Good Night, Vietnam

updated 07/01/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/01/1991 01:00AM

SAY "CATTLE CALLS" TO MARG HELGENBERGER and you won't get the standard actress's horror stories of group auditions. Helgenberger's memories are beefier: When she was a teenager, she had a part-time job at a meat-packing plant in North Bend, Nebr. "I didn't work on the killing floor," says the 32-year-old actress who plays K.C., the hard-bitten hooker, on ABC's Vietnam series, China Beach. "I worked in the section where you break the meat down and package it."

As Marg—the g is hard—has broken away from the Hollywood herd (she won an Emmy last year for K.C.), her career has been proudly tracked in a trade publication, the Meatball Review. Its editors should note two important Marg events. First, China Beach was not renewed for next season. It is winding down (through July 22) with seven episodes that trace the postwar lives of its characters—K.C. included.

Second, Helgenberger's after-Beach career begins in earnest on June 25, when she stars with Christopher (Superman) Reeve in Death Dreams, a supernatural thriller on cable's Lifetime. Helgenberger plays Reeve's wife, whose deceased daughter from a previous marriage appears in a vision and tells her mom that Mom's new husband drowned her. Reeve recalls when Helgenberger's scenes demanded that she talk to the daughter, "and all she saw was a grip shaking a light with tinfoil on it. It looked pretty silly," he says. "But she still grounded it in reality."

In crafting K.C., Helgenberger often took her character's reality home with her. "If I was working hard, she bled into my personality," she says. "I became more cynical." And also tougher minded on the set during rough location filming: "There were a coupla times when I had had it. And when I'm pushed to the limit, I scream." China Beach costar Concetta Tomei (Maj. Lila Garreau) says, "There's no BS about Marg. She's feisty, direct and down-home."

Down home was North Bend (pop. 1,350), some 50 miles from Omaha, where Helgenberger grew up with sister Ann, now 33 and a musician in L.A., and brother Curt, 30, a meat inspector. Her mother, Kay, 55, was a nurse, and her father, Hugh, who died of multiple sclerosis in 1986, worked as a meat inspector in the same factory where Marg and Curt have toiled. "When I think of home," she says, "I think of fishing with my dad. We'd go to a sandpit loaded with bluegill and bullheads."

Her father was her emotional anchor. "I miss his calmness," Helgenberger says. "I sort of went through this chubby phase thinking, 'Eeeeough, I'm so ugly.' And he would always say, 'You just wait. Your cheekbones will come in.' " How right he was: By the time she was at North Bend High, the former chubette had become a curvy cowgirl next door. Though she planned to be a nurse, Marg opted for an acting career after excelling in speech and drama, subjects she pursued first at nearby Kearney State College, then at Northwestern.

The first Helgenberger acting job that meat-packers and others would have noticed was her mid-'80s stint as the spunky rookie-cop Siobhan on the ABC soap opera Ryan's Hope. That show introduced her to cast member Alan Rosenberg, a onetime cabdriver. Rosenberg (The Last Temptation of Christ), 40, remembers being "pretty much infatuated" with his costar, but he was also pretty much married to actress Robin Bartlett. Nothing happened until 1986, when Rosenberg, now divorced, ran into Helgenberger at a bank in Los Angeles. "I opened an account," she says, "and a relationship."

They married in 1989 and now live in a three-bedroom English-style cottage in trendy but "neighborhoody" West Hollywood. Helgenberger, whose other credits include Steven Spielberg's Always and guest parts on Matlock and thirtysomething, is busy taking care of 8-month-old Hugh, named for her dad. She doesn't miss the series grind but does miss her mates. "I spent three intense years with those people," she says. "We'll still get together, but it's time to move on and spend time with my baby."

And with baby's menagerie—gifts that are now tumbling all over the cottage. "If I see one more stuffed toy..." growls Helgenberger, who has been telling friends and relatives, "Send food instead!" The readership of the Meatball Review might be able to help there.

TOM GLIATTO
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles

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