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The Birneys: Working and Being Together

November 27, 1987|BART MILLS

Meredith Baxter Birney's joke about herself and her husband, David Birney, is that "He's the brains and I'm so cute!" One of TV's leading acting couples, the Birneys bring separate talents to their new enterprise, co-starring in and co-producing a TV movie, "The Long Journey Home."

"I can be a little intense," said David, husky and dark-haired. "We'd come home after working all day together and before even sitting down to have a bite, I'd be saying, 'Now about that second act. . . .' "

"I tend to say, 'Let it go,' " said Meredith, slim and blond. "The things that make David such a good father, the things he does that hold it all together, I have no head for. I'm fine for thinking about today, but next week is not in my brain pan."

Working from their strengths, the Birneys manage their household of five children and their separate and joint careers while keeping in shape for occasional marathons. They met in 1972 while working together on a series, "Bridget Loves Bernie," and they have often appeared together on stage.

"The Long Journey Home," their first TV co-production (it airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS), is a "Hitchcockian" tale, as Meredith describes it, about the surprising return of a man listed as missing in action in Vietnam.

She says, "As the wife, I've searched for him for years. Just as I've given up and I'm about to marry someone else, he reappears. Immediately, somebody starts shooting at us. We go on the run, and our love is rekindled. But where has he been? Why hasn't he contacted me? Do we have a future? Oooo-hooo-hooo-ha-ha! Hitchcockian!"

Or as David more seriously describes it, "Movies of the week create certain expectations, but this one deviates from the norm. It's a love story told in a very unusual fashion. You don't learn exactly what's going on until the last frame--literally the last frame."

The Birneys have long sought to use Meredith's time off from "Family Ties" to capitalize on their joint clout. They wanted to make a TV movie that would be as challenging as the theatrical work they have occasionally done in their TV down-time. Among their joint stage projects have been a tour of "Talley's Folly" in 1983 and "The Diaries of Adam and Eve," based on the writings of Mark Twain, last summer.

David says: "We looked at well over 100 scripts before deciding to do this one. Many pieces submitted to us were literal-minded exploitations of our public personae--stories about a couple that had just had twins."

As for Meredith, "I'm always playing someone's mother, and I wanted to do something different. I've been on 'Family Ties' six years and they say, 'Well, she does comedy.' Before that I was on 'Family' four years, and they said, 'Well, she does drama.' If there really is a 'they' saying all those things about me, it's better to keep 'them' guessing."

As co-producers, the Birneys immersed themselves in the minutiae of spending $3 million or so. Meredith says, "David has always put it in terms of 'owning the store.' He has a predisposition to want to be on top of everything. As for me, I went 'Eeeeek!' when they wrecked the Porsche, which wasn't supposed to happen."

David sees the advantage of running a mom-and-pop operation: "Often you walk in to start filming a movie, and you haven't met the leading lady, and your first scene Monday morning is something like romping together in a pool. On this movie, we were able to bring our history to bear on the intimate scenes."

The Birneys lead hectic lives, together or apart. David notes that he's taken nine plane rides in the last month, many of them involving charity work that he does on behalf of the American Diabetes Assn. Of late, he's been in Arizona starring in a feature film, a futuristic drama called "Nightfall."

The Birneys work hard to keep their sprawling family together. Their two oldest children, Ted and Eva (20 and 18) are away at Eastern colleges (Dartmouth and Wheaton), necessitating many calls and trips. While David is working in Arizona, the 3-year-old twins, Peter and Mollie, are shuttled in and out with their nanny while Meredith stays in Santa Monica watching over 12-year-old Kate and taping "Family Ties" in her spare time.

" 'How do we do it?' is the question we're always asked," David says. "The answer is, 'With a lot of help.' I recently went back home to Cleveland to be inducted into my high school hall of fame. I did it for my mom, to see that she was publicly acknowledged. She and my father raised four children, with no help, and people everywhere do the same."

In contrast to David's seriousness, Meredith's answer to the "How do you do it?" question is characteristically light. 'It's very hard to leave the house. It's nicer if I go when the twins are napping.

"I desperately enjoy the time I have with the children and I yearn for more. At the same time, I don't know if I'd be as good at it if I were there all the time. My patience wears thin.

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