Since Murphy Brown ended, she has dropped out of sight, reconnected with the world and fallen in love. Now she's back on TV as a talk‑show host, ready to rumble.
April 24, 2000
By Mark Ehrman
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark
Photo Editor Kathryn McCarver

Waiting to Exhale: Candice Bergen, photographed at Pier 59 Studios in New York on February 1.

It's getting late. And Candice Bergen is starting to whack the chicken. One of those joke‑store rubber fryers happens to be lying atop the sofa in the greenroom at the Oxygen Channel's Hollywood headquarters, and as she speaks, Bergen absentmindedly grabs its feet with her long delicate fingers and whips the bird up and down against the cushions. She is letting off steam. A little more than a year after Murphy Brown ended its 10-year run on CBS, the 53‑year‑old Bergen is once again juggling the commitments of television motherhood and relationships. Her gig this time is a show called Exhale which debuted on the Oxygen Channel in February. Here four times a week at 10 P.M., the likes of Jodie Foster, Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright stop by for a one‑hour chat.

At around noon each day ‑ the time it is now ‑ the show finishes taping. Bergen has been up since 6 A.M. When she gets home in the late afternoon, “I have dinner, read my notes and then go to bed. It gets me a little crazy, because you can't really do that and have a life, but I love how much I'm learning."

Bergen has spent her life exploring new fields. The eldest child of radio and TV personality Edgar Bergen, she played second banana for most of her childhood to her father's world-famous ventriloquist's dummy, Charlie McCarthy. During the '70s, she established herself as an actress in such films as Carnal Knowledge, The Sand Pebbles and Getting Straight, with an Academy Award-nominated performance opposite Burt Reynolds in Starting Over. At the same time, Bergen, who became interested in photography as a teenager, was shooting photographs for Esquire and Playboy. Those two pursuits converged in 1982, when she played renowned Life photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White in the film Gandhi.

But Bergen wasn't a household name until Murphy Brown, the strikingly smart sitcom on which she played a grouchy recovering alcoholic TV anchor for the fictional Washington, D.C., newsmagazine show F.Y.I. "It was almost as if it had been written for me," says Bergen of the role that brought her five Emmys. "The second I read it, I was like, 'Oh, my God, I'd do anything to get this part.' " Although she herself never, had a drinking problem and is polite to a fault, Bergen took the role and made it real. So real that in 1992 then-Vice-President Dan Qayle publicly criticized Murphy Brown for "mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice" when Bergen's character had a child out of wedlock.

In her twenties, Bergen hung out with Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson and dated Bert Schneider, the producer of Easy Rider and The Last Picture Show. When she finally settled down, it was with the French film director Louis Malle (The Lovers, My Dinner With Andre, Alamo Bay, Atlantic City), whom she married in 1980, when she was 34 and he was 48. "It was like there was no one else for them," Bergen's friend, Connie Frielberg, has said. "I think they could not believe their luck that they had found each other." The couple had a daughter, Chloe, in 1985 and lived happily in the U.S. and France, until Malle died of lymphoma in 1995.

These days, Bergen has a new man in her life along with her new show. "When I saw Oxygen announced, I thought it was such an impressive group of partners," she says of the founders, who include Oprah Winfrey, Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner and Caryn Mandabach (the producers of The Cosby Show, Roseanne and 3rd Rock From the Sun, respectively).

"I thought,'I would love to be a part of that.'" So far, Oxygen, a cable network for women's programming launched on February 2, has a reach of 10 million households, but it has yet to debut in the nation's two biggest markets, Los Angeles and New York, where negotiations with cable operators continue. With Exhale, the bet is that after a decade of The Jerry Springer Show, the viewers Oxygen is seeking will tune in for a low-key, conversational show with no audience and no gimmicks, where Bergen - ever the articulate, congenial host can make her guests feel at home.

Bergen has only an hour before a production meeting will beckon her upstairs. So she gets right to it - with elegant bearing and crisp, throaty diction - and the thump thump thump of the rubber chicken.

Who did you have on today?

[X-Files star] Gillian Anderson and [playwright] Eve Ensler talking about [Ensler's] The Vagina Monologues. Last week we had Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton, Melissa Etheridge. In our pilot show we had: two women sexperts. The subject was sex in the twenty-first century. I heard the word teledildonics for the first time.

You go an hour with the same guest. Does that increase the pressure?

Yeah, an hour is a long time. [Laughs] Especially when people are economical in their answers and you've gone through 30 questions and you have 30 minutes left. Then my eyes start spinning back in my head and I start thinking "Where am I? What am I going to do?" I'm interested in people, but I'm not a natural choice for this. I'm a better listener than a conversationalist, so [chuckling] it's a challenge.

How did you get into this?

