Williams theater organization celebrates with Bergen and Nichols

Friday afternoon, Cap and Bells celebrated its 100th birthday in dramatic style. The student-run theater organization hosted an informal question and answer session with Candice Bergen. Students and community members alike crowded into Goodrich Student Center to listen to Bergen answer a variety of questions about her film and television career. Moderated by Michael Izquierdo ’00, the session included a surprise visit by the Academy Award-winning director Mike Nichols.

Bergen, best-known as a television star for her ten years as Murphy Brown on the acclaimed CBS comedy series by the same name was born into the world of show business. Her father was the renowned ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. While attending the University of Pennsylvania, Bergen studied art history and creative writing. At the same time, she worked as a model in New York City and began her film career playing a glamorous lesbian in The Group.

After her film debut, Bergen traveled to exotic locations to work on a slew of movies including The Sand Pebbles filmed in Formosa with Steve McQueen, and Gandhi. For her work on Starting Over, she was nominated for an Academy Award. Next, Bergen worked with Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel, Anne Margaret and director Mike Nichols on Carnal Knowledge.

Not afraid to explore new avenues of show business, Bergen found success on Broadway when she worked with Nichols on Hurly Burly. She also appeared on television, hosting both The Muppet Show and Saturday Night Live. For Murphy Brown, Bergen was nominated for five Emmys and five Golden Globes, winning twice.

While Bergen was playing a journalist on television, she was also a real-life journalist of sorts, writing for Esquire, Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Playboy. Her autobiography Knock Wood appeared on the New York Times Bestseller list. With the final season of Murphy Brown completed, it has been rumored that Bergen may join the cast of 60 Minutes.

For her varied and distinguished accomplishments, Candice Bergen was invited to Williams as the 1998 Mt. Hope Distinguished Visitor. Bergen’s appearance at Mt. Hope fortuitously coincided with the 100th birthday of Cap and Bells. When he discovered that Bergen would be visiting Williams, Michael Izquierdo ’00, artistic director of Cap and Bells, began coordinating with the Office of Public Affairs in order to arrange an open forum with Bergen so that large numbers of students would be able to hear her speak. Izquierdo had only a week to arrange the all-campus question and answer session with Bergen.

In a serendipitous turn of events, director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, The Birdcage), who is a long-time friend of both Bergen and Herbert Allen ’62, the donor for the proposed performing arts center, attended Friday’s Mt. Hope activites with Bergen. Five minutes before Izquierdo and Bergen were to take the stage in Goodrich, Izquierdo asked Nichols if he would briefly take the stage with Bergen to answer questions. Nichols agreed, and with almost no preparation the three took the stage together.

Nichols spoke of his work with Anne Margaret and Bergen on Carnal Knowledge. He also discussed his decision to use Simon and Garfunkel’s music as the score for The Graduate and also the days of uproarious laughter on the set of The Birdcage with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.

After nearly fifteen minutes of answering questions, Nichols turned the microphone over to Bergen. When Izquierdo asked her about being a comedic actress, Bergen replied that she had never considered herself to be funny in real life. At her reading for Murphy Brown, Bergen said she “tanked.” It was so bad, Bergen said, that no one at CBS wanted to give her the part. The CBS executives wanted Heather Locklear for the part, but Diane English, the series’ producer fought for Bergen.

Ten years later, no one at CBS could be disappointed with the choice of Bergen as Brown. Each week, Murphy Brown challenged the realm of prime time television fair by dealing with edgy issues such as single parenthood and breast cancer. Bergen discussed Dan Quayle’s 1992 attack of the show’s position on single motherhood. Although Bergen at the time felt uncomfortable with the scrutiny she and Murphy Brown were receiving and attempted to avoid the press as much as possible, she made it clear that quality television shows should not ignore important and possibly volatile issues.

Bergen stressed the importance of good writing for sitcom scripts and attributed much of the success of her program to the skillful and intelligent writing during several seasons of Murphy Brown.

Twice Bergen informed the largely student audience that there are constantly shortages of script writers in Hollywood, and the industry is always looking for talented and witty recruits from prestigious Eastern colleges. She qualified her remarks by adding that in recent years the number of prime time shows has increased from about 70 to 90 and that the quality of the writing for these shows has lagged far behind the rapid fire expansion.

When Izquierdo asked Bergen about her specific plans for the future, she replied that she was of course interested in remaining in show business and that she always liked to experience new facets of the industry. After this ambiguous statement, one of the audience members inquired about Bergen joining the cast of 60 Minutes. She admitted that she had spoken with the producers of the show but would not reveal any further details

Izquierdo facilitated the question and answer session with aplomb. “The Berkshire Eagle reported that this was the first interview Michael Izquierdo has ever done. If so, Jim Lehrer and Barbara Walters move over,” remarked Jo Proctor, Williams news director. “Michael’s sincerity and curiosity charmed Bergen and Nichols and the audience.”

Izquierdo’s organizational work and skillfully entertaining interviews at the Cap and Bells question and answer session provided the student body and the larger community a shining opportunity to celebrate the 100th birthday of Cap and Bells.

Thanks to Michael Izquierdo for providing biographical information for this article.