Laughing Out Loud

patricia heaton

You probably recognize Patricia Heaton from various television series: the sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond, opposite Ray Romano, and most recently, The Middle, now on its seventh season on ABC.There’s something inherently likable about Patricia Heaton, whether she’s playing the long-suffering (and slightly high- er-pitched) Debra on Everybody Loves Raymond, or more recently, Frankie Heck,The Middle’s upbeat but overworked matriarch.

There’s an accessibility to Patricia, (or “Patty,” she says), but also an edge to her performances that complicates the roles she plays, making her more than just watchable, but also compelling. The accessibility is easily accounted for—viewers have watched her be a mother to a few different groups of children over the years.

Everybody Loves Raymond aired from 1996 until 2005. We, the viewers, recognize ourselves in the thorough and unflinching way Heaton depicts motherhood—warts and all. For at least that half hour, we watch safely from our sofas, feeling understood. Like The Middle’s Frankie Heck, we resonate with feeling overwhelmed by our circumstances, but press on regardless, trying to do right by our families—if not gracefully— then at least with a killer sense of humor.

Of course, Patricia Heaton’s sense of humor is a bit more cultivated than most. “Would people in your regular life say you’re funny?” I ask her, during our interview. “Do you have to work at it, or does it come naturally?”

patricia heaton

With her customary modesty, Patricia says, “Most people would say I’m funny, I think. Or, at least that I have timing.”

On television, she’s been hitting all the right beats for more than a decade. Patricia credits The Middle’s two female show creators, Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline, with writing a dynamic family story, and with that, a dynamic mother figure. We can attribute much of The Middle’s popularity to its realistic (yet insistently funny) depiction of family life.

Patricia says viewers tell her all the time, “You guys looked right into my house,” to which she replies, “[the show creators] looked into mine, too.” This is the ultimate sign of successful television—it’s so realistic it becomes universal.

Personally, I love The Middle. I think it’s gutsy in the way most sitcoms aren’t. It doesn’t shy away from addressing issues of socioeconomic level or what it means to be working class; in fact, it swims comfortably in these subjects. The show feels like a throwback, raw in the way that Roseanne was, but with- out the undercurrents of melancholy. In The Middle, Frankie Heck navigates issues that matter to contemporary families all over America, such as dealing with a child’s learning disability or struggling to make ends meet in the current economic climate.

And it makes sense that Patricia Heaton should feel so comfortable portraying motherhood on television: she has four sons. In fact, her own experience with child-rearing often coincided with that of the mothers she played on tv.

“I was lucky,” she says, “because I got to be a mom and an actress at the same time.”
When they were little, her kids would accompany her to the Everybody Loves Raymond set, she explains. At that time, her actual children were the same age as her t.v. children. Now, her kids are the same age as her “kids” on The Middle.

“I’m lucky to have portrayed mothers at different times of their lives—in different cycles,” Patricia tells me.

Debra on Everybody Loves Raymond is very different from Frankie on The Middle. Debra is a stay-at-home mom, while Frankie works as a dental hygienist. But there are still key similarities: both women deal with the day-to-day caretaking of a family, as well as dealing with outside pressures, like the challenge of being a working mom, or dealing with an overbearing mother-in-law. It’s a testament to Heaton’s acting skills that she can imbue the characters she plays with such complexity— as opposed to being one-dimensionally likable; the women she plays are interesting.

I ask Patricia what she thought about people referring to Debra on Everybody Loves Raymond as a nag while the show was airing.

patricia heaton

Most people would say I’m funny, I think. Or, at least that I have timing.

“I remember reading at the time ‘oh the wife character is so mean,’ and I was surprised,” she says, “because I never read her that way when I got the script. But now when I watch it, I think, okay, maybe I see what they’re saying.”

Personally, I disagree—I think any “nagging” was 1) realistic and 2) crucial to the show. We needed that voice of reason to offset Raymond’s sometimes wishy-washy demeanor.

“I think I might have been putting some of my own experiences into the character,” Patricia says. “I had really young kids and I was probably frustrated with my actual husband at the time.” In other words, we shouldn’t conflate Patricia with the characters she plays, but we can find a bit of her own life in her performances, and vice versa.

In addition to realistically portraying motherhood, she doesn’t have any trouble playing a convincing wife, and for good reason. Celebrating 25 years of marriage this year, Heaton met her husband, David Hunt, when she sub-leased an apartment where he was living.

“There were actually three guys in the apartment,” she explains. “I didn’t expect it. It was a weird way to meet someone.”

Not only have they raised four boys together—one of whom has recently left for college—but they own a production company aptly named FourBoys Films. For Patricia, her oldest son leaving was difficult, despite still having children at home.

“He was my first kid,” she says, “the first kid who came in and changed everything.”

When asked if she has any advice for other empty-nesters, Patricia’s reply is simple and inspiring: “The world is full of need, and women are the great multitaskers. You can get involved in so many different ways.”

Incidentally, what I’m struck by, as I talk to Patricia Heaton, is how nice she is, how approachable. As she talks about her kids and her career, I keep forgetting this is an interview, and I start to think it’s just a conversation. At one point, while we talk about her first acting jobs, I start telling her about my first writing jobs, and I realize how often I’m laughing. She seems like someone you would want to be friends with- someone who’ll laugh at a good joke and in whom you can confide. Maybe this has something to do with her background. She grew up in Ohio, deeply entrenched in the middle class.

“I didn’t go to school at somewhere like Juilliard,” she says. Instead, she went to a state school; she didn’t even know there were other options. That was probably a good thing—nobody handed her a career in acting. Growing up so far from Holly- wood, she became aware of her passion for the craft before she became aware of the potential for fame. In fact, fame seemed impossibly far away—like a whole other life, one she could hardly imagine having. When she moved to LA, she didn’t have a job or a car. She worked a series of odd jobs, such as summarizing legal deposition, and working at People magazine.

“It looked bleak for a while,” she says. But it obviously didn’t stay that way.

I ask her what advice she would have given herself then, during her bleaker, younger years. Without missing a beat, she says, “Drink less; eat more. If I knew then what I’d have to eat now— all of that gluten-free stuff—I would have really enjoyed more food.” She thinks for another moment, then adds, “Also, be present, show up and work hard.”

“Sort of,” she says when I ask her if she had faith that every- thing would work out. “It’s a balance, though. You certainly need to put in the work.”

And Patricia is certainly adept at balance—balancing mother- hood and a career, among many other things. Finally, we talk about what’s coming on the horizon. She admits that while she loves playing a mother, her next role will probably be some- thing new, but when asked what, she says, “Who knows?”
I manage to get in one last question before she has to rush off: who would play her in the movie of her life?

“Chris Pratt,” she says, which makes me laugh. “I think he would do something interesting with the role.” And I have to agree.