NEBRASKA’S MARG HELGENBERGER: THE CSI STAR WHO’S SO NICE IT’S CRIMINAL
May 29, 2006
By Zade Duval
She’s got a raucous laugh, a salty tongue, and a Midwestern outlook. Oh…and a #1 rated TV show. A Nebraska native, Marg Helgenberger was born Mary Marg in Fremont (population 20,000), but raised in North Bend (pop. 1,200) with two siblings. She was named for an orphaned baby whom her mother encountered during her medical training.
These days, Marg stars in a hit television series, “CSI” (short for “crime scene investigation”) and is in 26 million living rooms each week. She plays a forensic investigator and single mom named Catherine Willows in Las Vegas.
“This is the best day job I’ve ever had,” Marg quips. “What’s even more exciting is that when a show goes to the top, you become a part of the pop culture landscape. Your character becomes an icon, a role model. It is very special to me that women of all ages find me inspiring, because I play someone strong and smart who doesn’t have to squander her femininity in the workplace.”
Marg’s ascent to the top of the acting profession seemed very unlikely when she was growing up in the Heartland. Her mother, Kay, was a school nurse, and her dad, Hugh (whom she lost in 1986) was a meat inspector. Marg praises her “all-American upbringing” and says her life was filled with happy memories of football games, school dances and music. “We all played horns,” says Marg, and although she was cast in school plays, she never had any ambitions of becoming an actress. “I got my Social Security card at 11,” she explains, “and I started working in the soybean fields. They would issue you a machete! At 11!”
Marg grew up making pilgrimages to Omaha. “When I got to be a teenager and we could drive, [going to Omaha] was like going to Paris. There was nothing better than getting in our car and driving to Omaha for the day, for girls, teenage girls, who loved to shop.” She loved going to the Civic auditorium. “I saw everybody from Fleetwood Mac to Bad Company to Frank Sinatra, to Lynyrd Skynurd, Peter Frampton. Occasionally I saw a couple of shows at the Orpheum, which is a beautiful, beautiful [theater]. In fact, I saw Steve Martin there when he was just a standup – and he did that ramblin’ man thing with his banjo.”
Upon graduation from high school, Marg enrolled in Kearney State College, determined to become a nurse like her mom. After two years, a boyfriend told her about the theater program at Northwestern University, and she enrolled.
In 1981 she was living in Chicago for the Summer and was “waitressing and going to clubs” when she was discovered by a talent scout who was there looking for fresh talent for abc soaps. Shortly thereafter, she moved to New York City and landed a role as a cop on “Ryan’s Hope,” which she held for four years.
While doing the series she met her future husband, fellow actor Alan Rosenberg. But the two didn’t start dating until a few years later when they ran into each other at a Los Angeles bank. They exchanged phone numbers, but Alan was shy about calling her. He had just gotten divorced and was at a low point in his career. “Margie was totally out of my league,” he remembers. “I had never seen someone so beautiful in my life.” When he didn’t phone her, Marg took the bull by the horns and called him. Alan says “that amazed me, because she could have had any guy she wanted.”
Within a few weeks they were living together, and in 1989 they eloped to San Francisco.
In 1990, Helgenberger won an Emmy for her role on “China Beach.” And ten years later, Helgenberger began appearing on a new series, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”
A show for grown-ups, it’s a crime drama in which a team of coolly-detached professionals uses high-tech forensic science to solve grisly homicides. With hard-edged story lines, soft-spoken characters and the most sophisticated visual gimmicks in TV, the program has swiftly become Number One in prime time. With its MTV-style editing, ultra-graphic images and carefully designed palette of cool blues and fluorescent greens, the show “has tapped into a new postmodern aesthetic” says director Richard Lewis. “But remember, this is noir. On ‘CSI,’ it’s always night.” In fact, the series is filmed at night to give it a dark, thriller effect.
Asked to comment on the reasons for the show’s success, Helgenberger reflects, “People have always liked a good mystery. The public’s fascination with forensic science came to a head in the ’90s, with high-profile cases like the O.J. Simpson trial.” She pauses for a sip of herbal tea. “But the reason people stay with it – if I may be so bold – is that the show is damn good. It’s incredibly stylish.”
