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November 16, 2010

The Good Guys (and Gals): Stars of 'CSI,' 'Criminal Minds,' More Honor Mike Conners

CSI's Marg Helgenberger, Angie Harmon of Rizzoli & Isles,Criminal Minds' Thomas Gibson and more crimefighting TV stars share experiences and honor Mannix legend Mike Conners.

By Libby Slate

While researching her role as a crime scene investigator on CBS’s CSI, Marg Helgenberger spent time shadowing real-life CSI Yolanda McCleary, on whom her character is based. It was an experience she’ll never forget.

On their second call, for a murder in the suburbs, “a woman led us down the hall [of her home]. She said, ‘I just want you to know, I throw fun parties.’” Sure enough, when Helgenberger and her CSI counterpart entered the room with the body, they also found shelves of sex toys.

The story was one of many told when eight panelists gathered at the Television Academy’s Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre in North Hollywood November 1 for “Primetime TV Crimefighters.”

In addition to Helgenberger, panelists included Thomas Gibson (Criminal Minds, CBS), Angie Harmon (Rizzoli & Isles, TNT), Matt Bomer (White Collar, USA), Boris Kodjoe (Undercovers, NBC), Mary McCormack (In Plain Sight, USA), Matt Passmore (The Glades, A&E) and Kelli Williams (Lie to Me, Fox). Also on hand: special honoree Mike Connors, star of the 1967-75 CBS series Mannix, saluted as a legendary crimefighter. James Longworth, author of TV Creators, moderated.

Crime fighters — cops, detectives, marshals, FBI and CIA agents — have been on television every season since Martin Kane, Private Eye premiered on NBC in 1951; a video montage showed clips of more than 100 such derring-do-gooders.

Asked how they were hired for their current roles, Passmore divulged that he came out from his native Australia for a pilot that didn’t go to series, and eventually met with executive producers of The Glades. Bomer, on the other hand, “went in for a read. I went up and up and up [the casting hierarchy] and tested twice for it.” Williams said that for her, “It was a long pilot season. I went for six pilots. For Lie to Me, I had to work my ass off — I went in five times and then had to wait a month till they found their guy” — star Tim Roth.

Kodjoe was shooting a film in Toronto. “Everybody was tracking this new show by J.J. Abrams,” he recalled. “My agent said to try for it. I said no, I didn’t want to be the affirmative-action guy. You go in, and everybody loves you, and they pick someone else, who happens to be a white guy. Finally, the casting director called me and said, ‘We know who you are. We know what you can bring.’”

So he went in and had a casting session — in French — and a second session, with Abrams, in which he spoke German (Kodjoe was born in Austria and raised in Germany). “I had 5 billion tests, and finally J.J. called and said, ‘Do you want to go on this journey?’”

As for researching their roles, Harmon, who plays a Boston homicide investigator, was allowed to observe her real-life counterparts.

“There was a dead guy in a car,” she recounted. “You can’t remove a body without a search warrant, because it’s a crime scene. This was Saturday, so you had to wait for the judge to wake up. The [dead] guy’s foot was on the brake, but you couldn’t move the car — it had to be lifted with a crane. There was blood leaking on the ground. You can’t touch anything — this is somebody’s loved one, somebody’s father, somebody’s son.”

The actors shared their favorites among past crimefighting shows and stars. Passmore voted for Magnum, P.I. while McCormack picked Hill Street Blues (“I remember how different-looking it was, and that [theme] song”). Helgenberger had several faves, including Angie Dickinson in Police Woman: “She didn’t have to sacrifice any sexiness for police work.” Bomer and Kodjoe cited Simon & Simon; star Gerald McRaney now plays Kodjoe’s boss on Undercovers, the actor noted.

The evening ended with the presentation of a plaque to Mike Connors by Kiki Ebsen, daughter of the late Barnaby Jones star Buddy Ebsen, and Barnaby costar Lee Meriwether.

“I’d really like to do the show [Kodjoe] is doing,” Connors said in acceptance. “He starts in bed with a beautiful woman [onscreen wife Gugu Mbatha-Raw] and ends in bed with a beautiful woman. I used to close the show getting hit in the head!” Turning serious, he expressed his appreciation for the award, honoring his pioneering work in television and his contributions to the crimefighting genre.

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