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The Warren Awards: Doris Roberts

November 5, 2009 |  4:46 pm

DorisRoberts2Story Third in a series of profiles that pay tribute to the men and women who personify the backbone of the acting craft – the character actor – and explores their creative process and experience. Their work, though never less than memorable, rarely receives the credit it’s due, so we’ve framed these interviews as an award for their efforts, named after the quintessential character actor, Warren Oates.

Doris Roberts

The epitome of the formidable matriarch, thanks to her multiple Emmy-winning role on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” but also a versatile performer in a wide variety of roles in films and on stage and television for decades.

Live television launched her acting career in the 1950s, and she was a distinguished performer on Broadway (“Desk Set,” Albee’s “The American Dream”) before moving into features in the 1960s. She proved her adeptness with comedy with memorable turns as shrewd ladies who spoke their minds in “No Way to Treat a Lady” (1968), Alan Arkin’s “Little Murders” (1971), and Elaine May’s “A New Leaf” (1971) and “The Heartbreak Kid” (1973). But there were fine dramatic performances as well, most notably as a doomed widow in the harrowing cult thriller “The Honeymoon Killers” (1970) and the helpful Mrs. Kavarsky in “Hester Street” (1975), among many others.

She brought class and brass to numerous television appearances in the 1970s and 1980s; again, she moved effortlessly between laughs (“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” “Soap”) and serious fare (as Mrs. Van Dam in a 1980 production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” with Maximilian Schell and James Coco). Stints as a series regular on “Angie” and “Remington Steele” made her a favorite among small-screen viewers, but “Raymond” established her as a bona fide television star, with four Emmys, among numerous other awards, to her name. Since its final episode in 2005, she has remained remarkably active in films and on stage and television, published an autobiography (“Are You Hungry, Dear? Life, Laughs and Lasagna”) and testified before a U.S. congressional panel, with a forthrightness that would make Marie Barone pale, on age discrimination in Hollywood.

You’ve defined a character actor in terms of preparedness for a role.

Doris Roberts: Yes. They don’t just show up – they’ve read the script, they know who their character is. And they know the event. What is the urgency of the scene? Do you need to borrow money because your baby is sick and you don’t have money for the operation, but it needs to happen soon, because otherwise the kid could die? Are you aggressive or shy? Are you embarrassed to ask for the money? Has it been a hot day? A cold day? Have they had a fight with their boss or their wife that day? All of these are questions they ask themselves, because all of those things will affect your performance. They’re all in the script, and if they’re not in the script, they give those things to themselves to add so many more colors [to the part].

Of the many roles you’ve played, which have had the most resonance for you?

DR: I was excited about “Hester Street” (about the immigrant population in New York before the turn of the 20th century) because my grandparents came from Russia. And I got to use two of my grandfather’s sayings in the film – “You can’t pee up my back and make me think it’s rain!” And “With one tuchis, you can’t dance at two weddings.” And there was a play called “Bad Habits” by Terrence McNally, and I won the Outer Critics Circle Award for it. People still come up to me and remind me of a scene in the play where my character is pinching her thighs to get rid of her fat.

You’ve enjoyed your share of solid comedic roles over the course of your career. Do you think it’s more or less of a struggle for women to find good showcases for comedy today?

DR: I think it’s hard for women over 40 to find any roles these days. They’re not writing for people over 40. I don’t know what Madison Avenue has done, but they’ve airbrushed us out of society. You won’t see a picture of anyone over 40 in a magazine. And we’re approaching a time in which we will be the oldest population in history, and no one’s paying attention to that. They think that only young people can dictate what you buy. You can’t tell me to change my soap – you have to tell me why it’s better.

And yet, you remain exceptionally busy.

DR: Yes. I’ve completed three features – “Play the Game,” with Andy Griffith; “Aliens in the Attic,” where I play a grandmother that gets zapped by aliens and fights the bad guys; and “Another Harvest Moon,” with Ernest Borgnine. And I play the title role in “Mrs. Miracle,” which is on the Hallmark Channel on Dec. 5. She’s another fun character.

To what do you attribute the longevity of your career?

DR: Perseverance and studying. I’ve been studying with Milton Katselas, who unfortunately died this past year, for several years. I learn something new in his classes every Saturday morning. You can’t be stagnant. You have to explore and be persistent and, most importantly, have a passion for your work. You cannot be nonchalant as an actor – you can’t be moment-to-moment or casual, either on stage or in film or on television. You have to come alive and be a person – and the person that you choose to become is what makes for a wonderful character actor.

You won or were nominated for an astounding number of awards for “Everybody Loves Raymond.” I’m wondering if there was a downside to it in regard to being a character actor – did it cement your identity to the role of Marie Barone?

DR: I am indeed married to that character. And one of the reasons I’ve taken all these different movies is to show that I do other characters besides her.

Are there character actors whose work you enjoy?

DR: Oh, absolutely. Ernest Borgnine, with whom I just worked, and Edward G. Robinson, and Marty Balsam, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall. I enjoy their work because they bring so many different colors to their characters. You look at Marlon Brando and realize what he did – he was a leading man, but he was always a character. Spencer Tracy was a character actor too.

Do you think that actors like Brando and Spencer Tracy or, more recently, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, redefine the concept of the character actor? In the past, the character actor was primarily considered a supporting player, but now we have actors such as these who frequently shift between lead and character roles.

DR: Absolutely. And Marlon Brando changed all of that. He changed acting as a whole. He was certainly a leading man and a star, but he was willing to play an unattractive – but powerful and charismatic – character like Don Corleone in “The Godfather.”

What is the best advice you’ve received about the entertainment industry?

DR: “Don’t take it personally.” I have a gig on the Crystal Cruise Lines where I give a lecture and open it up to questions afterwards. And this woman in the audience, who was probably in her mid-80s and on a walker, didn’t like my performance in “Raymond” and told me so.  She wanted to know why I played Marie as I did. This made the audience very restless. So I waited for them to settle down and then said, “For two reasons, madame – one, it’s called comedy, and two, they give me a lot of money.”

Later that night, I went to the karaoke bar, and in she walked, in her walker, and she sang “People” in a very husky voice with a bit of anger behind it. And when she was finished, I jumped up out of my chair and said, “That’s comedy.”

— Paul Gaita

Photo: Dana Fineman

More from The Circuit:

The Warren Awards: William Sanderson

The Warren Awards: Robert Forster