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April 14, 2015

Legal Tender

In an excerpt from her new memoir, Candice Bergen looks back at the set of Boston Legal and the unexpected event that would test her inner strength.

Candice Bergen

Marsh knew it was trouble when he woke up because I was laughing so hard beside him that it shook the bed.

I was reading a script for Boston Legal and it was heaven. I'd been a full-time wife for four years. Barely working.

My husband, Marshall Rose, knew enough about my work to know that if I signed on to the show, it was going to start a whole new chapter in our lives.

David E. Kelley — the man behind the script — is one of the most talented, successful writer-producers in the history of television. He'd created and written shows like Ally McBeal, L.A. Law, Picket Fences and Chicago Hope. At one point he was writing almost every single episode of two of his hits, Ally McBeal and The Practice, simultaneously.

He was legendary. No one could figure out how he did it.

He was now working on Boston Legal, which was set at a high-powered law firm in Boston and starred James Spader and William Shatner. And soon it would star me,

David had written the part of Shirley Schmidt — the only named female senior partner in the firm Crane, Poole & Schmidt — with me in mind. The script was remarkably sharp and funny, fearless and subversive.

Each show would explore a hot-button topic in the news, so it was covertly educational. Plus the timing was perfect — my daughter, Chloe, was away at college and I could pop in and out of L.A. and play this fantastic character created by David.

Shirley did not suffer fools. She was highly intelligent, tops in her field, had a caustic wit and was a workaholic. She was not unlike Murphy Brown — whom I'd played from 1988 to 1998 — and she would be pure pleasure. It would be a job, but not an all-consuming one. I couldn't wait.

Of course, the timing wasn't perfect for Marshall — I'd be away half the month from our home in New York — but he saw how excited I was about the script, so he gave me his blessing. I signed on, and they arranged the shooting around my schedule.

It takes eight days to shoot an hour-long show. They scheduled it so I'd do the last two or three days of the first show and first two or three days of the second show, so I wouldn't have to travel as much.

David originally planned to write me into only one or two episodes as a foil to the male leads, but the character proved so popular that two episodes turned into 91 that aired from 2005 through 2008.

I loved it in large part because of the uniqueness of the writing; James Spader and William Shatner were wonderful to work with.

James Spader is one of our finest actors. He is truly eccentric, initially a tiny bit prickly, hyperfocused and hyperintelligent. He carves each character he plays by hand — gaining or losing weight, shaving or growing his hair and making singular wardrobe choices.

James wanted his character on Boston Legal, Alan Shore, to wear Lobb handmade shoes. And he found a way of not smacking his gums exactly, but sort of champing on a bit that was very Alan Shore.

He has an almost photographic memory, so he learns his lines at one viewing. David Kelley routinely wrote him five-or six-page monologues in court closings, and he would give them flawlessly, only to be sandbagged by a nervous actor who couldn't remember his few words at the end.

James never lost his temper with actors and was always generous to work with. The only thing you had to do was be prepared — because he not only knew every word of his lines, he knew every word of yours. Plus the punctuation.

"Didn't you have a semicolon there?" he asked when someone barreled through a long sentence. "I think you left out your 'for.'" It came from respect for the writing and respect for the craft,

James's dressing room was at the farthest corner of the complex. It took days to reach. He had set up a sculpture studio there for his gorgeous, dear girlfriend, Leslie Stephenson. That was the only way to ensure seeing her during the relentlessly long workweek. (The studio was in Manhattan Beach, which meant lengthy travel times for everyone.) Leslie would often show up with their dog, Mr. Meagles.

James, whom I love, is fiercely quirky. He had, evidently, a traditional series of actions that he went through before going to the soundstage when we were ready to shoot. A string of rituals. If he was interrupted in the sequence and it was unfinished, he would start over from the top. The assistant directors had to consider this when he was called,

He would then use his handkerchief to open the heavy fire door to the set as a preventative to catching the myriad germs from hundreds coming in and out.

The crew understood he needed his time and they waited patiently, without speaking, for him to enter the soundstage. He was given every consideration because they had such respect for his work. He never failed them. Every performance was a little masterwork,

Bill Shatner's biggest success had been playing the captain on Star Trek, so one didn't have any idea he would be so deft at comedy. But he was versatile and had also played Shakespeare in Canada, where he was born and raised. He had range, he had authority and now he had eccentric Denny Crane — one of David's loopiest creations.

(The character used to introduce himself by saying, "Denny Crane, cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.")

I watched him as he worked; he threw nothing away. Every line, every look was specific and important. He took the stage with a vengeance. It was truly impressive.