I was just looking for something different. Fortunately, [writer] Fran Lebowitz had suggested me as a possible host for Exhale. When they came to me, it struck fear into my heart. But fear is always a good indicator, a sign that it's something that has to be dealt with.

Does it feel good to be back on TV?

The thing I missed most about Murphy Brown is how much you laughed - we laughed so much. So now we have a staff that is so smart and talented and really funny. If you have a job where you can squeeze laughter in, it's always better.

Who do you admire in the talk-show world?

I think Charlie Rose is wonderful. I think Larry King is terrific. I love how fast-paced Larry's show is, but this was presented to me as closest to Charlie Rose's format in terms of the low-keyness of it - no audience, no orchestra, it would be taped. I wasn't sure if I could do it, so I thought "Well, I'll just ask Charlie Rose if he thinks I can do it." And he was great; he called from Seattle, where he had just been interviewing Bill Gates, and he said, "Yeah, it's a lot of work but my show is about my curiosity" He was very encouraging, very generous.

What was the year between Murphy Brown and Exhale like?

Deeply transitional. I was really tired. And I deliberately didn't get involved in anything for a long time. I really hadn't had time for 10 years, and I had a lot of things that just needed dealing with - aside from the fact that you just don't get to see your friends as much. You hope that when someone has a personal crisis that it happens to coincide with your hiatus week. So it was overdue.

Did you sleep till noon every day?

No. I can't sleep at all, much less till noon. But I read stuff, I traveled. I mean, the first few months I was in Tower Records in New York and I spent three hours just listening to CDs at the listening station. I'd go to Broadway matinees by myself; I just wanted to have the time to not do anything.

So who have you discovered?

In terms of CDs? Sympathique, by Pink Martini They're sort of retro lounge but really talented musically. They've dug up stuff like "Que Será Será" and "Zorba."

Were you aware that there was a lounge revival going on?

I wasn't. Because if you do a show like [Murphy Brown] and you're the lead and then you have a child, you really are on a kind of hamster mill. You go to work and come home and you try to read the paper.... So the trends escaped me.

Were you living in New York?

No. I was going back and forth all the time. My base is here [in Los Angeles], and then I have an apartment in New York that I've had for some 20 years. It's about a week a month in New York.

And you prefer here?

No, but I have a lot of ties here. I grew up here. My mother and brother are here. But I'd rather move back to New York, where I lived until Murphy Brown. It's just very tasty brain food. I love the random connections that you make in New York. I love the art, the theater. And here I kind of burrow in. I'm up in the hills, and I walk with my dogs, Lois and Larry. Lois is half-basset hound, half-wire-haired something. And Larry is some sort of part King Charles and part chicken, part I don't know.

What was it like growing up with the Bergens?

[Chuckles] Well, it was singular; it was great. My parents had a really sound sense of values, and the big priority was making sure that if I was going to grow up here, I wouldn't grow up nuts. I would have something to ground me in some sense of what was important in life. That was a big favor they did me. Of course, there were the surreal aspects of growing up with a dummy as a brother until my real brother was born, when I was 15.

Such as?

When my turtle Toby died, we had a funeral that was filmed and photographed and ran in a magazine. I was 4. From the time I was born, it was announced that Charlie McCarthy had a baby sister. And Charlie had a room next to mine called Charlie's room, which had scaled-down furniture. There are photos of Charlie and me both in Dr. Denton pajamas, ready to be put to bed. Ifs a really sinister photograph -I mean, it's so strange.

What about your schooling?

I went to one school from first grade to senior year. I took a year in Switzerland my sophomore year. My parents left me in Switzerland when I was 14. They dropped me off at what was then called finishing school - they don't have those anymore, for obvious reasons; they were so stupid. That was also an indication of what was expected of women: You went to school to learn to cook and run a château, and that was it. They left me in September and came back in December, and we went to their hotel for lunch and I pulled out a pack of Marlboros and the obligatory Zippo that everyone had in those days and lit my Marlboro, and I ordered a bloody mary. My parents just went ashen. So we had a lot of talk that Christmas, and it was suggested that I might want to discontinue smoking and drinking in my fourteenth year. I thought that wasn't unreasonable -it was suggested rather forcefully, as you can imagine.

If that was your daughter?

Aah! That's why I live in such terror, because of the stuff I got into as a kid. My daughter is just infinitely smarter than me. She is such a fiend against smoking.

Did you have a talk?

Drug talk, sex talk, drinking ... oh, yeah, we've had those periodically at different levels over the years. She once said, "You know, it's always the parents who were wild as kids that are really strict as grown-ups."

Does that nail Mommy?

Sort of.

You started your career as a model?

I modeled during the summers when I was in college and sometimes on the weekends or holidays. By the end of my sophomore year, I was financially independent, which is why I wanted to model. I had offers to model and it came easily and was very nice, fast money and required no skill whatsoever. Then my schoolwork suffered, so they suggested at my college [the University of, Pennsylvania] that I look for success and happiness in the modeling field, so I was asked to leave. Then I had an offer to do a film called The Group.

Where you played the lesbian.

That's right. At the time, it was very shocking.

A lot of your films were sexually progressive. I mean, Carnal Knowledge ...

Oh, Carnal Knowledge is still ahead of the times. Even now when you see it, its completely shocking. That certainly dealt with the war between the sexes. In the '70s, people didn't shrink from anything.

How would you compare it with what is going on now in Hollywood?

I think it's hard now, people are appealing to specific demographics. They are writing screenplays following specific formulas of films that do well. Studios are owned by monolithic companies, part of vast conglomerates; the financial end is really paramount. Whereas in the '70s, there was this great window of creative license for filmmakers where they could make the films they wanted to, and they would abuse that to some extent. So it's hard to imagine really any of the films of the '70s making it today also because the technology has evolved so dramatically that the films have become more about the technology and less about the content.

Are there any exceptions?

I think there have been some wonderful films recently: The Insider, The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Cider House Rules.

I suppose you look at films differently now that you're a parent of a 14-year-old girl?

Yeah, I do. I'm very careful, but you can only control it to a certain degree, because parents have kids sleep over and some parents aren't as watchful. It's not only from the standpoint of R-rated films or sexuality. It's for presenting things in a way that is insensitive: the lack of compassion, the lack of generosity, the cynicism. I just don't want her to see films where the sexual situations are cynical or where women are demeaned, where relationships are diminished. I think there's plenty of time for that later. There's something to be said for showing kids relationships to strive for, that relationships are hard. It's nice if you have got a template to look at, either in your own home, your parents or friends, films or literature. My daughter's really good about it. But also she gets to see good movies. She really knows writing, directing, camerawork.

Do you want her to go into the movie business?

No. I've never encouraged her with acting. I've never encouraged her with Hollywood. It's just very, hard growing up in Los Angeles. You are surrounded by kids going to auditions, parents in television or movies. I've tried to expose her and encourage her in other ways. Every time there's a spring break, I take her to experience another culture. We go on a trip that involves reading. Her friends go to Hawaii for spring break; she went to Russia and read Anna Karenina when she was 11 or 12. We went to Morocco another year. Last year we went to Jordan and Israel and she read Exodus.

Do you still take photographs?

I don't do it much and I don't do it well anymore. I have taken some photographs, but it's really something you have to keep doing. And then all these little cameras came out that sort of made it easy, but they also made it less fun.
Anyway, now it's a dead art, because the magazines are gone. But back then, photojournalism was very present and very glamorous. There was Robert Capa and all of those great Life photographers. There were so many venues for that type of work. So I did stuff on Muhammad Ali, coal miners and the Ku Klux Klan, Charlie Chaplin, Jane Goodall in Africa, the Masai. I photographed and interviewed for five minutes Haile Selassie. Just being in Ethiopia in those days was interesting, going into this old palace with lions chained outside.

Was this your love, photography?

It was my love and I got sidetracked into doing movies, and I think I just didn't have the discipline to pursue photography, or the confidence, but I really, loved it - until I sort of fell into comedy finally.

Do you feel you have started over many times in your life?

To keep things interesting you have to reinvent yourself. It doesn't mean that I won't do other TV or movies, but it means that right now I'm doing this and I love doing it.

Murphy Brown made you a kind of role model for women. Did you enjoy that?

The only time it was really uncomfortable was during the Dan Quayle episode. It just spooked me, because it was so high-profile and so visible and lasted for such a long time. It was really more attention than I ever wanted.

You never intended to make a statement on single parenthood?

We were really sort of writing about the zeitgeist. At the time, it was just the beginning of women of that age becoming single mothers. It was tricky; you don't want to send out the wrong message.

What are the most difficult issues in being a single mother today?

That it's a minefield for kids. There are so many choices that have to be made, sometimes split-second choices. They have peer pressure to contend with. A normal amount of experimenting and a normal amount of adventure are very much part of the rites of passage. As a parent your task is to try to figure out what the boundary for those experiments are and how to shepherd your child through them so they can experiment safely. It means you have to say no a lot, and it means you have to expend an enormous amount of energy to stay connected to your child.

But now you have someone, real estate mogul Marshall Rose. Is he your first big romance since Louis Malle?

Yes, it is the first.

Is that difficult?

What it is, is private. It's very nice and very lucky and it’s private.

Any unfulfilled ambitions?

[Long pause] No. Of course, there's a lot of stuff I want to do. I don't want to work just for the sake of working. Fortunately I have the luxury of not having to do that. I'm not doing this for money. I'm doing this for the interest, for the stimulation and to be able to do something for this network, because I love the energy of this network.

What is the future? Where will you be in five years?

I have no idea. I just want to keep growing. I don't want to run in place.