It's not every job where having your boss call you "the perfect ex-stripper/cokehead" could be considered a compliment, but for 12 seasons now, that's exactly what CSI exec producer Carol Mendelsohn has thought of her departing star, Marg Helgenberger. "Some actresses might shy away from playing a part like Catherine Willows, but Marg turned all of Catherine's negatives into positives. I miss her already." Helgenberger exits the series this week after a dozen years as the tough yet... well... tough Willows, and she spoke with TV Guide Magazine two days after filming her final scenes, discussing everything from William Petersen's near-return for her farewell to her future career as a dancer.
TV Guide Magazine: So was your last day like a celebration or a wake?
[Laughs] To be honest, I didn't sleep well those first couple days afterward. It was a tearful exit from the set, then I went out with a few close friends like Eric [Szmanda], [Robert] David [Hall] and Jorja [Fox]. It's never a good idea to start drinking tequila at 10:30 at night, but it was a perfect way to end things. We closed the bar. But the next day, I couldn't sleep in. I was so wired from the last day and all the adrenaline.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you like the way Catherine is making her exit?
It's been intense. These episodes were hard. But I'm happy with how it all went. For the past several years we'd mention that Catherine inherited casino land from her father. Going in that direction would have been an easy transition since she is affiliated in that world. An offer to join a federal task force seemed more professional, like a promotion. Also, Carol said that if they were to write an episode to entice me back, it would be easier given that I liked the idea [of Catherine joining the Feds]. And I am open to returning at some point. Just not right away.
TV Guide Magazine: So when did you first start planning how she departs?
We started back in the summer, and initially, Billy [Petersen] wanted to come back for a couple of episodes. Carol and [exec producer] Don McGill and I had lunch with him to hash it out, but he and his wife had twins who were born prematurely, and that was way too overwhelming for him to deal with. Carol said that ultimately it was a blessing for me that he wasn't able to do it because she didn't want the episodes to be more about Grissom's return. Which it would have been. Now it's really just about Catherine.
TV Guide Magazine: For the past 12 years, you've been knee-deep in rotting corpses and oozing autopsies. What was your grossest moment on CSI?
It was our 100th episode, about a gender reassignment surgery gone wrong. George [Eads], Gary [Dourdan] and I open up a storage unit and there is a man who had started the process of changing. He looked like a woman but was dead, splayed out on a table, legs in stirrups. It was a bloody mess. Even the crew said, "We gotta get outta here!" There was no acting required. Even now I am looking at it in my head!
TV Guide Magazine: Any favorite episodes?
I had so much fun with comic episodes, although there were not a whole lot of them. We did a lot of stuff that's a bit off. Plushies and furries — and a diaper episode. I remember I found some poo while looking for evidence, and someone asks me, "What do you have?" And I said, "I got crap!" I remember that was one of those episodes that went way up to the top with the question of how much poo we could actually show. It's funny how people were more freaked out by human excrement than the violent images on the show.
TV Guide Magazine: What was the worst thing about being Catherine Willows?
Probably the pressure of always having to look good while on the job. There were days when I wanted to come in and do my scenes in sweatpants.
TV Guide Magazine: And the best thing?
Her commitment to her job, her passion, her dedication. I learned confidence from her. I'm not as shy now as I was, thanks to her, to everything that goes along with a hit show and the amount of attention you get.
TV Guide Magazine: Were you ever freaked out by all the recognition?
The show became this global sensation, so it was difficult to even go around Paris and Madrid and not get stopped all the time. I do remember being in Musée d'Orsay in Paris, which has some of the most extraordinary art in the world. I was with my family, looking at the Van Goghs, and this crowd surrounded me. It was kind of embarrassing. I remember thinking, "Here's Van Gogh and Matisse and Manet, and you want a picture with me?" Another time, I was recognized while watching a flamenco show in Spain and brought up on stage. And I thought, "I'm going to have to do [flamenco] when I get back home." But have I ever? No. But now I've got the time. Maybe that'll be my next move... professional flamenco dancer.
CSI airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on CBS.