Meredith Baxter: Her Long and Successful Career

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know I am a big fan of the show Family starring James Broderick and Sada Thompson.  Along with Gary Frank and Kristy McNichol, Meredith Baxter played one of their children on the show. As Nancy, she got divorced and moved into a garage apartment with her son Timmy. She went to law school to follow in her father’s footsteps. Today we will learn a bit more about the life Meredith Baxter had off the show.

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Baxter was born in 1947 in California. Her mother was Whitney Blake who played Dorothy Baxter on Hazel. Her father was a radio announcer. Her parents divorced when she was 6. She lived with her brothers and her mother who eventually remarried; Meredith’s stepfather was sitcom writer Allan Manings. Manings wrote for a variety of shows, including McHale’s Navy, Laugh-In, Good Times, and both the original and reboot of One Day at a Time.

Baxter went to Hollywood High. She briefly transferred to Interlochen Center for the Arts as a voice major, but returned to Hollywood High to graduate. Shortly afterward she married Robert Lewis Bush and they had two children. They divorced in 1971.

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For the next few years, Meredith appeared on a variety of television shows and in several big-screen movies, including The Doris Day Show and The Partridge Family.

Image #: 2088657 David Birney (as Bernie Steinberg) and Meredith Baxter (as Bridget Fitzgerald Steinberg) in the CBS comedy series “Bridget Loves Bernie.” 1972 – – Picture by Landov / Retna Pictures – Job: 79439 Ref: LAN / CBS – UK Rights Only *Unbylined uses will incur an additional discretionary fee!*

The following year, Meredith got her first major acting role: Bridget Loves Bernie. She starred with David Birney. The premise behind this sitcom is that wealthy, Catholic Bridget Fitzgerald marries lower-class, Jewish Bernie Steinberg who drives a cab. Both sets of parents are uncomfortable with their children’s mates.

Although the show only lasted one season, she and Birney lasted a little longer. They married in 1974 and had twins. In 1989 they divorced and don’t have very good things to say about one another.

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Asea on The Love Boat

In the mid-seventies, television kept Meredith very busy with 11 appearances on shows such as Medical Center and McMillan and Wife and 10 made-for-tv movies.

She appeared on the big screen in All the President’s Men in 1976 before taking the role of Nancy Maitland on Family that same year.  Family featured the Lawrences. Kate is a stay-at-home mom and a bit distant but obviously loves her children. Warm, friendly Doug is a lawyer and judge. Nancy is in her twenties but much more mature than her brother Willie who can’t decide what to do with his life. Buddy, a tweener, is the youngest in the family.

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Critics as well as viewers were devoted to the show. Baxter was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Continuing Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Drama Series in both 1977 and 1978. She was beat by her “sister” McNichol in 1977 (McNichol was nominated every year the show was on) and by Nancy Marchand for Lou Grant in 1978.  For both years, Family was nominated as best show and Sada Thompson as lead actress which she won in 1978 (Thompson was also nominated every year). Gary Frank as Willie won in 1977. James Broderick also received a nomination during those years.

After Family ended, she went back to making made-for-tv movies with 7 during the 1980s and 21 in the 1990s.

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The following year, she would land the role that made her the most famous, Elyse Keaton on Family Ties. In this much-beloved show, Elyse and Steven, former hippies, raise their four children who have different values than they did. Alex, the oldest is a conservative interested primarily in money, Mallory cares more about shopping and boys than anything else, Jennifer has a dry sense of humor and is trying to find her spot in the family and the birth of baby Andy doesn’t help her figure that out. The show was on the air for seven seasons.

In 1995, Baxter married actor and screenwriter Michael Blodgett, but their married only lasted five years. (Blodgett wrote for a variety of television shows and several movies.) Shortly before her divorce, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She made a full recovery and has become a spokesperson for treatment and research and developed a skin cream (Signature). A portion of the proceeds is donated for breast cancer prevention.

THE FACULTY — Meredith Baxter stars in the new comedy series, THE FACULTY, which airs on the ABC Television Network.

In 1996, she again attempted a television series, The Faculty. The show wasn’t renewed for a second season. Baxter played the role of a principal who is divorced and a single mother, and features the choices she has to make to balance her busy life. While the critics praised Baxter’s performance, they didn’t find much else to like about the show, and it was cancelled after 13 episodes.

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She made several television appearances on various shows or movies but her only recurring role was as Lilly Rush on Cold Case in 2007.

In 2011, Meredith published her memoir, Untied. She talks frankly about her unhappy marriages, including the abusive one with Birney. She also discloses that she was a recovering alcoholic and that she was gay. After coming out, she met Nancy Locke whom she married in 2013.

