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The Comedic Side of Candice Bergen : Waging a Fight for the Right to Be Funny

November 14, 1988|DIANE HAITHMAN | Times Staff Writer

When Candice Bergen read the pilot script for "Murphy Brown," she decided she was finally ready to do a television series.

Television, however, was not quite ready for her .

The 42-year-old film star had never entertained the idea of doing a situation comedy until her agent coaxed her to read the "Murphy Brown" script, the story of a famous Washington TV personality, which debuts tonight at 9 on CBS.

She decided after reading the script on a flight to New York that if she was going to do a television series, she would never find a better role--and she made her first telephone call from an airplane to let executive producers Diane English and Joel Shukovsky know she desperately wanted the part.

To her surprise, however, Bergen discovered that CBS did not share the producers' enthusiasm for casting her as Murphy Brown.

"I didn't think she could do it," Kim LeMasters, president of CBS Entertainment, has since confessed.

Nibbling lunch in her trailer near the set of the series, the ever-poised Bergen discussed her initial rejection by the network with a raised eyebrow, as if describing a vaguely amusing faux pas committed by a distant acquaintance.

"From the network I got steadfast resistance and, (when I completed) the pilot, navel oranges and Velveeta cheese," she sniffed. "They've been terrifically nice since--but I did expect quite a different

reaction. It was actually a humbling experience, because I thought the network would be beside themselves that I would actually consider doing a series. But if it hadn't been for Diane English, I never would have been cast.

"Other networks have been so gracious about things," she added calmly, the eyebrow rising a tad higher. "Well, it's clearly a network of cutbacks in all areas, I guess."

In a separate conversation, English and husband Shukovsky said CBS executives had "a case of cold feet" when it came to casting the role. "If God had walked into the room at that moment, it wouldn't have been good enough," English said.

According to Bergen, LeMasters doubted Bergen's comic ability because Bergen had starred in two somewhat gloomy movies on CBS--"Mayflower Madam," about a society blueblood who ran a brothel, and "By Reason of Insanity," in which she portrayed a Polish woman who was stabbed by her psychotic husband. "God knows I tried, but they didn't really want any laughs," she cracked about the two projects.

This is not the first time Bergen has had to fight for the right to be funny; not until the 1981 feature film "Rich and Famous," she said, did casting directors begin to see the comedian behind her ice-queen veneer. In the tradition of her father, the late ventriloquist/comedian Edgar Bergen, Bergen is described by English as a woman who, despite her regal appearance, will sink to pratfalls and whoopie cushions just to get a laugh.

"Yeah, I love that stuff," Bergen said. "I really love physical humor, and I think it's doubly unexpected coming from someone like me. My father was such a great influence in my life, and he always thought I had flair for comedy and encouraged me to do it."

Along with the chance to do comedy, Bergen acknowledges that she also took the "Murphy Brown" role to take advantage of TV's regular work hours to accommodate life with her husband, French film director Louis Malle, and their 3-year-old daughter.

"Features and TV movies seem to come up overnight--they say, 'OK, you have to be in Burma by Thursday,' " she said. "That's just unacceptable if you're going to raise a family.

"I never had a negative opinion of television," she added. "Of course, I think 70, maybe 75, maybe 80% of it is swill, but I don't know what (people in the entertainment industry) would do without television--there just aren't enough feature films to go around. I think it hasn't been since 'Rich and Famous' that I've been offered comedy of ('Murphy Brown') caliber in a feature."

Bergen loves the blunt, compulsive, not-always-polite Murphy Brown, co-host of a "60 Minutes"-style information program called "FYI." In the pilot episode, Brown is back at work fresh from the Betty Ford Center, where she kicked her longstanding cigarette and alcohol habits in favor of chewing No. 2 pencils.

English and Shukovsky noted that CBS at first had misgivings about portraying Brown as a recovered alcoholic in today's conservative political climate, but ended up asking the producers to do even more with that concept after test audiences responded favorably to Murphy's strength in overcoming her vices.

Although the producers expect to be compared with "Broadcast News," English said that "Murphy Brown" differs from the feature film because it is about a 40-year-old woman at the top of her profession, rather than a 30-ish woman clawing her way to the top. They hope the movie piqued the public's interest in journalism and politics; English and Shukovsky plan to enlist Washington personalities from both fields for guest appearances.

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