On the Murphy Brown set, Bergen found a refuge

FROM THE BEGINNING, IT WAS AN unconventional pairing, but one that both parties considered little short of miraculous. When actress Candice Bergen and film director Louis Malle first met, at a Fourth of July party in Connecticut in 1979, she was already 33 and beginning to wonder whether she would ever meet Mr. Right. He was French and 14 years older, the kind of smart, funny guy who gets the girl only in Woody Allen movies. Once they were married the following year, they seemed to spend more time on separate continents than together, she starring in Murphy Brown, her hit CBS sitcom, he adding to a body of work that includes 1978's controversial Pretty Baby, with 12-year-old Brooke Shields, and 1992's Damage, with Jeremy Irons. Yet according to those who knew them, Bergen and Malle were the perfect pair.

"They were a great couple," says photographer Mary Ellen Mark, a close friend who took the pictures at their September 1980 wedding at Malle's rural retreat, Le Coual, in southwestern France. "Fiercely independent and intelligent, they were perfect for each other." Longtime friend Connie Freiberg agrees. "It was like there was no one else for them," she says. "I think they could not believe their luck that they found each other."

Their luck ran out on Thanksgiving Day. With Bergen, their 10-year-old daughter, Chloe, Malle's 24-year-old son, Cuote, and his younger brother and producing partner, Vincent, at his bedside in the couple's cozy Beverly Hills home, the filmmaker succumbed to the cancer of the lymph nodes he had been battling for nine months. "It's been very long and difficult for all of us, but certainly for Louis," a tearful Bergen told the Los Angeles Times in early November, adding that he had shown "constant courage."

So has Bergen, friends and colleagues say. "Candice was just extraordinary," says playwright John Guare, who wrote the screenplay for Malle's Oscar-nominated 1980 movie Atlantic City and was working with him on a film about Marlene Dietrich until last spring, when Malle became too ill to continue. "She gave full attention to Louis, to their daughter and to the show."

Though the actress struggled to keep-things as normal as possible during her husband's last months, the demands of shooting Murphy Brown, on which she has starred since 1988, made life difficult. Malle's health problems became apparent to everyone on the show last March when he fell ill—with what was first thought to be a stroke—the night before the filming of last season's final episode. To allow Bergen to get back to Malle as soon as possible, the filming began at 7 a.m., without the usual audience, and she left the studio around noon. This season, the actress regularly updated the producers about her husband's status. "She was concerned that the show be affected as little as possible," says executive producer Michael Saltzman. "There were various scares that he might die, so we tried to have contingency plans," including an episode on which Bergen wouldn't appear.

After Malle's death, Bergen told Saltzman she would need two weeks off. (Malle's funeral and cremation were to take place Fri., Dec. 1, at a private ceremony in Paris.) On Dec. 11 she is expected back on the Brown set, which appears to have served as something of a refuge for her during Malle's illness. "In many ways, the show was a chance for her to play a little, to not have that responsibility on her head," Saltzman says. "When Candice was at the studio, she was Murphy Brown. It was a definite release for her."

By the time Bergen and Malle finally got together, the director, heir to a vast sugar fortune, had been briefly married and had enjoyed romances with his stars Jeanne Moreau and Susan Sarandon. He also had two children—Cuote, with German actress Gila von Weitershausen, and daughter Justine, 21 and a graduate student in philosophy, with Canadian actress Alexandra Stewart. Bergen, who had experienced a similarly gilded lifestyle as the daughter of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, had a romantic past that included Terry Melcher, the record-producer son of Doris Day. Yet for both, this somewhat late-blooming love seemed shiny and new. "With Candice, I surrendered completely for the first time in my life," Malle said.

Following their marriage, he continued to spend much of his time making movies including 1981's quirky My Dinner with Andre and his—and many critics'—favorite, the Oscar-nominated Au Revoir les Enfants (1987), the autobiographical story of Jewish children hidden at a Catholic boarding school in World War II France. Malle worked mostly in France and commuted to L.A. every other month to spend time with his wife and daughter. The couple considered the strain of their bicontinental relationship one of the reasons for his open-heart surgery in 1992.

But when they were together, whether in their Parisian duplex overlooking Notre Dame, their Manhattan penthouse, their whimsically elegant Beverly Hills home, or, especially, Le Coual, life was golden. During their summers in the French countryside they picnicked, rode bicycles, canoed, hunted for truffles (one of Malle's passions) and were a family. "Between marrying, having a child and Murphy, this past [period] has been so rich," Bergen said recently as she reflected on the couple's time together. "I just know enough to know that those things can't go on forever."

PAM LAMBERT
CHAMP CLARK and MICHAEL ARKUSH in Los Angeles, ANTHONY DUIGNAN-CABRERA in New York City and CATHY NOLAN and MARIAN KAPLAN in France

  • Contributors:
  • Champ Clark,
  • Michael Arkush,
  • Anthony Duignan-Cabrera,
  • Cathy Nolan,
  • Marian Kaplan.