In 2014 Baxter accepted a role as Maureen, Nicky’s friend, on The Young and the Restless which began and ended that year. Since that time, she has appeared on a variety of television shows and in several movies. She has a couple of movies coming out soon.

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With Melody Thomas Scott on The Young and the Restless

Baxter has also done a variety stage work including the two-character play, “Kissing Place” with David Ogden Stiers. Most recently she has appeared in “Women Beyond Borders,” “Angels in America” and “Love Letters.”

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Although Meredith has definitely had some trauma and sadness in her life, she has had a varied and long-lasting career. Being cast in three successful television shows is not something that happens for most actors. She seems to have come to a place in her life where she is happy and content and that is something all of us strive for. Join me next week as we look more closely at the show that made her a household name: Family Ties.

Kate Jackson: She Teaches Us to Listen with Our Ears but To Hear with Our Heart.

In my blog last week, we learned a bit about the unique show, Dark Shadows. One of the young, unknown actresses who received a role in the show was Kate Jackson. She was born Lucy Kate Jackson in Birmingham, Alabama in 1948.

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Jackson started her post-high school education at the University of Mississippi as a history major but then transferred to the Birmingham Southern College, choosing classes in speech and the history of the theater. After an apprenticeship at the Stowe Playhouse in Vermont, Jackson moved to New York City to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Jackson found work as an NBC page and tour guide. In 1970, she accepted the role of Daphne on Dark Shadows.

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Daphne on Dark Shadows

She would go on to star in several television series during her career. She has also tried her hand at producing and directing.

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Kate on Bonanza

Kate appeared in several shows in the early seventies including The Jimmy Stewart Show and Bonanza. In 1972, she was offered the role of Jill Danko in The Rookies. Jill was married to Mike Danko (Sam Melville), one of three Southern California policemen featured in the show.

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Her appearance in James at 16 brought her the first Emmy nomination.

In 1976 she was offered the role that made her most famous: Sabrina Duncan on Charlie’s Angels. Jackson was credited with naming the show as well. Originally called “Alley Cats,” Leonard Goldberg told her the title had to be changed and she pointed at a photo of three female angels on the wall. Another change was characters. Jackson was offered the role of Kelly Garrett but felt Sabrina Duncan suited her better.

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She stuck with the show until the end of the third season. During that time, scheduling conflicts forced her to turn down the offer to star in Kramer vs Kramer which Meryl Streep won an Oscar for. Fawcett had left the show after season one.

Jackson was nominated twice for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her role of Sabrina Duncan. I understand her loss in 1978 to Sada Thompson for Family, but I’m not sure I can agree with 1977’s loss to Lindsay Wagner for the Bionic Woman, especially since Sada Thompson was again in the running, as was Michael Learned for The Waltons.

It sounds like they had a lot of fun filming Charlie’s Angels, but it was a grueling schedule. Jackson mentioned that the three women did a lot of ad-libbing on camera. She discussed one scene where Smith was sitting on the couch, Jackson was sitting on the arm and Farrah was standing behind them. Farrah’s character was supposed to turn and walk out the door, but as she did so, she tapped Jackson on the shoulder knowing she would lose her balance and fall on the floor. Kate told her she couldn’t believe she did that. She said “Farrah was walking out the door and looked back at me and laughed. It was actually in the show. I saw it in the show that week. They left it in. They left in a lot of the stuff we did.”

One thing Kate took with her from the show was her close friendships with Farrah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith. After Fawcett’s death, Jackson was quoted as saying “When the first year of Charlie’s Angels ended, our friendship didn’t. It just grew stronger and closer through the years. I don’t know what the connection that the three of us have is, but it is there, and it is something extremely special. I think that is the reason the show worked. I think it’s even better than the movies because we truly cared about each other and still do. It was a pleasure and a privilege.”

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During her time on Charlie’s Angels, Kate married her first husband, Andrew Stevens. They divorced in less than two years. Unfortunately, Jackson’s love life would continue in this pattern when she married David Greenwald and divorced in less than two years followed by Tom Hart whom she divorced within two years.

In 1983, Kate returned to the small screen on the Scarecrow and Mrs. King. The show lasted until 1987 with 89 episodes. In this one-hour drama, she played Amanda King, a housewife and mother. Bruce Boxleitner was a spy code-named Scarecrow and the two worked together to help save the country. Amanda had to keep her role a secret. Kate’s partner in The Rookies, Sam Melville, appeared in Scarecrow as Joe King, Amanda’s ex-husband.

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Scarecrow and Mrs. King

During her time as Amanda, Jackson was diagnosed with a malignant tumor and underwent a procedure and radiation treatments.

