Doris Roberts: One of Our Favorite Mothers

To begin the new year, we are looking at some of my favorite female television stars. We begin the series with Doris Roberts, everybody’s favorite mother.

Doris Roberts (1925-2016) - Find A Grave Memorial
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Doris was born in 1925 in St. Louis. When her parents split up, she went to the Bronx with her mother, and they lived with her grandparents. Her parents ran the Z.L. Rosenfield Agency which provided stenographic services to playwrights and actors. After studying journalism at New York University, she decided to try her hand acting, taking classes at The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City and working with Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio. In the fifties, she could be seen in a variety of Broadway shows including The Desk Set, The Last of the Red-Hot Lovers, and Bad Habits. She worked with Shirley Booth on The Desk Set and credited Booth with being her acting mentor.

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In 1951 she accepted her first role in television, appearing on the show Starlight Theatre. She accepted roles on several 1950s drama shows. In 1956, Doris married Michael Cannata. They divorced in 1962, and a year later she married William Goven, a playwright. They would stay together until his death in 1986.

Doris was offered her first film role in Something Wild in 1961. She would go on to appear in more than 30 movies.

Her television career also began to expand in the sixties when she appeared in about nine drama series. However, it was the seventies when she hit her stride. During that decade, she would make appearances in Mary Hartman, All in the Family, Family, Rhoda, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show in addition to several others.

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Helping Phyllis find a job on The Mary Tyler Moore Show
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On All in the Family, Doris played a bar patron who befriends Edith. Originally, Roberts was offered the role of Vivian on Norman Lear’s show, Maude but at the last minute, Lear asked Rue McClanahan to take the role over. Later Norman stated that he thought Roberts’ character was too similar to Bea Arthur’s Maude. On Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, she played a faith healer Dorelda Doremus.

Doris Roberts: Her Most Memorable TV Roles
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Doris mentioned that Lily Tomlin encouraged her to move to Los Angeles in 1973. After her relocation, Roberts received her first recurring character roles. She would appear in Soap as Flo Flotsky on four episodes, five episodes of Barney Miller, and she had a regular spot as the star’s mother on Angie which ran from 1979-1980.

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Her career continued to flourish throughout the eighties. She had recurring roles on as a gabby hairdresser on Maggie and on Alice as Lavin’s mother, and she was a regular on Remington Steele where Roberts played a former IRS agent who becomes the receptionist for the agency. In addition, she could be seen on Fantasy Island, St. Elsewhere, The Love Boat, Mr. Belvedere, and Cagney and Lacey, along with a variety of other shows.

Her appearance on St. Elsewhere gave her an Emmy win for a guest appearance, playing a homeless woman.

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Roberts on St. Elsewhere
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In the decade of the nineties, we saw her on Empty Nest, Murder She Wrote, and The King of Queens, among others. However, it was in 1996 when she was offered the role that would change her life. From 1996-2005 she came into our living rooms every week as Marie Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond.

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More than 100 actresses were considered for the role. She was nominated for seven Emmys, winning four of them (2001, 2002, 2003, and 2005). Amazingly, Ray Romano as Ray Barone, Peter Boyle as his dad Frank, Patricia Heaton as his wife Debra, Brad Garrett as his brother Robert and Doris Roberts appeared in all 210 episodes of the series.

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Ray Romano discussed the appeal Roberts had for viewers: “Here’s how good she was: She played the most intrusive, overbearing, nosy woman—always starting fights and whatnot and meddling in our business—and yet, when I asked the fans who their favorite character was, all the time it was her. She was so good at portraying the love that was underneath.” In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Doris described the character of Marie Barone: “Nine glorious years; everything good comes to an end. She doesn’t give in, she doesn’t give up and she never takes no for an answer.”

Doris remained friends with the cast, especially her on-screen husband Frank played by Peter Boyle. After his death, Roberts remembered him: “Peter was so different from the characters he played. He was brilliant, well read, sensitive, a gentleman.” Roberts was able to visit him at home and in the hospital and to be with the family after his passing.