Helgenberger has climbed through landfills, performed scenes in a tank of cold water, and unflinchingly witnessed real-life autopsies. Tall, thin, and with well-tended red hair, she relishes playing TV’s toughest dame. She is reputedly just as tough in real life, taking no guff from Steven Seagal on a movie set.
On “CSI”, she’s known for the crisp, unsmiling delivery of her lines. Her character is supposed to remain unemotional. But Marg says she is “unsettled” by the number of young female victims graphically killed every week. “There is an over-abundance of women as victims on our show,” she complains.
As for her own role, she says “I’d like to see Catherine be a bit more of a risk taker, a more provocative character.” At one point, she told the producers “take me out of this lab. I can’t stand it anymore.”
Marg hates wasting time and had to “throw a fit” during long hours of dead time on the set. “I said, ‘Don’t be shooting a bunch of extras while I’m sitting in my trailer when I’ve got my son at home,'” she says. “They obviously try not to let anybody sit around for too long, but I have to point out that I’m the only cast member with a child at home.”
When she comes home from the set of “CSI” she plunges into homework and housework. “I think if most men have a block of time, they say, ‘Oh, I can watch TV,'”‘ she says. “They’re more content with free time than women are. Women think, ‘I can do this project, or that project.’ Women feel compelled to clean out closets.”
Alan concedes “I’m really lazy. I love acting, but I’ll play golf anytime, anywhere. Margie is an incredibly motivated multi-tasker who is serious about her work and everything she does.”
Marg describes her spouse as “a very passionate person in every way, whether it’s politics or work. And he’s a really kind person. I would not describe him as a type-a personality – those kinds of ambitious, self-involved men. I think with those men you’re setting yourself up for a life of insecurity. And I’m far too important.”
Earlier this season, Marg’s husband appeared in an episode of “CSI” as a murder suspect, but in the story someone else was revealed for stalking and killing young women. The 54-year-old Alan Rosenberg has appeared on such shows as “L.A. Law” and “The Guardian,” as well as playing Cybil Shepherd’s ex-husband on her show several years ago.
Both Marg and Alan are very involved with their son, Hughie. Alan coaches their son’s basketball team, while Marg is involved in school.
One day not long ago, Hughie and some of his friends visited Marg on the set where she was shooting in Las Vegas. She also got them a room at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and arranged for gondola rides at the Venetian.
The family’s Santa Monica, California home is a gathering place for her son and his buddies but, Helgenberger laughs, “I have to put the limit on the boys, because they’re just big and gangly and smelly, and they’ll eat you out of house and home.”
“I definitely want him to have somebody who is fun, and smart, and interested in the world; and somebody who is going to be a challenge. I don’t want him to settle for just anyone.”
When she was offered the cover of Playboy, she responded, “Please tell them I’m flattered, but my son would be mortified.” She shakes her head. “So when I told Alan, he says, ‘Really?’ And he starts phoning all his friends, boasting about it! And one of his friends said, ‘She should do it now because the next offer may be the cover of AARP.’ I love it!”
Marg avoids the social swirl. “I’m usually intimidated at parties,” she admits. “I’m kind of shy. And I have a really hard time at premieres. I’m not that outgoing in terms of going up to people and introducing myself.”
But, she is given to belly laughs, known for her raucous parties and salty sense of humor and has gotten bleeped on both “Letterman” and “Conan.”
“I guess just about everything I do revolves around my family,” she laughs, “which means the tabloids leave me alone. Why? There is nothing to report, because I lead a dull life. It’s not like I’m going out with a 22-year-old guy…. I’m sorry, but my marriage isn’t in trouble and I haven’t developed a drug habit.”
She is not real enthused about being trailed by paparazzi and not at all happy about seeing her picture in a celebrity publication looking “totally schlubbed out” on the way home from yoga class. “I’d rather go to the market and be a real person. Who wants to be hounded by a lens in a tree?” she comments.
Marg got a kick out of the coterie of make-up artists and stylists who attended her when she appeared on “Letterman.” “It wasn’t like in the old days,” she laughs, “when it was just me, a tube of mascara and a blow-dryer!”