David Birney wanted television to be less controlled during the 1970s
Bridget Loves Bernie was a groundbreaking series during the 1970s. Although the series only lasted for one season, it covered a lot of ground in the span of 24 episodes.
The series follows the love affair between a Jewish man and a Catholic woman. It explored cultural and religious differences between the two characters and added an element of social commentary on interfaith marriages.
However, the social commentary on interfaith marriages sparked controversy from critics, the public, and television networks, eventually leading to its quick cancellation.
And while David Birney, who played Bernie, had faith in his series from the beginning, many television networks needed some more convincing. Having a leading role in a series like Bridget Love Bernie meant putting a lot of care and thought into the storytelling.
According to a 1972 interview with Springfield Leader and Press, Birney said the pilot episode had a nice romantic touch to it, and many people said it was satisfying on all levels. But as the critics started to write, he realized sustaining their success was going to be tough.
"I think it will be difficult for us to maintain the level of the pilot and take into account that this is not 50 years ago when a Catholic-Jewish marriage was unusual," Birney said. "It's an easy trap to fall into, exploiting the characters and making them less aware. It's a hard thing to keep the blend of comedy and romance."
The thing about television that frustrated Birney the most was the lack of control he had and the amount of control some networks had. For Birney, creative freedom meant more seasons.
"There is so little the actor can control," Birney said. "Is it all right for Bernie to wear a turtleneck to the Fitzgerald's for dinner is a question which requires a network decision. There is more freedom on daytime TV."
While Birney played a Jewish Man from New York in the series, in real life, he was actually an Irish-American who grew up in the Methodist church. With Birney playing Bernie, it's impossible not to mention his co-star, Meredith Baxter who played Bridget on the show.
Because of their chemistry onscreen and off, how young they were, and the bond they created, many fans thought the two were married in real life. Newspapers and magazines across the country reported the two as married, dating, or divorced, all in the same year.
"Suddenly, there's a pressure to link us romantically in magazines and newspapers, and I understand this," Birney said in a 1972 interview with Green Bay Press-Gazette. "It's the parts we play in the show. We're not married; We're not living together; We're not about to elope."
His worry about the networks being too controlling over the series caused him some serious doubt in the 1970s. However, his fans' reactions to Bridget Loves Bernie and being top 10 in the Nielsen ratings seemed to tell him otherwise.
"From our fans letters, I've discovered that they don't consider it much of an endorsement for mixed marriages but as more of a generous and tender way of thinking," Birney said. "I like that."
Despite its quick cancellation, Bridget Loves Bernie is still an important and iconic series that tackled hard issues in a unique way.