Courtesy PMK/HBH Public Relations
Born into Beverly Hills royalty, Candice Bergen could have coasted on the fame bestowed upon her as the daughter of one of radio’s biggest stars, the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. Instead, she made her own way, not only becoming a successful film and television actor, but a praised writer and photojournalist as well whose work appeared on the Today show and in the likes of Esquire and Cosmopolitan. Bergen’s deft comedic talents found a vehicle to match their ability in the series Murphy Brown. Her portrayal of the title character put her into the history books for the five Emmys she earned as well as onto the cover of Time in one of the most talked-about squirmishes of the culture war. During the series ten-year run, Bergen opted to take a firmer and more prevalent hand in the production of the program, eventually becoming one of its executive producers. From the start Bergen had made it her goal to break away from her conservative upbringing and not be limited by the roles too many women were expected to follow. “I was part of a world of women who considered women the weaker sex and I wanted to distance myself from them as much as possible … it was my fantasy to have a life that was somehow a life with a man’s options … I agonized about the decisions as they were happening, but when I look back on my life, I had adventures that I can’t even believe.”
As the first child of famed radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, Candice was almost instantaneously pushed into the spotlight, being jokingly referred to as the “sister” of her father’s wooden alter-ego, Charlie McCarthy, whom, she was quick to point out, had a full-sized room of his own in the family’s Bel Air home. Popping up on her dad’s program from time to time, as well as making a smattering of television appearances with him, on such shows as What’s My Line? and Hollywood Palace, Bergen became quite familiar to those who followed the celebrity scene, years before she had achieved anything on her own. She had her first experience with acting in a production of Summer and Smoke at the University of Pennsylvania but had no interest in majoring in drama. Instead she wondered about a career as a photojournalist.
Seeking financial independence, she journeyed to New York to do some modeling, which took her away from her studies and eventually caused her to leave college altogether. At this point in time, Bergen was determined not to become a footnote to her more famous parent’s career, and wanted to be someone who “didn’t trade on their looks.” As she saw it, “Women have a terrible legacy in relying on a relationship to complete them. I think it’s essential and incredibly healthy for women to have work, to have careers.” Her stunning looks made her much in demand as a magazine cover girl and this brought her to the attention of director Sidney Lumet, who cast her as one of the eight Vassar grads in his film of the best-seller The Group. Although Bergen’s performance garnered little praise, her movie career was off and running, as she was soon filming her second picture, The Sand Pebbles, a high-profile success that earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and brought her a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer.
Despite the fact that she was now considered a “hot property” in Hollywood, Bergen still couldn’t work up more enthusiasm for acting and claimed to take most of her jobs in order to visit different locations, finding it much more exciting to write occasional magazine pieces and dabble in photojournalism. Her work appeared in Esquire and Cosmopolitan, among others. During the early years of her film career, Bergen garnered her share of negative comments from the critics but had a natural screen presence and likeability that clicked with audiences. Vincent Canby in the New York Times complimented her by writing, “Miss Bergen is a performer of the sort whose presence in a film often gives it class even when she herself isn’t seen to advantage.” Not content to merely appear before the cameras, she found far more purpose campaigning for liberal causes and becoming a vocal protester against such issues as the mistreatment of American Indians (a topic reflected in her 1970 film Soldier Blue), anti-abortionists, and the war in Vietnam.
In time, she found herself becoming more at ease in the profession she had landed in reluctantly. She remained on the “A” list, although, outside of a handful of titles, including the controversial Carnal Knowledge, few of the pictures she did had much significance. Her performance in Knowledge prompted the New York Times to write in her favor, “Candice Bergen projects so much intelligence, humor, and feeling that the time has come to stop worrying about whether or not she’s a good actress.” In the midseventies, between films, she was invited by NBC’s Today to produce a series of photo essays on whatever topics interested her. She eagerly accepted and covered subjects from female coal miners to Muhammad Ali. During this period she became the first woman to host NBC’s new comedy venture, Saturday Night Live.
A career turning point came when she was cast in the 1979 comedy/drama Starting Over. She played Burt Reynolds’s deluded wife, who splits up with him in order to pursue a singing-songwriting career, little aware that she has no talent for either. Critics marveled at her deft comedic turn as this hilariously self-involved character, and her peers let her know that she had earned her stripes at long last by bestowing an Academy Award nomination upon her for best supporting actress. She next excelled at playing a vulgar novelist at odds with college chum Jacqueline Bisset in Rich and Famous, and got the chance to portray photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, one of her own role models, in Gandhi, the 1982 Academy Award–winner for Best Picture. Bergen thought her performance was inadequate, but she was nominated for a BAFTA Award. Around this time she married French filmmaker Louis Malle, a happy union that would last until his death of cancer in 1995.
