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When fans come up to me on the street to hug me these days, I'm not sure that they love me, or my television alter ego, Marie Barone. The popularity of the show proves that Everybody Loves Raymond, but I know that just as many of them love Marie, the woman who has come to personify everything we adore and dread about family. Marie clearly loves her family with all her heart, worries about them more than she should, and would do anything to keep them fed, happy, and safe. The problem is that her version of what's good for them differs in a lot of ways from what most of them want for themselves. In this way, she is like me-like every mother, in fact. In short, Marie is one of the world's all-time most meddlesome mothers.
I know a lot about being a meddlesome mom. Not only have I played that role in my life off screen, I've been east as the mother of many stars of stage and screen. In fact, I keep a list in my purse of those I've mothered. The list includes Billy Crystal twice (The Rabbit Test and My Giant,) Bette Midler (The Rose), Tony Danza (Mama Mia), Donna Pescow (Angie), Robbie Benson (California Girls), Marlo Thomas (It Happened One Christmas), Charles Grodin (The Heartbreak Kid), Linda Lavin (Alice), Chevy Chase (National Lampoon Christmas Vacation), Valerie Harper's mother-in-law (Rhoda), David Spade (Dickie Roberts, Child Actor), and of course Brad Garrett and Ray Romano. Of all the mothers I've portrayed, Marie is the one who has solidified my reputation as "The Mother of Them All." The mother of all Mothers, or, as they said in Shaft "one Badd Mother."
Since I have been spending four days a week every week for seven years with a group of people who all are pretty good at pretending to be a family, it's no wonder that it has begun to feel as though I really am the mother of the cast of Everybody Loves Raymond.
The home-like atmosphere of the set is part of what reinforces my maternal instincts. The set of Everybody Loves Raymond is a family-friendly place where the cast is permitted to bring their children. I know the many children of all of my colleagues quite well. When we're working on a show, it's not unusual to see one of Ray's four kids sitting tall in the big director's chair observing his daddy at work. And when I go upstairs to the playroom and school room the show maintains for the Sweeten children-Madylin Sweeten, who plays Ray and Debra's oldest daughter, and her twin brothers Sullivan and Sawyer Sweeten, who play the twins-I never know whose children might be among the toys and games. During a break in filming, the kids have the free run of the set and all of us feel responsible for their welfare, something that makes the set a very loving place.
This family feeling extends all the way through the crew as well, as was evidenced a few seasons back when my sitcom husband Peter Boyle had a heart attack. I had been at a benefit with Peter the night before and had noticed something different about him. He was quiet, which is not his normal social style, and his face was ashy. When I asked how he was feeling, he told me it was nothing. Men are so terrible when it comes to illness. They never want to admit to any weakness and always believe they can just ride it through.
The next day, on the set, Peter complained of chest pains. The first assistant director, Randy Suhr, had been on the set of a movie with Jack Lemmon when he had a heart attack. He spotted similar symptoms in Peter and called for an ambulance without asking him if he wanted one. He knew Peter well enough to realize that if he'd asked him if he wanted to go to the hospital, Peter would have said no and tried to tough it out. When the ambulance arrived, it turned out that Randy was right. Peter was actually having a heart attack when the ambulance came. Fortunately this came at the end of the season and he was able to do his recuperation during our hiatus.
The show has definitely benefited from the fact that almost all of the staff are very involved in their own families and the writers exploit their family dilemmas for comic effect on the show. Another thing that blurs the line between where Marie ends and I begin is the way I dress on the show, a way that is unique for my body type but also greatly influenced by the clothes worn by producer Phil Rosenthal's mother.
From the very beginning Marie has had a particular look about her, a look I developed with the help of years of experience with this particular body and the costume designer Simon Tuke. It's based on the fact that I look best with dark colors underneath and wonderfully colorful tops. Less for me is better. I don't like a lot of material on my body because it just makes it look huge. He also knows he can't use drop shoulders or dolman sleeves because they make me look too bulky. All the blouses are over blouses that are long enough to cover up and minimize my behind.
It's camouflage and fashion at the same time. The outfits are fashionable and slimming without looking like old lady muumuus. I cannot tell you how many people send me fan mail asking where I got my outfits. At Phil's insistence, I always wear a pin because his mother does. My favorite is the one with little cherries and matching little cherry earrings. Marie is a great fan of seasonal jewelry, as are many women my age. I've always got a pin that reflects the holiday: a Christmas wreath or tree during the holidays, a shamrock for St. Patrick's, or an Easter Bunny in the spring.
As with the wardrobe, the episodes are based on reality and nothing is really forced. For example, the famous episode where I drove my car through Raymond's living room was based on something that happened with one writer's cousin and aunt. When the car smashed through the front door in that episode, we got the longest laugh I'd ever heard on television. When I emerged as the driver of the car, that laugh topped the previous one. Although it was my foot that stepped on the gas instead of the brake with the car in reverse, I came out blaming Frank for not getting the brakes fixed. Frank was much more concerned about the damage to his car than he was about the fact that it was parked in his son's living room and quickly developed a scheme to bilk the insurance companies out of money with the repairs.
I love the Raymond set, which the set decorators have outfitted just like a real house. I've always adored the clutter of Ray and Debra's home, with its masses of toys and stuffed animals heaped on the stairs, just like the living room of anyone raising three young children. I also love Frank and Marie's place for its whiff of great sitcom scenes past. The kitchen is the kitchen that was used in All In The Family with only a few minor changes to update it. Marie's living room is very evocative for me, a place that blends my real family and my sitcom one. I was delighted by the plastic slipcovers on the living room upholstery when I saw them for the first time. I had an aunt who covered her furniture the same way to save it for mythical "good company" who never arrived. In fact, we did an episode about these slipcovers. Debra convinced Marie she had to take them off because they were so unstylish and uncomfortable. When the boys sat down on the naked sofa for the first time, they looked more uneasy than they ever did on the plastic covers.
The piano at Frank and Marie's has a special place in my heart as well. It's a real piano, the one I taught Raymond to play on. Listen to me! You'd think I actually did teach him and he was my son. I can be forgiven, I suppose, because of the episode we did where I tried to refresh his mind about his childhood musical education. Marie was a music teacher when her kids were young and when she tried to remind Raymond of all he knew, that part of her returned with a vengeance. She chided him for his posture and his finger positioning and continually made him stand up so she could get him a simpler lesson book to start on because his form was so bad. It was a funny episode, but it also said something about Marie and the world of art and culture she tried to bring to her family.
I love Marie because I understand her. If things had turned out differently in my life, I might have been Marie. Women of my age group were told by society to get married early and have babies. After the kids were grown, their usefulness was fulfilled. That was pretty much all they could expect from life. I have another life, but the Maries of the world don't. They have spent their whole lives caring for their families.
A lot of these women are brilliant, but haven't had a chance to use those smarts on anyone except their poor families. They have husbands they've been feeding for forty years, and in the last twenty serving as a short-order cook for anyone who came into the house. You know the women I'm talking about. They've got an incredible instinct for the regular order of things. They can walk into a room and notice that a chair is just a little out of place, and from that one observation know instantly that something is not right in the household. It's almost an animal instinct. Like when a dog can predict an earthquake or smell fear. Or pees on the carpet so everybody knows it's her territory. The house is her realm, her seat of power, and she always knows when something is amiss.
When little kids think that their mothers have eyes in the back of their heads, those are the eyes of Marie. She can hear when someone is opening the refrigerator. She knows the sound of a milk carton being taken out of its slot on the refrigerator door, and she can guess, because of the sequence and the timing, that her son has not bothered to get a glass to put his drink in. So, as Raymond lifts the carton to his mouth to take a swig, he is completely unnerved by the voice from the living room that yells out: "How many times do I have to tell you, we don't drink out of the carton? We're not animals. Get a glass!" This is a voice that remains in their heads long after they've moved out, and well into their third or fourth year of therapy.
How did she know?
How could she not know?
Every room of the house is wired into her central nervous system. It's a place she's ruled for forty years, and she doesn't need motion detectors to know where everyone is and exactly what they are doing. Part of it is instinct, and part of it is experience. She's made a lifelong study of the characters in her house and she knows their habits and flaws, especially the latter. I'm sure even Jesus would have gotten his share of nagging, if Marie had been his mom. "You'll heal a leper, sure, but your room looks like a manger."
She knows that if it's four o'clock on a Sunday afternoon she'll find her husband Frank, played so brilliantly by my friend Peter Boyle, parked in front of the television watching the game. From the kitchen, where she's fixing the ziti that he'll be craving in about fifteen minutes, she can yell to her husband (without walking into the living room to verify that it's true): "Frank, stop scratching yourself and wash up. The ziti's almost ready."
Does this make her irritating, or loving? (Or perhaps she's just sure that Frank still has that rash?)
It doesn't matter. In most families, one comes with the other.
It's irritating to have another person know you so well that she anticipates what you're going to do before you do it (it can cause a rash). To you, a decision seems carefully thought out. To Marie, it seems inevitable. It offends your self-image to realize that you are so predictable, and to hear "I told you so." On the other hand, it's comforting to realize that, despite this, she loves you anyway. She feeds you before you say you're hungry and puts ointment on the rash when no one else will come near.
When their sons have gone off into the world and out to chase down the women that will be their wives (not that they're running), the Maries of the world know they've lost a lot of their power. I don't think there is any mother who gives up her son completely. I remember the mourning I went through when my son Michael went off to college and I faced the realization that, from that moment on, he would always be a guest at our house, even though he would never be allowed to use the guest towels. We would never again have that casual intimacy that comes from living together as a family and knowing all the little ins and outs of each other's day. From then on, he would be presenting his life to us, describing it, instead of living it with me as the primary witness (and occasional alibi).
Any mother mourns that transition, but particularly Marie. She doesn't know what do to with herself. But, give her a void and she'll find a way to fill it. After the housecleaning is done, the cooking completed, and the gossip re-circulated, she has many hours left to calculate how to get her hooks back into her sons' lives. One way she can feel important is to advise them on what they should be doing. She wants them to use the benefit of her experience to avoid making poor choices and mistakes. We all know how well it goes over, giving your children advice. They tune you out the moment your voice hits that special note, the advice tone, like it was the whir of a dentist's drill. The other phrase their ears simply cannot hear is: "I told you so."
Like Marie-who is every mother in the world how we get them back is with food. It's like a culinary hostage trade-off. Take the manicotti. Give me my son. Nobody gets hurt.
I have a friend whose son lives in Germany. When he comes to visit, you do not see her for two weeks before, or during the week or so that he is here. The two weeks before he comes is completely devoted to cooking. She makes all of his favorite dishes in advance and stores them in the freezer. She numbers the sequence of them so that she can produce them magically while he's home, and sit beside him and watch him eat. When your role in life has been to take care of the husband and the children, the years after they leave you're lost. When one of them returns, it makes you feel important again, young again. I don't know many young men who will sit and talk to their mothers about their problems, but I also don't know many who will refuse to sit down when their favorite pot roast is on the table.
Marie has won the biggest battle. Her son lives across the street from her. She has a way to feel needed and important every day.
I really feel for Raymond's wife Debra, the character played perfectly by Patricia Heaton. She's running a fine house. Her husband loves her, and her kids are happy and well-fed (when she follows Marie's recipes). Every time Marie comes in, it all suddenly seems a little shoddy, not quite up to snuff.
Excerpted from Are You Hungry, Dear? Life, Laughs, and Lasagna by DORIS ROBERTS with Danelle Morton Copyright © 2003 by Doris Roberts
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.