What does it take for an actor to succeed on television?
The basic quality is likability; people have to like a character to keep inviting him or her back into their homes week after week. If an actor is to succeed in two long-running series, something deeper is required: For repeat success, the audience has to sense the actor’s core—that the characters spring from something real inside. Audiences find something real in Patricia Heaton.
The word for her special quality, maybe, is maternal. Her instinct to nurture the world around her has been easily channeled into her role as the motherly pillar of two sitcom families.
For nine years she played Ray Romano’s wife, Debra, on CBS’s Everybody Loves Raymond , preceding her turn as Frankie Heck, the devoted mama steering a blue-collar family on ABC’s The Middle, now in its fifth season. The two-time Emmy Award-winning Heaton has been a fixture in American homes for three presidential administrations, but it almost didn’t happen.
Twenty-five years ago, Heaton left New York for Los Angeles. “I was already old for that kind of move,” she says. “I was 30, with no manager, and I didn’t resemble a Victoria’s Secret model.” For two years she pounded the pavement, finding just enough success to keep from admitting she had failed. “I was broke…. But I kept at it because in my head I was convinced it was worth it. I just had to be an actress.”
Then one day she joined a group of volunteers from the local Presbyterian church who were headed down to Mexico to work on an orphanage. They fixed the place up, made food and threw a party. “That changed my life,” Heaton says. “I could have gone back to that orphanage and worked with those kids, and I would’ve been perfectly happy.”
With that realization came a problem. Now that she didn’t have to be an actress, she didn’t know what she should do. So she prayed for a sign—an obvious one, preferably.
It came within a couple of weeks, when Heaton was cast in ABC’s Thirtysomething, and she was on her way. Eventually the tender heart that drew her to the orphanage would become her hallmark.
It’s no mystery where Heaton finds the honorable center of her characters; faith and family have always been vital to her life. Heaton grew up with three sisters and a brother in a Catholic home in suburban Cleveland. “My dad, Chuck, was a sportswriter, and he was always worried about money,” she recalls. “But every month, I saw him sitting there paying the bills, and he always put something in the envelope for the Maryknoll missionaries and for the kids at Boys Town.”
That made a tremendous impression on Heaton. “It’s one thing for a priest or a teacher to encourage charity,” she says, “but actually seeing my parents practice what they believed had an effect on the way I live my life.” Today, Heaton and her husband, David Hunt, an actor and producer, continue and strengthen the tradition with their four sons, ranging in age from 14 to 20. “We try to teach the kids—to show them—that the key to happiness is not just having a job you enjoy, but in service, in doing things for other people,” Heaton says.
“This requires sacrifice, which isn’t the most popular word. We don’t like being confronted with poverty or disease, or with the realization that through some sacrifice by us, we could reduce those conditions.”
Among the charities that have recently absorbed much of Heaton’s attention is Reese’s Rainbow, a program promoting the international adoption of children with Down syndrome. The organization’s primary function is to raise funds to help families defray the considerable travel and bureaucratic costs of international adoption, which can amount to $30,000 or more.
Heaton became involved almost serendipitously. “I was getting ready for work,” she recalls, “and I just happened to look at my Twitter feed. There was a message that said ‘Check this out,’ with a link…. Well, I was floored. I began weeping, just sobbing. I was simply overwhelmed.” As Heaton began looking into the program, she discovered there were children around the world available for adoption, and many American families who would be happy to have them. But in the way stood complex, prolonged and expensive adoption processes.
“It’s sad to realize that there are families that are willing to take on the really hard part of raising a child, the long-term, day-to-day commitment, but the cost is preventing them,” Heaton says. When a family she had helped told Heaton that their adopted boy’s middle name was going to be Patrick, she cried for joy.
Another organization Heaton supports is the Compton Junior Posse, a youth organization south of Los Angeles. Much of the Compton area still retains its original agricultural zoning, and founder Mayisha Akbar acquired horses for her children after moving to town in 1988. The horses soon attracted the attention of the other children in the neighborhood, and Akbar saw she had begun providing the kids an alternative to the drug and gang culture infesting their community. She built on an educational component to the equestrian program, and developed pathways leading to employment.
“Mayisha has done amazing work,” Heaton says. “Working with horses has taught these kids discipline and commitment, and given them a community, an outlet, mentorship… an alternative.” Now Akbar is considering retirement, and Heaton is attempting to help move the organization further down the trail. “One way I want to help is to broaden the leadership base, extend the fundraising, get some grant money coming in,” Heaton says. “There are a lot of rich people in Los Angeles who like horses.”
Involvement in the equine program will be fine practice when Heaton gets to cross off her bucket list goal of acting in a western. She also wants to be in a sci-fi flick after The Middle concludes, and aims to work as a producer—a move into executive leadership that will be aided by her work on the board of directors of the Compton Junior Posse.
For all the personal benefit that can come from giving back to others, the good works simply come as second nature to Heaton.
“We live in a society where so much attention and emphasis is placed on looking perfect or enhancing ourselves with new toys or gadgets,” she says. “But that’s not really what life is all about. It’s really about how we treat the most helpless among us.”