Meredith Baxter: ’Untied’ At Last
For seven seasons as Elyse Keaton on "Family Ties," Meredith Baxter exemplified a new breed of TV mom -- one that was vested in raising her fictional brood (Michael J. Fox, Justine Bateman and Tina Yothers) with a wider awareness and sophistication than June Cleaver ever had. Was Cleaver an architect and a mother? I don’t think so... but Ms. Keaton was.
By that point in time -- 1982 -- Baxter was already a familiar face on television, largely due to being one half of the TV couple on "Bridget Loves Bernie" in 1972. Though critically acclaimed, the show just lasted only a single season. Still, for Baxter, its most lasting effect was that she married her co-star David Birney, a tumultuous marriage that ended in divorce in 1989. (It was her second of three marriages with men.)
Her name now hyphenated (Baxter-Birney), she went on to a featured role in 1976 on the acclaimed dramatic series "Family," where she played the eldest daughter to Sada Thompson and James Broderick, and older sibling to Gary Frank and Kristy McNichol.
"Family" went off the air in 1980, two years later Baxter-Birney joined "Family Ties," one of the most popular comedy franchises of the decade. On the show, Baxter-Birney and Michael Gross played Baby Boomer parents to children who embraced the conservative agenda of the Reagan era. Both working professionals (she an architect, he a station manager at a PBS station), the two were often at odds with their more politically and socially conservative children, most notably Young Republican Alex, played in a break-out performance by Michael J. Fox. The show -- so emblematic of the Reagan Years -- ended in 1989, the same year as the star’s divorce from Birney.
Baxter dropped her hyphenated name, and began a return to her dramatic side with a wealth of made-for-TV movies, including "My Breast," "Kate’s Secret," and two telepics based on the real-life murder trial of Betty Broderick in "A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story" and "Her Final Fury: Betty Broderick, the Last Chapter."
Her career went along at a steady clip, making the guest star rounds on "Spin City" with her former TV son, Michael J. Fox and even vocally reprised her most popular role on an episode of "Family Guy," as Elyse Keaton.
However, it was her personal life that would shine the pink spotlight on her in December of 2009, when she revealed to "Today Show" host Matt Lauer that she was a lesbian, and had been living with her partner Nancy Locke since 2005.
Since then, Baxter has immersed herself into being out and proud, including a slated turn as Grand Marshall of San Diego’s LGBT Pride on July 16, and has even chronicled the experiences of opening up in her recent memoir, "Untied," published earlier this year.
The very affable Baxter spoke with EDGE about her fascinating career, if she would ever do a "Family Ties" reunion movie, and how the coming out process has been a case of the old adage, "Better late than never."
We Are Family
EDGE: "Family" was such a great show. Why don’t we see it in more reruns?
Meredith Baxter: You know I’m not sure, but my guess is, and I may be wrong, it may not play well in reruns because the style was so different then; and, as a family drama, it played very slowly.
I have seen some reruns, and my little boy Timmy is in the hospital, and I walk into the hospital and there are no extras (laughs). And now you’re used to seeing "Nurse Jackie," and there’s a throng of people going everywhere and there’s all sorts of extras, and on our show, this was like an empty hospital.
I don’t think that they had the money, and it was a different kind of thinking, and the scenes played very slowly. There was a lot of time taken; it wasn’t as natural as it is right now with having a lot of ambient noise, and a lot of stuff going on. If you were talking, you were only talking; you weren’t talking and cooking.
EDGE: I was saddened to read about Sada Thompson’s death -- since she was your TV mom, what was your impression of her?
Meredith Baxter: She was lovely and solid emotionally; she knew what she was doing really well. I found her a little formidable, so I was a little afraid of her, which is not a terrible thing because I really respected her.
In truth, whenever I did a scene with her, I was always sort of looking for her approval, and sometimes I’d get a nice little nod or a little wink, and sometimes I wouldn’t get anything. So, it was like, oops.
EDGE: Do you still communicate with Kristy McNichol?
Meredith Baxter: No, you know, I’m not in touch with anybody else from the show.
Story continues on following page.
Watch Meredith Baxter come out on the "Today Show," December 2009: