We have two excellent reasons for celebrating Candice Bergen on her 75th birthday.
One is that she is the daughter of the great vaudeville, screen and radio star, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, whom we wrote about here. In her terrific 1984 memoir Knock Wood, Bergen wrote that she was jealous of her father’s dummy Charlie McCarthy, and for good reason. Charlie sucked up all the oxygen out of the room, and how do you compete with a sibling who, technically, doesn’t exist? Still, whether she likes it or not, she is a living link to old school show biz, something we can be grateful about when she appears in documentaries like the recent one about Mae West (Mae’s appearance on Edgar’s radio show stirred up a lot of controversy).
The other reason is that, much like Ryan O’Neal, whom we wrote about a few days ago, we grew up watching her movies, have literally watched her grow from young to old over the last half century. When you like the star, as I do her, it begins to feel like an investment.
Like her mother before her, Bergen was initially a fashion model prior to her first two films, Sidney Lumet’s The Group and Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles, both in 1966. Coincidentally I saw both these films for the first time within this past year. Also coincidentally, I liked them both so much I watched them twice. Her part in The Group (her debut) is small but striking (though the story is more focused on the likes of Joan Hackett and Shirley Knight). Bergen has more to do opposite Steve McQueen in The Sand Pebbles, though again, she only comes into it for a couple of scenes. She was one of the cast members in Woody Allen’s gonzo 1969 TV variety special. A little known fact is that she and boyfriend Terry Melcher (Doris Day’s son) had earlier occupied the house where Sharon Tate and friends were murdered by the Manson Family. It’s been speculated that Melcher was the intended victim.
Long about 1970 Bergen’s career kicked into high gear with films like Getting Straight, opposite Elliot Gould, and the revisionist western Soldier Blue. Then came Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge (1971), penned by Jules Feiffer. The Hunting Party (1971) was the first of several films she would star in with Gene Hackman (others included Bite the Bullet (1975) and The Domino Principle (1977)). She played the title role in Herbert Ross’s T.R. Baskin (1971) and was also in the 1978 Love Story sequel Oliver’s Story with O’Neal. Alan J. Pakula’s Starting Over (1979) and Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) as Margaret Bourke-White. In 1975 she was one of the first big stars to host Saturday Night Live, mutually burnishing the street cred of both parties. She made her Broadway debut as a replacement in David Rabe’s Hurlburly in 1984. Her WASPy visage was used to good effect as the notorious Sydney Biddle Barrows in the 1987 tv movie adaptation of her autobiography Mayflower Madam
This is already plenty — enough for the show biz history books. Then something wonderful and unexpected happened. Long about the late ’80s one might have been forgiven for assuming that Bergen had about reached her level, that this would be about it. Then in 1988, her sitcom Murphy Brown, created by Diane English, debuted. To everyone’s surprise, it would eclipse everything, including her dad’s career and everything she had done previously. (My fellow comedy nerds may try to argue about the eclipse of Edgar, but sad though it may be, objectively this reality has to be acknowledged). Taking a sitcom in middle age sometimes can seem like a desperation move. Sometimes, however (think of Jack Klugman and Tony Randall in The Odd Couple) it can be the bull’s eye. Very cleverly written, Murphy Brown was the first sitcom with a recovering alcoholic at the center. This helped fuel plots. But Bergen also created a great character, a tough, hard-edged female television reporter who’d seen the world (playing cleverly off her own jet-setting past). The show ran a full decade (1988-98) and returned two decades after that (2018) for another short run. And Bergen won five Emmys for her acting. For much more on this topic I enthusiastically refer you to my industrious friend Lauren Millberger’s terrific Murphy Brown podcast.
After ending a ten year run of a weekly television show, Bergen might have been forgiven for relaxing a bit, but she has worked as hard as ever over the past two decades, with appearances in such movies as Miss Congeniality (2000), Sweet Home Alabama (2002), the 2003 remake of The In-Laws (2003), a regular gig on the TV show Boston Legal (2005-08), the Sex and the City movie (2008), English’s 2008 remake of The Women, a recurring part on House (2011), The Meyerwitz Stories (2017), Book Club (2018), and a recurring part on The Connors (2021).
And since I write this on Mother’s Day, I’d like to point out that now that she is a stoutish, but still good looking and brassy dame of 75, she is the perfect person to play my mother, in my upcoming made-for-television film Trav S.D. Has a Problem, soon to be released on the Kachunk! platform.
For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,