'CSI' Star's Mom Helps Keep Her Grounded

May 11, 2003 — -- Imagine what it's like to be the star of the moment — the red-hot redhead dubbed the "bombshell with brains" on television's No. 1 program.

Marg Helgenberger is living that dream, playing a sexy scientist on the hit show CSI. She has millions of fans. She's been named one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" and she graces the pages of no less than four glossy magazines just this month.

Now imagine being Marg's mother, Kay, maybe the proudest woman in Nebraska. "Oh, the whole family, the whole town, the whole community is very, very proud of her," she said.

Kay is loving every minute of her daughter's current success, though she takes no credit for it. But when you get to know Kay, you'll get a better idea of how Marg has managed to become so successful while still keeping her feet planted on the ground.

Marg, who grew up in the small, rural town of North Bend, Neb., recalls a simple, somewhat idyllic childhood. "It was a great place to grow up. Kids just kind of took off on their bikes and we returned when it was time to have dinner."

She was the second of three children born to Kay and Hugh Helgenberger. She has an older sister Ann, and a younger brother, Curt. Hugh worked in the local meatpacking plant and provided a solid middle-class life for his family. Kay was the school nurse, and the neighborhood's "mother hen." In fact, that was her nickname.

Marg remembers the Helgenberger home was always full. "It was a home [where] every friend of ours wanted to hang. It was the cool place to be, especially before, you know, Homecoming dances and prom night."

But Marg's mom was no pushover. As the school nurse, she never fell for her kids wanting to play sick and stay home from school. "I do recall coming to the nurse's office a couple of times with an upset stomach," Marg said, "and my mother uh, said, 'Eat some Saltine crackers and lie on the bed for 20 minutes!' " Then, it was back to class.

Marg grew into one of the prettiest girls in town and was heading for a career as a nurse, like her mother. But in her senior year of high school, she caught the acting bug, and that was it.

Kay recalls that she didn't give Marg the most enthusiastic response when her daughter told her of her dream, and Marg replied, "See, that's why I don't tell anybody. You don't think I can do it, do you?"

From Weather Girl to Meatpacking

Ever the practical mother, Kay watched her daughter's somewhat less-than-stunning debut on television and worried she might never have the career she hoped for.

Marg began as a weather girl. "I collected all the information … drew my own maps. I put a lot of work into that, and for that I got paid $15."

Fortunately, Marg held a second job to help pay for college — a decidedly less glamorous one. She spent summers working in the meatpacking plant where her father was an inspector.

"I had a set of knives, I had a steel, I wore a frock, I had a hard hat It was hard. It was hard," Marg said.

"But," her mom interjected, "the pay was good."

By her junior year, Marg had transferred to Northwestern in Chicago.

She was doing very well and life was pretty good, and then came a phone call from home.

"It was my mother saying, 'Well, I'm going in to the hospital because they … say I have a lump, but not to worry, everything's going to be fine,' " Marg said.

But everything wasn't fine. Kay had breast cancer. She had first one breast removed and then the other just a few days later, after doctors learned the cancer had spread.

Marg said the illness was devastating for the family, but, she said, "We got through it. Mom got home and I would have to say a couple of weeks later she was out there mowing the lawn with the old push mower."

Laughing, Kay said she was determined to show her neighbors her fighting spirit. "I think in a little town everybody knows your business before you do, and, I think they thought I was dying. In fact, I even had somebody call for my job. Well, that's when I thought, 'Gosh, you know, I got to prove to somebody that … I'm not dead and I am going to be a survivor.' "

Kay has been cancer free-ever since. But the family's troubles weren't over. Shortly after Kay recovered from her long months of chemotherapy, Marg's father, Hugh, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He lived only a few years after that, but it was long enough to see his daughter break into show business with a role on the ABC soap opera Ryan's Hope.

The Big Break

Marg's big break came when she landed a role on the ABC drama China Beach But the role wasn't the easiest part to tell her devoutly Catholic mother about.

"She said it's about women's perspective in Vietnam," Kay recalls.

When she learned that Marg was playing the role of heroin-addicted prostitute who lived and worked near a military hospital, Kay said she was a bit concerned about what she would tell neighbors.

"I thought, 'Oh, dear.' I said, 'What will I say around here?' And she said 'Well, Mother, I don't think people are going to stone me.' But yeah, people would always say that and then I would always kind of retaliate and say, 'Well, you know, she's an actress and it's better to play one than be one.' And that stopped them."

It's a good bet everyone in North Bend was cheering the night Marg won an Emmy for her role on China Beach.

In her current role on CSI, Marg plays Catherine Willows, who, like her China Beach character, is a woman familiar with the seedier side of life. She's an ex-stripper-turned-scientist trying to balance her career while raising a child as a single mom. It's another role that capitalizes on Marg's blend of smartness and sexiness.

In real life, Marg and her husband, fellow actor Alan Rosenberg, manage to balance two Hollywood careers with parenthood. The couple have been married since 1989, and have a 13-year-old son, Hugh — named for Marg's late father.

With all of her success, it seems Marg has been able to follow her Nebraska mom's example that combines small-town values and a strong spirit.