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Hall of Fame
December 14, 2017

Candice Bergen: Hall of Fame Tribute

Amy Dawes

Candice Bergen readily admits that she knew nothing about working on television when she was cast as the star of Murphy Brown. When she sat down to do the initial table read with the cast, for example, she already had all her lines memorized. “No one ever does that,” says Diane English, the series creator. “She had never been on a television series before, so she didn’t know.” The rest of the cast was a little intimidated, so when lunch was called, Bergen, who had grasped the situation, suggested they all sit cross-legged on the floor and get to know each other while they ate. Again, the cast was surprised, having assumed that this icon of the silver screen would disappear into a trailer.

“The whole first week, everything was new to her,” English remembers. “She didn’t know that there were four cameras, and that a camera was always on her. She didn’t know that before a live show with an audience, the whole cast comes out and is introduced.”

But while she may have been a newcomer to the small screen, Bergen quickly hit her stride in a groundbreaking role as the flinty, funny and flawed television journalist. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Airing Monday nights on CBS, the show became a critical darling, and then a ratings success, lasting 10 years and winning multiple Primetime Emmys, including so many for Bergen as a lead comedy actress that, upon winning her fifth, in 1995, she famously withdrew her name from future consideration.

“And it wasn’t baloney,” notes English. “One of the most endearing things about her is that she really doesn’t know how talented she is.”

Some years after Murphy concluded, Bergen took another series role, this time as Shirley Schmidt, a senior partner in the law firm depicted on David E. Kelley’s subversively funny series Boston Legal. Television titan Kelley had written the role specifically for her, adding her character to a show that was already on the air starring James Spader and William Shatner. “I couldn’t think of anyone else who could play it, so we’d have been in trouble if she said no,” Kelley admits. “She just had all the muscles — she could play the passion in the courtroom, and she could certainly play the humor. And then there’s that goddess factor that Denny Crane (Shatner) was so in love with. She has an elegance and dignity that
just oozes out of her.”

Boston Legal, too, became a hit, and garnered awards, including two Emmy nominations for Bergen. Her induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame prompted her recently to reflect on her good fortune. “Television has blessed me in ways I can’t even begin to articulate,” she says. “To be able to do comedy week after week, with wonderful directors and great writers, has been a fantastic gift.”

This remarkable small-screen career might never have come about had Bergen’s agent not sent her the pilot script for Murphy Brown in 1988. At the time she was 42, and had lived a life in the spotlight already, from her childhood appearances with her beloved father, ventriloquist and funnyman Edgar Bergen (the first president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences) and his wooden puppet, Charlie McCarthy, to her acting roles in movies such as The Sand Pebbles, Carnal Knowledge, Starting Over and Rich and Famous. She’d made another mark as a magazine writer and photojournalist in publications such as Life and Esquire — she’d even portrayed one of her personal heroes, photographer Margaret Bourke-White, in the Oscar-winning feature Gandhi. She’d written and published a well-received memoir, Knock Wood, in which she chronicled a life of privilege and adventure growing up in a Beverly Hills showbiz family and, later, out on the arm of various high-profile beaus, swinging through the ’60s at the jet-set center of the cultural maelstrom. She’d progressed from early bad reviews (critics suggested she’d borrowed her expressions from her father’s wooden sidekick) to an Oscar nomination (for Starting Over, her first foray into comedy), had met and married French film director Louis Malle, and given birth to their daughter, Chloe.

What she hadn’t done was television — and she wasn’t looking to, either. When a Playboy magazine interviewer asked her in 1989 if, like many movie people, she viewed television as a lowlier, crasser medium, Bergen responded, “Definitely.”

“I never even watched TV,” she says. “I’d been traveling, and had been out of the country for long periods, so I really wasn’t very fluent in popular culture.”

But the pilot script for Murphy Brown flipped the switch. Pressed by her agent to read it on a plane, she wound up phoning from mid-air to urge him to get her a meeting. “It was wonderfully witty and smart and touching, like the best of the ’40s comedies,” she says. “I felt as if the role had been written for me — and the fact that Murphy could sing horribly was very attractive to me, I have to say. That was the icing on the cake.”

