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David Birney, who starred with his future wife Meredith Baxter on the CBS sitcom Bridget Loves Bernie, a ratings hit that nonetheless was canceled after one season, has died. He was 83.
Birney died April 27 at his home in Santa Monica after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, his daughter Mollie told The Hollywood Reporter.
A frequent stage actor who appeared in the New York Shakespeare Festival and on Broadway, Birney toplined an adaptation of Serpico and played the flirtatious Dr. Ben Samuels on the first season of St. Elsewhere, both for NBC.
He also starred alongside Lauren Hutton and Adrienne Barbeau in 1978’s Someone’s Watching Me, a so-called “lost” John Carpenter film.
Created by Bernard Slade (The Flying Nun, The Partridge Family) and similar in theme to the 1920s Broadway hit Abie’s Irish Rose, Bridget Loves Bernie premiered in September 1972 in the enviable Saturday night slot between All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Birney portrayed Bernie Steinberg, a Jewish cab driver and struggling playwright, and Baxter played Bridget Fitzgerald, a Catholic grade school teacher from a wealthy family. Their characters wed during the third episode and lived in an apartment above a deli owned by Bernie’s folks.
The premise seems innocent enough now, but Jewish groups back then launched a full-scale protest to get the series off the air. “The program treats intermarriage, one of the gravest problems facing Jews today, not only as an existent phenomenon but one that should be totally accepted,” Rabbi Balfour Brickner, director of the Commission on Interfaith Activities, told The New York Times in 1973.
Baxter even reported getting bomb threats, and the series, though in the top 10 in the ratings, was not renewed after airing its 24th and final episode in March 1973. (M*A*S*H wound up moving from Sundays to take its spot.)
Each divorced at the time, Birney and Baxter (who had two kids from her first marriage) wound up getting married for real in May 1974. They had three kids of their own and were together until their 1989 divorce.
In her 2011 book Untied: A Memoir of Family, Fame, and Floundering, Baxter — who went on to star as the mom Elyse Keaton on the 1980s sitcom Family Ties, of course — wrote that Birney was emotionally and physically abusive to her, claims that he denied.
The son of an FBI special agent, David Edwin Birney was born on April 23, 1939, and raised in Cleveland. After attending West High School, he graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in English literature in 1961, then earned his master’s in theater from UCLA.
After a stint in the U.S. Army and a year with the Barter Theatre in Virginia, Birney appeared in 1967 in The Comedy of Errors, King John and Titus Andronicus in the New York Shakespeare Festival for Joseph Papp.
The following year, he starred with Blythe Danner in Ron Cowen’s Summertree, with his turn as a soldier killed in Vietnam landing him Theatre World and Clarence Derwent awards. And as a member of the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center, he appeared in five Broadway productions from 1969-71, including The Playboy of the Western World.
(Meanwhile, he also was playing heartthrob Mark Elliot on the CBS soap opera Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. Elliot and Donna Mills’ character got married on that program.)
Birney explained why he signed up for Bridget Loves Bernie in a 1972 interview with the Times.
“I only took the TV series because the options for actors get fewer and fewer,” he said. “I came in in the mid-’60s when British actors dominated the American theater, and for an actor wanting to do Shakespeare you had to steal those parts around the country by hook or by crook. I’m very fortunate to have been almost steadily employed, but I haven’t always done what I’ve wanted to do.
“Another reason I took Bridget Loves Bernie was that it is only a half-hour show with not a lot of work to do, and it only takes six months of the year to film, which I hope will leave me time to come back to New York and play parts I like on stage and in film. I’ll go anywhere at any time to do Romeo — you can print that.”
After Bridget Loves Bernie, the actor guest-starred on shows including McMillan & Wife, Bronk and Medical Center and portrayed John Quincy Adams in the 1976 PBS miniseries The Adams Chronicles.
Serpico lasted just 16 episodes before it was canceled in 1977, and his St. Elsewhere character was nowhere to be seen when the show returned for its second season.
In the 1980s, Birney made it back to Broadway to portray Antonio Salieri (as a replacement for Ian McKellen) in Amadeus; played a magazine reporter in the Aaron Spelling-produced ABC series Glitter; and wrote and starred alongside Baxter in The Diaries of Adam and Eve, adapted from the writings of Mark Twain. (He would appear in that onstage for many years afterward.)
He also portrayed an L.A. news anchor on Live Shot, a drama for the fledgling UPN network, in 1995; showed up on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in ’98; and made his final onscreen appearance on a 2007 episode of Without a Trace.
Survivors include his children with Baxter, Kate and twins Mollie and Peter.
A previous version of this story misstated the day Birney died as Friday, April 29. He died April 27.
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