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From 2006-2014, her work continued. In addition to a recurring role on The Middle, she appeared on Law and Order, Grey’s Anatomy, Hot in Cleveland, and Desperate Housewives, along with six other less-known shows. Her role on The Middle gave her a chance to work with her Everybody Loves Raymond costar, Patricia Heaton again.

In addition to her acting career, Roberts was a dedicated activist. She testified before Congress about age discrimination in Hollywood, worked with a variety of animal rights groups, and was chairwoman for the Children with AIDS Foundation. She also had a variety of hobbies including traveling, philanthropy, collecting wine, dancing, singing, and cooking. She claimed her favorite movie was Gone with the Wind.

In 2003, Roberts published her memoir cowritten with Danelle Morton, titled, Are You Hungry Dear? Life, Laughs, and Lasagna. She included many of her favorite recipes in the biography.

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In 2016, Roberts died following a stroke. Romano said “Doris Roberts had an energy and a spirit that amazed me. She never stopped. Whether working professionally or with her many charities, or just nurturing and mentoring a green young comic trying to make it as an actor, she did everything with such a grand love for life and people, and I will miss her dearly.”

Patricia Heaton said Doris’s television husband Peter Boyle was sick so the cast was able to prepare themselves for his death, but Doris died quickly. Heaton said “Roberts was funny and tough and loved life, living it to the fullest.”

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One of my favorite quotes by Doris Roberts is that “everybody is a teacher if you listen.” Thanks for teaching and entertaining us for more than six decades.

Bob Newhart: Laughing Through Life

This month I wanted to honor one of our most beloved television comedians: Bob Newhart. Next week we’ll spend some time learning more about The Bob Newhart Show.

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Newhart was born George Robert Newhart in 1929 in Oak Park, IL. He grew up in a typical midwestern family where his father was part owner of a plumbing and heating supply company, and his mom was a housewife. As a young boy, he always wanted to be called Bob. He had a Catholic education and went on to Loyola University of Chicago in 1947. Graduating in 1952 with a business degree, he was soon drafted into the US Army in the Korean war where he stayed until 1954. He considered getting a law degree and went back to Loyola. He decided not to pursue that; some sources site that he was asked to behave unethically during an internship which led him down a different career path.

He worked as an accountant and as an unemployment office clerk. In 1958 he was hired as a copywriter for Fred Niles who was a television producer in Chicago. It was while working here that Newhart and a colleague began entertaining each other by making telephone calls about absurd scenarios. They sent these to radio stations as audition tapes. A radio station disc jockey Dan Sorkin introduced Newhart to a Warner Brothers Records executive who signed him in 1959 based on those recordings. Bob then began creating stand-up routines which he performed at nightclubs.

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He released an album in 1960 which changed his life. Titled, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, the comedy album made number one on the Billboard charts, and he won a Grammy for best new artist. A follow-up album, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back was released soon thereafter. He would continue releasing comedy albums in 1961, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1971, and 1973.

During a 2005 interview for American Masters on public television, Bob stated that his favorite routine was Abe Lincoln vs Madison Avenue which was on his first album. A promoter for Abraham Lincoln has to deal with his reluctance to boost his image. A tv director named Bill Daily suggested the routine to him. Daily would be known later as Howard Borden on The Bob Newhart Show (as well as Roger Healey on I Dream of Jeannie).

The success of that first album led to a variety show titled The Bob Newhart Show. It only lasted a year, but it did receive both an Emmy nomination and a Peabody award. Apparently, he didn’t enjoy his time during the show so much. Halfway through the season he wanted to quit, but his agent explained that being under contract meant that was not possible. At a later date, he referred to his first show, saying “It won an Emmy, a Peabody Award, and a pink slip from NBC. All in the same year.”

He began making the rounds on television shows, appearing on The Dean Martin Show 24 times and The Ed Sullivan Show 8 times. He guest hosted The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson 87 times. When discussing his appearances on Johnny’s show, he stated “I remember once when I emceed The Tonight Show in New York, I arrived with my manager’s son. After a while, they asked, ‘When are the rest of your people coming?’ I had to say, ‘This is it.’”