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Baby Boom

After Scarecrow’s cancellation, Jackson decided to try one more series in 1988-89, Baby Boom, based on a successful movie starring Diane Keaton. The show did not get the desired ratings, and it was cancelled within the first year. That probably was good for Jackson because in 1989 her doctors found cancer that the previous operation had missed. She endured a partial mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. Jaclyn Smith waited at the hospital while her friend was in surgery. Jackson had publicly said “the range of emotions you go through is amazing . . . but I made a conscious decision to be positive.” Smith and Jackson were given great news afterward: the lymph nodes were clean.

In 1995, Kate found herself back in the hospital for surgery to correct an atrial septal defect, a tiny hole in her heart. During this same year, Jackson adopted a son.

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Sabrina the Teen-aged Witch

Throughout her time starring in various series, she continued to show up in television shows like Sabrina, the Teen-aged Witch and Criminal Minds. She also managed to find time to appear in seven big-screen and 23 made-for-television movies.

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Since 2007, she has been out of the public eye most of the time. With her health back on track and a child to raise, I’m hoping she found a happy place to relax and enjoy life. One thing she shared while she was going through her health issues was good advice that inspired me: “Listen with your ears, but hear with your heart. It’s one of the most important things I’ve ever learned. It’s true in art, in life—in everything.” I couldn’t agree more.

Family: The Perfect Blend of Intelligent Writing, Superb Acting, and Warm Fuzzy Feelings

This month we are doing a 1980s Rewind, looking at some memorable shows from that decade. We start with one of my all-time favorite series, Family. I think this is one of the most disrespected and underrated shows from the past fifty years. It had an amazing cast, and the scripts were intelligent and well written.

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The show ran on ABC from 1976-1980, producing 86 episodes. The critically acclaimed show had three well-known producers: Leonard Goldberg, Aaron Spelling, and Mike Nichols. Jay Presson Allen created the series, and she wrote every episode.

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Kate (Sada Thompson) and Doug (James Broderick) Lawrence are an upper middle-class couple living in Pasadena, CA. They have three children: Nancy (Meredith Baxter Birney), Willie (Gary Frank), and Letitia (Kristy McNichol), known as Buddy. Doug is a lawyer, hoping to become a judge. He is a warm-hearted person who often finds humor in their family situations. Kate is a practical woman but can come across as a cold woman. She can be quite passionate and loves her family very much but has trouble showing a lot of affection. She always does what she feels is morally right. She has sacrificed her dreams to stay home and raise her family. Later in the show she does go back to school to major in music.

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The original cast with Elayne Heilveil as Nancy

In the pilot, Nancy was played by Elayne Heilveil, but Meredith Baxter Birney took over the role once the series began. Cheryl Ladd also auditioned for the part of Nancy. Spelling remembered her and later cast her in Charlie’s Angels. Nancy finds her husband Jeff (John Rubinstein) in the act of cheating on her and moves back to her parents’ home, living in their guest house with her son Timmy. Even though Nancy and Jeff are divorced, they are friends, and he appears on the show often and is involved in Timmy’s life. The Lawrences also had a son named Timmy who died when he was little. Nancy and her mother often butt heads. In the second season, Nancy decides to go to law school and is very successful.

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Willie is always trying to find himself and can’t quite decide who he is. He has a high IQ but drops out of school. He dreams of being a writer and later works for a photography studio for a while.

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Buddy was a tweenager. Buddy is a tomboy and well liked by her friends and family. She had two famous boyfriends during the show: TJ played by Willie Aames and Leif Garrett. Buddy is much closer to her mother than Nancy is. Nancy and Buddy have a trying relationship too, although they both want to be closer. Willie and Buddy are very close.

Everyone in our actual families could find someone in the show to relate to. I notice myself looking at the show from a different perspective now than I did in my teen years.

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There were 24 different directors during the series’ run. Richard Kinon directed almost 25 percent of the shows. Kinon had directed episodes of many classic shows including Bewitched, Hogan’s Heroes, The Patty Duke Show, The Partridge Family, Room 222, and That Girl. After Family, he would direct a quarter of The Love Boat episodes. James Broderick directed four of the episodes. Not surprising for me was learning that Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick also tried their hand at directing. Both of them were also listed as producers and writers of the show. They would later go on to help create thirtysomething, a show we’ll learn about next week. Both men were also involved with Once and Again and Nashville, among other shows.

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The storylines were very realistic and handled with delicacy and intelligence. Some of the topics the show tackled included breast cancer, infidelity, senility, divorce, adoption, terminal illness as well as the typical teenage issues faced by most youth.

In the last season, the Lawrences adopt Annie Cooper (Quinn Cummings) after her parents are killed in a car accident. They were her parents’ friends and their choice for guardians if anything happened to them.

