Before she was Murphy Brown and the star of such films as Carnal Knowledge, Candice Bergen grew up watching her father Edgar Bergen scratch his way to stardom with his arm up the back of the wooden puppet Charlie McCarthy. She has teamed with James Francis Trezza and Pam Widener to produce a feature film based on her father, based on her bestselling 1984 memoir Knock Wood. Barbara Turner, who was recently WGA Award nominated for scripting the HBO film Hemingway And Gelhorn, will write the script. She reunites with Trezza and Widener after their collaboration on Pollock.
Putting an innovative twist on the biopic form, the picture will take the POV of Charlie McCarthy as Edgar Bergen came of age during the early days of showbiz in America, from vaudeville to the Golden Age of radio, to features and the birth of television. The three-foot tall wooden puppet became a household name, with fame that eclipsed his straight-man partner, Bergen. In fact, when the latter tried to branch out with other sidekicks like Mortimer Snerd of Effie Klinker, audiences rebelled. They wanted Charlie.
“This creation took over,” says Ms. Bergen, “and eclipsed the creator. It was the dummy that wouldn’t die. All the fan mail initially went to Charlie. And Edgar wasn’t really welcome at parties in the beginning unless Charlie was with him. It was totally surreal.”
The puppet seemed to get away with stuff far racier than was common back then. A famously flirtatious exchange between Charlie and Mae West in 1938 prompted NBC to ban Mae West for nearly a decade. Bergen and McCarthy were back on the air a week later, their ratings up two points.
“To my knowledge, no one has created a biopic about a piece of wood, but Charlie was no ordinary piece of wood,” said Widener. “He was truly Bergen’s alter ego–and, perhaps more interestingly, he was America’s alter ego. At a time when manners and standards ruled the airwaves, Charlie said the un-sayable – and got away with it.”
Said Bergen: “I find it endlessly fascinating that a reserved man, a man who had difficulty expressing his feelings, fell into the profession of a ventriloquist on radio. And that the person he created was this devil-may-care, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners dummy.”
Bergen and McCarthy stayed together until 1978, when Bergen died and McCarthy moved on to the Smithsonian. “Telling the story through Charlie’s eyes is a magical opportunity to bring back to life one of America’s greatest talents,” says Widener. “And to introduce a new generation of viewers to the early, enchanting days of American show business.”