Sunday, December 31, 2006

Not Everybody Loves Patricia

The New York Times
Published: December 31, 2006

AT Frank E. Campbell’s funeral chapel on Madison Avenue two weeks ago, friends and colleagues gathered to remember the actor Peter Boyle, who died on Dec. 12 at 71. They told stories about his impishness, his artfulness, his liberal fervor. Judy Collins sang “Amazing Grace.”

Ms. Heaton with Ray Romano in an episode from the final season of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” the long-running CBS sitcom, for which she won two Emmy Awards.

In the pews Patricia Heaton couldn’t stop sobbing. For the nine seasons she had played Debra Barone on the sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Mr. Boyle had played her Neanderthal father-in-law. They passed much of their downtime jousting about politics.

More conservative than he, she would call him a “pinko flag-burning Commie.” He would counter, “So tell me about this Christian God of yours.” Feeling unarmed for such battles, Ray Romano, the show’s star, said he usually hustled off “to see what the new doughnut was at the craft table.” He needn’t have. Their differences were serious, but the jibes were good-natured: tokens of closeness, not distance. And now he was gone.

And not just him. In the nearly two years since “Raymond,” one of America’s most popular television shows, went off the air, a lot of the former givens have disappeared. ABC toyed with but chose not to broadcast a new sitcom Ms. Heaton developed; a documentary that she produced (and that her husband, David Hunt, directed) had trouble finding a distributor.

“It was like I had been the queen of a planet where everyone loved me and did everything I asked, and suddenly I was back home on Earth,” she said with a laugh over breakfast recently. “I wasn’t worshiped anymore.”

She was speaking, in part, about the instant downgrading of her self-image from celebrity mother to plain old mom, complete with soccer schedules and puky laundry. (She and Mr. Hunt have four boys: 13, 11, 9 and 7.) But she was also speaking about the difficulty of finding satisfying film and television projects at 48, a difficulty that has led her to risk a return to the theater, which she pretty much ditched 16 years ago as one might ditch an abusive lover. In defiance of the usual Hollywood patterns, she is appearing not in a diva role, but as part of the ensemble cast of Theresa Rebeck’s new play “The Scene,” which opens off Broadway on Jan. 11 at Second Stage Theater.

For those familiar only with Ms. Heaton’s light comedy or political profile, her gale-force performance and her gleeful way with the obscenity-packed dialogue may come as a surprise. This is, after all, the same woman who walked out of the 2003 American Music Awards telecast, before her scheduled appearance, in disgust over the language and behavior of some presenters.
It’s also the woman who in 1998 became honorary co-chairwoman of Feminists for Life, a group whose goals include economic and social support for women who “refuse to choose” abortion. Ms. Heaton’s campus speeches and Washington lobbying resulted in the occasional snub from strangers (and the argumentative attention of friends like Mr. Boyle), but she managed to avoid the organized wrath of the left. More recently, however, she has found that the protective varnish of sitcom stardom degrades very quickly and that the ideal of affection, or even civility, among people who disagree is not widely upheld.

Her latest skirmish began several months ago when an industry friend expressed his concerns about embryonic stem-cell research. In Missouri, he explained, voters were considering a constitutional amendment that would permit the harvesting of stem cells from donated eggs and aborted fetuses. Because of the close race for control of Congress, the proposal drew national attention; the Democratic candidate for the Senate supported the amendment, while the Republican opposed it.

“I told my friend: ‘I don’t want to do anything about this. It’s not even my state,’ ” Ms. Heaton recalled. “But he said: ‘I just feel like I can’t sit by. I have to answer for my actions at the end of my life.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, thanks a lot, now I have to too, because you told me about it.’
“In the end,” she said wistfully, while nevertheless digging into a plate of blueberry pancakes, “you’re responsible for the knowledge you have.”

So she agreed to tape a 12-second message for a fund-raising video, in which she said: “Amendment 2 actually makes it a constitutional right for fertility clinics to pay women for eggs. Low-income women will be seduced by big checks, and extracting donor eggs is an extremely complicated, dangerous and painful procedure.”