You had to stay alert in scenes with him or they were gone and you were roadkill, Bill had been a huge heartthrob for women, beautifully handsome in his youth, with a strong physique, and he always seemed to take himself a tad too seriously. But now, in his later years, he had put on some weight; it freed him from his romantic leading-man roles, and he got enormous laughs as Denny.

Stupidly, one day I asked if he'd ever considered playing W.C. Fields because I thought he would be perfect. He looked shocked "Well, no!" Because he had been a god.

Shatner's dressing room was next to mine. Every morning I would watch as his dresser — a tall, redheaded woman — prepared his room for him. She turned on his radio at a low volume to his preferred jazz station, turned on the lights and plumped the pillows. She did this with great care.

One morning after Bill came in, I asked him if he knew her name. He looked at me for a few seconds then said, "Not Cynthia."

Bill was in his early 70s at the time, but he had more energy than anyone on the set, by far. After putting in a long day's work, he would head across town to the Music Center to catch a play.

He skied. He bred and showed Tennessee Walker horses competitively. He also bred Doberman pinschers. He rode motorcycles, sometimes to work, which was 40 minutes to an hour from his house.

Just when he had become the punch line for late-night talk shows, he would reinvent himself once again.

He became a spokesman for several products on television, for which he made a fortune because he took his fee in stock options. He somehow always landed on his Canadian feet; I don't know how he did it.

Bill wrote books. He made albums. They were all successes. He won Grammys. He was never still. He had a beautiful, intelligent wife whom he had met on the horse-show circuit, where she had been a judge. They were married around the same time Marshall and I were.

He was happy, he was productive, he was engaged, even exuberant. I respected him for his sheer vitality. It was pure joie de vivre.

Once Marshall came to the set in his Mini Cooper. Bill saw it and asked if he could drive it. Marsh got out, Bill took the driver's seat and Marsh got into the passenger's seat.

It was a manual transmission, and Bill left a trail of rubber as he gunned it through the parking lot doing 70. Marsh was ashen when they returned.

David Kelley and his wife, Michelle Pfeiffer, had moved to northern California to raise their kids in a more balanced environment.

David would have what he called "tone meetings" with Bill D'Elia and Mike Listo, his producers, by teleconference. They would go over each scene and discuss what was important, what it was meant to achieve, how much humor there should be, what kind of mood it should have.

David rarely flew down to the set, and when he did, he was the Invisible Man. He was almost pathologically shy; he never came over and said hello. I would look up and suddenly see him lurking in the shadows, quietly observing.

When we saw each other, he was always friendly, polite and respectful, but he would seldom seek people out,

For an actor, the heart of a show is the hair and makeup trailer. That is where we arrived — in my case, at six o'clock — most mornings and that is where we took off our makeup at the end of a long day.

In my experience, it was the best hair and makeup room I'd ever worked in. You felt it the second you walked in because the key makeup head was Jori Jenae Murray, and she was the most welcoming, beguiling woman you will ever meet: warm, relaxed, with a sense of fun. It was a pleasure every time. At the end of the day, she would take off your makeup with heated towels and then put Creme de la Mer on your face.

The key hair guy, Kelly Kline, was the other reason for the perfect ambiance. When we were doing our first hair and makeup test, I said, "I can tell you're really good, but now can we do something a little hipper?" So Kelly came up with a Schmidt bob, a chic shaggy look I loved

Boston Legal was a joy to be part of: the highest caliber of scripts and crew, the unique quirks of the character. Shatner's Denny Crane was Mr. Malaprop, routinely mispronouncing words like, "You're on a slippery slurp." (It was only in the fourth season we found out Denny was suffering from Alzheimer's.)

During a Halloween show, Spader and Shatner dressed up as flamingos. They did another scene where they performed a tango together very seriously. They not infrequently dressed up as women. Bill drew the line at wearing excessively feminine clothing, but Spader loved it.

I loved playing against Bill and James. Shirley Schmidt had a history with Denny Crane.

"You left me, Shirley," Crane told her. "Women don't leave Denny Crane. And for a secretary!" To which Shirley replied, "It was the Secretary of Defense."

My first scene with James was when Shirley barges into the men's room at Crane Poole & Schmidt to inspect the fixtures — a female assistant was suing the firm under Title 9, claiming the men's room was better equipped. Shirley interrupts Alan midstream as he's standing at the urinal:

Alan: (Extending his hand to shake hers.) Alan Shore. It's a pleasure.

Shirley: Surely, you intend to wash that first.

Alan: I keep an extremely clean penis. (Walks over to the sink.)

Shirley: I know all about you,

Alan: And I, you. There's much written in stall number two. I pictured you younger. Much.

Shirley: A smart attorney recognizes who he can or cannot rattle.

Alan: He also knows a good rattle when he sees one.

