March 2, 2011 — -- Meredith Baxter led a "secret life" as an emotionally abused wife for years before learning she was gay and entering "the healthiest relationship I have ever had," the star of the '80s show, "Family Ties," told Oprah Winfrey today while holding the hand of her lesbian partner.
Baxter, 63, also joined by her former television co-star, Michael Gross, and her children, appeared on "Oprah" to discuss her allegedly abusive marriage and what led her to discover she was gay.
"I was a very conventional girl," she told Winfrey. "I was raised in a household where my mother got married and I thought that was what you did."
When she first learned she was a lesbian in 2002, Baxter said, "It didn't scare me and I don't know why I wasn't confused about it."
"I felt alive in way I had not experienced, and life was rife with possibilities," she said. "OK, I'm ready."
Baxter and her partner, general contractor Nancy Locke, 54, have lived together since 2005.
But for 15 years, Baxter alleges in her new book, "Untied," her husband, David Birney, was physically and emotionally abusive, a charge that Birney, now 71, steadfastly has denied.
The couple co-starred in the 1970s show "Bridget Loves Birney." They divorced in 1989.
"Nobody knew. It was a secret life," said Baxter. "Nobody knew on the show at all because it was important for me to maintain some separation."
Baxter said that she turned to alcohol to numb the pain, driving home from the set of "Family Ties" with a tumbler full of wine.
"Reckless. Crazed and reckless and unmindful of anybody else," Baxter said of her behavior. "I was so caught up on my own hurt, and I deserved this because everything else is so horrible. I don't know what I was saying to myself but I was so angry."
Gross, who played Baxter's husband on "Family Ties" and sat by her side on "Oprah," said that for the first six years of the television show nobody knew anything.
Baxter eventually had a breakdown while Birney was working in Europe, she said.
"I was standing backstage rehearsing a sequence," she said. "Out of nowhere, [Michael Gross] said, 'David comes home soon.'"
"I burst into tears and he said, 'Oh, you must miss him so much," said Baxter. "I totally lost it."
"I was so afraid of him and he was coming back," she said, crying.
"I didn't know what she meant at the time," said Gross. "She and David were the poster child for a marriage going well. We didn't know because she kept her mouth shut."
"It was the first time that I kind of unloaded and told him everything that had been going on," said Baxter.
Michael J. Fox Acknowledges Baxter's 'Sadness'
Actor Michael J. Fox, who starred as the right-wing son on "Family Ties" and appeared remotely on "Oprah," said he always sensed "a sadness underneath."
The alcohol abuse was "a symptom as much as a problem," said Fox. "It was a red flag. I knew she was having problems with David."
Of her relationship with Locke, he said: "She found someone she loved, and [she] deserves a big plate of happiness to be who she is and who she wants to share her life with."
"Meredith, I wish I could be there with you," said Fox. "I love you so much. Just love."
Baxter said the first inkling that there was trouble in what seemed to others to be an idyllic marriage was when she was four months pregnant with twins, Peter and Mollie, who were born in 1984. She and Birney were on a trip to Italy, she said, and they disagreed on names.
"He got up and he left the table and I finished my dinner, and he didn't come back," she said. "I had to make my way back to the hotel, and I didn't know where we were. ... All the way back to the hotel, I was thinking, 'What's wrong with me that I'm so easy to walk out on? What's wrong with me?'"
In her book, Baxter describes herself as "mousy and quiet and retiring," but said she no longer feels like a victim.
Her son Ted Bush, from a prior marriage, said the abuse "wasn't physical but a constant denigration, a belittling, 'your opinion doesn't matter, you're not worthy, you're not responsible enough.'"
Her daughter Mollie confirmed that Birney was volatile.
"His blowing up wasn't flipping tables or throwing chairs, not that he wasn't capable of it," she said. "There was an element that was humiliating."
The day she broke off the relationship, Baxter said, she was standing at the stove.
"He comes in the kitchen and he sits down and says, 'Let's talk about what we're going to do so next year it's not a disaster,'" she said.
She told him there would not be a next year and that ended the marriage.
"You were mashing potatoes, he was watching a football game and you were crying into the mashed potatoes," said Mollie. "I said, 'What are you waiting for?'"
"I didn't know what I was waiting for, but those were the words that somehow empowered me to say there's not going to be a next time," said Baxter. "I don't know what it meant. ... I had no great groundswell of courage that accompanied those words but that's what led to the eventual divorce."
'Family Ties' Star Comes Out as Lesbian
In 2005, Baxter came out as a lesbian, a process that she described as "slower than most."
"My mother had died the year before and the youngest children, Mollie and her twin brother, were gone off to college, and I no longer had someone to worry about in my life, and I was no longer afraid of my mother and her opinion of me," she said.
She first had a crush on a woman named Paula who was 25 years younger than Baxter.
"I never had those feelings before," Baxter told Winfrey. "I started to notice where she was all the time."
Her relationship with Locke was not easy, at first.
"The fact that she wasn't out was very challenging," said Locke. "I didn't know when it was OK to hold her hand. ... She would drop my hand [in public] and it hurt my feelings."
Baxter said she didn't know how being a lesbian would affect her work and was afraid to come out.
"I didn't want to hide," said Locke.
"I am still not totally comfortable now," said Baxter. "I am aware of people looking at women holding hands. But I am getting used to it. And if we can continue to show a sense of normalcy, that's important."
At one point, Winfrey asked Baxter's children if they knew their mother was gay. Mollie said she was "stunned."
"Oh, I knew by process of elimination," said her son, Ted Bush. "She had all these lesbians hanging around the house."
Baxter admitted she could have "done it better, show up for the kids the way I didn't know how to do.
"But, it's a learning process."