But the video, which also included St. Louis sports figures, turned into a Mel Gibson-size nightmare when it got onto the Internet and, without her knowledge, was then shown as an advertisement on television during Game 4 of the World Series. It didn’t help that it looked so cheesy or that it began, inexplicably, with the actor Jim Caviezel (who had played Jesus in Mr. Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ”) staring weirdly at the camera and speaking in Aramaic.
“Oh my God, it was a disaster,” Ms. Heaton acknowledged. “And then there was the whole Michael J. Fox aspect.”

Also unbeknownst to Ms. Heaton, Mr. Fox, his Parkinsonian tremors clearly visible, had just appeared in an ad supporting the amendment. Because of the timing, her comments looked like a response to his and became associated with Rush Limbaugh’s suggestion that Mr. Fox was faking his symptoms for sympathy.

Ms. Heaton was appalled, she said. “Not only was the ad so bad, but why was it put on? It took the focus off of what we’re talking about, which is very serious, and made it look like a feud or something, a Hollywood tabloid subject, a media thing of pitting people against each other.”

The Internet floodgates opened. Web sites weighed in on “Fox v. Heaton” and generally eviscerated her. On, April Winchell, a California radio personality, posted a 38-second remix of Ms. Heaton’s clip. It starts out saying, “I’m Patricia Heaton, and I’m a religious zealot who thinks she knows what’s best for everybody” and gets uglier from there: “I could give you the whole story, but I’d rather beat you over the head with my Bible. And besides it’s not like stem-cell research makes you look younger. I mean, if it did, I’d be all over it.”

That last dig was a reference to Ms. Heaton’s plastic surgeries, about which she has been unusually candid. In her 2002 book, “Motherhood and Hollywood” (Villard), less a celebrity memoir than a collection of spiky, self-deprecating essays, she described herself as a “5-foot-2 runt” whose stomach, “after four C-sections and too many years of nursing,” had become “a big old wrinkly suede bag hanging down,” and whose breasts “had to be folded up like origami” to fit into strapless gowns. Now she looks toned and lovely.

If Ms. Heaton has made her surgery fair game, her political views are not so easily pigeonholed. Some derive from the “seamless garment” doctrine of her “devout Catholic upbringing” (she opposes both abortion and the death penalty) while others are clearly her own. (She supports gay rights and the use of most birth control.) And she is not, in person, prudish or judgmental. Most of her friends have had abortions, she said, and they’re still her friends.

It isn’t so much her views that cause her trouble as her unwillingness to finesse them for public consumption. She is compulsively honest, though she feels that’s not so much a virtue as “an illness, like Tourette’s.” Even her more extreme positions are stated without hedging: If it were up to her, she said, there would be no abortion for any reason. But she offers such thoughts with a sense of helplessness, as if she were trapped by the implications of her core principles.

And then there is her un-wingnutlike desire for conciliation. As soon as she realized what had happened, she sent Mr. Fox a message saying that she was sorry and that she prayed for his recovery. He responded graciously (the amendment passed with 51 percent of the vote) and later said, “If we can have a healthy dialogue about issues that people see differently, that’s marvelous.”

That’s a big if. Most of the dialogue, Ms. Heaton said, has been brutal: “People saying they hope my kids get sick and die so I’ll know what it’s like to need medical research.” Colleagues have attacked her at industry functions; gossips claiming to know her have described her as a horrible person. A theater Web site recently ran a discussion thread on boycotting “The Scene.” And castmates have told Ms. Heaton that their friends were saying things like: “You’re working with her? You know what her thing is, right?”

Ms. Rebeck, the playwright, knew and didn’t care. “That’s flawed thinking,” she said of the boycott chatter, “like what happened with the Dixie Chicks. And I would hate to think of liberals as the new conservatives. I don’t agree with all of Patty’s politics, but she’s not the kind of political thinker who drives you crazy with their solipsism, and I think the country might be in better shape if we could engage with each other in the way she does. Anyway, she’s pretty great in the play” — she called Ms. Heaton’s comic timing “something I dream about” and her emotional availability “staggering” — “so that’s where I come down.”

