How 'Murphy Brown' Wooed Aretha Franklin for That Famous Cameo

MURPHY BROWN - Candice Bergen, Aretha Franklin - Everett Collection ONE TIME USE ONLY - H 2018
Warner Bros. Television/Courtesy Everett Collection

Series creator Diane English reflects on the late singer's 1998 appearance on the sitcom: "She was our spirit animal."

It took four years to get her there, but we were persistent because ?I was such a huge fan. We opened the first show, in 1988, with "Respect" and we closed the episode with "Natural Woman," so Aretha was always sort of our spirit animal.

But she was in Detroit and didn't fly and we shot in Los Angeles — so that was an issue.

We finally got ?a yes if we could meet in New York, so ?we built a piece of the FYI set in New York. And then she appeared and it was magic. There was no rehearsal, we just gave her the lines and she and Candice [Bergen] sat down at the piano and we rolled cameras and it was unbelievable. You could just see on Candice's face the amazement that she was sitting at a piano next to Aretha Franklin. Aretha ad-libbed some things — like when Candice started singing with her, she said, "I'm a solo act" — which was hilarious. 

Aretha was not an actress, but she was very funny. You could see her having fun. We all just sat there and watched it, stunned that it was actually happening. It was one of my favorites.

A version of this story appears in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.