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Meredith Baxter carved out a niche in the 1970s and 1980s as an easygoing, often-brainy, all-American blonde most prominently featured on NBC's popular sitcom, "Family Ties" (1982-89). Baxter arrived as a regular in millions of American households on the controversial sitcom, "Bridget Loves Bernie" (CBS, 1972-73) when she married her onscreen partner, David Birney, assuming her new stage name - Meredith Baxter-Birney - for much of her career. She went on to earn two Emmy Award nominations as the worldly older sister on the ABC drama "Family" (1976-1980) before landing her signature role as Elyse Keaton, the kindly abiding mother of Michael J. Fox's precocious young Republican, Alex P. Keaton, in "Family Ties." Baxter would make a second career as the centerpiece of soapy TV movies-of-the-week, highlighted by her Emmy-nominated performance as a notorious true-life convicted murderess in "A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story" (CBS, 1992) as well as a sequel soon after. Her onscreen trials would be reflected in her private battles with alcoholism and breast cancer and, more recently, her late-life realization she was a lesbian, coming out publicly in 2009 to brief media frenzy. Beyond her...
Meredith Baxter carved out a niche in the 1970s and 1980s as an easygoing, often-brainy, all-American blonde most prominently featured on NBC's popular sitcom, "Family Ties" (1982-89). Baxter arrived as a regular in millions of American households on the controversial sitcom, "Bridget Loves Bernie" (CBS, 1972-73) when she married her onscreen partner, David Birney, assuming her new stage name - Meredith Baxter-Birney - for much of her career. She went on to earn two Emmy Award nominations as the worldly older sister on the ABC drama "Family" (1976-1980) before landing her signature role as Elyse Keaton, the kindly abiding mother of Michael J. Fox's precocious young Republican, Alex P. Keaton, in "Family Ties." Baxter would make a second career as the centerpiece of soapy TV movies-of-the-week, highlighted by her Emmy-nominated performance as a notorious true-life convicted murderess in "A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story" (CBS, 1992) as well as a sequel soon after. Her onscreen trials would be reflected in her private battles with alcoholism and breast cancer and, more recently, her late-life realization she was a lesbian, coming out publicly in 2009 to brief media frenzy. Beyond her real-life foibles and her seemingly unabating movie-of-the-week travails, Baxter's pop cultural imprint would ever remain the sweet-natured Midwestern mom Elise Keaton, who taught Americans long before it was a major social issue, that family could always trump political division.
She was born Meredith Ann Baxter on June 21, 1947, in South Pasadena, CA, into a show business family to her father, radio announcer Tom Baxter, and her mother, Whitney Blake, an actress and later co-creator of the sitcom, "One Day at a Time" (CBS, 1975-1984). Blake and Baxter divorced when Meredith was five, and Blake quickly remarried producer Jack Fields, whose influence would keep her steadily employed. That pedigree would afford Meredith a nurturing environment for her own thespian aspirations, including early youth theater training at the respected Interlochen Summer Camp in northern Michigan. She went on to attend the renowned Hollywood High School and, not long after graduation, married Robert Bush, with whom she would have two children before they divorced in 1969. She worked a series of retail jobs until with Fields' help, she began earning small parts on TV and in movies in the early 1970s.
After a supporting turn in the film, "Stand Up and Be Counted" (1972), she took a more prominent role in "Ben" (1972), the oddball B-horror movie in which she played the older sister of a young boy who befriends a rat who commands a vicious army of fellow rodents. She netted the lead in "The Invasion of Carol Enders" (1973), playing the title character possessed by the soul of a dead woman attempting to solve her own murder, as well as her first TV lead, which initially appeared like sitcom gold for a young thespian. For its time, "Bridget Loves Bernie" was a daring concept; a light romantic comedy but one whose romance was between a suburban-raised Catholic teacher (Baxter) and a Jewish cab driver (Birney) which resulted in the inevitable culture-clash between their families. CBS slotted the show in the most advantageous possible spot, between its highly-rated Saturday night mainstays "All in the Family" (1971-79) and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (1970-77), resulting in the show ranking No. 5 overall in the Nielsen ratings for the 1972-73 season. The interreligious coupling, however, did not sit well with conservative viewers and CBS executives reportedly caved to hate mail, making "Bridget Loves Bernie" the highest-rated program ever cancelled by a network.
