For a recent feature in Entertainment Weekly, we spoke to showrunners who’ve had the pleasure — and pressure — of wrapping up some of TV’s most beloved series. Murphy Brown creator Diane English had left the CBS comedy after season 4 but returned for its tenth and final season and penned its hour-long 1998 series finale. In the two-part “Never Can Say Goodbye,” Murphy (five-time Emmy winner Candice Bergen) — who’d battled breast cancer that year — contemplated retirement as she dealt with a second scare. While under anesthesia for a surgery that ultimately confirmed she was cancer-free, Murphy scored her biggest interview, God (guest star Alan King), who convinced her to keep working with the FYI family. In the final scene, Murphy returned home to find that Eldin (Robert Pastorelli, who’d also left the show) was back. Below is our expanded conversation with English, who talks about dealing with expectations, emotions, and network demands — but thankfully, not with Twitter.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you always know how you wanted the show to end?
DIANE ENGLISH: No. I never had in mind a way that I was gonna end it. I just kept putting it off. (Laughs) It was in my contract that whether I was still executive producing the show or not, I still had right of first refusal to write the final episode. So, when Candice decided that she would go forward with a season 10 if I came onboard, I said I would if we could kind of shake things up a bit. Because I wasn’t really very pleased with how the series was evolving, and I wanted to sort of get back to our roots and tackle a serious subject. We got permission from CBS to do the breast cancer storyline, and then that kind of started to dictate how we were gonna end this thing. I know a lot of people were afraid that she was gonna die. But we were a comedy series, so no, we didn’t do that.
You never considered it for a second?
No. No. I think that would be horrible.
I’d read an interview with Candice from the time in which she said CBS wasn’t immediately onboard with the breast cancer arc. They suggested she deal with menopause instead.
There wasn’t a lot of resistance. Really, [CBS president] Les Moonves was a champion of this. It was more the press, actually. When we announced this was where we were going at the Upfronts, there was kind of an outrage, like, “Wait a minute. This is a serious subject. People die from this. Why is this funny?” We had to explain that we had really done a lot of homework and that breast cancer patients told us that keeping your sense of humor was paramount in healing. We got lots of anecdotes from people who had these experiences that we incorporated into the show. It was tough convincing people, but I think we got off on a really good start with that first episode [that season] and then just kept rolling on from there. And that season had quite an impact, actually, on the number of women who got their first mammograms because they watched the series.
How was the experience of writing the finale itself?
It nearly killed me. The writing of a series finale is horrible. The expectation level is so high, especially with a series like ours which had won so many Emmys and became kind of iconic. The expectation level on yourself, and then the emotion of knowing this is it, you’re not gonna write this again anymore — it was agonizing.
How did that anxiety manifest itself? Were you not sleeping? Not eating?
Here’s an anecdote: I was on the CBS Radford lot. I ran into Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, and they were working on their series finale, too, and we just looked at each other and we went, “It’s misery, right?” “Yeah.” (Laughs) “What do you do?” So yeah, I wasn’t sleeping well. I wasn’t eating well. I was just in a high state of stress. You wake up in the morning and go, “Oh no. It’s this again.” (Laughs) It was just the hardest thing I ever had to write. I did get a Writers Guild Award nomination for it, which was nice in the end.
In that same interview with Candice, I read that the final bullpen scene — when Murphy tells the others she’s not retiring — was rewritten many times and not finished until a few hours before they shot it.
At least five times. I think it was a combination of things: I was just struggling with what their last words were gonna be, and (Laughs) I was also just not really wanting it to end. And then the third thing was, whatever it was that I was gonna send down to the stage, I didn’t want it over-rehearsed. I wanted that emotion to be real because they were gonna be saying goodbye. I sent it down really just out hours before the audience came in, and they rehearsed it once, and it was tough, and everybody was crying. And then the audience came in, and it was still extremely fresh for them. So, that was the first take where everybody was just struggling to hold it together, you could really see it. But I think they were pissed at me (Laughs) because it’s like every day, there’d be something different.
Did you always know she’d stay at FYI in the end?
There were a lot of versions of the end. It’s: Yes, she’s going to leave and go on and do something else. Then: Do we flash-forward and see what that is? Does she stay? Is that not even part of the story line? It’s daunting. I just took my cue from 60 Minutes. These guys didn’t leave. They died, but they didn’t leave. None of those anchors would willingly go. It was their life.
What kind of network notes were you dealing with for your finale?
I had actually wanted to do just a half-hour — a normal half-hour format like we always had been — but the network wanted an hour, and they wanted it completely loaded with guest stars. The ratings on the show weren’t exactly robust in the 10th season, so the feeling was we needed to really load this up with the guest stars. I didn’t feel really good about that, because, you know. it kind of is distracting in a story that you want to tell. But, those were the orders, so we really did it. I loved that Mike Wallace came and did the show, because I literally would ask him every six months. We always called Murphy “Mike Wallace in a dress.” We had Julia Roberts. She was a huge fan of the show from the get-go. We would send her tapes sometimes if she couldn’t get to watch it. I said to her, “You have to be on the show at some point.” And then I called her, and I said, “This is it. I’d love to write something for you.” And she said, “I’m there. Just tell me when.” She played herself: Frank had always had a gigantic crush on her, and she comes into the office looking for him.
