After 12 seasons on the smash procedural, Marg Helgenberger is getting out of the crime business. And EW was on the set for the final moments as the star signed off -- yes, there were tears... and tequila

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Marg Helgenberger can’t stop fidgeting.

She tucks her hair behind her ears and yanks at her leather jacket. She shuffles around the set and makes small talk with the crew. When it’s finally time to shoot another take of her last scene for CSI, Helgenberger is suddenly at a loss for words. ”God, what’s the line?” she calls.

”’How could I leave this place?”’ the script supervisor replies.

It’s no wonder Helgenberger is having trouble: Her character, Catherine Willows, is about to say goodbye.

On Dec. 7, the 53-year-old actress became the third original star (behind Gary Dourdan and William Petersen) to depart the long-running crime drama. All of her current costars — Ted Danson (D.B. Russell), George Eads (Nick Stokes), Jorja Fox (Sara Sidle), and Paul Guilfoyle (Capt. Jim Brass) among them — were there to appear in Helgenberger’s final scene and to bid farewell to the unofficial den mom of the franchise.

”I’m not leaving saying, ‘I gotta get out of this job,”’ explains Helgenberger the next day, while nursing a hangover (she and Fox threw back a few tequila shots after leaving work the night before). ”There may have been certain locations that sucked, or certain story lines that I didn’t really like. But there was always something that made me laugh. It’s just that, instinctually, I felt like I had to step back.”

To the end, CSI‘s producers refused to believe that Helgenberger would actually depart the 11-year-old series that made her a household name. (She had originally wanted to leave at the end of her contract in May, but they persuaded her to stick around through the Jan. 25 episode.) Even after CBS announced that it had cast Elisabeth Shue as Catherine’s replacement — she’ll first appear as a former colleague of Danson’s character on Feb. 15 — the writers had planned an eleventh-hour plea to keep Helgenberger inside the yellow tape.

”We love our Margy,” says exec producer Carol Mendelsohn, who got teary-eyed on her star’s final day. ”But in those hours that we spent doing her last scene, we listened to Marg, and I actually made peace with her decision. You can’t fight it anymore.”

Instead, the producers packed up Catherine’s props — her vest, her gun, and some work gloves — and gave them to Helgenberger as a bittersweet reminder of the high-profile role that brought her back to series TV a decade after China Beach. ”I just thought it was a really special, 21st-century Sherlock Holmes-like mystery,” says Helgenberger of what first attracted her to the job in 2000. ”What made it special was all the technology. Science was the star. And there had never been a show where the criminalists became the heroes. I just thought it had juice.”

While CSI did break new ground in procedural television and spawned countless imitators, it also had a dark side, which occasionally made for some tough working conditions. For Helgenberger, the constant late-night shoots got old pretty fast, so she amended her contract around season 5 to ensure that she never worked past midnight. She also had no patience for story lines that featured excessive violence against women. ”I would speak up if I felt like there were too many women being exploited,” she says. ”It just seemed like there were a lot of young, beautiful women who were corpses.” There were plenty of perks at her job, though, and Helgenberger particularly appreciated how the producers gave her plenty of say in Catherine’s backstory. ”Billy [Petersen] was the one who never wanted to go home with the characters,” Helgenberger remembers. ”I insisted upon it. I was the one who had the daughter and the ex-husband.” She was equally thrilled when her bosses brought on Danson this season. ”Ted’s just a great guy,” says Helgenberger, grinning. ”He would have convinced me to stay if I had been really open to it. He’s just so easy to work with.” (When asked what she thought about the Laurence Fishburne years, Helgenberger says the show’s subject matter became more bleak but that he was ”a powerful actor.”)

The worry now is whether CSI can survive the loss of yet another fan favorite. (The drama is currently averaging 13.4 million viewers — a far cry from its heyday when Petersen was the star and the show drew in 26.6 million.) Eads, for one, has some concerns: ”It sucked when Billy left. I was almost mad at him. Come on, this is so great, isn’t it? I didn’t see it the way he did. When I saw viewership drop from 19 million to 16 million, you learn how beloved some characters are. If we go down to 2 million with Marg going, what does that say about the rest of us?” Helgenberger tries not to worry about the fans — she’s too busy feeling guilty about leaving the cast and crew — but she’s confident that the CSI mothership will do just fine without her. ”It’s funny because you find yourself having these discussions on the set,” says the actress, who’s not opposed to returning to CSI for a cameo or doing another TV series down the line. ”Fifteen seasons feels like a nice round figure. It’s kind of a milestone.” But, she adds wistfully, ”it sure goes by in the blink of an eye.”

Marg Helgenberger: My 5 Favorite CSI Episodes
1. Pilot
Viewers meet the graveyard-shift team, who see a rookie get shot after she’s left alone at a crime scene. ”It kicked everything off.”

2. ”Lady Heather’s Box”
Catherine saves her daughter from a submerged car. ”I had quite a bit to do in it,” says the star. ”I enjoyed it!”

3. ”Weeping Willows”
Helgenberger’s then husband Alan Rosenberg plays a murder suspect. ”It was very well written and well directed.”

4. ”Grave Danger”
Nick (George Eads) is buried alive in a two-parter directed by Quentin Tarantino. ”Quentin is so sweet, and such a fan of CSI.”

5. ”Willows in the Wind”
Catherine says goodbye to her fellow CSIs. ”It was a no-acting-required kind of thing. It was really beautiful.”


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