MARG HELGENBERGER IS NOT A HOUSEHOLD NAME
By David P. McGrath
Even though she has starred in two massive TV hit series, Marg Helgenberger is not a household name. Actually, she is NOT a household name in more ways than one. Most of the people who watch her on TV’s ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’ can’t even pronounce her name correctly!
So, first of all, don’t call her Marge. It’s a hard ‘g’ at the end of her name. Marg is short for Margaret, which is actually her middle name.
She was born Mary Margaret Helgenberger on November 16, 1958 in Fremont, Nebraska. Helgenberger is both fond and proud of her Midwestern roots and says she would eventually like to retire to Nebraska.
“OK, I say that but then I remember the bitter winters out there and I start to think twice about it,” she said with a laugh in a recent interview with RENAISSANCE MAGAZINE. “Alan (husband Alan Rosenberg) and I take our son, Hugh, back to Nebraska a lot to visit his grandparents who still live there. We go when the weather is nice and I love the place. It is so different from Los Angeles. When I’m there I just feel so safe and secure. Like I’m in a cocoon. I trust and like everyone there. I can’t say that about where I live and work now.”
“In my heart of hearts I know it is the place I would really, really like to be to live out the years of my life after my career, but I just don’t think in reality I could do the winters anymore.”
Helgenberger made her major Hollywood breakthrough on the TV hit ‘China Beach’ from 1988-1991. She won an Emmy in 1989 for her role as K C Koloski, a heroin-addicted hooker who serviced American GIs, on the Vietnam-era TV drama.
She is currently co-starring on CBS-TV’s ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’ with William Petersen. She plays an equally edgy character named Catherine Willows, a stripper-turned-forensics expert whose special skills include blood spatter analysis. She picked up an Emmy nomination for this role in 2001.
“I like those kind of roles,” she admitted. “I find that they are easier to play and a lot more fun. I guess I’m a little edgy personally. It’s my nature. While I can be happy-go-lucky at times, I’m a skeptic by nature and I just question everything and everyone. I’m just not your girl-next-door-type, you know?”
Small town life got Helgenberger dreaming early on of what else might be out there in the big, big world. She became active in shows and plays as a pre-teen, and carried on with it through her college years. She knew she wanted to be an actress. As a matter-of-fact, she’ll tell you it was her sole goal.
“I transferred from a small state college in Nebraska to Northwestern University so I could major in speech and drama,” she explained. “I had tunnel vision. It’s all I wanted to do. I had no visions of grandeur of being a star or anything. I just wanted to be on stage. I wanted to travel places and see things and I figured that acting in road shows would be a good way to do that.”
It was at Northwestern where she was spotted by a talent scout who steered her into soap operas. Helgenberger co-starred on ‘Ryan’s Hope’ from 1982-1986. (Incidentally, it was on this show where she met her husband, Alan Rosenberg, who was also co-starring on it. They married in 1989.)
So often in Hollywood one thing leads to another. So it happened for Helgenberger. Her work on ‘Ryan’s Hope’ caught the eye of the people who were putting together ‘China Beach’ and they auditioned her for the role of K C Koloski.
She was hired on the spot. “I just immersed myself in the character for the audition,” she recalled. “I didn’t sleep for 30 hours before the screen test so I would look a bit tired and feel a bit edgy. Then, I came on to a couple of the producers. They loved it! I probably could have made a lot of extra money that day (laughter)!”
‘China Beach’ led to a number of other TV and movie roles. The most notable was her co-starring role alongside Julia Roberts in the Oscar-winning film ‘Erin Brockovich.’
“Great movie, great fun, great actress,” is how Helgenberger recalls the movie and Roberts. “I don’t think we became fast friends, but we had a good time making the movie. I think Julia is at such a level of stardom that she is very wary about whom she lets into her inner circle. I was OK with that. I was thrilled to be on screen with her.”
The role also led to her current TV success. CBS executives were shown her work in that movie when they were casting the Catherine Willows character in ‘CSI.’
“That’s why it never pays to sleepwalk through any role you’re doing no matter how small it might seem,” she pointed out. “Julia Roberts was THE star of that movie and I’ll guarantee you that very few people not in the business know that I was even in that movie. But, people in the business took note and here I am!”
Where she is is a great place for an actress to be. She is one of the highest paid actresses on TV today. Nonetheless, Helgenberger realizes that she is still not a household name in America.
“Yeah, I know,” she groaned. “I hear about it all the time from my manager and my PR people. They want me to do this and do that and go here and go there. That’s not me. I just want to act. I don’t want to be seen here or there. Let cute little girls like the Olsen twins and Paris Hilton do that.”
“I don’t really look at myself as a star so I don’t pursue things that need to be pursued to become a star. You won’t see me in the tabloids because I’m really just this dull girl from Nebraska who followed her dream to be an actress not a star or a freak.”