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Behind the scenes with Candice Bergen

By Jay Kernis
Rock Center

Scene 1 – Welcome to the Theater

Except for some conversations while Candice Bergen walked her dogs in New York City’s Central Park, we taped most of our profile in the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater. The New York landmark—known as the Plymouth when it was built by the Shubert Brothers in 1918—was renamed for the chairman of the Shubert Organization in 2005.

When you take over a Broadway theater for a day, it’s hard not to feel the history of the place. Here’s where classic hit shows had their premieres, such plays and musicals as The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1954), The Odd Couple (1965), Equus (1974) Ain’t Misbehavin; (1979), The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby (1981) and The Heidi Chronicles (1989) among many others.

And on that famous stage, we set up our lights and cameras, with 1,080 plush, red seats as the background. The entire theater was also festooned with red, while and blue bunting to evoke the political convention that is “The Best Man’s” setting. A very dramatic shot. But it meant we needed to be very careful about not bumping into the complex sets on their turntables, not dirtying the beige carpet that covered the stage, and making sure every piece of equipment was packed up by the time the front doors opened for theatergoers at 7:30 p.m.

We also somehow managed to cram two cameras, Harry and Candice into her tiny dressing room for some additional taping. Candice told us the dressing room normally was home to three actors. They would really have to get along.


Scene 2 – Getting Ready

We had read that one of the things Candice enjoyed most about preparing to perform on Broadway was warming up with her fellow cast members. Candice herself approached the show’s actors to get permission for us to tape this private ceremony that takes place each night at 7:15.

Led by a vocal coach from the prestigious Julliard School in New York City, Bergen, James Earl Jones and others stretch and vocalize, loosening up their bodies, brains and tongues. Just try repeatedly enunciating the mouth-twisting phrase “The tip of the tongue, the lips, the teeth,” so everyone in the back row of the balcony can clearly hear you.

The coach told us that the warming up was originally scheduled for rehearsals only, but Candice appreciated the exercises so much, they decided to run through them every night.  Watch this video the next time you’ve got to speak in public!

Scene 3 – Candice & John Laroquette

In Gore Vidal’s play, Laroquette plays a presidential candidate who wants to do the right thing to win his party’s nomination, even when confronted by an opponent who would do just about anything to win it. Laroquette also needs his wife—played by Bergen—to stand by him, even though she is aware of his history of infidelity.

Laroquette is best-known to TV audiences as Night Court’s amorous attorney Dan Fielding, a role which won him four consecutive Emmy Awards. He won his fifth Emmy for his portrayal of a psychopathic murderer on The Practice. And he played an attorney again (Carl Sack) in the series Boston Legal, where he first worked with Bergen.

He told Harry that it’s a dream come true to be on stage with her.  “Considering the sort of almost royal background she comes from in-- in show business,” Laroquette said, “she is such a normal, beautiful, intelligent woman who knows how to hit a joke really well too.”

Laroquette made his Broadway debut in the 2011 in the revival of the satirical musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He starred with Daniel Radcliffe and won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor. Not a bad debut.

Scene 4 – Candice & Harry Smith

CBS

Harry has interviewed Candice a number of times throughout her career and their rapport is evident right there on camera.

But of all the Bergen encounters that Harry has had—(our Rock Center profile aside)--it’s hard to top the time Harry appeared on Murphy Brown as himself.

The celebrated series, which aired between 1988 – 1998 on CBS, featured a number of real-life broadcasters as “themselves,” including Walter Cronkite, Connie Chung, Larry King, Katie Couric, Linda Ellerbee, and Paula Zahn.

In the 1991 episode, “Be It Ever So Humboldt,” reporter Frank Fontana, played by Joe Regalbuto, finally wins the highly-coveted Humboldt Award after a decade of nominations. It’s Harry who presents him with the award.

But then Frank’s ego inflates and he begins rejecting assignments he doesn’t deem Humbolt-worthy.

It seems that season #4 featuring Harry’s episode has never been released on DVD, but here’s a photo from that taping.

Scene 5 – Candice & Charlie McCarthy

Unless you are of a certain age, you may not know that Candice’s father was one of the most famous celebrities in show business. To be more precise, the monocle-and-tuxedo-wearing dummy that Edgar Bergen’s gave voice to and sat lap—Charlie McCarthy—was known the world over.

Born in 1903, Edgar Bergen got a how-to pamphlet when he was 11-years-old and taught himself ventriloquism. He eventually was a headliner in vaudeville, in movies, on television, but especially on radio between 1937 and 1956. That’s right, one of radio’s most entertaining programs featured something the listeners could not see: a ventriloquist and his guests conversing with a dummy. But the scripts were so clever, the comic timing so powerful, and Bergen’s ability to make Charlie—and other characters—seem so real, it all worked. Fact is, Charlie frequently chided Bergen for moving his lips.

Charlie was also featured on magazine covers and in comic strips, in books, and on spoons. He and Bergen entertained presidents and royalty.

While Candice had a real flesh-and-blood brother, (Kris Bergen, born in 1961), she grew up very aware of Charlie’s notoriety and that the press referred to Charlie as her brother. She tells Harry that Charlie even had her own bedroom, next to hers.

Edgar Bergen died in 1978, three days into his Las Vegas farewell tour. Not too long before his death, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, a long-time friend of Candice’s, took this remarkable image of Edgar and Charlie.

Bergen says she has always been sad that her father couldn’t see Murphy Brown and the success that came with the show.  “He would have been so fulfilled, so gratified and proud,” Bergen said.

Editor's Note: Harry Smith's full report, 'The Beauty' airs Thursday, June 14 at 10pm/9c on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams.

Mary Ellen Mark