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In 1962 Newhart accepted his first movie role, Hell is for Heroes, starring Steve McQueen. He would continue to do movie roles throughout his career including the Christmas classic Elf, but the small screen would make him famous.

In 1963 Buddy Hackett introduced Bob to Virginia Quinn, whose father was character actor Bill Quinn. They wed in January of 1963 and 57 years later are still happily married.

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For the next decade, he continued to accept movie and television roles. In 1972, television history was made when The Bob Newhart Show debuted. Until 1978, Newhart played Bob Hartley, psychologist, and we got to know his unusual patients, quirky co-workers, and eccentric friends, including neighbor Howard Borden. Bob chose a psychologist based partly on his old telephone routines. As he said, “Much of my humor comes out of reaction to what other people are saying. A psychologist is a man who listens, who is sympathetic.”

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In 1982, Bob gave television another go for another eight years. Simply titled Newhart, the show featured Bob as Dick Loudon, an innkeeper and author from Vermont. He still had quirky co-workers and eccentric friends.

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On cue a decade later in 1992, Bob showed up in a new show even more simply titled, Bob as Bob McKay a comic book writer and artist who had retired long ago and was trying to get back into the workplace. Unfortunately, after 33 episodes the show was canceled due to low ratings.

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In 1997, Newhart starred in his last sitcom, George and Leo. As George Stoody, a bookstore owner, Newhart offers a temporary home to a full-time magician and part-time criminal who recently robbed a Mafia-owned casino. The series failed to catch on with viewers, and it was canceled after a season as well.

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Though he never took on another sitcom, Newhart has made appearances with recurring characters in several shows. In 2003, he showed up on ER as Ben Hollander. In 2005, he was Morty on Desperate Housewives. As Judson, he guest starred on The Librarians.

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Perhaps, younger audiences know him best as Arthur Jeffries or Professor Proton on The Big Bang Theory. He had been Sheldon’s boyhood hero who played the professor on television. Sheldon idolized the professor while the professor tolerated Sheldon.

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It’s hard to believe with all of his years being a successful television comedian, but Newhart won his first Emmy in 2013 for his role of Professor Proton. I can’t argue with the nominees for most of the 1970s during the airing of The Bob Newhart Show–names like Tony Randall, Jack Klugman, Alan Alda, and Hal Linden. Even with my bias of Norman Lear shows, I get nominating Carroll O’Connor every single one of those years. I understand the tough competition. What I don’t understand is the fact that he was never nominated during that eight-year period. When Jack Albertson wins, and Bob Newhart is not even nominated that is wrong. During the Newhart years, he was at least nominated three times. But I don’t understand it when John Ritter wins for Three’s Company or Richard Mulligan for Soap and no nomination for Bob Newhart. What especially appalls me is the fact that The Bob Newhart Show was only nominated one year; I can accept the fact that it got beat out by The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I cannot accept is that during this same time, Three’s Company, Mork and Mindy, and Welcome Back Kotter received nominations, and The Bob Newhart Show did not. Anyway, this blog is not about the television academy and its procedures, so let’s move on.

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Even though he was never awarded with an Emmy for his time as Bob Hartley, TV Land placed a life-sized statue of Newhart in front of Navy Pier, complete with an empty couch. He was best friends with Suzanne Pleshette, his wife from the show, and spoke at her funeral. He remembered their time together, “Her laugh. Her laugh. We just laughed. We just had a great time. We all loved each other and respected each other and we got paid for it.” Bob also remains close friends with Marcia Wallace who played his receptionist Carol on the show.

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While Bob has appeared as different characters throughout his career, he has also remained the same character. With his deadpan delivery and slight stammer, he perfected the straight-man role, surrounding himself with wacky castmates. He has often cited George Gobel and Bob and Ray as influences in his comedy career. When discussing his career choice, he explained “I like the humor to come out of character. When you’re going for a joke, you’re stuck out there if it doesn’t work. There’s nowhere to go. You’ve done the drum role and the cymbal clash and you’re out on the end of the plank.”