On the brighter side, she and Birney began a relationship and ironically married without incident or issues like their onscreen counterparts in 1974. Baxter, now Baxter-Birney, struck out with her next TV pilot, a drama "Young Love" (1974), but filled up her schedule with TV guest shots and wielded enough buzz to begin landing starring roles in what would later become her stock-in-trade, TV movies - especially suspense thrillers such as "The Cat Creature" (ABC, 1973), "Target Risk" (NBC, 1974) and "The Imposter" (NBC, 1975). She was also able to act alongside her mother in "The Stranger Who Looks Like Me" (ABC, 1974), and landed featured roles in prestige TV films such "The Night That Panicked America" (ABC, 1975), an ensemble telling of Orson Wells' famous 1938 "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast; "Little Women" (NBC, 1978), an adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott classic novel; and the Civil War-era melodrama, "Beulah Land" (1980). In the meantime, she turned in a brief but intense performance as the wife of Watergate accessory Hugh Sloan in "All the President's Men" (1976), and returned to series TV on ABC's modern family drama, "Family." In the still-shifting tectonics of TV culture, frankly addressing social issues as encountered by the Lawrence family was startling in its day and Baxter-Birney took on arguably one of the most feminist characters the medium had seen - a young divorcee raising her young child while attending law school. Though the young actor Kristy McNichol became the breakout star of the show in the late 1970s, Baxter-Birney would earn Emmy nominations as Best Supporting Actress in a drama in both 1978 and 1979. When the show shuttered, she found herself much-in-demand for TV movies again, but it would not be long before she would return to TV comedy, as producer Gary David Goldberg concocted a new sitcom reflective of the curious dynamics of the Reagan era.
For "Family Ties," Goldberg selected Baxter-Birney and co-star Michael Gross as a couple of former 1960s hippie activists settling into a suburban Columbus, OH existence and raising a family that, in spite of their best efforts, did anything but fall in lockstep with their values. Their primary foil was their oldest child, Alex, a suit-wearing stalwart conservative, played by Michael J. Fox with such sparkling wit that he soon became the breakout star of the ensemble, as well as winning three Emmys. Though his occasional schemes were foiled to comic effect, the family bond always proved stronger than their political differences. The show did not set the Nielsen ratings on fire in its first two seasons, but in 1984, NBC moved it to a prime slot on Thursday nights with the new, soon-to-be-top-rated "The Cosby Show" (1984-92) as its lead-in and watched "Family Matters" jump to the No. 5 rank in the 1984-85 season, settling in at No. 2 for the next three. Baxter-Birney continued her TV movie track, however, especially as the genre increasingly dealt soap operatically with social issues and maladies, prompting industry wags to dub them "disease-of-the-week" movies. She did a turn as a closet bulimic in "Kate's Secret" (NBC, 1985), as a woman about to remarry when her MIA husband returns from Vietnam in "The Long Journey Home" (CBS, 1987), and as a retarded woman in "Winnie" (NBC, 1988). By the end of the "Family Ties"' run, Baxter-Birney's marriage had also run its course. As it grew increasingly contentious, the famous couple divorced in 1989 and Baxter-Birney dropped the "Birney" from her name. In her unhappiness, and amidst what she would years later term "domestic abuse" circumstances, she also developed a problem with alcohol and sought treatment, getting sober in 1990.
Newly sober, Baxter's movie-of-the-week career kicked into high gear, with the actress seemingly eager to shed her sunshiny Elyse Keaton persona by playing a psychotic child kidnapper in "The Kissing Place" (USA, 1990), followed by tearjerkers such as "Burning Bridges" (ABC, 1990), "Bump in the Night" (CBS, 1991) and "A Mother's Justice" (NBC, 1991); the latter an almost archetypal "women's movie" in which she played a woman who, when her daughter is raped, takes it upon herself to track down the culprit and avenge her daughter. Her TV movie résumé seemed to lead her inexorably to the tabloid tale of San Diego socialite Betty Broderick, which would be portrayed in no less than two films for CBS. Baxter won the role for "A Woman Scorned," and managed to play Broderick somewhat sympathetically - a tall order for a woman who snapped when her successful attorney husband divorced her for a younger woman, terrorizing the couple and eventually murdering them while they slept. She and CBS quickly followed up with the follow-up film, "Her Final Fury: Betty Broderick, The Last Chapter" (1992), which followed the case through to Broderick's conviction, though Baxter tapped deeper into the character's psychosis this time around. The first performance would net her an Emmy nomination.
