NEW YORK — Even after 10 years as the star of the TV comedy "Murphy Brown," people still are surprised that Candice Bergen can be funny. Her beginnings as a privileged child of Hollywood and as an iceberg kind of movie star keep getting in the way.
Now, she pulls out the stops in "The In-Laws," a remake of the 1979 comedy about mismatched prospective fathers-in-law. She plays the outrageous ex-wife of Michael Douglas, whose son is marrying the daughter of a harried Albert Brooks.
Bergen, whose patrician beauty reminds one more of a debutante, acknowledges that she's never quite been what people expected.
"I never wanted to be a movie star. I wanted to be a character actress," she said as she reflected on her career at the Essex House in New York City.
As the first child of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his socialite wife, Frances, she was famous even before she was born. The world waited for the birth of puppet Charlie McCarthy's sibling, as heralded in advance on her father's radio show, "The Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy Show." Charlie, the monocled dummy, was one of the most famous figures in the world.
While still an infant, she was featured in a magazine ad with her parents. Before she was 10, she was a guest on her father's show. At 11, she and Groucho Marx's daughter, Melinda, were guest contestants on Groucho's TV quiz show, "You Bet Your Life."
Her playmates were the children of Judy Garland and Gregory Peck. She's surprised to learn that Douglas, now playing her estranged husband on screen, had a crush on her when they were teenagers.
"He lived down the street, but he was always away at school. Wish I'd known about that crush back then. Too late now."
Bergen was married for 15 years to French film director Louis Malle, who died of lymphoma in 1995. Their daughter, Chloe, is 17. Bergen now is married to businessman and philanthropist Marshall Rose.
"Charlie was certainly no traditional sibling," she admitted. In her autobiography "Knock Wood," she wrote about her rivalry with her father's sidekick. "His room was larger than mine. My father could be a bit distant. Early on, I learned that the best way to get attention was to be funny."
But moviemakers initially saw her as a cool beauty. She was pushed as something of a replacement for Grace Kelly — aristocratic and assured. After one year at the University of Pennsylvania, she dropped out to pursue modeling. The movies made her a star in 1966 in her first film, "The Group," in which she played a wealthy young lesbian. Her old-guard father was a bit disapproving. Some said she had ruined her career by taking the part.
Wanting to see the world, she took the role of a missionary opposite Steve McQueen's sailor in the classic "The Sand Pebbles" (1966), which was filmed in Taiwan.
Seemingly determined not to do what was expected, she ruffled the elite by hanging out with the Black Panthers and getting arrested for lying down on the floor of the U.S. Senate. She was the first woman to host "Saturday Night Live."
Of her film roles, Bergen is most proud of "Carnal Knowledge" (1971) and "Starting Over" (1979). For the latter, she received her only Oscar nomination — for playing a wacky divorced woman pursuing a singing career. Her singing was awful. "That wasn't acting," she said. "That's pretty close to my real singing talent."
Eyebrows were lifted when she did "Murphy Brown." Among the movie stars who had failed in transferring to TV sitcoms were Shirley MacLaine and Debbie Reynolds. But her role as a high-strung TV newswoman became a TV classic, winning her five Emmys.
"I would be reluctant to go back into a TV series. I've received many offers. I was exhausted during most of those 10 years — and my daughter was just the age when I wanted to be with her. I felt the writing was good for about half of those years."
The status of "Murphy Brown" in American life was illustrated by the fact that Vice President Dan Quayle made his famous "family values" speech to protest Murphy's deciding to become a single mother. When Bergen won the Emmy in 1992, she thanked Quayle.
After 15 years away from the big screen, she returned as an ex-beauty contestant in "Miss Congeniality" with Sandra Bullock and followed as an ex-flight attendant in "View From the Top."
She's never been divorced but laughingly claims she was prepared for her current role in "The In-Laws" "because I know a few ex-wives." Bergen didn't hesitate when it came to shooting the film's messiest scene, in which she is drenched with water when things go awry at the wedding. At long last, the socialite beauty has become a clown.
"Call me a character actress. It sounds better than a clown."