David Birney, ‘St. Elsewhere,’ ‘Bridget Loves Bernie’ star, dead at 83

David Birney, star of TV’s “Bridget Loves Bernie” and “St. Elsewhere ”and Broadway’s“ Amadeus, ”died Friday at his home in Santa Monica, Calif. after a five-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 83.

The veteran actor’s passing was confirmed by “life partner” Michele Roberge, the New York Times reported.

Birney first gained mainstream fame in 1972 opposite his future wife Meredith Baxter in the CBS sitcom “Bridget Loves Bernie.” The show was popular — slotted between ratings juggernauts “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “All in the Family — but short-lived thanks to controversial protests by Jewish groups who disagreed with the “intermarriage” of Birney’s Jewish cabbie character, Bernie Steinberg, and Baxter’s Bridget Fitzgerald, a Catholic grade school teacher from a wealthy family.

Cast of made-for-tv movie "CBS Schoolbreak Special" 15 and Getting Straight: David Birney (standing), (seated, from left) Corey Feldman, Drew Barrymore, and Tatum O'Neal.
Cast of made-for-tv movie “CBS Schoolbreak Special” 15 and Getting Straight: David Birney (standing), (seated, from left) Corey Feldman, Drew Barrymore, and Tatum O’Neal.
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Both divorced at the time, Birney and the futxure “Family Ties” matriarch, who had two children from her first marriage, got hitched for real in 1974. The pair had three children of their own before getting divorced in 1989.

Baxter later claimed that Birney was emotionally and physically abusive in her bombshell 2011 book “Untied: A Memoir of Family, Fame, and Floundering.” He vehemently denied her claims, deeming them an “appalling abuse of the truth.”

The son of an FBI agent, Birney was born on April 23, 1939, and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. He graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in English literature in 1961, then earned his master’s in theater from UCLA, Variety reported. After a tour in the US Army and a year with the Barter Theater in Virginia, Birney made his New York theater debut in 1967’s “The Comedy of Errors,” “King John” and “Titus Andronicus” at the Shakespeare Festival for Joseph Papp.

David Birney and Linda Purl in 1977's "Testimony of Two Men."
David Birney and Linda Purl in 1977’s “Testimony of Two Men.”
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Actor David Birney and the Consul General of France Philippe Larrieu in 2005 at the after party for the film premiere of "The Chorus."
Actor David Birney and the Consul General of France Philippe Larrieu in 2005 at the after party for the film premiere of “The Chorus.”
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“I only took the TV series because the options for actors get fewer and fewer,” he told the Times at the height of his new TV fame in 1972. “I came 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 … I’ll go anywhere at any time to do Romeo — you can print that.”

After the aborted success of “Bridget Loves Bernie,” Birney earned acclaim for playing John Quincy Adams in the 1976 PBS production of “The Adams Chronicles.” The same year, I have assumed the role of NYC detective Frank Serpico in an NBC series adapted from Sidney Lumet’s 1973 film “Serpico” (1973), which earned Al Pacino an Oscar nod for best actor as the title character.

In the ensuing decades, he was a familiar face on television and the stage, with a standout role as Antonio Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s Tony-winning “Amadeus” on Broadway. He was also in the original cast of NBC’s classic medical comedy-drama, “St. Elsewhere, ”in 1982 and 1983, but left the hit show to pursue his part of it in“ Amadeus. ”

He also supplied the voice of Anakin Skywalker in the NPR radio dramatization of “Return of the Jedi” in 1996. His final credited role was a guest spot on the CBS police procedural drama “Without a Trace” in 2007.

David Birney in a 1985 portrait.
David Birney in a 1985 portrait.
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In addition to his career accomplishments, Birney chaired the American Diabetes Association for five years and served on the Dartmouth College Board of Overseers for the Hopkins Center for the Performing Arts, according to his official IMDB bio.

Birney is survived by his children with Baxter — daughters Kate and Mollie Birney and a son, Peter Baxter — as well as a stepdaughter, Eva Bush, and a stepson, Ted Bush, Baxter’s children from a previous marriage. He also had two grandchildren and his brothers, Glenn and Gregory.


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