Baxter would be back in the nominee pool again the next year; this time for a Daytime Emmy for the "CBS School Break Special" (1984-95), "Other Mothers" (1993), about a mom who must help her son cope with social ostracization when his schoolmates discover he is being raised by her and her lesbian partner. Her movie schedule would continue apace, seeing her as the put-upon-yet-intrepid heroine dealing with a drug-addicted daughter in "Darkness Before Dawn" (NBC, 1993); a mental illness and challenge for custody of her son in "For the Love of Aaron" (CBS, 1994); starvation and cannibalism as a member of the infamous Donner Party in "One More Mountain" (ABC, 1994); and breast cancer in "My Breast" (CBS, 1994) - an issue that would become personal for Baxter five years later when she was diagnosed with the same disease. Fortunately, she was successfully treated. In a similar twist on her onscreen issues, she had her first same-sex affair at some point in the mid-1990s, but it ended quickly and in 1995 she married screenwriter Michael Blodgett, most famous for scripting the Tom Hanks comedy, "Turner & Hooch" (1989). She also branched out, starting a small botanical skincare products company, Meredith Baxter's Simple Works, and, with her own experience prompting her to become increasingly active in promoting breast cancer awareness, she formed an eponymous foundation to raise funds for cancer research, to which she directed profits from her company.
Baxter occasionally peppered her de rigueur maudlin fare with lighter projects, as when she reunited with Michael J. Fox for a casting stunt in which she played his mother in his later sitcom "Spin City" (ABC, 1996-2002), and she both starred in and executive produced "The Faculty" (ABC, 1996), a late-season replacement show that failed to get picked up for the following year. Back on the movie-of-the-week track, her characters' travail proved relentless as they coped with a husband having an affair with her best friend's daughter in "Betrayal: A Story of Three Women" (ABC, 1995); her teen son's suicide in "After Jimmy" (CBS, 1996); an estranged sister as they together inherit a rural property with a mysterious woman living there in "Miracle In the Woods" (CBS, 1997); a troubled family saved by her husband's abrupt piety in "Holy J " (CBS, 1999); a family driven by a predatory woman who wants more than just to babysit in "Down Will Come Baby" (1999); and a son's catastrophic accident at the hands of a drunk driver in "A Mother's Fight for Justice" (Lifetime, 2001).
Having divorced Blodgett in 2000, two years later Baxter again began a homosexual relationship, and though that one would not last either, she would come out to her five grown children who readily accepted her, she later said. In the new millennium she also took roles in the occasional indie film, such as "Devil's Pond" (2003), "Paradise, Texas" (2005) and "The Most Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green" (2005), in addition to winning a recurring role on the popular CBS police procedural drama, "Cold Case" (2003- ), playing the alcoholic mother of central character Lilly Rush, and a smattering of other series guest shots. In 2007, Baxter did a high-profile run as a guest host of NBC's "Today" morning show and, in late 2009, returned to the same show to finally go public with her lesbian orientation, announcing that she had been in a committed relationship with contractor Nancy Locke for years.
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CAST: (feature film)
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Baxter has her own line of cosmetics with some proceeds donated to charity. The Web site for her beauty products is www.meredithbaxterproducts.com.
Her official fan club is located at www.meredithbaxter.org.
"Oh not another movie with her in it! People say that. At one time I had four movies playing." -- Meredith Baxter in Parade Magazine, May 8, 1994.
On winning the role of Bridget in "Bridget Loves Birney," Baxter told James Brady of Parade Magazine , "I was cute and blonde and bouncy ... and cheap [meaning inexpensive]."
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