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Sunday, June 14, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bergen Is Wimpy Compared To Alter-Ego Murphy

Knight-Ridder News Service: Times News Services

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 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 last month completed her fourth "Murphy Brown" season with the long-awaited birth of her son. Citizen Bergen enjoyed a more personal milestone when she accepted an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

The irony of the latter was not lost on Bergen beforehand. 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 Bergen, 46, who hadn't stepped foot on campus again until she accepted the honorary degree. "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 was lovingly revealed in last month's episodes.

Viewers - there were 36 million for the celebrated baby-shower episode and 38 million a week later for the welcoming of Murphy's baby boy - have been waiting all season for Murph to lighten up. Her trademark sarcasm has become so, uh, pregnant with venom that even Bergen acknowledges it's been tough to like her all-time favorite character.

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 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 Bergen married in 1980.

"I was tearing before we even started," 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."

There isn't a name in mind yet for Murph's male. (Bergen said her choice was Buster; English's is James.) It was decided to make the baby a boy, 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, 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 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. Today single women can't afford to wait to have children."

CBS could never afford to pay for the publicity "Murphy Brown" received last month, courtesy of America's vice president.

Forget the aftermath of the L.A. riots, Yugoslavia in chaos, even Ross Perot's quasi-candidacy for president. The story that led newspapers and national network news broadcasts for a week in May was Dan Quayle's blistering attack on a make-believe woman.

Quayle started with an assertion that the "Murphy Brown" plot line - the fictional TV anchorwoman had a child out of wedlock - was injurious to family values. He came right back with another salvo that accused "Murphy Brown's" writers of having their star give birth instead of having an abortion because they feared bad ratings.

All of this from a man who freely admitted he had never seen the highly popular show, which finished in first place in the recently concluded May sweeps period.

Whether you think Quayle's attack on a TV character was ridiculous or relevant, there is one undisputed fact about the May 18 episode that sparked this whole brouhaha.

CBS will repeat the birthing episode. On Labor Day.

As a Penn coed, Bergen didn't wait for much. A stunning beauty and daughter of a celebrity - ventriloquist Edgar Bergen - she was shuttling to New York for modeling assignments while still a freshman.

"My time at Penn was an ambivalent time for me," said Bergen, who broke into films in 1966 in "The Group," based on Mary McCarthy's novel about eight graduates of a prestigious women's college. "I was being pulled in different directions. I was certainly not a focused academic candidate.

"I had been anointed something of a celebrity on a campus that didn't have many celebrities. I was the daughter of a celebrity, I was from the West Coast, I was pretty. It didn't take much back then. I didn't help it much by modeling."

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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