Candice Bergen on what it was really like playing Murphy Brown.

In 1988, after living in New York City for years, I had begun to miss smoggy southern California. I am that rare thing: a native Angeleno. I became unexpectedly emotional when I returned for short visits, bursting into tears at random times.

Also, to be frank, I missed working. Since the birth of my daughter, Chloe, I’d barely worked in over three years. I might have been going a little crazy. Louis could tell.

There was a script for a television pilot circulating. No one at my agency thought to put me up for it except for one lowly new agent. He was a Southern boy named Bryan Lourd: refined, attractive, very bright. (So bright he is now cochair of CAA, one of the most powerful agencies in Los Angeles.)

Bryan submitted my name close to the end of the casting process and sent me the script. I left it by the bed for a week and a half. I didn’t watch much TV, unless you counted Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock. The only show I was aware of with strong female roles was Designing Women, which was sharply written and performed. And at that time, in the showbiz caste system, television hovered close to the bottom.

Candice with daughter Chloe (L) and late husband Louise Malle (R).


Bryan called to noodge me: “You know the script I sent you? They need an answer.” I was leaving for New York the next day and took it with me on the plane. When Chloe went down for a nap, I started it; it was as good as any comedy I’d ever read.

At the end of the pilot script, the character, named Murphy Brown, went home to her empty town house, put Aretha on the sound system, started opening her mail, and began singing along to “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the top of her lungs. She was caught by her housepainter, Eldin, who’s working in the kitchen. Be still, my heart: It was written for me.


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The lead was a television news reporter. She was big, she was brassy, she was fearless. Smart, fast-paced, and funny, the dialogue was similar to the great comedies of the 1940s. There was something in the writing of the Murphy character that hooked me, as she eventually hooked many women.

Is it that she was, in many ways, who we wished we could be as women? Successful in a field dominated by men? Free of the need to please? Impolitic, impolite, yet in some weird way, irresistible? In those days we had pay phones on planes; I grabbed it, called Bryan and said, “I hope it’s not too late.”

The character fit me like a glove. I was instantly comfortable with the writing. Diane had created a complex, original, endearing, feisty, take-no-prisoners woman. And more surprisingly, a woman who cared not a whit what others thought of her. There was not an ounce of submission, not a drop of passivity, no suggestion of shrivel. Murphy was fierce and principled. She had passion—especially for her work, where she gave no quarter. We all wanted to be her. That character gave me permission to be my brattiest, bawdiest self.

Candice in the '70s.


Rehearsing the pilot, I felt as if I’d been shot out of a cannon. I had barely watched a half-hour comedy, much less acted in one. Everything was incredibly quick-fire and intense. We packed the studio audience with friends and got lots of laughs—big ones. When we finished shooting the last scene, with Murphy getting caught out by Eldin, the director called, “Cut!” and I burst into tears.


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It was the first time I’d thrown myself into something with such abandon and joy. What I had going for me was the element of surprise. No one ever expected me to be funny, not least because of my glacial Nordic looks and affect. I’d mostly been reviled in my acting career. My Oscar nomination for Starting Over was an anomaly; basically I’d had fifteen years of bad notices by the time Murphy came along.

Diane and the writers were fully responsible for what came out of Murphy’s mouth, but the producers let me have a lot of input into the rest of her character. I always saw myself as Murphy’s guardian in that I didn’t want her to tip over into utter obnoxiousness. It was important that she somehow redeem herself by the end of each episode.

Candice now.


I felt that Murphy, a successful, ambitious woman, should have a certain style, so I got very involved with her wardrobe. While I didn’t have the time—I had a small child and a big role—I just did it and didn’t ask anyone, not even the costume designer, whose tastes were very different from my own. I was friends with many designers. I went to Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Isaac Mizrahi, Todd Oldham (he made fantastic whimsical shirts embroidered with tassels and appliqués), Robert Lee Morris for handbags and jewelry. His earrings and cuffs looked great with Donna Karan.

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Occasionally, I’d go next door to men’s wardrobe and pull out old leather bomber jackets and caps for when Murphy was dressing down. I’d wear my own shoes; then buy the ones I liked. Good shoes are very important to the look of an outfit, and I didn’t want inexpensive ones. After the first season, it was clear that Murphy had become a certain style icon. Then the costume designer started getting witty vintage pins: Felix the Cat. Bakelite.

Candice circa '60s.

I wanted every outfit to be an event. And in a way, they were. Women loved what Murphy wore. When I wanted to wear a baseball cap with a high ponytail, we couldn’t find one with an opening in the back, so Judy McGiveney, our wardrobe woman, made one by cutting a hole in the back. A couple of months after the show aired, you could buy them in any store. Now they’re standard.

For the ten years I did the show, my life revolved around a darkened soundstage. Despite the fact that Murphy Brown was set at a newsmagazine, it was a struggle to keep up with current events. I’d carry the New York Times Book Review back and forth on the plane between L.A. and New York and never read it. I was out of the loop at dinner parties.

Yet I never wanted it to end; doing Murphy Brown was insanely fun. When the writing was good, it was a giddy, joyous experience. I was the most comfortable and confident I’d ever been. The part was a godsend—a fantastic role that completely suited me. My friends were all happy for me; it was unusual for a woman my age to get that role and that success.

This is an edited extract from A Fine Romance by Candice Bergen published by Simon and Schuster Australia, hardback RRP $39.99, ebook $14.99.