“Most actors are punished for their success in TV by having to repeat it over and over again—you are seeing that with Redd Foxx and Archie Bunker. Hopefully, my TV image won’t be imbedded in the public mind and we won’t have to repeat ourselves for years to come.” That hope was expressed by David Birney and seemed reasonable enough, since his series, though in the top ten, lasted only one season. The catch is that David’s show happened to be CBS’s sappy Bridget Loves Bernie, and two months ago Birney/Bernie, now 33, quietly married his Bridget costar Meredith Baxter, 26.
Their marriage has been little publicized, but when the romantics among America’s TV audience discover that Bridget really does love Bernie, the couple will be living it down for years. As it happens, this is a second marriage for each, which diminishes the sentiment only slightly. Meredith’s main occupation since the series has been caring for her children, Teddy, 7, and Eva, 5, from her first marriage. Birney’s preoccupation this summer is burying the Bernie stigma by playing Romeo at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Conn.
The Bridget-Bernie stereotype, whether they ever escape it, is a bum rap. In real life, both were Protestant and divorced when they met at the initial reading for the series. As it evolved on CBS, he played the son of a Jewish deli owner, she the daughter of an upper-crust Catholic family—an ethnic mix that, despite the high ratings, proved too controversial for the network to renew.
David, Cleveland-born son of an ex-FBI agent, went through Dartmouth, a college marriage that failed, a TV soap (Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing) and early distinction with the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center in New York before making the pilot for the series. He took the job purely for the $4,000-5,000 fee, according to a friend. “David thought the script was dumb and was amazed the show was optioned,” the friend recalls. “He was so miserable at one point during the series that for two or three days he suffered from psychosomatic blindness. When the show folded David was the happiest person of all.”
Now at about $500 a week, David is giving a robust, well-received performance as Romeo. “I turned down $65,000 worth of work to do this,” he says, “and, thanks to TV, I have the freedom to go ahead and do serious work.”
Meredith was born in Pasadena, the daughter of TV actress Whitney (Hazel) Blake and radio announcer Tom Baxter. She attended the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan until her first marriage, about which she will divulge nothing.
She acted only briefly before auditioning for Bridget. “I never thought of myself having a career really,” she says. “I worked to keep the money coming in when I became responsible for the children.”
Would she do another TV series? “Never,” says Meredith. “It saps the energies so incredibly and the children suffered a great deal because I wasn’t there. Now I want to be with them because they have blossomed considerably.” She shot the TV movie, The Cat Creature, but that was before her second marriage. She now hopes she “can be more selective and won’t have to do any more abominations like that just to keep bread on the table.” In character, she just turned down a major role in the upcoming Paul Newman-Steve McQueen epic, The Towering Inferno.
She explained she would rather be with David in his off-hours planting tomatoes and cucumbers on the old farm they have subleased near the Stratford theater. They live modestly, Meredith does all the cooking and housework and says, “This is really our honeymoon. We’re getting established as a family.” David concedes that “marriage is tough and in the theater world it is most treacherous. We’ve talked long and hard about where our allegiances are.”
Meredith observes, with no regret, that they have very few friends—”they’d probably all fit in one chair.” The Birneys have just bought a house in L.A., to which they’ll soon retreat from public scrutiny. “We didn’t get married to be apart,” sums up the fiercely private, non-partying Birney. “We want to preserve a place just for ourselves and our kids.”