'CSI's' Big Star on the Next Chapter

2012-02 BKLOT Marg Helgenberger Main P
Monty Brinton/CBS

Says Helgenberger: "Letting go of a show that has been an enormous part of my life for 12 years isn't easy."

Emmy winner Marg Helgenberger says goodbye to crime scenes on her way to the Walk of Fame.

Nebraska native Marg Helgenberger, 53, taped her last episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the CBS drama in which she has starred since its 2000 premiere, in early December; on Jan. 23, between the airing of her final two episodes (Jan. 18 and 25), she is set to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The timing of all this, she tells THR, is purely coincidental. Her decision to become an actress, however, was anything but.

Hollywood Walk of Fame Ceremony
WHEN: Monday, Jan. 23, 11:30 a.m.
WHERE: 6667 Hollywood Blvd.
GUEST SPEAKERS: Dana Delany and William Petersen

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: Twelve years is a long time to be on a show. What will you take from the experience?

Marg Helgenberger: The creative, collaborative camaraderie. The execution of a great idea in television involves so many people, and to sustain that for as many years as we have takes a group of people that are incredibly dedicated, passionate and committed and who enjoy each other's company. That's what we've always had on CSI, and that's why, in large part, it's still a success.

THR: Are you looking forward to some time off, or are you eager for your next gig?

Helgenberger: A little of both, actually. Letting go of a show that has been an enormous part of my life for 12 years isn't easy. Whenever we went on hiatus every April, I was always ready for it -- we put in so many months going for so many hours at a time, I was tired. But I knew in 2 ½ months, after I was rested, I'd have something to go back to. Now I don't have that.

THR: Do you have anything lined up?

Helgenberger: No, I don't. I've been in meetings -- a possible television series. I'd like to do some movies. Doing a musical comedy would be a lot of fun.

THR: I hear you became seriously interested in acting after portraying Blanche DuBois in a college production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Helgenberger: Actually, I got the bug in high school, but in terms of thinking this could be a possible career, it was that production and that role. I've always been a shy person. Acting gave me the opportunity to express myself. I enjoyed bringing material to life and playing off other people. I still do. Even if we didn't like the location or the cold or the hour of the night, I always loved being with the CSI cast. That was one of the reasons that made it so special and why it was so hard to leave.

THR: So what prompted the departure?

Helgenberger: I instinctively felt it was time to end that chapter of my career. I'm 53 now, and I feel like I'm still young enough to switch it up. I don't have the energy at 53 that I did when I started this show at 41. In that 12-year span, there were lots of changes in my life.

THR: During that time, you were raising a son.

Helgenberger: My son, Hugh, was 9 when we started shooting. We went through a bar mitzvah, high school graduation, sending him off to college. Now he works in the CSI production office.

THR: Do you ever go back and watch performances from your first TV role on Ryan's Hope?

Helgenberger: Oh, no. I would never do that. I wouldn't mind seeing China Beach, though. It was dramatic, ambitious and groundbreaking in that it was told from a woman's point of view. My character [K.C. Kolowski] was so unique. She was a prostitute and an entrepreneur. It was exhausting -- even harder than CSI in terms of the amount of hours -- but such a great experience. Every show was an adventure.

THR: What have been your favorite roles?

Helgenberger: K.C. was a good one. I love [CSI's]Catherine Willows. Who could not love Blanche DuBois? The role I had in Erin Brockovich was a very good one -- small but meaty and emotionally charged. It set the whole story in motion. I loved that even though she was suffering from cancers that were brought on by chromium-6 in the groundwater in Hinkley, Calif., she always had such a sunny disposition and a spirit about her -- she just pulled herself back up by her bootstraps. I loosely based her on my mom, who is a cancer survivor, and other hardworking people I know in the Midwest.

THR: Is it true you worked at a meatpacking plant when you were in high school?

Helgenberger: Yeah, I did that for three or four summers. I handled beef carcasses on an assembly line in a cooler. I was issued a set of knives, and I wore snowmobile boots, a hard hat and a frock. The shift started at 6 a.m. My worst day on CSI was vastly superior to my best day at the packinghouse.

THR: What's on your bucket list?

Helgenberger: I've never been to any country in South America or Asia. I've always wanted to go to Vietnam. Career-wise, I've definitely got to do some kind of Broadway or off-Broadway show. Hopefully it will be a good experience. You never really know. You pray to the literary gods and hope that you get something really great.


FIRST ON HIS SHORTLIST: CSI creator Anthony Zuiker recalls casting Helgenberger

"The inspiration for Marg Helgenberger's character, Catherine Willows, was a real CSI from Las Vegas named Yolanda McLeary. She was incredibly sexy and tough. She was the type of woman that could work the graveyard shift and then go out with the guys afterward for beers. They would rip her and joke around with her, and she would give it right back.

The character's original name was Catherine Bellows. Once we began to talk more about her backstory -- she was a single mom who used to be a stripper, and she was holding this double life, being a parent and being a CSI -- we softened the last name to Willows, the metaphor being that willows are very beautiful yet very fragile underneath the veneer.

We were looking for a TV star who could play an iconic role. I was a fan of Marg when she was on China Beach. When we first sat down with her, she had just wrapped Erin Brockovich. We were trying to find somebody who could stand the test of time in a special show -- someone who was sexy and tough and who had a lot of acting chops, someone to whom CBS' very important female audience could relate, someone with a high Q rating and who had a great pedigree. We found all that in Marg. We had a shortlist of names that we were considering, but she was always our first choice. She had such a gung-ho spirit about the role. Hiring her was arguably the best decision we ever made. It was tough to see her go. I was there for the last scene and then later, when she said goodbye to the cast and crew. It was the end of an era with a special actress."