Candice Bergen: More Than 'Murphy'

What Has She Done Since 'Murphy Brown'?

In 1998, Mike Wallace spent some time with Candice Bergen. She was just winding up her 10 years as "Murphy Brown," getting laughs out of politics, single motherhood, breast cancer and, of course, family values. But she said that she'd had it after 10 years.

She was tired of the weekly grind and she wanted to move on to something different.

What do you do after you shed the skin of a character you inhabited for a decade, a smart, tough woman, who played to rave reviews and five Emmy awards?

Well, if you're Candice Bergen, finally leaving "Murphy Brown," you go far away to a hideaway in rural France.

The 16th-century farmhouse owned by her late husband, French film director Louis Malle, is a sacred place for Bergen. They'd been married 15 years when he died of cancer in 1995. She still spends as much time here as she can with their daughter, 12-year-old Chloe Malle.

Madame Malle, as Bergen is known here, gave Wallace a tour of the medieval town five minutes away.

Of her marriage, she once said: "I felt like a small, frightened animal who had spent its life curled up in the back of a cave, snarling at intruders, when suddenly, someone turned on the light and said, 'It's OK. It's safe. You can come out now.'"

"It was really like the beginning of my life, in a way," she told Wallace.

Why did it take her so long to find her way? Bergen says that growing up, her blessings, beauty and fame, backfired on her. She was born into one of Hollywood's first families, the daughter of Edgar Bergen, world-renowned ventriloquist, whose dummy, Charlie McCarthy, was, in the golden age of radio in the '40s, more popular than Mickey Mouse.

Candice's mother, Frances, admits her daughter was upstaged: "It was difficult for her. I can understand that. She couldn't understand all this fuss being made over Charlie McCarthy… She was referred to as Charlie McCarthy's sister. It was rather unique."

"It was very hard to make sense of, because you knew he wasn't real," says Candice. "But he was treated so much better than most humans. He had his own room. He had lots of heads with different expressions. And he had this power. This doll had this incredible power. I still don't, you know, think of him as a doll, really."

It was sometimes painful, because she felt she had to compete with a puppet for her father's love, and she resented it.

She and her father were not close: "We were not as close as, I think, either of us wanted to be. And that was both of our -our responsibility, I think.I made things incredibly difficult when he was older. I said things that were so hurtful to him, and there was just--you know, there was never any way I could backtrack from that."

Her rebellion started at the age of 14 when she went abroad to school in Switzerland and did more drinking and smoking than studying. And her study habits didn't improve at the University of Pennsylvania. She was thrown out for flunking art and opera.

"What could we do about it?" her mother says. "You know, she was old enough by then to live her own life and do what she was about to do.

Bergen didn't have to do much. Her good looks led people to give her things she never worked for and felt she didn't deserve: modeling jobs and movie roles, plus a succession of stormy love affairs.

She once said: "'I have always traded on my beauty. It brings me the flowers that fill this room. Every bouquet here arrived with a hopeful note from an admirer. I am a totally insecure person, and my beauty was my one security. It opened doors. It turned people on without my having to do a thing but show my face."

She says her beauty has been difficult for her to deal with. "It completely screwed my head on backwards. .. I just had to get past it."

She dealt with it for a while by dabbling in radical politics and experimenting with drugs. But finally, she found something she was good at, photography, and people took her pictures seriously. She traveled the world, on assignment for magazines like Esquire and Life. But Hollywood was pushing Bergen to be on camera, not behind it.

"I fell into doing movies. I didn't even especially want to be doing movies," she says. It showed. After her debut in Sidney Lumet's "The Group," one critic wrote, 'As an actress, Bergen's only flair is in her nostrils.'

But she got better. "Carnal Knowledge," with Jack Nicholson, was the first film, she says, that she was proud of. Then she discovered her true strength, her family inheritance, comedy. In "Starting Over" with Burt Reynolds, she played a pop songwriter who cannot carry a tune.

It got her an Academy Award nomination, and suddenly, she was a comedian. She auditioned for "Murphy Brown," and failed the audition.

"They didn't want me," she says. "They wanted Heather Locklear. And I had to read for the head of CBS then. And he pushed a button, and the electric drapes whirred closed. And so I was sitting in a darkened office with one, sort of, light over my head for two or three people. And then I had to read this comedy scene, and I just went right into the tank."

She was saved by Diane English, the show's creator, who was sure Bergen was perfect for the part.

"I think that in this situation, who she is and who this character was, it was just the perfect match. It was an explosion. And that's the reason why I think the series worked, is because we cast exactly the right person," says English.

How much of Bergen is Murphy Brown? "Not as much as I would like," Bergen says. "I think a lot of women would like to be more like Murphy Brown, which is why I think the show resonated so well with women. I think women love her fearlessness. Women love - well, you know, of course, she was always described as Mike Wallace in a dress, which was my favorite description of Murphy Brown."

We all remember when Murphy became a single mom and so Dan Quayle's symbol of declining family values. And when Murphy battled breast cancer, it was a first for television comedy.

"She's like a big kid," Chloe Malle says of her mother. "Having time with her is like being with a friend from school. She's--you know, she's - she's sillier than I am." Frances Bergen says her daughter and granddaughter are "pals."

"I have never savored life with such gusto as I do now," Bergen says. "I have never appreciated a quiet moment with a friend as much, a quiet moment with a book. And I think part of that is my obsession with being older and time going faster, and that it's increasingly sweeter for me."

She has found a new man to love, married him in 2000. She and he and her daughter Chloe have now become avid, happy New Yorkers.
  • David Kohn

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