Candice Bergen is strongly linked to her famous character Murphy Brown. After Madhulika Sikka, the Executive Editor for NPR News, interviewed her Monday night, the similarities between the character and Candice Bergen were even more striking. Bergen’s career, feminism streak, having a child later in life, and her sense of humor, are ALL akin to Murphy Brown.
Bergen was in town promoting her new memoir A Fine Romance. She details a candid look about her life, starring on Murphy Brown, birthing a child at age 39, a death, finding new love, feminism, and celebrity culture. She came across as authentic and genuine with no holds barred.
I sat enraptured by the interview with Bergen and enjoyed her wit, and she was delighted that there were men in the crowd as well.
Candice Bergen has lived a charmed life! As a fashion model she landed on the cover of Vogue, received an Academy Award nomination, was an Emmy and Golden Globe winner multiple times, the first woman host of Saturday Night Live (SNL) (and appeared as host five times), and a Broadway performer. She is a feminist icon very much like Murphy Brown. Her dad, Edgar Bergen, was a famous ventriloquist, actor, and comedian and her mom was a Powers model, so it was as if she was destined for stardom since birth. In addition, she had “a great hankering to be a photojournalist and photographed Charlie Chaplin.”
Bergen rode the wave of feminism where the focus was on career, but then at the age of 39 she grappled, or as she put it, “panicked” with the decision that she wanted a child. When she decided to have a child she had been married for five years. Her husband, the famous French director Louis Malle, already had two children from a previous marriage so he left it up to her if she wanted kids or not. She basically had her pregnancy on her own as her husband was away working. She went alone to Lamaze class, gained 60 lbs, and recalls being in a NYC bookstore and not finding any books on pregnancy, but plenty of books like The Feminine Mystique. One day, while pregnant and lumbering through Bergdorf Goodman’s a woman told her, “You know you have Candice Bergman’s face!”
Having her daughter Chloe changed her life in a very good way, but it also shifted her focus from her marriage to her daughter. She grappled with “Fear of the child interfering with her relationship with her husband. “ She said the the birth of her daughter was “tough and great. It transformed my life. I tapped into a reservoir of feelings. I didn’t read the New York Times in bed anymore.”
The first six months of her daughter’s life she was, “swept up in a love affair with my baby and I overreacted” and she didn’t leave the house very often. Her husband remarked, “You don’t even notice if I’m gone for two weeks and have come back!”
After six months with her daughter, her husband took her away for two days to DC for a vacation and she groaned the whole time. She described not sleeping while caring for her baby and making everyone tiptoe as not to wake Chloe. She didn’t work for three years and remembers getting twitchy. She had been working since she was 19. “I needed to work. I like to be busy and engaged.” You can’t have it all. You can’t have a career, be a mother and a wife and be good at all three.”
Bergen sadly lost her husband after 15 years of marriage to a lymphoma in 1995. He was a vibrant man and he lost his ability to speak and walk. She learned from his death the importance of taking care of oneself and to take things one day at a time.
Bergen jokingly recalled her audition for Murphy Brown as if she was going in for an interrogation with closed drapes and an overhead lamp. She originally read the script on a plane going from LA to NYC. She used the phone on the plane (when they had phones on the plane) to call her agent about it. Her agent hadn’t submitted her for the part. A lot of people wanted the glamorous Heather Locklear in the part of Murphy Brown and Murphy Brown’s creator Diane English said, “No, Murphy Brown is aging and has issues.” Murphy Brown was Bergen’s dream job. “No one thought I’d do it, but comedy was my comfort.” “Movie stars didn’t do TV, but that changed after Murphy Brown,” she said smiling. She joked she clicked with Diane English because “We had the same lipstick and wore black turtlenecks.”
“l was supremely confident, compete toe to toe with men, be passionate, and not care what others think.”
Sometimes Murphy Brown could come across as unlikable so she made sure she was redeemed by the end of the show. Murphy Brown helped to set the stage for many strong women characters like, Madam Secretary and The Good Wife. Before Murphy Brown the only strong women characters were on Designing Women. The half-hour comedy show gave her a humane schedule where she could spend time with her daughter during the week and would shoot the show on Fridays. They only shot the show seven months a year. One hour shows are 18 hour days and many actors turn into the walking wounded.
At Murphy Brown’s height of popularity, the show drew 36 million viewers. Bergen recalled being paid “silly money” for being on the show – “nothing like TV money!” She didn’t want to depend on her husband’s income.
The whole Dan Quayle incident, when he attacked the Murphy Brown show for glamorizing single motherhood, horrified Bergen. She made no comment when it happened and she remembers she “practically hid under the covers.” She still can’t believe how long the controversy lasted. The show was a comedy and they towed the line quite a bit. Murphy Brown ended after 10 years, when she was 51 years-old.
Aging and not being a celebrity is an adjustment. Women tend to disappear about mid-40s. Recently at Politics and Prose in DC while doing a book signing a woman exclaimed to Bergen, “How do you do it?” She responded, “Frankly I don’t anymore!” (laughter) “I pay $800 for my colorist!”
Bergen pours over US Magazine to learn about today’s stars. In the past, actors got ready for the red carpet on their own: “We were our own stylists.” She borrowed a dress from Ali McGraw for the Emmys one year. Now it takes weeks in advance for celebrities to get ready with tanning sprays, borrowing expensive gowns, wearing a thousand dollars’ worth of jewelry with security guards trailing close behind. What women wear are part of award shows now.
After Murphy Brown, Bergen focused on her daughter while living in LA and was active in her daughter’s school. She didn’t like not working. Bergen quipped, “When working in LA, LA is great, but when you are not working it’s like 78 degrees every day.”
Bergen continued to work in films with roles in Miss Congeniality and on TV’s Boston Legal, and Sex in the City. Her role on Boston Legal was written specifically for her. She loved the witty dialogue on Boston Legal.
She starred in The Best Man on Broadway show with Angela Lansbury. It was terrifying for Bergen, “It is healthy to do things that are frightening! With Broadway there are no second takes. Broadway is the best of the best and is exciting.” They had a preview for three weeks and she couldn’t figure out the eight backstage doors and they gave her a keeper.
After her interview on stage, she took questions from the audience. Bergen loved being on SNL and found it amazing that people could do a live show for an hour and half. Being on the show was, “an adrenaline rush. It was like the inmates took over the asylum.”
On Murphy Brown, the networks mainly left them alone to do their own thing which she was grateful for as they were a ratings blockbuster. She has never met Dan Quayle.
As for being a feminist icon: “It’s tough being a woman. Don’t give up.” She believes if Murphy Brown had been real she would now be on 60 Minutes.
To prepare for her role as Murphy Brown she talked with many of her friends who are journalists like Linda Ellerbee.
When asked what she has planned next: “I am not greedy. I’d like to stay vaguely busy, but don’t want to work hard. I will probably write more.”
This was a fun evening listening to an incredible woman who set the stage for many more strong women characters on TV. More about her life can be gleamed from her new book A Fine Romance.
Candice Bergen In Conversation with Madhulika Sikka took place for one night only on April 13, 2015 at Sixth and I Synagogue – 600 I Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Check out their upcoming events here.
You can watch the entire event right here:
On The Today Show:
Discussing her Broadway Show The Best Man:
On Murphy Brown: