Patricia Heaton tried.
She really did.
In spring 2018, for the first time in a long time, she was all set to take a little time for herself.
After all, she'd just turned 60. Her nine-season run on the ABC comedy The Middle had come to an end, a stint that had begun not long after her nine years on CBS's Everybody Loves Raymond. Meanwhile, her four sons were either in college or off working, leaving her and husband David Hunt home alone to binge on Game of Thrones. If ever there was a moment for self-discovery, this was it.
"I know for me, when The Middle finished, there was a little bit of that 'My kids are out of the house and my show is done — what now?' feeling," Heaton explains. "So I started thinking, 'What's my identity?' You know, 'What's my purpose in life?'"
That search led her to try a still-life painting class ("It was intense, but that was a good thing"), to take up golf again ("I'll never be able to hit the ball very far, but it just really feels good and it's something my husband and I can do together") and to volunteer for the humanitarian aid organization World Vision ("If you actually want to save somebody's life, this is a way you could do that").
While these were fulfilling uses of her newfound spare time, Heaton couldn't help but handle this new phase the way she knows best: by getting back on television. In the comedy Carol's Second Act, which premieres September 26 on CBS, she plays Carol Kenney, a 50-year-old divorced mom who's following her dream of becoming a doctor.
Working as an intern at a hospital with peers half her age makes the work doubly challenging. "What we're talking about is: what's that thing you're going to do when you've done the things you were supposed to do?" Heaton says, sitting down at a conference table in her new office at CBS Studio Center in Studio City, California.
"You got married. You had a career. You had kids. But what's the next thing? Which I guess is where my connection point to Carol is. I feel like at age 61, I have more opportunities now than I've ever had."
This particular opportunity, though, took her by surprise. After two successful sitcom experiences as a TV wife and mother, she "just couldn't do another mom." Not that there's anything wrong with that.
It's just that after The Middle she was thinking, "'Maybe I should wait for something different. But I don't want to do a procedural. The movie business — what am I going to do in the movies?' So I had to make peace with the idea that I'm never going to do that big costume drama."
Then, along came Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins, the writer–executive producers of Carol's Second Act. The timing was perfect, given where Heaton was in her own life. Also, she felt there was something deeper going on with the title character: even though Carol has a couple of kids, her career was going to be the primary focus moving forward.
As opposed to Frankie Heck on The Middle and Debra Barone on Raymond, Carol is a former high school science teacher and "much more intentional about what her interests are and about continuing to pursue them."
Heaton insists the new role provides her with a great — yet still comedic — way "to give older people encouragement that their wisdom and experience are valuable and that they can be contributing to their community."
It's a responsibility she's clearly taken to heart. According to Kyle MacLachlan, who plays a doctor and potential love interest on the new show, "It feels like she's very invested in this. We had just one scene together [in the pilot], but I sensed a real engagement from her. She seems to be part of what the character is. She believes in who she is, but is not without insecurities."
In the early days of developing Carol's Second Act, Heaton also checked in with former costar Ray Romano to get his advice.
"She knew she was going to be the 'me' of this show," he recalls, explaining, "It uses what she's going through personally, kind of like when I did Men of a Certain Age and Raymond. This show is going to represent her, and she wants to make sure she gets it right. She's a strong-willed person, and if something was not right in a script [on Raymond], we'd talk about it and fix it.
"When we talked about her new show, she wanted to know what I did to make sure the writing on Raymond was always there. I don't think she even needed to do that. I trust her instincts for character and writing and comedy. She is good at knowing where the laugh is, and what is too joke-y."
Confidence is nothing new for this Ohio native. It goes all the way back to when she was five or six years old, the day she ran into her Aunt Jane's Cleveland kitchen to alert her mother that she had a song to perform for the family. Then, after doing that number, she launched into another. And then another. And another, until her mom finally told her to stop. Which she did, but only temporarily.
Inspired by the Shirley Temple films she used to watch on TV on weekend afternoons ("I used to sit on the couch looking out our picture window at a big oak tree and imagine myself being in her movies"), Heaton started singing on the playground of the Catholic school she attended.
"She was an extremely precocious performer," remembers her older brother, Michael. "In the second grade, I believe she sang the entire first side of Barbra Streisand's Color Me Barbra album for her class. And it was maybe in the fifth grade when she and her friends staged a version of West Side Story on roller skates on the loading dock of our local grocery store."
Eventually, she was writing plays about magic and fairies and then putting them on in the family driveway, charging neighbors to set up lawn chairs to watch.
"I was bossy and loud," Heaton recalls with a laugh. "There were two of us like that in our neighborhood — me and Sally Green. She and I would fight over control of the club we started. We were very entrepreneurial. Remember those troll dolls we all used to play with? Our club would collect dues, and then we'd go buy felt squares to make clothing for them.
"Then, we'd put them in a red wagon and go around the neighborhood to sell the clothes. We would put on carnivals. We sold baked goods. If we were kids today, we'd be millionaire YouTube stars, because we were really inventive."
She was loving life… right up until a life was taken from her. When Heaton was 12, her mother died from an aneurysm. As determined as she had been about performing before that, she became even more so afterward.
The tragedy forced her to realize, she says, "We're not promised any day. I saw that each one could be your last, so my attitude was 'carpe diem.' I think that's why since then I've been on this treadmill. I like to keep busy."
After she graduated from Ohio State University, that determination impelled her to move to New York, ready to do whatever it took to become an actress. Her brother recalls their father "not being happy about it and making some noise about her staying in Cleveland. But Patty was, like, 'Look, Dad — I want your blessing, but I'm not asking permission. I'm going there.' And she did."
She spent most of the 1980s working temp jobs by day and performing with an acting troupe by night. Despite the struggle, she never regretted ignoring her dad's advice about "being back home, married with kids in the suburb that I grew up in. I'd rather have been unsuccessful but still trying, rather than just grabbing onto some kind of security — because in the end, I knew there was no security."
Then, in the late '80s, the troupe she was with headed west to perform in Los Angeles. Heaton decided to make Hollywood her home, but without an agent or even a car, she was struggling to get by. To escape the stress for a few days, the lifelong Roman Catholic decided to do some volunteer work at an orphanage in Mexico. It seemed like a simple choice at the time, but it changed her life.
"In those three days, I realized, 'Oh, there's something I can do in this world that's not acting, that's fulfilling,' because up to that point, I'd thought, 'It's acting or it's death for me,'" Heaton recalls.
"My whole focus changed when I came back from that trip. I said to God, 'Here's the deal. I'm getting some auditions, but if you want me to go and work in this orphanage instead, shut those auditions down and make it really clear that's what I'm supposed to be doing. If not, keep the auditions coming. It's up to you now. I'm not going to try to control this anymore.'"
God voted for auditions. Thanks to a recommendation from a fellow actor, she landed a recurring role as an oncologist on thirtysomething. By the mid-1990s, she'd starred in three short-lived network comedies — Room for Two, Someone Like Me and Women of the House.
Then came the audition for the role of a wife and mom in a new CBS series based on the real life of a rising comedian named Ray Romano. Many had read for the part, and just as many had been sent home, so Romano had no idea what to expect when Heaton came in.
"I think she had two kids at the time, and she showed up all rattled and tired because she couldn't get a sitter," he recalls. "Then she did one thing in the reading that made her stand out from everyone else. The wife character is mad at me for something and starts lecturing me.
"When we got to that part, Patty did the simplest physical thing. She took her jacket off while delivering her lines, like she was getting ready for a boxing match. Her physicality in that moment was so real, and after seeing a hundred other women, we all laughed in the room and just knew she was it."
She'd go on to win two Emmys playing Debra Barone. After another one-and-done sitcom (Fox's Back to You with Kelsey Grammer in 2007), she started on The Middle as another blue-collar mother, Frankie Heck.
The success of both series, Romano says, had a lot to do with the fact that "people see themselves" in Heaton. "People identified with everything was going through, and not many people can play angry and still have the audience on their side."
Heaton is more modest. "I think people see me as their neighbor, particularly women," she says. "I'm from the Midwest and didn't really get started in this industry till I was 30, and I think I retain some of that realness. And I am fortunate to have been a part of two iconic shows that are about family, marriage and being parents."
Those subjects will undoubtedly be woven into Carol's Second Act as well, but this time, there will be the element of ageism, which Heaton believes will resonate with viewers. While that may be an issue onscreen, she's trying to make sure there's no generation gap behind the scenes.
"I've valued my relationships with older actresses I've worked with — like Doris Roberts and Katherine Helmond and Linda Lavin — because, for me in particular, mother figures are very important," she explains. "So I want to be that for the younger actors in my cast. I want to be super available to them, finding ways to overcome any fear I might have about being aged out of society."
For Heaton, being a role model extends beyond this series. Discouraged by the 2016 presidential election — "the combination of this president and social media has brought out the worst in everybody" — she devotes her time away from television to working with World Vision. She travels around the world to work on clean water programs and other charitable projects.
"Patty is a great advocate for children in poverty," attests Edgar Sandoval Sr., president of World Vision U.S. "She and I traveled to Zambia together in 2015, and more recently she went to Rwanda. She is engaging and connects with people. She doesn't act like a celebrity, even though everyone knows who she is!
"I'll never forget: when she went to Uganda in 2018, she met Victor, a 14-year-old South Sudanese refugee who'd been separated from his parents. Patty shared prayers from all over the world with Victor, and in that moment, you could just see the 'mom' side of Patty come out."
Refugee camps in Africa are a long way from the CBS set Heaton now calls home, but she says her charity work and the new series share a purpose: to put the wisdom of her years to work.
"Let's say you retire, or you're a mom whose kids are all out of the house," Heaton says. "God willing, you might have 30 years left, and maybe 25 of those will be functional. Some people would like to just play golf for those years, but I think this time in life offers people an opportunity to find their next thing.
"The world needs people to contribute in a different way than they have been for the first section of their adult lives," she adds. "For me, there's nothing like the perspective I have now. And it's important for those of us at this point in our lives to use that perspective and help younger people really live a fulfilling life — not just a busy life."
Go behind the scenes of emmy's cover shoot with Patricia Heaton at TelevisionAcademy.com/cover.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2019