Candice Bergen, high on comedy, loves her role in Murphy Brown
By Ian Harmer, Entertainment News Service
Actress Candice Bergen isn’t kidding when she says that the first time she read the pilot script for her new CBS sitcom, she was “really high on it.”
“I was in a plane, 30,000 feet up in the air over somewhere or other… the right place to be reading a pilot script, I guess you could say.
“I’d hung on to it for a while because I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about doing a TV series, but when I finally read Murphy Brown, I was stricken with terror that I had waited too long and they would give the part to someone else.
“It’s the first time I have ever used one of those pay phones they have in planes these days. I called my agent and asked what I had to do to make sure I got this role.”
It turned out that Candice’s timing was perfect: She had been sent the script before the Christmas holidays, and most departments at CBS had slipped into seasonal underdrive. No one was in a hurry to do anything.
The creators of Murphy Brown were convinced that she was the best actress to play a TV news anchorwoman struggling to conquer what has come to be known as a “substance abuse problem” and rebuild her life and her career. And they were willing to give her time to come around to their way of thinking.
“I have concentrated almost entirely on feature films, but the first thing that hit me when I read Murphy Brown was that it could have been written for me,” says Bergen.
“I hadn’t read anything this right for me in years — I was scared I might never be offered another part this good. I know this is the sort of thing people are supposed to say when they’re starting a new TV series, but it happens to be the absolute truth.”
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‘Mayflower Madam’ role
Bergen’s most recent TV outing was as Sydney Biddle Barrows in Mayflower Madam, a movie of the week written as a dramatic piece, but perceived by many critics to be funnier than most sitcoms. Before that, she had a key role in a campy miniseries adaptation of the Jackie Collins best-seller, Hollywood Wives.
“Murphy Brown pales alongside the comedy in that show,” Bergen laughs. “It really was pretty funny.”
Joking aside, Murphy Brown is pretty funny, too. The title character is depicted as a recent graduate of the Betty Ford Clinic, but there are no plans to belabor her problems — or to hint that she is based on a non-fiction anchorperson, living or dead.
“I think the point is that Murphy Brown is a long way from perfect,” says Bergen. “She’s real, in the sense that she’s believable, but that doesn’t mean she’s based on anyone in the TV news business. I’m something of a journalism junkie myself I’ve done a little reporting, I have co-hosted talk shows, things like that — and I can recognize some aspects of her character.”
Bergen is inclined to undersell herself: she has a reputation as a world-class photojournalist, and although she flopped disastrously in a tryout for 60 Minutes almost two decades ago, she won plaudits for her interviewing on NBC’s Today Show before returning to full-time acting.
Her father, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, pulled strings to make 1950s TV superstars out of a couple of puppets called Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, so Candice grew up with the idea that being funny on the tube was a good way to make a living.
“My father would get quite a kick out of this,” she says. “He always said I had a flair for comedy, but until this series came along, hardly anyone else seemed to agree with him. I like making people laugh. That was something my father taught me. He was as funny at home as he was on the radio and TV, and laughter was a big part of growing up for me.
Murphy Brown: CBS had to be persuaded
“He’d do almost anything to get the audience reaction he wanted, and I think I learned that from him, too. I did a Saturday Night Live once, and they kept asking me back because they said I had no shame.
“I think of myself as a funny person, but I know CBS had to be persuaded that I was right for Murphy Brown. As I said, I knew from the first reading of the script five miles up in the air that the part was perfect for me and vice versa. Now we all have to hope that the audience agrees with me.”
If they do, Bergen may have to persuade her husband, celebrated French movie director Louis Malle, and their 6-year-old daughter, Chloe, to live at least six months of the year in Los Angeles.
“We have homes in Paris and New York,” says Bergen. “Louis is not a big fan of LA — he thinks they put something funny in the water. But he’s very excited about the show, he agrees that it’s perfect for me, and we’re all going to make it work.”
Murphy Brown has her baby
From the episode “Birth 101” which aired on May 18, 1992