With two long-running series on her résumé, four grown sons and a deep commitment to volunteer work, Patricia Heaton has earned some downtime. But reflection over her empty nest led, inevitably, back to television and a CBS series about a woman pursuing the career of her dreams.
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.
For the rest of the story, pick up a copy of emmy magazine, on newsstands now.
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