Shirley: Since I'm your boss, I can't return your sexual banter. But I will say for the record that if I were looking for a rattle, he would be taller, he would be better-looking, he would be more evolved than a junior in high school.

Alan: I prefer the juniors in high school.

Shirley: He would be something other than a self-loathing narcissist with a dwarf fetish, and, yes, judging from what I got a glimpse of in the mirror when I first entered the room, he would be bigger. Much.

Of course, the work was much less than on Murphy Brown since I wasn't the lead.

The schedule of an hour-long TV show is almost inhuman. Half-hour shows wrap in March, with three months off. Hour-long shows wrap at the end of April, with only two months off before starting back up in July. Unlike a half-hour schedule, there is no week off a month, and the hours are almost twice as long.

James was exhausted because he was in almost every scene. The quality of his work was rewarded with four Emmy nominations — and three wins — as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.

Bill, who'd won an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for playing Denny Crane in The Practice, got five supporting-actor Emmy nominations — with one win — for playing that same character in Boston Legal. I was nominated twice for Outstanding Supporting Actress.

When I joined Boston Legal in 2005,1 hadn't done a regular series role for a long time. I didn't know how much progress had been made with regard to food vendors.

In the mornings were the omelet-and-pancake guys. Midmorning, the taquito guys. Lunch, the taco-enchilada guy set up in the sunshine outside the soundstage. Afternoons, the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf truck. Dinner was the sushi guy, and on late nights, the ice-cream guy serving salted caramel, the favorite by a mile, and root-beer floats.

This was years before gourmet food trucks went mainstream. There were vegan options, of course; it was California.

The long craft table was always covered with huge jars of bubble gum, candies, dried fruits and nuts — and you do gain weight, especially on an hour-long show, because the hours are endless and you eat for energy.

One afternoon I was in my dressing room when I felt a wave of nausea. I called the place where I had ordered lunch. "Do you use MSG in your food?" "Absolutely not," was the reply.

Suddenly I couldn't walk across the room without lurching into a wall. I threw up, but the symptoms remained. I was convinced it was food poisoning. I asked Alicia, our PA, to please call a car.

Marsh was in New York, so I had my brother, Kris, meet me at the house. He had to help me to my bedroom, where I lay awake all night, unable to move.

Marsh called my internist in New York. "She's probably had a small stroke," he told my husband. "She should get to the hospital." With difficulty, I managed to call my internist in L.A. "Get to the emergency room now!" he said. But my synapses were misfiring. I forgot immediately. I lay awake until six the next morning.

Ultimately, the diagnosis was a TIA — transient ischemic attack, a kind of dress rehearsal for a full-blown stroke. I was in the ICU for three days at Cedars-Sinai; three more on the cardiac floor. After my release, I went home and sat in an armchair for hours, muted, not fully present.

Three weeks later, I came back onto the set of Boston Legal. They took it easy on me the first few shows back. Typically, I'd have a three-page monologue — a lot to learn. The writers cut back on my lines, but it was still a struggle.

My first scene was with James. I was moving in gravy, just not reacting as fast as I normally would. I always had to focus more with him anyway because he was so quick. Now I was in a fog.

Next up was a big courtroom scene where I'd deliver a long closing argument. I rose from my chair on the set and launched in, but didn't realize I was speaking gibberish. I don't know if they ever got a clean take; they must have cobbled it together later.

The next day our director of photography told me it had happened. I'd had no idea.

In retrospect, my doing Boston Legal was hardest on Marsh because it felt like we were back to bicoastal dating. He likes marriage the old-fashioned way. In person.

Marsh, who is obsessed with schedules and punctuality, could never compute a schedule that was not fixed. That days went into the early morning of the next day. That shooting schedules changed routinely. He'd sit me down and say in a soft voice, "When you're going to be away for half the month and we talk on the phone, I want it to be a proper phone call when I have your attention." Note taken.

He took projects in L.A. just to keep himself busy and nearby. He helped me learn my lines.

The December after my TIA, Marsh and I met in Paris to spend Christmas with Chloe, who was spending her junior year of college abroad. We had a lovely decorated tree in the room at the Ritz. It was like coming home to be with my daughter again.

Chloe hadn't been given all the details about the reasons for my being in the ICU. We had told her it was a spike in blood pressure, which was partly true. In Paris I explained that I'd had a few small strokes, TlAs. I saw the air go out of her for a second. She closed her eyes. Then I explained that I had been put through countless tests and had been put on medication. It was under control.

Social situations were uncomfortable for a while after the TIAs. In Dubliners, James Joyce wrote, "Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body." Mr. Duffy was me. I was still commuting.

From A Fine Romance by Candice Bergen. Copyright © 2015 by Candice Bergen. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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