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‘Murphy’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“It really doesn’t get better than ‘Murphy Brown,’ ” Candice Bergen allows softly. “I always thought it was like going on a blind date and opening the door and having Robert Redford standing there.”

It’s the Monday after the Friday night wrap of her title role in “Murphy Brown’s” 245th and final episode. In her cozy dressing-room cottage at Warner Bros., the lanky 51-year-old actress, elegant in jeans and a plain white shirt, is reflecting on the 10-season series that distinguished her career and encompassed one-third of her adult life. When the pilot aired Nov. 14, 1988, her daughter Chloe Malle, now 12, had just turned 3.

There are five episodes to go on CBS; the hourlong finale will be May 18--but the work is done. On Stage 4, the sets were being dismantled; her dressing room would follow. Leaving its mark on the wall was a blowup of a 1991 U.S. postage stamp, honoring her father, Edgar Bergen, with puppet Charlie McCarthy. She had taken it home--along with the batch of framed magazine covers that decorated the “FYI” office of Washington TV newsmagazine anchor Murphy Brown.

Such was the series’ impact that “the magazine covers originally started out as magazine covers we just rigged. And then over the 10 years,” Bergen notes, most were replaced with actual covers of herself as Murphy.

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With pride, she points out that “there’s maybe five or six scenes I wasn’t in over 10 years. I was driving every scene with page-long monologues.” At the end, the monologue was three pages.

“We were fine up until Friday morning,” she says, “and then it hit. I burst into tears in front of George Clooney. He was gracious enough to do a little appearance. Afterwards, I went to thank him, and he said, ‘Are you OK?,’ and . . . I couldn’t stop crying. I just had to walk away. But we’re fine now. We had a great time, a great ride.”

From Bergen’s perspective, “Murphy Brown” is hard to match “especially in the quality of the production, the quality of the writing, the quality of the cast, the crew. . . . Diane [English, creator and executive producer the first four seasons] created a character we really hadn’t seen before. There never was a woman written like that on television.”

Playing the smart, driven, never reticent journalist, whose workplace was home, had an impact. “It’s brought out aspects of my character--my humor and my practical joking, and my orneriness. It’s made me braver. Her strength has been great company for me.

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“I was raised with probably an inordinate degree of manners,” Bergen explains. “I don’t always exercise them, but [the role] was a great liberation for me--in the way it liberated people watching it. I loved playing a woman who didn’t take [crap] from anybody. All of us hate the part of ourselves that forces us to do that. And even when we don’t take it, our retorts are never the quality of Murphy’s. We don’t have an A-level team of writer-producers writing our rejoinders, so that often our retorts are kind of lame in flipping someone off.

“But, you know, Murphy always nailed people,” Bergen says with a trace of a smile. “It was just so exhilarating to have the upper hand. Because women so often don’t.”

She says she almost didn’t get the role--CBS wanted Heather Locklear. “I had to fight for the role--I mean Diane had to fight for me. And they wanted to make Murphy younger. They didn’t want her to come off the elevator from Betty Ford” as a recovering alcoholic. “They wanted her to come off the elevator 10 years younger--from a spa.”

At first, Bergen put off reading the script. “Chloe was 2, and I wasn’t interested in working, but my husband"--director Louis Malle, who died of cancer in 1995--"thought I was getting a little crazy not working . . . and then I panicked because the script was so good.”

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She had a “dismal” reading in a darkened room at CBS that had “the physical setting of a police interrogation,” then English and executive producer husband Joel Shukovsky went back to plead her case. Ten minutes later, Bergen had the part.

Although Bergen had gotten an Oscar nomination as best supporting actress for “Starting Over” (1979) in a poignantly comic role as Burt Reynolds’ ex-wife who wanted to be a singer though she had no pitch, the actress took to heart CBS’ judgment that there was “scant evidence” she could play Murphy and that she was “against type. The word ‘patrician’ was often used. ‘Icy.’ ”

That was quickly forgotten. Bergen won her first Emmy as outstanding actress in a comedy that first season--and four more until 1996, when she took herself out of the running.

Among her favorites, she cites the pilot as well as “the parody of the Anita Hill Senate hearings. . . . The show was always very prescient--politically and socially too.”

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“And this season,” with Murphy getting breast cancer, “there were several episodes that were truly outstanding. The pot episode . . . the group therapy episode with [actual breast cancer] survivors. It was painful for the women involved and for all of us because there’s pretty much no one who hasn’t been touched by cancer. That show cut very close to the bone.”

Asked about that flash point in May 1992, when then-Vice President Dan Quayle attacked her TV character for having a baby out of wedlock, Bergen says: “We were all kind of bushwhacked by it.” Yet she says it was “the right theme to hammer home . . . family values . . . and I agreed with all of it except his reference to the show which he had not seen. . . . It was an arrogant, uninformed posture, but the body of the speech was completely sound.”

Indeed for Bergen, family is key, and she says she’s “very different” from Murphy in that regard. “My family has always come first--by a mile,” she insists, debunking the notion of “quality time” as substitute for quantity. “I had a very difficult time playing Murphy the first year after the baby, as a distant second priority. It was very distressing to me, and I couldn’t get them to change it. Just hated it, and even Chloe hated it when she would watch certain episodes. I didn’t think it was a good message to be sending out. Everybody saw the charming and likable side of Murphy but I always try to remind people that she paid a very high price.

“This season,” she adds, “they wrote a wonderful relationship with [son] Avery, a buddy relationship that was great. Of course, they kind of edged him up a little older too.”

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As for the future, Bergen has no long-range plans. The following week, she’d travel with Chloe to Paris, as she does every spring, to visit her husband’s family. And from there, to Russia. She has never been there, and Chloe has finished “Anna Karenina.”

“She’s ready. . . . She wants to be a writer--and that’s what I’ve encouraged since she was 7. She’s very gifted.”

Does Bergen want to do another sitcom? “No,” she says firmly. “Not for a long, long time. I’m looking at film scripts. Actually I’m not. I have them piled up.”


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