Editor’s note: A&U featured actress Doris Roberts in a May 2003 cover story interview. Roberts, who recently passed away, was a longtime supporter of S.T.A.G.E. and Children Affected by AIDS.
Love, Laughter, and Tears
Doris Roberts Talks with A&U’s Dann Dulin on Living with Loss, Seizing Life, and Her Unique Power to Freeze People
Who is that?!
It’s always been one of those “Do-I-know-her?” faces; a face you instantly recognized, though you couldn’t quite put your finger on who it was. It’s the face of veteran character actor, Doris Roberts, who for over forty-five years has made countless guest appearances on such classic shows as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Barney Miller, St. Elsewhere, and Empty Nest, to name just a few. She was a series regular on Remington Steele and Angie, appeared on Broadway for twenty years, and has made numerous feature films. She even made a slew of Glade Air Freshener commercials in the seventies. (In fact, there is a plaque outside her home that reads: “Bienvenidos a la Casa de Glade”). But thanks to her current role in the hit series Everybody Loves Raymond, she made the transcendent leap from notoriety to outright stardom. Her character, Marie Barone, is the new millennium’s Mrs. Cleaver, but with a hell of a lot more moxie than the Beaver’s mom. Doris is highly recognizable in another venue—the AIDS community. From the very beginning, when so many people snubbed their noses at helping out, she generously came forward, and continues her selfless work today.
“Unfortunately, I’ve lost over forty friends. It’s outrageous,” she says, as she shakes her head in disgust over the AIDS crisis with her big, brown eyes beaming. “There was a time when I kiddingly used to say that I should put a sign outside saying, Memorials ‘R’ Us, because I did more memorials for people than I can imagine. Some were extremely funny; some were wonderfully celebrating.” She caresses the Egyptian lapis lazuli ring on her finger. “Mourning is a private thing. I believe in celebrating people, even though not everybody deserves to be,” she says off the cuff. “But those who do, I want to celebrate them.” In fact, her living room is a celebration, filled with framed photographs of friends and family. As she says in her new book, Are You Hungry, Dear? Life, Laughs, and Lasagna (St. Martin’s Press), “I acknowledge all the people who touched my life and made it better, and for those who didn’t, you’re not in the book!”
Doris’s keen sense of humor is evident throughout the interview. She’s smart, feisty, straightforward, and her youthful face and infectious smile is radiant. She’s casually dressy in a dark turquoise-patterned pantsuit and looks grand. We are seated in her airy, rustic living room, where large wooden beams stretch across the ceiling, pink- and rose-toned rugs cover a dark hardwood floor, and a modest fireplace looks as though it has recently been used. Off to the side is a solarium balcony overflowing with houseplants. This comfy little hacienda is located high above the City of Angels in the Hollywood Hills, and nestled amidst trees and lush, fragrant shrubbery. The house was originally built for legendary producer, Hal Wallis, and Roberts has lived here for over twenty-five years—almost as long as she has been an AIDS activist.
In the early eighties, Doris and then-journalist/director, David Galligan [A&U, December 1999], started the annual musical variety fundraiser, S.T.A.G.E. (Southland Theatre Artists Goodwill Event). In March of this year, S.T.A.G.E. held its nineteenth event, Loesser is More: The Songs of Frank Loesser, and raised $360,000. The gigantic cast included Carole Cook, Rod McKuen, Tyne Daly, Dale Kristien, Betty Garrett, Bill Hutton, and Sally Struthers. “At that time, I would ask important people for money, and they’d give me the money but they’d say, ‘Don’t put my name on it,’” she notes about the early stages of S.T.A.G.E. “It only got acceptable after Rock Hudson died and Elizabeth Taylor got involved. I was doing it when it wasn’t fashionable,” she says ensconced in a comfortable sofa.
Today, AIDS apathy still irritates Doris. “The entire continent of Africa you can say goodbye to. AIDS is rampant all over the world—Russia, Thailand. Americans think if it’s not in their backyard, if it doesn’t touch white, Anglo-Saxon America…,” she trails off, then thoughtfully adds: “My God, it’s a plague. Nobody really says that. They just say, ‘That’s AIDS.’” With such an attitude of resignation, Doris is concerned about the risks for the younger set. “What can we say to them? Their body is raging with hormones. I mean, in the black and Hispanic community it’s tough to get these macho guys to even wear condoms. They feel they are absolutely immune to HIV and AIDS,” she says, sadly aggravated. “But they don’t have a reference for this. We have experienced losing friends to AIDS, they haven’t.”
Indeed, death has visited Doris many times in her life, testing her courage and personal strength. “I lost my husband [novelist/playwright William Goyen], my dear, great friend [actor] Jimmy Coco, and about four others all in a period of about three years,” she reflects. “It sent me into analysis, I must say, which was quite helpful, but I survived the loss. I’m really a peasant.” She pauses briefly, then takes on an extra verve when she asserts: “Ya knock me down; I’ll go right into the ground but I keep coming back up. And when I break through that ground I’m singing and dancing.” She returns to her normal voice. “This is the only way I want to live. Humor is imperative, more important than food. Look, you have a choice when someone dies. You can lie down and die with them, or you have a mourning period, then get up, put the coffee cup down, and get back into life. And if you can’t do anything else, do something for someone else.”
Doris recently heard about a research project on longevity which was conducted with people in their nineties. So what kept them going? Each subject stated in their own way that it was their ability to survive and to accept loss. “Life hits you. It’s tough. But you heal yourself,” she remarks matter-of-factly, then continues with deep feeling, “I miss them terribly,, the ones I lost. But I am so grateful to have had them in my life because they really touched and changed my life.”
At seventy-two, Doris is full of piss and vinegar, with a full and active life. Prior to the morning interview, she worked out with a trainer, jogged on the treadmill, and had a massage. She attends acting classes every Saturday, and often frequents the theater and the opera. And she’s a hardcore globetrotter, too. “Old” is not in this gal’s vocabulary. “You can call me an older woman but not an old woman,” she declares. “I went to the Senate Committee and spoke to them about ageism. I did a lot of research, and want the word ‘old’ stricken from the dictionary and the word ‘older’ to replace it. The minute you’re born you’re getting older!” She shifts positions and rests her elbow on the sofa arm. “In the last hundred years, the average age of a Nobel Prize winner was sixty-five. Older people have wisdom,” she stresses. “If I wake up in the morning and I have a new pain, I’m delighted that I can feel it. Some of my friends, unfortunately, have given up and have settled. That’s the worst thing you can do unless you want to die. Have purpose; get involved. Help someone else. I am more active than anybody else in my Raymond cast,” she chuckles. “I love to learn something new every day.”
How has the AIDS epidemic changed her attitude about life? “Life is so precious, and we mustn’t waste time with petty dislikes, jealousy, resentment, judgment, envy, and all that bullshit. What a waste of life that is!” She can’t understand how one can hold on to anger toward someone for years on end. It only hurts you, she emphasizes. “If you don’t like that person—out of your life! The Italians do something that I adore,” she says, as she hoists her arm upward exclaiming, “Basta! Enough. And it’s gone. I call this—riddle.” Doris explains. While in Napa Valley touring a winery, she encountered a riddler. No, not Batman’s rival but a person whose job it is to release the fermentation at the bottom of the champagne bottle. He does this with an ever so slight twist of the cork. “It sucks out the garbage, and you’ve got great champagne,” she says spiritedly. “I thought, How do I get the garbage out of my body? Well, I just riddle. We assume change requires the strength of pushing a boat uphill and across the road. It’s nothing like that; it doesn’t work that way. All it takes is a little twist. That’s all it takes! Riddle. Riddle. Toss the garbage with that tiny change of attitude. Seeing the Riddler completely changed my life.
“Now, if someone is mean to me, harmful, or evil, they’re out of my life. I cross them out of my address book,” she says slyly. But Doris does something even better than that. A couple of years ago, she was working with an actress who drove Roberts crazy. Doris would walk past her dressing room and greet this actress to receive only a muttered ‘hmmm.’ “I resented that and it made me angry,” she admits. “But what I did was jot her name on a piece of paper, stick it in a Styrofoam cup with water, and place it in the freezer. She’s not worth my thoughts. That’s why she’s frozen.” All of a sudden, Doris realizes that the actress is still in the freezer. Laughing, Roberts’ publicist, Dale C. Olson, who has been seated nearby, stands and interjects, “The moral of the story: Get Doris Roberts angry, and she’ll freeze you!” We roar with laughter, as Dale exits.
In the early nineties, Doris got to know Joe Cristina, a Mattel executive, on a professional level, which soon turned personal. “Doris called my office one day and was told that I was out sick due to a long-term illness. I phoned her when I returned to the office, and she was more concerned about my health than our business dealings,” says Joe. “I disclosed to her that I was HIV-positive, and her immediate response was ‘How can I help?’ I told her of my desire to start an organization to help children affected by AIDS, and she declared without hesitation, ‘Count me in.’”
The organization is called Children Affected By AIDS Foundation (CAAF), and its mission is to make a positive difference in the lives of children infected and affected by HIV/AIDS by educating the public and advocating on their behalf, and by bringing joy and fun into the children’s lives. Each year, CAAF hosts Dream Halloween, an elaborate fundraiser in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Says Cristina: “Doris has been untiring in her support of CAAF. We call her our ‘guardian angel’ because she watches over all the children and families we serve, and she is truly an angel—fulfilling every wish we bring to her. Over CAAF’s ten-year history, Doris has selflessly given of herself to raise awareness and critically needed funds to help make a difference in the lives of tens of thousands of children impacted by HIV/AIDS.” Doris notes, “Most organizations raise money for research, which is necessary, but who puts these little ones to bed at night? And feeds them? And clothes them? CAAF sees that the money gets to these organizations all across the country where they, in turn, provide direct services to the children (orphans, also) who are affected by HIV/AIDS. This includes care, basic needs, and recreation.”
