In celebration of leading lady Candice Bergen’s 70th birthday, we take a look at some prize moments from the 1990s sitcom.
When Murphy Brown debuted in 1988, she was a sitcom leading lady of a different stripe. There was nothing girlish about Murphy, like so many other comedy leads. Rather she was a single working woman, fiery, and outspoken, who used her job as a journalist at the fictional FYI TV news show to focus on a vast variety of issues, including the failings of Vice President Dan Quayle, the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal, the O.J. trial, single motherhood, medical marijuana, and breast cancer.
So when Murphy sang “Natural Woman” with Aretha Franklin — the show was big on featuring Motown tunes — you knew she understood the lyrics.
“I think a lot of women would like to be more like Murphy Brown, which is why I think the show resonated so well with women,” Bergen told the real Mike Wallace during a 60 Minutes interview. “I think women love her fearlessness.”
Brown, who won five Emmys for the role — she stopped submitting herself at that point — is turning 70 on May 9th. So in honor of her becoming a septuagenarian, here is a look back at some favorite moments from Murphy Brown, which ran on CBS from 1988-1998.
Secretaries: One conceit that Diane English came up with as a clever way to incorporate a wide variety of guest stars on the series was a revolving door of applicants for the position of Murphy’s secretary. Over the show’s 10-year run, more than 90 job seekers sat at the desk in front of Murphy’s office for varying periods of time – but none for long.
The non-celebrity secretaries, who were quickly sent to human resources on their way out the door, included sex-phone worker Bambi, the man who looked like Adolph Hitler, the wannabe actress who came to work as a different character every day, the timid Robert, the disorganized Mrs. Caldwell, and the adoring Corky Sherwood fan.
But the ever-changing personnel also made it possible for celebrity cameos. With a show that stayed in the Top 10 for the majority of its run, the list was impressive: Rosie O’Donnell, Sally Field, Don Rickles, Paul Reubens, Marcia Wallace and, in the series finale, Bette Midler.
Love Interests: In keeping true to the fact that Murphy was an adult, English made it clear to audiences that she enjoyed sex. She had a series of boyfriends, including Jay Thomas, who played tabloid talk show host Jerry Gold; Scott Bakula as reporter Peter Hunt, and Robin Thomas as Jake Lowenstein, an underground leftist radical and Murphy’s ex-husband, who, after rekindling their relationship, fathered her son.
The Birth of Avery: In Season 4 when Murphy discovered she was pregnant, she decided not to marry Jake, who wasn’t ready to change his lifestyle to be a dad. This created quite the dustup [see Dan Quayle below] but it also had special moments, like Murphy’s well-attended baby shower in the A Chance of Showers episode. In addition to Murphy’s fictional fellow newswoman Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford), who threw the shower, the FYI anchor was celebrated by some of TV’s top women journalists — Katie Couric, Paula Zahn, Mary Alice Williams and Joan Lunden — lending the show a touch of reality.
Then, in the Season 4 finale, Murphy gives birth to her son, and we catch a side of the acerbic newswoman heretofore unseen: Could any mother be more tender singing to her newborn son for the first time for a video that her co-worker Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto) was making?
A fun note: In the final season when Avery starts school he was played by The Sixth Sense star Haley Joel Osment.
Dan Quayle: Maybe it was the presence of the real-life TV anchors at Murphy’s baby shower making her seem more real, or maybe it was because the show constantly sniped at Quayle, but for some reason, he took it upon himself to take Murphy Brown to task the morning after she delivered her TV baby.
Quayle famously said: “Primetime TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice. I know it’s not fashionable to talk about moral values, but we need to do it!”
Of course, it was too delicious a moment for English to pass up, so when the show returned the next season, in the first episode, entitled “You Say Potatoe, I Say Potato” [referencing the vice president’s misspelling of “potato” at a Trenton, N.J. elementary school spelling bee], FYI struck back with a segment on the many different types of families in America. It then finished by dumping a truckload of potatoes in front of Qualye’s house.
Breast Cancer: In its final season, Murphy battled breast cancer. On the one hand, it was a positive in that there was a major increase in the number of women in the U.S. who went to their doctors for mammograms, saving lives. On the controversial side, it introduced the idea of medical marijuana when Murphy’s straight-laced co-worker Jim Dial (Charles Kimbrough) gifted her with weed to help alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy. The Waiting to Inhale episode inspired the wrath of drug czar Thomas Constantine, who accused the show’s writers of “trivializing drug abuse” by showing Murphy smoking to relieve her nausea.
More Moments: There were lots of little moments, too, like when John F. Kennedy Jr. dropped by to give Murphy a wedding present, and she was disappointed when it turned out to be a special edition of George with her photo on the cover instead of an expensive gift in the Altered States episode. Olivia Newton-John drove up the cost of an auction item to get Murphy to donate more at a charity auction than she had planned in I Hear a Symphony. And there was the My Movie with Louie episode in which Bergen’s real-life husband/film director Louis Malle played himself and cast Murphy in a movie he was directing.
In addition to the celebrities who popped in for cameos, there were episodes in which they had actual storylines. Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Mayim Bialik both appeared in the I Want My FYI episode as teens who wanted to launch a news program for their peers. And in the series finale, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Alan King, Mike Wallace, and Frances Bergen (Candice’s mother), all guest starred in addition to the aforementioned Bette Midler.
As celebrity ridden as Murphy Brown was, it was the regular cast that made it so special week to week. In addition to Ford, Regalbuto and Kimbrough, previously mentioned, there was Grant Shaud as Miles Silverberg, Robert Pastorelli as Eldin Bernecky, with Lily Tomlin joining for the final two seasons as Kay Carter-Shepley.
As a result of the great cast and excellent writing, Murphy Brown racked up 62 Emmy nominations and 18 wins, including winning Outstanding Comedy Series in 1990 and 1992. It is definitely a series for the ages. And TV Guide agrees, naming Murphy Brown to its list of the 25 Greatest TV Characters of All Time.