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Rubinstein who played Jeff composed the theme music. Apparently, he inherited some musical genes from his father, Arthur Rubinstein, the famous classical musician. He has continued his dual career in both acting and composing since the show ended.

A couple other cast members also had famous relatives. Broderick’s son is Matthew Broderick, actor, and Baxter Birney’s mother was Whitney Blake who played Missy on Hazel, among other roles.

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The show was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series in 1977, 1978, and 1980. Thompson, Frank and McNichol all won Emmys, and Broderick and Baxter Birney were nominated as well.

I could not find a reason for it, but only the first two seasons have been released on DVD and that was in 2006. I have not seen the show in syndication for many years.

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One of my favorite television homes: the Lawrence house

Plans were made for a 1988 reunion movie. James Broderick had passed away, but he rest of the cast was on board. When the writers went on strike, the project was placed on hold and later dropped from production.

I watched a few of the episodes from season one. The show still holds up today.  Although it closely mirrored the social issues from its era, those topics are still relevant today. It may have included some melodrama, but it never was about melodrama.  It contained enough humor to offset the tragedy just like real life. Doug and Kate had strong moral values and they passed them on to their children but understood life was changing and they could not be close minded.

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Jay Presson Allen

Jay Presson Allen brought insightful writing to every script, but the incredible acting brought the characters to life.

UNITED STATES – SEPTEMBER 13: FAMILY – cast gallery – Season Three – 9/13/77, Sada Thompson (Kate), (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Sada Thompson was not overly affectionate but calmed her children down and could discuss anything with them. They relied on her guidance and wisdom. She embodied class and elegance. I was surprised to learn that Lear had hired her to play Archie Bunker’s blue-collar neighbor, a plumber named Irene Lorenzo for All in the Family. I was not surprised to learn that Betty Garrett replaced her in the role because Sada had too much genuine class and didn’t yell loud enough for Lear. James Broderick discussed working with Thompson. He said he “was only one of her many fans. Sada is about as close as we get in this country to the British super actresses like Dame Edith Evans and Dame May Whitty. I’m sure if Sada lived in England, the Queen would have dubbed her Dame Sada a long time ago.”

UNITED STATES – SEPTEMBER 21: FAMILY – cast gallery – Season Four – 9/21/78, James Broderick (Doug), (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Broderick flawlessly captured the fun nature of Doug Lawrence. Doug left the disciplining up to his wife most of the time and was not as serious as his wife. Doug and Kate were also very affectionate with each other.

FAMILY, Meredith Baxter Birney (aka Meredith Baxter), 1976-80
Photo: metv.com

Baxter Birney was the perfect combination of brains and beauty who wanted to be the wife and mother she saw in her mom as well as the respected lawyer she saw in her father.

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Frank portrayed the young adult who couldn’t figure out what he wanted from life. He was not a “sit behind the desk kind of guy,” but needed to make a living. Willie was more interested in the humanities and finding meaning in life. He always seemed to be in difficult relationships.  Early in his adult years, he fell head over heels in love only to find out she was pregnant before they met and she left him eventually but weaved in and out of his life for years. He later met his soul mate, but she had terminal cancer, so even though they married, they only had a short time together.

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McNichol was believable as a young girl moving into her teens and dealing with all the stress and changes teens go through.  She was funny, silly and loveable and could be irritating occasionally and whiny, just like teens are. McNichol appeared very mature for her age and seemed to have everything under control, but it was a façade. She said she “was like a miniature adult.” She’d go off to the set “every day with a little briefcase. I really think I grew up backwards.” Dinah Manoff, who guest starred on Family before acting on Empty Nest with McNichol said “Kris was the most adult kid I’d ever met. She didn’t even have to study her lines. They’d hand them to her right before she walked out on the set.”  Thompson once remembered that the adults “used to talk about how amazing it was that Kristy didn’t appear to feel any of the pressures of growing up as a successful child actress. The cost is enormous, you know, but Kristy didn’t seem to be paying it.” Unfortunately, she paid it with interest a few years after the show ended. When she was a young adult, she began to rebel and made some very poor choices, trying to recapture the childhood that she never got to experience.

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I don’t remember a lot about the role of Annie Cooper. Once Buddy began growing up, she was brought in to continue storylines kids could relate to. She had just been nominated for an Academy award for The Good-bye Girl and seemed to transition into the show easily.

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Hopefully the rest of the seasons are released on DVD so we can continue to appreciate the remarkable blend of writing, acting, and directing that was featured on this show.

Family–that says it all: joyful, heart-breaking, boring, exciting. loving, conflict and everything in between.