It's been a long time since she was known as Meredith Baxter-Birney, and she portrayed the perfect mother on the popular television sitcom "Family Ties" with a young Michael J. Fox. The mother of five in real life, Ms. Baxter has dealt with three failed marriages, alcoholism and domestic abuse. She came out as a lesbian in 2009 and two years later wrote a page turner of a memoir, "Untied: A Memoir of Family, Fame and Floundering." The 66-year-old has been in a committed relationship with Nancy Locke for the past eight years. She appears in the Hallmark original movie "Reading, Writing & Romance," which premieres Saturday at 9 p.m.
In "Reading, Writing & Romance," you play the mother of a struggling actor. Did you struggle, or was it easier because your stepfather was in the business?
Yeah, I probably had it easier because my stepfather sent me out on jobs. I don't know that I got anything until he called in a favor. I really don't remember an awful lot from that time. He got me my first job, and I just started getting jobs after that. I was just in the right place at the right time. I was blond and I was cute and I had big breasts. I think that was all that was required.
You were rejected on your very first audition as a child -- you even had your hair dyed black -- which you describe in your memoir "Untied" as heartbreaking. Why go back for more?
Isn't that funny? I don't know that it ever occurred to me. I didn't learn from past experiences, probably had to extrapolate from that and apply it [laughing]. You know, I needed a job. I needed to make some money. I had no skills. I went into my family business.
"Untied" was like an open house to your life. Was it more difficult to write or was it harder when it was published and out there?
It was cathartic in some way, writing it. I don't think I was unburdening myself. A lot of it was discovery, like, "Oh, that's what's going on."
I started to look at my life in a different way. The hard part was listening to people shoot me down for the life that I've led. It is people saying, "Why would she do that? How stupid to be into drugs and drink like that and subject your children to that and stay in that kind of marriage."
People do the best they can. That's basically what I was trying to say because I judged myself so much at the time. If I have learned anything it's don't judge ourselves or other people so harshly. Learn to have compassion for ourselves, and then maybe we'll have it for the next guy, too.
You are in a business where you get judged a lot. How did you deal with that?
I don't know. The truth is I was so unconscious for so many years, and I was very fortunate. I got a lot of work. I didn't have to deal with rejection an awful lot, but I'm kind of dealing with that now. I feel OK. It kind of rolls off me a little bit more. I don't want it so much now.
I think the hardest thing is the rejection for the way you look. I see that a lot in this business. Women get it. There is sexism. Older women are not hired. You have all the older guys. I just got one of these things for the Emmys, you know, all the different [DVDs] they send out for people to look at the shows and the different networks to vote. I open them up and start to look for some women my age. On one hand you can count the women my age: Anjelica Huston, Glenn Close and I can't think of anybody else.
It's interesting because that is the baby boomer demographic, which is huge. So why aren't the television networks and Hollywood picking up on that?
I don't think they don't see it. I don't think they care. They aren't interested. You know the thing is, the baby boomers, there are more of us than anybody else and they are the people with the disposable income right now, but everything is targeted to the younger people. You would think there would be more shows, more programs for people our age and women our age. But you become invisible.
I'm 66 years old. I'm not cute like that. Interesting how people actively don't see you now. Thank goodness it doesn't hurt me. If I were being hurt by it, it would be really painful. It's like, "Wow, I didn't even kind of register on your screen there."
You have been through a gauntlet of challenges in your life but seem to have come out of it much stronger.
Wouldn't it be a sad story if I hadn't? You know, I really don't want to stay the same. The good thing is I have done a lot of self-examination. Who was it who said, "An unexamined life is not worth living"? [Socrates.] I know a lot of people who never stop and say, "Hey, wait a minute. What am I contributing to the pool here?" What I have to do now is if I am having a bad day about something or I'm feeling upset, I have to say, "OK, what am I telling myself?" I have got to do that because I can change me. I can't change anybody else.
In the book you note that both your grandmothers and your mother were not exactly maternal. How did you manage to be maternal with your own children?
I have no idea [laughs]. I have no idea, and I think I probably wasn't. I wasn't very maternal at first. It sort of had to grow on me. Then I just kept having so many children it was like what the ... Oh my God! What am I going to do now?
The first two had a rough go of it because I am sure they were looking to me for attention and I'm going, "What? What? What am I supposed to do with you? Go find something, go play, feed yourself." I didn't know how that happened. I hadn't seen it done. So I sort of learned at the wheel, which was a real disservice to those poor children. You do the best you can.
You have played an alcoholic, a lesbian, a psychotic, murderer and more. Were any of the roles you were playing touching on what was happening in your real life at the time?
Actually, many of the jobs I did had some element of my life in them. Shooting [the television movie about] Betty Broderick, I was a few years into a prolonged divorce. I think our divorce took eight or nine years. Grossly expensive. I was in that kind of anger all the time. So it was very cathartic driving over someone's lawn and into their front door and shooting them. I thought I'll do this! So that all spoke to me. I love that sense of being a loose cannon, someone who is not at the mercy of things that happen, but someone who makes things happen. To me at that time spoke of power and control.
Well, you did take control of your life. What was the biggest obstacle to moving forward to where you are now?
I will tell you -- and this was a long time coming because it remained an obstacle -- part of it was I had to get sober. Even then the obstacle was the fact that I remained a victim in my own mind for a long time.
Even after you came out and after you were recovered?
Oh, yeah. We call it recovery because you are always in recovery. Yes, because as someone said to me in the meeting, "You know if you are mauled by a bear, it is easy to point to the bear and say, "Look at this bear! This was bad!" It's easy not to say, "Why were you there? Why did you go in the cage? Why did you stay in the cage?" I was always looking at the bear and blaming the bear. It took me a long time before I said, "Wait a minute. I was getting something out of being with that bear or I wouldn't have stayed. I had to figure out what was I telling myself that allowed me to stay there. It was all about fantasies. I had to look at the belief system that I developed as a child.
I imagine to go back to what formed you as a child and take it apart and then put it back together is a huge project.
Yeah, it is, but if I don't do that then I stay in exactly the same place. I never move forward. My thinking never changes, and I continue to get into relationships with bears because I never learned why I went there in the first place. Actually, that is basically what I do today. I speak a lot at different venues about domestic violence. It is not about the violence so much as why are we drawn to these relationships? Not everybody could have been in the relationship I was in. They would have been there five minutes and said, "What the? ... I'm getting out of here. This is ridiculous. I'm not going to be treated like this."
Somewhere it was OK with me. Some people say, "Oh, you feel you deserve it." It wasn't about that. It's just that it is familiar. In some way it is emotionally familiar, and you are drawn to what is familiar. It is someone who speaks your language in a country where no one else does.
Now that the Defense of Marriage Act has been struck down, would you marry again? I mean, you did it three times. Would you ever consider marriage?
Well, I did think that marriage was a bad idea, and I wasn't really sure how it had caught on. However, I have a different understanding of it now because I understand why I did it before, what I was looking for. I look for something else today. So I could very much see myself doing that. I have been in a relationship with Nancy Locke. We are in our eighth year, and I think we're good candidates for that. I'm not going to make any announcement, but I will just say that I think we'd be good at it.