David Birney, who starred in TV's 'Bridget Loves Bernie,' dies at 83
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David Birney, who starred in TV's 'Bridget Loves Bernie,' dies at 83
The sitcom, about an interfaith marriage, drew criticism from Jewish groups and was canceled after one season. He fared better onstage than in television.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK, NY.- David Birney, a classically trained theater actor who found success on the stage, including on Broadway, but who was best known for his role in “Bridget Loves Bernie” — a short-lived sitcom about an interfaith marriage in which he starred opposite his future wife, Meredith Baxter — died Friday at his home in Santa Monica, California. He was 83.

The cause was Alzheimer’s disease, said Michele Roberge, who said she was his life partner.

Birney had been in a handful of television series and movies when he was cast in 1972 as Bernie Steinberg, a Jewish taxicab driver and struggling writer. Baxter played Bridget Fitzgerald, a schoolteacher from a wealthy Roman Catholic family.

“This is not a message show,” Birney, who was Irish American, said during an interview with The Kansas City Star before the series’s debut. “It’s not even an idea show.”

CBS gave it a plum time slot between “All in the Family” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” on Saturday night; it consistently finished among the top 10 programs in prime time and was the highest-rated new series of the 1972-73 season.

But it attracted criticism from a broad spectrum of Jewish groups, which objected chiefly to its treatment of intermarriage between Jews and Christians as a positive outcome and complained that it used Jewish stereotypes. CBS publicly played down the criticism but, without an explanation, canceled “Bridget Loves Bernie” after 24 episodes.

“One segment of the protesters is truly concerned about the dilution of their faith,” Birney told The Daily News several months after the cancellation. “But intermarriage is on the rise, nevertheless. The threat doesn’t come from a harmless show such as ours, but from within.”

Birney and Baxter married in 1974.

In 1976, Birney received acclaim for playing John Quincy Adams in the public television production of “The Adams Chronicles.” Later that year, he was hired to play Frank Serpico, the corruption-fighting New York City detective, in an NBC series adapted from the Sidney Lumet movie “Serpico” (1973), which had earned Al Pacino an Oscar nomination for best actor.

Birney was cast in the role on the strength of his work playing an officer in two episodes of “Police Story,” another NBC series. But “Serpico” was canceled after less than a full season.

David Edwin Birney was born April 23, 1939, in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Cleveland. His father, Edwin, was an FBI agent, and his mother, Jeanne (McGee) Birney, was a homemaker and later a real estate agent.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in English from Dartmouth College in 1961, Birney turned down a scholarship from Stanford Law School and instead chose to study theater arts at UCLA. He received a master’s degree a year later. In the Army, he was part of a program called the Showmobile, which entertained at military bases in the United States.

Birney’s theater career began in earnest in 1965, when he won the Barter Theater Award, enabling him to spend a season acting in shows at the prestigious Barter Theater in Abingdon, Virginia. He moved on to the Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut, and in 1967, he played Antipholus of Syracuse in a New York Shakespeare Festival production of “A Comedy of Errors.”

Birney made his Broadway debut two years later in Molière’s “The Miser.” In 1971, he starred in a Broadway production of J.M. Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World” at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. Birney played Christy Mahon, who enters an Irish pub in the early 1900s telling a story about killing his father.

“Mr. Birney had a cock sparrow arrogance — that mixture of both confidence and certainty — that seemed perfectly right,” Clive Barnes wrote in his review in The New York Times.

At the opening of “Playboy,” the Clancy Boys, a popular Irish singing group that Birney had befriended at a Manhattan bar, sat in the front row.

“They had their Irish sweaters on,” Roberge said in a phone interview, “and their arms crossed as if to say, 'Come on, show us what you’ve got.'”

Over the rest of his theatrical career, Birney played a wide variety of roles, including Antonio Salieri, as a replacement, in Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus” on Broadway; Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing” at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey; Hamlet at the PCPA Theaterfest in Santa Maria, California; and James Tyrone Jr. in Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten” at the Miniature Theater of Chester, Massachusetts.

He also adapted some of Mark Twain’s short stories into a play, “The Diaries of Adam and Eve,” which he often performed and directed. In 1989, he starred in one of the productions, with Baxter, for American Playhouse on PBS.

The couple divorced that year. In 2011, she wrote in her book, “Untied: A Memoir of Family, Fame and Floundering,” that Birney had been abusive during their marriage. He denied her accusation, calling it an “appalling abuse of the truth.”

One of Birney’s biggest successes on television was a starring role as a doctor in the first season of the medical dramedy “St. Elsewhere.” But as the second season approached, he left the series because of his commitment on Broadway to “Amadeus.”

He continued to work in television through 2007, when he was a guest on the police procedural “Without a Trace.”

In addition to Roberge, Birney is survived by his children with Baxter, his daughters Kate and Mollie Birney and a son, Peter Baxter; a stepdaughter, Eva Bush, and a stepson, Ted Bush, Baxter’s children from a previous marriage; two grandchildren; and his brothers, Glenn and Gregory. Another marriage, to Mary Concannon, also ended in divorce.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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