I ask Doris to show me the Emmy she won last year for Everybody Loves Raymond, the cast of which sponsored a benefit for amfAR in 2001. She ushers me down a few stairs to a cozy basement where all her awards are displayed. (Roberts has three Emmys, two for Raymond and one for St. Elsewhere, and in February she received a star on Hollywood Boulevard.) Along with a bar and a makeshift wine rack under the stairwell, there’s an adorable antique five-octave rehearsal piano that had belonged to her mother. She mentions that there has been many a night of carousing and singing to the tunes of someone playing the piano. I can just imagine Lily Tomlin singing along with Dame Maggie Smith, Pierce Brosnan, and Roddy McDowell. Decorating the walls are numerous framed photographs of Doris with other celebrities, along with framed Playbills of her Broadway shows.
As I ooh and ahh over the Emmys and other honors, she gracefully leans back on the bar and looks somewhat pensive. “My awards are lovely and I love to show them off, but the greatest award that was given to me was by the firemen and policemen at Ground Zero. I can’t tell this story without…,” her voice cracks and she stops momentarily as her eyes fill with tears. Doris and her family (she has one son, Michael, and three grandkids) were visiting Ground Zero when one of the guys said they’d like to present her with something. They handed her a folded flag that had flown over Ground Zero, and a piece of the Twin Towers. “I was overwhelmed. I said, ‘I’m so grateful that you’ve given this to me but’—and I looked around furtively thinking, ‘Why are you giving this to me? This is a piece of history.’ They said, ‘We’ve been here since September 11 looking for pieces of our friends, and we’d go home at night, turn on the television and you were there making us laugh. You brought us right back into life.” Doris is visibly moved. “Well, there’s no award I can receive that will top that for me. With my talent, I can make people laugh and give them another attitude about life. What a blessing that is for me—it’s a great blessing.” And Doris, we are all blessed by your compassion, vitality, and chutzpah in the fight against AIDS.
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.
Name your favorite country
Name your favorite place to disappear to
Who is your best friend?
Jimmy Coco (sadly, he died in 1987)
Who is your greatest influence?
My husband, William Goyen. He was my mentor.
Who would you like to work with that you haven’t yet?
Tony Hopkins, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Edie Falco
Name your favorite classic movie.
Gone With The Wind
Name your favorite classic male actor.
Cary Grant, Laurence Olivier, and Spencer Tracy
Name your favorite classic female actor.
Who are your heroes?
Rudy Guliani, and Tom Hanks
What do you want to be remembered for?
As a lovely human being
Doris reacts with one word, if possible, to people who have touched her life
Ray Romano – Real, honest, self-deprecating
Carol Kane – Adorable
Patricia Heaton – smart, sharp
Marilyn Monroe – sad
Neil Simon – wonderfully funny
Lily Tomlin – Brilliant
Peter Boyle – Bright, well-read, I adore him
Mary Tyler Moore – Delicious
Better Midler – Fabuloso!
William Goyen – the love of my life, extraordinary human being
Doris Roberts – Survivor
“Everybody’s a teacher if you listen.
I DEPLORE the references that the media makes to older people: old coots, old cougars, old farts, over the hill.
I used to sit near Marilyn Monroe in the Actor’s Studio. I didn’t know who she was then. She’d get dressed up in those (sexy) dresses because that was her identity. Sad. Those cameras wouldn’t leave her alone. She didn’t know where to hide.
I performed on Broadway for twenty-two years before I came to Hollywood. It was Lily Tomlin who asked me to be on her special that brought her West.
It was Neil Simon who started my career with “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” on Broadway with Jimmy Coco.
You can’t show me an ad on TV with hard bodies and say I have to buy that car. You have to tell me WHY that car is better and safer than another car. You have to work harder, and Madison Avenue doesn’t want to that. Also, Madison Avenue tells you what you’re supposed to look like, what you’re supposed to wear. Excuse me, I don’t want to be zero or minus zero — God, these skinny, skinny women!
I’m involved with the charity “Puppies Behind Bars.” When the puppy is eight weeks old it is given to an inmate. The inmate is responsible for the dog, and after sixteen months the dog becomes a guide dog, or explosive detective canine for law enforcement. Iif they are deemed inappropriate for service dog use then they are instead placed in homes with blind children. The inmate learns responsibility, self-esteem, and purpose, and they come out of prison more ready for life.”