Birth episode tough on Bergen

May 18, 1992|By Gail Shister | Gail Shister,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia--Think Candice Bergen's cool? Murphy Brown could ice her with a look.

"I feel incredibly wimpy compared to Murphy," said the too-gorgeous-for-words Ms. Bergen, star of CBS' comedy crown jewel. "Murphy's a lion. I'm a retriever. I wish I could be more like her. She's smarter, more courageous and more ambitious than me. She's totally indifferent to what people think of her."

Actress Bergen completes her fourth "Murphy Brown" season tonight with the long-awaited birth of her son. Citizen Bergen will enjoy a more personal milestone today when she accepts an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

The irony of the latter event was not lost on Ms. Bergen yesterday as she sipped tea in her Four Seasons Hotel suite overlooking Logan Circle. Twenty-seven years ago, after her sophomore year, Penn "politely asked me to move on," she said, when she flunked "gut courses" in painting and opera.

"I never held it against Penn," said Ms. Bergen, 46, who hadn't stepped foot on campus again until Saturday. "I always did respect them for that. That was a very strong lesson. But then they kept asking me for donations. I didn't give. I said, 'Come on, guys. Fair is fair.' "

Playing fair has never been Murphy Brown's strong suit. But even the world's toughest TV newswoman has a soft side, and it's lovingly revealed at the conclusion of tonight's episode. (It's Tears R Us time as Murphy coos a Motown tune to her sleepy newborn heir. Ms. Bergen came up with the idea "while I was drying my hair.")

Viewers -- and there were 36 million of them for last week's baby shower episode -- have been waiting all season for Murph to lighten up. Her trademark sarcasm has become so, uh, pregnant with venom that even Ms. Bergen acknowledges it's been tough to like her all-time favorite character.

"I felt I was pushing much too hard a lot of times," she said. "Murphy had so much of an edge this year because we were trying to counteract the fact that everybody thought she would 'lose' her edge when she got pregnant. I think we overcompensated for that.

"We got so many letters from people worrying that Murphy was going to turn into some kind of wimp . . . that we went too far the other way, making her a real shrew -- shrill, mean-spirited and strident. . . . Now that we've done that, we can return to the tone of what's normally bitchy for Murphy. She'll never lose her edge. I love her edge. I love her crabbiness and her W. C. Field-ness."

Filming the birth episode was difficult for the tightly knit "Murphy Brown" cast because it represented the swan song for beloved co-creator Diane English. She's moving on to a new CBS sitcom, "Love Is Hell." (Coincidentally, "Love" stars Jay Thomas, whose recurring character on "Murphy Brown," obnoxious talk-show host Jerry Gold, may or may not be the baby's father.)

The segment was doubly emotional for Ms. Bergen because it flooded her with memories of the birth of her only child, Chloe, 6 1/2 . Chloe's father is respected French film director Louis Malle, whom Ms. Bergen married in 1980.

"I was tearing before we even started," Ms. Bergen explained. "I thought, 'Oh, my God, I'm in trouble. How am I going to get through this?' I had been emotional all week. Birth is very emotional. It was a very wrenching show for both Diane and me. It was loaded emotionally for all of us."

The last scene required three takes. The first "was so emotional I could hardly get through the lines. It had nothing to do with Murphy." By the second take, "I was completely dry from the first." The third "was a combination of both."

Speaking of names, there isn't one yet for Murph's male. (Ms. Bergen's choice is Buster; Ms. English's is James.) It was decided to make the baby a boy, Ms. Bergen explained, "because we all thought it was more fertile ground for comedy for Murphy to have a son. It gave it more edge. Plus Murphy's a tomboy. She plays poker and watches football and baseball and lays bets on them."

Whatever he's called, the littlest Brown will not be the focus of the series next season, Ms. Bergen said.

"Everyone is very intent on not making this show about five anchorpeople and a baby. The baby will be mentioned, but he'll seldom be involved in episodes. Murphy having a baby enriches the show and gives the writers new stuff to mine. It gives Eldon [Robert Pastorelli] more reason to interact logically in the baby's life. He's far more maternal than Murphy is."

Another pitfall Ms. Bergen hopes to avoid is having the ferociously single Murphy "send out a message that encourages single women to go out and blithely have children. Just having Murphy be single and pregnant was a big decision. The executives at CBS were on Rolaids for months."

On the other hand, Murphy's parenthood "really reflects what is happening today among women in their 40s and women in journalism, although I don't know if any of them [in journalism] are single. The reality today is that single women can't afford to wait to have children."

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