Working with George Clooney was a major draw

By Bret Watson
May 17, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • TV Show

Marg Helgenberger had a definite opinion about her ER sex scene with George Clooney: Slow down!

The tip wasn’t for Clooney, who gets to, um, play doctor with Helgenberger in this season’s final episodes. Actually, she offered the advice to a director of photography who told her the bedroom scene would be racy in both senses of the word. After all, this was breakneck-paced ER. But Helgenberger balked: ”We’re both naked in bed, making out. Do you really think people will channel-surf?”

In the end, nice and easy did it. Helgenberger, after all, knows a thing or two about TV sex. She won an Emmy playing K.C., a hooker with a heart of gold, on the Vietnam medical drama China Beach (1988-91). Since then, the pencil-thin actress has delivered brassy turns in such feature films as Species and Bad Boys and in the TV movie Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers. Fortuitously, many of her China Beach colleagues (including John Wells) went on to produce a new show called ER. After seeing last fall’s episode in which Dr. Doug Ross (Clooney) saves a boy from drowning, Helgenberger called her old friends and begged for a guest shot — and to work with Clooney. ”We’re both strong people,” she explains. ”And when two strong people get together, sparks fly.”

”When you have this talented a cast, it’s not easy to use guest stars who won’t get blown off the screen,” says executive producer Wells. ”It’s nice when you know there’s a Marg Helgenberger who’s going to hold her own.” The actress was cast as businesswoman Karen Hines, who finds lust at first sight with the dashing doc. ”I was with his father in a partnership, but there was probably hanky-panky,” she says of her character, who may return next season. ”So the question is, Did Doug get involved with me to get back at his father?”

Not every role has been so easy to land. ”The comment I get most often is ‘Too old and too pretty,’ ” says Helgenberger, 37. ”And I’m thinking, So if I were younger and uglier I’d have more of a career?” Her Irish-German beauty helped her grab her first TV gig back in her native Nebraska, where she served as a local ”weekend weather girl” — between shifts at a meat-packing plant (a job her government meat inspector dad helped her land).

Today, life is cushier. She just finished shooting a comedy, My Fellow Americans, with Jack Lemmon and James Garner. Off screen, she spends time with her husband, actor Alan Rosenberg (Cybill), and their son, Hugh, 5. Will she allow the kid to stay up to watch ER? ”I don’t really like him to see me kissing other men,” says Helgenberger. ”Nor does he like it.” On second thought, maybe they should have paced that bedroom scene a little faster.