Bergen, Candice (1946—)

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Bergen, Candice (1946—)

Candice Bergen may be the only female television star to be known and loved as a curmudgeon. Most noted curmudgeons are male, like Lou Grant of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Archie Bunker of All in the Family, Homer Simpson from The Simpsons, and Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street. Bergen's alter-ego, Murphy Brown, on the other hand, is the queen of curmudgeons. Despite her manly traits, Murphy has gone down in history as the only television curmudgeon to be criticized by the vice president of the United States and to be used as an argument in a national debate on family values. Her willingness to challenge traditional female roles and issues revolving around what is perceived as "decency," have, willingly or not, made her one of the twentieth century's most political actresses.

Murphy Brown, created by Diane English, was a female reporter who learned to operate in a man's world. She adopted what are generally considered male characteristics: intelligence, aggressiveness, ambitiousness, and perseverance. It has been suggested that reporter Linda Ellerbee was the specific role model for Bergen's character, but only Bergen herself could have made Murphy Brown so lovable through a decade of the weekly series of the same name, covering almost every political topic with satiric wit.

Candice Bergen grew up in an elite section of Beverly Hills playing with the children of Walt Disney, Judy Garland, Gloria Swanson, Jimmy Stewart, and other Hollywood notables. Her beauty was inherited from her mother, Frances Western, a former model who received national attention as the Ipana girl from a toothpaste advertisement. Her talent came from her father, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. In her autobiography, Knock Wood, Bergen tells of being jealous of her father's famous sidekick, marionette Charlie McCarthy, and of spending years of her life trying to make her father proud.

Noted for her outstanding beauty, Candice Bergen was not always taken seriously as an individual. Nonetheless, by the time she accepted the role of Murphy Brown Bergen was well respected as an international photojournalist and as a writer. She had also starred in a number of high-profile films, most notably, Mary McCarthy's The Group, in which she played the distant and lovely lesbian Lakey. Bergen also received critical acclaim as the ex-wife of Burt Reynolds in the romantic comedy Starting Over.

At the age of 33 Bergen met the famed French director Louis Malle. Friends say they were destined to meet and to fall in love. The pair maintained a bi-continental marriage until his death in 1995, leaving Bergen to raise their daughter Chloe. After Malle's death, Bergen devoted her time exclusively to Chloe and to her television show. By all accounts, the cast of Murphy Brown was close and Bergen said in interviews that Faith Ford (who played Corky Sherwood) had been particularly comforting during her mourning over the death of her husband. This personal closeness gave the cast a professional camaraderie that was evident to audiences.

In 1988, Murphy Brown introduced the cast of F.Y.I, a fictional news show. Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen), Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto), Jim Dial (Charles Kimbrough), and Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford) shared anchor duties on air and traded wisecracks and friendship off the air. They were joined by producer Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud), artist and handyman Eldin (Robert Pastorelli), and barkeeper Phil (Pat Corley). In 1996, Lily Tomlin replaced Shaud as the producer. Plot lines ranged from grocery shopping and consciousness raising, to romance, divorce, and the White House cat, Socks. The two most notable story lines involved unwed motherhood and breast cancer. During its tenure, Murphy Brown won 18 Emmys, five of them for its star. Bergen then withdrew her name from competition.

In 1992, Murphy Brown, a fictional character on a television show, became pregnant. After much soul searching, she decided to raise her baby without a father. In May of that election year, Vice President Dan Quayle stated in a speech (allegedly against the advise of his handlers): "It doesn't help matters when prime time television has Murphy Brown—a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid professional woman—mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another 'lifestyle choice."' The media was delighted, and the debate was on.

In the fall of 1992, Bergen and Diane English (who had offered to debate Quayle on the issue) had their say when Murphy responded to the vice president on F.Y.I. by gently reminding him that families come in all shapes and sizes. She then chided Quayle by agreeing that there were serious problems in American society and suggested that the vice president could blame the media, Congress, or an administration that had been in power for 12 years … or, he could blame her. The episode ended with the dumping of 1,000 pounds of potatoes in Quayle's driveway, a reference to an occasion when Quayle misspelled the word as a judge in an elementary speech contest. The episode won the Emmy for Best Comedy of 1992.

The final season of Murphy Brown (1997-1998) ended on a more solemn note. Murphy discovered that she had breast cancer. Throughout the season, real cancer survivors and medical advisors helped to deliver the message that cancer was serious business and that there was hope for recovery. An episode devoted to the medicinal use of marijuana demonstrated the strong bond among the cast and proved that the show could still arouse controversy. The final episode of the season was filled with emotional farewells and celebrated guest stars, including Bette Midler as the last in a long line of Murphy's secretaries, Julia Roberts, and George Clooney. God, in the person of Alan King, also made an appearance, as did Robert Pastorelli (Eldin) and Pat Corley (Phil), both of whom had left the series years before to pursue other interests.

Various media reports have indicated that Candice Bergen may become a commentator for 60 Minutes. With her experience as a photojournalist and with her ten years on F.Y.I., Bergen is imminently qualified to engage in a serious debate of national issues.

—Elizabeth Purdy

Further Reading:

Bergen, Candice. Knock Wood. Boston, G. K. Hall & Company, 1984.

Morrow, Lance. "But Seriously Folks." Time. June 1, 1992, 10-12.

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Bergen, Candice (1946—)

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