And you had George Clooney. Murphy sees him when she’s coming out of anesthesia.
George was on the lot doing ER. I said, “I have this idea. We’re shooting all week. Can we make some time? Can you come in and just do this little bit?” And he said, “Of course, I’ll come in and do it.” He walks onto the set, and Candice looks at him, and he says, “So how’s it going this week?” And she just burst into tears. (Laughs) Every time somebody would say anything that reminded us that that was the end, there would be crying. And then interestingly enough, fighting. Like separation anxiety. It’s classic Psychology 101. You know that something’s coming, you start picking fights with people that you never fought with before. Everybody was on edge. People were either crying or yelling. It was crazy. I can’t give you any examples, that would be too personal. (Laughs)
Tell me about casting God.
The casting of God was not easy. (Laughs) You start making a list: Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman. We had a really good list going, but for whatever reason, we weren’t able to pull any of that off. And then I had just done a pilot with Alan King and said, “Wow, he would make a fantastic God.” So he came onboard and did it.
Bette Midler played Murphy’s final secretary. I’m taping the daily repeats on TV Land now, and with today’s job market, I look at all the crazies Murphy got as secretaries and it’s frustrating. There are so many good people available for that job!
(Laughs) I know. Well, it actually came from an experience that I had at Warner Bros., because Warner Bros. had a secretarial pool that was unionized and you couldn’t fire them. You could ask for a replacement, but the person that you’re letting go got placed somewhere else. So, I had a couple of nut jobs, boy. You can’t believe. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore, but my first year on My Sister Sam, which was a Warner Bros. show, it was very apparent that this was gonna be a problem, so I turned that into a bit for us [on Murphy Brown] that became bigger than I expected it to.
How did you decide on your final scene?
The final scene was actually almost identical to the final scene in the pilot: Murphy goes home, and she is by herself and she puts on “Natural Woman,” which is her theme song, and she starts singing along with it, and then Eldin comes out of the kitchen and surprises her. Bobby had left the show, but he agreed to come back for the finale, and it was very, very similar dialogue to the pilot. I thought it would be really fun to close the circle. Instead of having the [usual] warmup person up there, we just showed the audience the pilot episode before we started filming our final episode so that it was fresh in their mind. We filmed the finale over a two-week period, because it was an hour show and there were a lot of guest stars who weren’t gonna all be able to be on the stage on the same night. So we filmed it in segments. But we filmed the last two scenes in front of an audience, and then when we got to that last couple of lines — when she starts singing “Natural Woman” — I’m standing off on the apron of the stage in front of a monitor, and I just lost it. I just could not contain it anymore. I was sobbing. It was a magical night, and the show had changed all of our lives: How do you encapsulate that all into one episode? I don’t think anybody could really do it.
Did you have to tune out fan input on the finale?
In 1998, there was no social media. People were barely on the Internet. So I had no input from fans at all. Zero. I mean, it was really what was gonna satisfy us? What did the network want? Did we want the same thing? What about the cast? What about Candice? These were the voices, not the outside world. Now, God, I don’t know how you do a series finale when everybody’s weighing in on Twitter. People use social media to promote their shows, and the flip side of that is the audience feels invested enough that they can speak to you directly and tell you, “I liked that,” “I didn’t like that.” Do you listen to all of it? Do you filter it out? There’s that old saying, “If 50 people tell you you’re drunk, you better lie down.” (Laughs) So if you keep hearing the same thing over and over again from your fan base, you should pay attention to that. But that’s just another bunch of loud voices in your ear. I would imagine it makes it very hard to stay in touch with your own gut. You try to think of it as just another episode, but that never works. It just isn’t.
What did you want to accomplish with the finale?
I think we wanted to go out on a note of we’ve always been true to this woman: She’s changed over 10 years, but she’s still Murphy Brown. And she’s still feisty, even though she’s a mom. It’s a workplace comedy, and that’s where we live — that’s her family. The idea of leaving it, and then deciding not to, was just underscoring her commitment to her intelligence, to her work, to what she thinks is right, and that she’s a survivor. She’s just a total survivor. In a man’s world, she was a ceiling-breaker. She never lost her sense of humor, even when she was facing the Grim Reaper. We just wanted it to be about her and draw this portrait of her, even though she’s evolved, as still being this kind of iconic figure till the end.
Were you able to appreciate that you nailed it at the time?
I don’t think we nailed it. I don’t think it was perfect. I think there was a lot of room for improvement. But you do what you got to do in the time you have to do it. And with the constraints that are put on you. It aired on May 18, 1998, which was my birthday. I had people over to watch it and hadn’t looked at it in a long time, so I was able to look at it objectively. It held together, but you just feel like, “Excuse me, I’d like to go back and try that again.” (Laughs)
What series finale do you consider the gold standard?
The Mary Tyler Moore Show was it for me. I thought it was a beautiful end, just the turning the light off and everybody hugging. It had a really lovely emotional feel to it, and it was such a classic show and it was a classic episode. It was in their format at a half hour, it wasn’t all blown up. That’s my favorite.
For more on TV finales, pick up the April 11 issue of Entertainment Weekly.