Bergen achieved her next degree of praise for her 1984 autobiography, Knock Wood, in which she wrote with wit and frankness of her difficult life of growing up in the spotlight, as Charlie McCarthy’s “rival” for her father’s attention, and her ultimately successful efforts to carve out her own identity. That same year she braved the Broadway footlights, as a cast replacement in the David Rabe’s searing drama Hurlyburly, further strengthening her career. She had, by this point in her work, learned the dedication to her craft that had been missing at the start. “My attitudes changed drastically,” she explained, “I take my work as seriously as I’m able … I have scraped together a few skills and pieces of technique—and now when I work, I do it conscientiously, I try to be as brave as I can be, I try to take chances.”
If there had been one area that had seen very little of Bergen since her career took off it was television, but she turned her attention almost exclusively to the medium beginning in the mideighties, appearing as part of the ensemble of a popular miniseries, Hollywood Wives; portraying a Polish immigrant dealing with an unstable ex-husband in Murder: By Reason of Insanity; enacting the true story of notorious madam Sydney Biddle Barrows in Mayflower Flower; and playing a divorcee in “Moving Day,” an episode of the PBS anthology series Trying Times.
All of these credits kept her gainfully employed and helped her maintain a position as a very prominent face within the industry, but her fortunes were about to change in unexpected ways when she received another chance to showcase her comedic talents. When offered the title role of sharp-tongued, opinionated television news journalist Murphy Brown, Bergen jumped at the chance to show, for once and for all, that being funny was her specialty. She fell instantly in love with the character after reading the pilot script, drawn to her outspoken, fearless liberalism and quick wit, knowing that a series this well-written could make some pungent points about politics, hot topic current events, and the media in general. “There was a real power to the writing,” Bergen pointed out. “It came from a very confident and sure intelligence. I loved that she has an edge … I loved Murphy’s irony, her wit, her silliness. I love the occasional moments of dopiness. You get this incredible range …” Premiering on CBS on November 14, 1988, Murphy Brown was enthusiastically received by reviewers, who were fast to point out that part of the show’s success hinged on Bergen’s genuine knack for situational comedy. Creator Diane English raved that she has “that whoopie-cushion, slip-on-the-banana peel sense of humor … She can deliver a joke with the best of them, which frankly surprised me. We forget that this is Edgar Bergen’s daughter.”
Suddenly the actress whose talents had once been in question was earning the very best reviews of her career. The program’s successful first season brought it an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series, while Bergen herself won the coveted trophy for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series. It was not to be her last time at the podium. Murphy Brown gained momentum and soon became a top ten Nielsen hit and one of the most talked-about weekly series of the early nineties. Bergen’s stature continued to rise, and she earned another four Emmys for her work, until she finally requested her name be kept off future ballots to allow others the opportunity to be rewarded. Her five statuettes put her in the record books as the actress to receive the most wins for playing the same character in the same series.
Never was her victory more appreciated than the 1991–92 season, after Bergen and her series came under fire from Vice President Dan Quayle, who openly criticized the character’s decision to forego marriage and have a baby as a single mother. A media war erupted which brought undreamed of attention to the series, putting Bergen on the cover of Time magazine. During its ten-season run Murphy Brown twice more won Emmys as Outstanding Comedy Series, in 1990 and 1992. As the show approached its eighth season, Bergen decided to take a more prevalent behind-the-scenes hand in crafting the series on a week-to-week basis, becoming one of its executive producers. She maintained this role when she helped to produce the television movie Mary & Tim, in which she also starred as a woman who develops romantic feelings for a mentally challenged younger man.
Returning to motion pictures in 2000, Bergen now found herself hired exclusively for comedies, such as Miss Congeniality and Sweet Home Alabama (playing the mayor of New York City), proof of the tremendous impact Murphy Brown had made. She did not leave television behind, however, agreeing to do a talk-show for the women’s network Oxygen, Exhale with Candice Bergen, an interview program that brought her face-to-face with Hillary Clinton, Jodie Foster, Madeleine Albright, and Michael Douglas, among others. Following two seasons, Bergen switched the format for her follow-up, Candice Checks it Out, in which she visited noncelebrities in their own environment, covering everything from fashion designers to work-at-home phone sex operators. After a handful of appearances playing a judge on Law & Order and its spin-off, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, she joined the cast of the ABC drama Boston Legal, playing senior law partner Shirley Schmidt, another lady not afraid to speak her mind.
Looking back on her career, her achievements, and her long trip to acknowledge her own contributions and approach her profession with dedication, Bergen wrote in her autobiography, “It takes a long time to become a person. Longer than they tell you, Longer than I thought. I am grateful for my past; it has given me the present. I want to do well by the future.” Considering the remarkable range of her achievements over the past forty-plus years, it is safe to say that there will be plenty of surprises yet to come from Candice Bergen.