David Birney, ‘Bridget Loves Bernie’ and ‘St. Actor from elsewhere, died at 83

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David Birney, an actor who enjoyed early success on Broadway before landing the lead role in ‘Bridget Loves Bernie,’ a 1972 sitcom that would be one of the most controversial TV shows of its time, died on Friday of Alzheimer’s disease at his home in Santa Monica. He was 83 years old.

His death was reported to the New York Times by his partner, Michèle Roberge.

Born in Washington, DC, and raised in Cleveland, Birney had studied acting at UCLA when, in 1965, he began performing at regional theaters across the country, including the Barter Theater in Abingdon, Virginia, and the Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut.

In 1967 he performed in a New York Shakespeare Festival production of “A Comedy of Errors”, and in 1969 he made his Broadway debut as Cleante in Molière’s “The Miser”. In all, he appeared in seven Broadway productions up to 1985, including “The Good Woman of Setzuan” (1970), “The Playboy of the Western World” (1971), “An Enemy of the People” (1971) , “Antigone” (1971), “Amadeus” (1980) and “Benefactors” (1985).


David Birney and Meredith Baxter starred in the CBS sitcom “Bridget Loves Bernie”, circa 1972.
(CBS via Getty Images)

Although he had small roles in a number of television series beginning in the late 1960s, Birney found his signature role in the short-lived “Bridget Loves Bernie,” a CBS sitcom on the wedding of Jewish taxi driver and writer Bernie Steinberg, played Birney, and Catholic schoolteacher Bridget Fitzgerald, played by Meredith Baxter (the co-stars would marry in real life after the show was canceled).

The series was featured on CBS’ famous Saturday night lineup, after “All in the Family” and before “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” “Bridget Loves Bernie” became a ratings hit, ranking second to “Maude” among new shows in the 1972-73 television season and ending the season tied for fifth among all prime-time series.

But the comedy’s subject matter was challenged by various Jewish groups, who criticized both what they saw as Jewish stereotypes and the show’s apology for interfaith marriage. Although CBS never admitted giving in to the protests, “Bridget Loves Bernie” was canceled after its first season.

Birney followed the series with various TV movies and serial guest spots, making his biggest subsequent hit as John Quincy Adams in the 1976 series “The Adams Chronicles”. Also that year, he starred in a short-lived television adaptation of the 1973 film “Serpico.”

Annie Cavanero and David Birney in 'St.  Somewhere else'.

Annie Cavanero and David Birney in ‘St. Somewhere else’.
(Jack Hamilton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

Other TV credits include appearances throughout the 70s and 80s on series such as “Family” and “The Love Boat” and Jacqueline Susann’s “Valley of the Dolls” miniseries.

His most publicized post-Bernie role came in 1982, when he was a regular cast member on the first season of NBC’s “St. Elsewhere.” He left the show after one season to appear in “Amadeus” on Broadway.

Birney’s television career continued through the 1980s (“Glitter”, “Seal Morning”) and 90s (“Murder, She Wrote”, “Live Shot”, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”). Her last TV credit was a 2007 appearance on “Without a Trace.” He also continued to work in regional theater, notably in a play, “The Diaries of Adam and Eve”, which he adapted from short stories by Mark Twain.

David Birney during the filming of the TV movie "The Fox Plot."

David Birney during the filming of the TV movie “Le Plot du Renard”.
(Francois Pugnet/Sygma via Getty Images)

One of his co-stars in a 1989 production of the Twain play was Baxter. In 2011, Baxter wrote in his memoir “Untied: A Memoir of Family, Fame and Floundering” that Birney had been violent during their marriage, an accusation he denied in a lengthy public statement, calling Baxter’s claims ” fairy tale”.

In addition to Roberge, Birney is survived by daughters Kate and Mollie, son Peter (all three from her marriage to Baxter), daughter-in-law, son-in-law and other extended family.

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