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Angie Dickinson, Marg Helgenberger, S. Epatha Merkerson talk women in crime TV

Photos from the Paley Center's 'On The Beat' event honoring female characters in crime drama television, which happened Thursday, June 19 in Beverly Hills.
Photos from the Paley Center's 'On The Beat' event honoring female characters in crime drama television, which happened Thursday, June 19 in Beverly Hills.
Kevin Parry/The Paley Center For Media

There have been many strong women in crime dramas over the years, and last week we got to chat with quite a few of them. As The Paley Center for Media discussed the female gender in the genre last Thursday, we spoke with S. Epatha Merkerson (Law & Order's Lieutenant Anita Van Buren), Holly Robinson Peete (21 Jump Street's Officer Judy Hoffs), Marg Helgenberger (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation's Catherine Willows), and the legendary Angie Dickinson (Police Woman's Sergeant "Pepper" Anderson) about sharing each other's company and leaving their mark on television history.

From left: Emily Deschanel, Holly Robinson Peete, Marg Helgenberger, S. Epatha Merkerson, Angie Dickinson, Marin Ireland, Tony Goldwyn and Poppy Montgomery at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills, CA on Thursday, June 19.
Kevin Parry/The Paley Center For Media

"I'm a little star-struck, to be honest with you," said Holly of being included amongst the group. "Angie Dickinson was one of my heroes growing up, and made me want to be on TV, and certainly made me want to be a cop. I'm a little excited right now."

"I actually watched Police Woman when I was a kid," added Marg, "and I was always impressed with how she was like a trailblazer. There wasn't a woman on TV that I recall that was like that. Because besides being competent and intelligent and strong, she was also really hot and sexy - and I loved that she was, and that she didn't compromise her femininity or her sexuality to do her job."

So when Angie was starring in Police Woman back in the 1970's, did she have any idea that she was doing something that would still be spoken about today? "I think we saw it all the way," she reflected, "because it worked well. It was not a struggle like are we doing the right thing or not. We felt we were. We just kind of treated [the characters] as human beings more than man [or] woman. And I think we realized all along we were doing well, and that we might be role models."

As for the other actresses, some had an idea that they might be leaving an impression on television, and others didn't. "When Stephen Cannell and Patrick Hasburgh created the character of Judy Hoffs, I think that they really went for something different. They were really trying to think outside the box," Holly told us. "And remember, this was when FOX wasn't the Bones network. It was channel 99 and a coat hanger. It was definitely new, breakthrough TV, and it's wonderful that this character still lives on."

"I had an agent at the time - the operative word is had - who said to me, 'Look, this thing's not going to last a year,'" laughed Epatha, who played Van Buren for seventeen of Law & Order's record-tying twenty seasons. "He wasn't my agent very long. But who knew that it would last that long?"

"The interesting thing is, when the show was over, I was executive producing and co-directing a documentary, so I was able to sort of leave it without mourning," she continued. "When the film was done, then I realized 'Oh, I'm not doing that anymore.' And then I just started thinking about the experience of it - and it was such a great experience. I feel really lucky and I'm honored to have been able to be a part of television history."

What are the episodes that stand out for each of these talented women as they look back on their memorable roles? "I don't look back," laughed Angie. "The one that stands out, of course, is the one that we used as the pilot. That was Police Story, it was the last episode of their first season, and they saw this and they said 'Oh my God, this could make a series.' And so we started right in making it. We didn't have time for much of anything. So what stands out most is that pilot."

Marg likewise had a hard time picking favorites out of her 263 CSI episodes. "There were many. Especially early on, when the show was just trying to find its way," she told us. "Some of the cases that were based on real cases, those stay with me a lot. Then there were some that were just completely made up, that were outside the box, that were also really fun. The cast was awesome; I still am friends with all of them."

And for Epatha, her most loved installment actually predates Van Buren: it's the episode "Mushrooms," in which she guest-starred prior to taking on a regular role. "It's still my all time favorite," she said, "and I think it's because it's how I was introduced to the show. It was an episode where [Ben] Stone lost a case that he should not have lost. It was amazing to me that the hero could lose, and it made me stay with the show. It was two more years before I came on [as Van Buren], but I became a big fan of the show."

All these women and many others have helped create a wonderful history for women on television, not just within the crime drama genre, but through the entire medium. We can look back on them with gratitude and pride - and look forward to see which female characters will carve out their own places in history in the future.

(c)2014 Brittany Frederick. Appears at Examiner with permission. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted. Visit my official website and follow me on Twitter at @tvbrittanyf.

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