There’s a connection between responding credibly to a fictional situation and responding to real-world issues. But Ms. Heaton mistrusts that connection, even in herself, because she has seen how easily actors can manipulate emotions and turn an embarrassing need for attention into a cause.
“Being an actor, I love what we do,” she said, “but I don’t have that high a regard for it. And when embarrassing people, myself included, talk about their views, you just have to laugh. Who cares? And yet somebody’s given you a pulpit, so you do it. On the other hand, you can do a lot of good without going on CNN, and I totally respect actors who never discuss their views. I wish I was one of them. Too late now. I’m trying to get back in the box.”

It’s hard to see how she can do that while simultaneously exploring more and deeper means of expression. On “Raymond” she took a character who was something of a cipher in the pilot episode and filled her in with despair; her anger at being stuck with all the domestic chores was so visceral that it often seemed like a brick lobbed through the screen. Mr. Romano said that’s what got Ms. Heaton the job; it also won her two Emmys. She says she drew that anger directly from her experience as a wife in the middle passage — “the seething years” — of marriage.

But there was only so far she could take such insights within the confines of the sitcom format. “The Scene,” which is billed as a “brutal comedy,” is what might have happened if “Raymond” had been written for HBO and doctored by Dickens. In it Ms. Heaton plays Stella, a talk-show booker whose marriage to an out-of-work actor, played by Tony Shalhoub, spirals out of control. All of Stella’s carefully balanced disappointments and color-coded accommodations collapse in the face of something very much like evil.

Ms. Heaton knew instantly upon reading the play that she had to take the role. She understood Stella subcutaneously; when one of the characters described her as a “frigid Nazi priestess,” she felt it was almost a compliment. But she also understood the play’s unflinching moral outlook. Though it is set in high-rise Manhattan instead of a Cleveland suburb, it felt like home to her, with its portrait of people who know life is a battle between right and wrong but who don’t always have the will to join the right team.

Ms. Heaton’s parents left no doubt as to which team was which. They attended Mass every day, and their taste in interior decoration ran to pictures of St. Lucy holding her eyeballs on a platter. There wasn’t much room for young Patty’s “Look at me!” demands for attention, but her childhood was marked by nothing much worse than benign neglect until she was 12, when her mother died. The resulting flare of grief seemed to etch the pattern of her mother’s standards on her forever, and also her distance from them.

In college, and especially during eight subsequent years of hapless struggle in New York, that distance became a kind of no-man’s-land she had to traverse daily, from bad job to binge to church and back again. The churches varied: Catholic, Calvinist, New Age cult. (She now attends Sunday school, but not services, at a Presbyterian church.) Nothing closed the gap, not an early marriage or quick divorce, not sinning or atoning or jobs modeling shoes. By the time she left for Los Angeles in 1990, her “slightly annoying Ohio enthusiasm” had been expunged, and she was “emotionally battered.”

What finally helped was meaningful work, marrying Mr. Hunt and the huge responsibility of caring for children. (“And thank God I found somebody good to do it for me,” she said. “I mean, I wouldn’t hire just any Swedish nanny.”) The chaos of otherness calmed her down, brought her closer to her parents’ ideal of the sacrificial life, of “dying to yourself.” But living that ideal when you are an actor can be somewhat contradictory, which is pretty much the heart of Ms. Heaton’s artistic and personal drama as she awakes from a “16-year coma.” What is she good for? What is she called on to do?

She knows she often flubs the answers. “But I take comfort,” she said, “in noticing that all the people that God chose had problems and failings: David, Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene.” She spoke these names without special deference, as if they were pals from high school glee club.
“God reached out to them specifically. And I’ve always felt closest to God when I’m on a stage. I guess it’s really useful to be damaged in this business, because it makes it possible for you to express things — and get paid for it.”

She laughed at herself. “Though it can,” she admitted, “be inconvenient in real life.”

No comments: