Marg Helgenberger: Fresh Start

updated 03/07/2011 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/07/2011 01:00AM

In 2008, Marg Helgenberger's CSI: Crime Scene Investigation alter ego, Catherine Willows, was on the verge of a banner year. On the hit CBS drama, the Las Vegas investigator was about to take over as night-shift supervisor from William Peterson's departing Gil Grissom while juggling single motherhood and dating. Off-camera, however, the actress was falling apart. "My son, Hughie, my only child, was leaving home for college, I was leaving my husband of 19 years, and I turned 50," she recalls. "I was overwhelmed."

Now, thanks to friends, her series (11 seasons and running) and a new beau, a revitalized Helgenberger is at the top of her game. "I can't believe I'm 52!" she says. "I still think of myself as a young person. But I am totally fine."

Her world began to shift three years ago as she and her husband, actor Alan Rosenberg, 60, were renovating their new Spanish-style six-bedroom L.A. house, now Helgenberger's home. They had met on the soap opera Ryan's Hope (her first acting job) in the mid-'80s and married in 1989. But in recent years, "we were struggling as a couple," she says. "Right when our son was going to college, I made the decision to move here and see how that worked out."

Soon after that, the couple announced their separation. The decision was mutual, she says, and the pair used a mediator during their 2009 divorce, which lacked the usual rancor of high-profile Hollywood splits. "Alan and I have too much respect for each other and what we had for 23 years," she explains. "We are in a pretty good place now."

As her marriage crumbled, Helgenberger found solace at CSI, where she has worked since its 2000 premiere. "It's been a real stabilizing force," she says. At home, however, she barely left the bedroom. For a whole year, "I watched TiVoed shows, sitting in my bed going, 'Is this all that I can expect for the rest of my life?' " she recalls. " 'Really, Marg? Watching RuPaul's Drag Race by yourself?' " So she began asking girlfriends to set her up. "I said, 'I'm not looking to get a boyfriend,' " she says, " 'I'm just looking to put my feet in the water.'"

Last summer a mutual pal put her in touch with businessman Alan Finkelstein, and her casual dating plans went out the window. "Another Alan, another Jewish guy," Helgenberger jokes of Finkelstein, 60. "But we have a lot of fun." The pair love to travel, visiting Milan last fall and seeing art galleries. Says Helgenberger: "He's very gregarious."

Friends and family marvel at how Helgenberger has blossomed. "She smiles and laughs a bit more," says son Hughie, 20. Adds CSI executive producer Carol Mendelsohn: "Marg has that sparkle back!"

Next, she's thinking about ending another long-term relationship: her job on CSI. "It will be one of the sadder days in my life when I leave," says Helgenberger, who plans to step back next season-"We're talking maybe [only] doing a few episodes"-so she can return to theater and whatever else awaits. "The older you get, the more comfortable you become with who you are and who you're continuing to become," she says. "I'm looking forward to the next chapter."

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