Our guest stars were actors with distinguished classical careers who could also do comedy with ease and skill, legendary actors such as Colleen Dewhurst, who played Murphy’s mom, Avery. We had huge guest stars, like Elizabeth Taylor, Julia Roberts, Bette Midler, John F. Kennedy Jr., Rosie O’Donnell, Martin Sheen. Julia Roberts played herself in the penultimate episode, confessing an unrequited crush on Frank Fontana. Bette played one of Murphy’s many secretaries. Even the actors playing small parts on the show were insanely talented. It was humbling because every actor who was hired to do even a few lines was vastly overqualified. They sang like birds. They danced like gods. They hit a joke out of the park. These people could act and dance and sing circles around me, yet they were mostly unemployed; jobs were hard to come by.
In Season 3, Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul herself, came on the show. Aretha doesn’t fly; she drove with her entourage in her bus from Detroit to New York City, where we mocked up a set to look like the FYI studio. In the scene, she looks Murphy up and down dismissively. I sat on a piano bench next to her and chimed in while she played and sang “Natural Woman.” For me, this was an exquisite blend of thrill and terror. She finished her anthem, said good-bye, boarded her bus, and left. She said very little; she was, after all, The Queen.
In 2012, when I was in a play on Broadway, I was in Orso having supper and Aretha arrived, followed by her retinue. She crossed the room slowly, like a ship of state, as people froze with their forks in midair. I gave her a big grin; she nodded regally and swept past. But Aretha, it’s me!
A running joke on the show was that Murphy was such a horrific boss to work for that every week they’d have to find her a new secretary. Sally Field played a memory-challenged secretary. Paul Reubens—aka Pee-wee Herman—played a conniving secretary lured away by the end of the episode to a studio position. Craig Bierko, a bona fide Broadway star and my future Boston Legal costar, led the band of former secretaries who kidnapped Murphy Brown and held her for a ransom no one paid. Annabelle Gurwitch played an Eliza Doolittle secretary à la My Fair Lady. Michael Richards channeled his Kramer from Seinfeld to take his position behind the desk. When Murphy was briefly jailed for refusing to reveal a source, she was made a secretary to the prison warden—and naturally proved to be a lousy one. Every now and then I’ll work with someone and they’ll tell me, “I was Secretary 34” or “I played the Hitler secretary.” Bette Midler played Murphy’s ninety-third and final secretary.
Early in our relationship, Louis and I had decided that I would never star in one of his films. Marriage was demanding enough; we feared the demands of a director on an actress would be asking too much of a marriage. I knew he respected the work I was doing on the show. I still have the envelope on which he scrawled, “My darling, I love you, I love you, I love you. And I am fiercely proud of your talent. Le monkey.” I was delighted when Louis agreed to star in a single episode of Murphy Brown during Season 6. The writers came up with this idea: Murphy has decided to play a “small but pivotal role” in Louis Malle’s new film. She then storms the set to insist on changes to protect her “journalistic integrity.” Louis loved the idea and wrote the producers: “Thank you for a very funny scene, very well written. I’ll do my best not to embarrass you guys—and the wife. As far as I am concerned, I am beyond ridicule.” He flew in from Paris two days before to do it. He was very game about learning his lines on the plane but arrived exhausted and completely jet-lagged. Everybody on the show had great respect and affection for Louis. I tried to get him to relax for his line readings and in the end he was great. At the end of the scene, Murphy asks, “Are you firing me?” “Bingo,” Louis says. Murphy stalks off, and Louis proclaims, “What a nightmare. Can you imagine being married to that woman?” He got a huge laugh.
Copyright © 2015 by Candice Bergen