her breast. Snyder assured her daughter it was nothing – she was a nurse after all – but “nothing” became, over the course of several days, a life-threatening diagnosis of cancer. She has one breast removed. But doctors found the cancer had spread. The other breast was removed. She was 46.
“The chemotherapy was terrible,” recalls Helgenberger. “It made my mother bald and sicker than a dog. But even though I wept at the news of the diagnosis and the double mastectomy, I never doubted her ability to survive. Never.”
There’s an anecdote that both mother and daughter tell that corroborates Snyder’s Midwestern toughness and determination, her matter-of-factness in the face of adversity: Two weeks after the returned home from her mastectomy, Snyder was mowing the lawn – with a push mower. “I didn’t want everyone to think I was going to die,” she says. “Because I wasn’t.”
Two months after Snyder’s breast cancer went into remission, Helgenberger’s father, Hugh, was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis. “Marg and her dad were close,” says Snyder. “She looks like him. Suddenly, after having cancer, I was in the position of having to care for someone else. I think it did me good.”
Hugh Helgenberger died four years later. (Kay remarried eight years ago to an engineer, Lee Snyder. “Now there’s a fanatic golfer,” says Marg.) “Longevity doesn’t seem to run in our family,” says Helgenberger, who turns 45 in November. “I think about it sometimes, but I take care of myself. I exercise. I started getting annual mammograms in my thirties. And I try to raise awareness.”
In 2001, Helgenberger made the ‘Entertainment Weekly’ “It” List. Under the heading “Best Advice” she said, “To relax and let the game come to me.” It’s also a neat summation of her attitude toward her golf game.
Helgenberger calls herself “a passionate recreational golfer.” She loves the game, she says, because it takes so much focus. “The combination of concentrating and relaxing is so interesting.” When asked what she shoots, she laughs: “Say 70!”
Growing up, her father was the family golfer. Helgenberger herself played as a teen, but “we went out mostly for laughs,” she says. “It was more about having beers and driving the cart.”
She got more serious about the game when she met her future husband. “Alan played as a teen,” she explains. “Then the ‘60s happened and golf became too bourgeois. A lot of people gave it up. He didn’t play for 10 years, then he took it up again with a vengeance,” she says. Part of their 1986 courtship included regular trips to the driving range, where Alan encouraged Marg to pursue the sport. “He’d say, ‘Wow, honey, look how far you can drive!’ I sort of think boyfriends have to say that, don’t they?”
Marg’s voice is low and matter-of-fact. It’s a woman talking; there’s no trace of silly girl. Even though she has made her home in Los Angeles for the past 17 years, there are echoes of the Midwest in her speech. The word ‘impossible’ come out “impaasible.”
North Bend, Nebraska, where Helgenberger was born in 1958, is a farming community with a population of 1,213. This number is listed on the town Web site, along with the mayor’s phone number and the name of the sewage plant operator.
Helgenberger’s mother worked as the school nurse at North Bend Hugh, where Marg, her older sister and younger brother all attended school. As a freshman, Helgenberger played volleyball and dabbled in basketball, but team sports weren’t her thing. “Her biggest humiliation was flunking P.E. one year,” says Snyder. “Then she went out for track but decided she didn’t like all that running.”
Which didn’t mean Helgenberger didn’t possess a work ethic. “Marg’s dad and I tried to instill that in all our kids,” her mother says. “You worked hard and you didn’t quit. You were kind and considerate to other people,” she says, adding, “I don’t think Hollywood has changed that in Marg.”
During her summers and Christmas breaks, Helgenberger worked at “the pack,” as the local meatpacking plant was known. She needed money for college (“and to buy all those clothes she liked so well!” says her mother). It made her tough. One day she was hacking a blood clot off a side of beef and got sprayed in the face; on another day, she got knocked into the “inedible” bin by a side of beef that fell off its hook.
“The job paid well,” Marg explains. “That’s why I took it.”
Born Mary Margaret Helgenberger, her stubbornly unglamorous name is pronounced with a hard ‘g’. There would be no name changes for Marg. When she married Rosenberg in 1989, she had an opportunity to trade one long last name for a more common one with one less syllable, and chose not to. When she won an Emmy in 1989 for her role in ‘China Beach,’ the first thing she said upon reaching the podium was, “It’s Marg, not Marge.”
At the time of her father’s death, Helgenberger was co-starring on the soap opera ‘Ryan’s Hope.” A talent agent had seen her performance as Blanche DuBois in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ at Northwestern University and had invited her to audition for the role of Siobhan Ryan Novak, a spunky young cop who goes undercover as a prostitute. (This may have been the start of Helgenberger’s reputation for playing good girls gone bad.)
Helgenberger left ‘Ryan’s Hope’ in 1986 and moved to Los Angeles. She wasn’t an overnight success by any means. In 1988, however, she got a break: She was cast as the tough entrepreneur and sometime prostitute K.C. Koloski in ‘China Beach.’
The role established Helgenberger as a versatile actress who could simultaneously embody strength, vulnerability and sexiness. It won her an Emmy a month before she gave birth to her son, Hugh, whom she named for her father.
Helgenberger’s big-screen breakthrough came in 2000. She won the part of Donna Jensen, a young woman afflicted with cancer. The movie was ‘Erin Brockovich,’ and to prepare for the role, she drew on the experiences of her mother. “That stuff stays with you,” she says. “I focused on my mother’s optimism and her ability to keep smiling and provide for her family, to be the best wife and mother she could be.”
Snyder, for her part, recalls her daughter’s modesty. “Marg can be close-mouthed when it comes to her career,” she says. “She told me she had a tiny role in this movie. Then I saw it, and I thought, ‘Oh my! I can see myself in her.’”
Most women with children and a full-time career don’t play golf as often as they’d life, and Helgenberger is no exception. She says the part of her game that needs the most work is pitching, but she can’t find the time to practice. “I’m a big fan of the nine-hole course,” she says. “It doesn’t require the intense focus of eighteen holes, but it allows you to get out there and play, always preferable in my book to the driving range.”
Helgenberger says she loves the aesthetics of a good course, especially one that embraces the ecosystem of the region. “I love to play in North Bend and see the black squirrels running around and all the birds of my youth,” she says.
She does wish more women would get involved in the game. “Frankly, women get intimidated. I think it’s fair to say there would be more women playing – and playing more frequently – if the atmosphere on the course were more welcoming.” That’s why she likes her charity tournament. “In a charity tournament, the guys tend to be more laid-back, which benefits everyone. The environment is more relaxed than your average golf game, especially the first day, when we play a scramble. When my ball gets tagged to continue, I’m like ‘All right!’”
Of course, the real reason Helgenberger returns to Council Bluffs to host the tournament each year isn’t the golf, but the opportunity to raise money for breast cancer research and to celebrate those who have beaten the disease. One of her favorite parts of the event has been a brunch for survivors from the community.
“It’s remarkable,” says Helgenberger. “There are women there who have lived 40 years after being diagnosed and those in the throes of chemotherapy. At the brunch a couple of years ago, I ran into a girl I used to babysit for as a kid. She was only 32.”
“It makes it all worth it,” she adds. “Being in that room has an enormous effect on people coming to terms with cancer. There’s nothing like being with hundreds of women who have beaten the disease. That’s what’s so beautiful. You can see the healing effect.”
*A scan of this article can be found here.