English and her production partner, Joel Shukovsky, immediately saw things the same way. “We could see her behind a news desk; we could see her going toe-to-toe with heads of state. She had that kind of elegance and composure; she had actually traveled in that world, and she was also really, really funny.” But the network was less than enthusiastic, particularly after her reading for the role in Los Angeles fell flat.

“I just tanked; it was a disaster,” remembers Bergen, who was unaccustomed to auditioning. It was English who walked back into the executives’ offices after the others left and begged for forbearance. “I said, ‘You gotta trust me on this,’” English remembers. “I handed them a list and said, ‘You point to one person on that list who would be more exciting than Candice Bergen in her first TV series.’”

For most of the show’s 10-year run, Murphy was in almost every scene, and in the dialogue-heavy scripts, says Bergen, “I often had page-long monologues to streak through.” The pace, she says, was “intense but thrilling.”

There was also considerable media scrutiny to deal with, particularly in the summer of 1992, after Murphy’s decision to bear a child as a single mother drew criticism from Vice President Dan Quayle during a campaign debate, igniting a storm of political and public controversy.

“It was overwhelming and totally surreal,” Bergen remembers. “I just kept my head down and tried to ride it out.”

English says the controversy was never intended. “We were just looking for a good storyline. We never set out to set the world on fire with that one.”

Nonetheless, Bergen counts the episode in which Murphy gave birth, titled “Birth 101,” as her favorite. “It swung from broad, no-holds-barred physical comedy, to some very poignant moments,” she recalls. “Everyone’s performance was at a perfect pitch, and it was just so much fun, and so emotional.”

Asked why the role of Murphy fit her so well, Bergen theorizes she might have been channeling something left behind by her father, who had passed away in 1978. “Part of what resonated with me was the part that echoed my father’s dummy, Charlie McCarthy — Murphy’s sassiness, her dryness and her wit. She could be such a rat, such a pest. My father had created a character like that on radio, and it was such a fantastic quirk to find it again. I felt so at home in Murphy.”

In 1998, the series came to an end, after a final season in which Murphy had survived a battle with breast cancer. In real life, Bergen had lost her husband, Malle, to lymphoma a few years earlier.

“I was at loose ends,” Bergen remembers of the period after the show ended. “I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wanted to recapture my life, because when you’re doing a series like that, you don’t have time for much else.”

She tackled various projects, including a stint as a talk-show host on the Oxygen network, interviewing the likes of Hillary Clinton, Jodie Foster and Madeline Albright. She also met and married developer and philanthropist Marshall Rose, with whom she began a new life in New York.

It was only because of that, she says, that she initially resisted when Kelley sent her the script for Boston Legal. The production wound up scheduling her shooting days in such a way that she could commute twice a month from New York. “We made that choice because Candice was worth it,” says Kelley. “To balance against the absurdity in that show, we had to have people that you could believe as lawyers. And I wanted someone with whom Alan Shore (Spader) could have a very adult relationship, the kind he was unable to achieve with the younger women he frolicked with.”

Indeed, Kelley made Bergen’s mature sex appeal a regular part of the effect the hard-charging attorney Shirley Schmidt had on others. “He had everyone in love with Shirley and wanting to get her into bed,” says Boston Legal executive producer Bill D’Elia. “She had great fun with it, and there was nothing she wasn’t game for, but at one point, she said to me, ‘Bill, will you please tell David that I’m 60 years old! He’s got to stop it!’ I told her no,” he laughs. “I said, ‘I can’t get him to stop.’”

To D’Elia, who directed many episodes, including the two-hour series finale, Bergen’s character became “the missing link on that show. As much as everybody talks about Denny Crane and Alan Shore on the balcony every episode, I think without the chemistry of Candice playing that character, it would have been much less of a show.”

In the years since that first day on the Murphy Brown set, Bergen says her views on television have come a long way. “The power of the medium can be extraordinary, and the impact is instantaneous,” she notes. “Television has only been great to me. I’ve been so blessed to work with the talents I’ve worked with. It’s been a dream job beyond my wildest imagination.”

This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Candice Bergen's induction in 2010.

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