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In 2006, he released a book I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This. It’s a memoir with some of his classic comedy routines. Actor David Hyde Pierce reported that “the only difference between Bob Newhart on stage and Bob Newhart offstage is that there is no stage.”

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I am so appreciative of those stars who agree to entertain us for our entire life, such as Betty White, Carol Burnett, and Bob Newhart. They are classic comedians who can make us laugh no matter what. Bob’s view on comedy was that “laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it and then move on.” What an amazing career and what an amazing man. With all its negatives and sometimes destructive tendencies, television can be a harmful place, but a comedian like Bob Newhart demonstrates what a positive and uplifting experience television can be when done right. Thanks for doing it right for sixty years.

Valerie Harper: You Will Be Missed

This month, my blog’s theme is “Valerie.” I apologize ahead of time to any of you who have the lyrics of the Amy Winehouse song running through your head all month. It’s a great song, but every January blog I wrote kept the song in my brain for a few days.

I decided to begin the series, and the new year, looking at the career of Valerie Harper who passed away in 2019.

Valerie Harper lived to be 80, despite being diagnosed with brain cancer in 2013.

Harper recalled attending an ice-skating show as a child and deciding she wanted to be involved in show business of some type. She loved the lighting, the audience, and the entire theatrical experience. She began her career as a dancer. Joining the Radio City Hall dancers, she transitioned into acting.

She eventually made her way to the Second City troupe in Chicago. After perfecting her comedy skills, she was on to Broadway, appearing in Dear Liar, Story Theatre, Something Different, and Metamorphosis.

Valerie appeared in a few movies and television series during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

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Richard Schaal and Valerie Harper

From 1964-1978, she was married to Richard Schaal. The couple wrote a script for Love American Style in 1969 called “Love and the Visitor.” Harper also acted in the segment “Love and the Housekeeper” in 1971.

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Her big break came when she was offered the role of Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Ethel Winant spotted her in a play and asked her to audition for the role. For four years, she played Mary’s best friend who lives upstairs. Rhoda was a window decorator for a large department store. The characters of Mary Richards and Rhoda Morgenstern were total opposites, but they had a tremendous chemistry and became best friends.

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Although Mary was the nicest person on the show, we all wanted Rhoda to be our best friend. Her humor and attitude toward life made the world a more fun place to be.

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In 1974, Valerie was rewarded with her own show, Rhoda. She marries and returns to New York. Harper won four Emmys during her time as Rhoda between the two shows. After capturing Rhoda’s Jewish persona so accurately, many people were surprised to learn she was not Jewish and grew up Catholic.

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Some of the funniest moments on either of the sitcoms was Rhoda’s relationship with her mother Ida, played by Nancy Walker. Rhoda loved her mother, but was driven absolutely crazy by her.

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When Rhoda was abruptly cancelled, Harper made a cluster of made-for-tv movies.

In 1986, Harper was cast as the lead in the show Valerie’s Family. After being abruptly fired from the show in 1987, she was replaced with Sandy Duncan as the children’s aunt. The plot line was that Valerie died in a car accident and Sandy comes to help out. The show changed its name to The Hogan Family and continued until 1991. Harper sued Lorimar Productions for breach of contract and was awarded $1.4 million plus part of the show’s profits.

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In 1990, City debuted starring Harper. The show only lasted one season. I have never seen this show, but most of the reviews I read were by people who loved it. One write-up on imdb.com concluded “This was the funniest sitcom Valerie Harper has done (except of course for the Mary Tyler Moore Show). The city manager’s office that provided the setting is the perfect locale for the parade of crazies that give comedic impetus to this type of show, The funniest was James Lorinz as the security guard (in one episode, he was convinced that white-out was being stolen to aid illegal immigration; to prove his point, he painted his entire body with it). One of the Mysteries of the Universe is why this failed while “The Hogan Family,” a profoundly mediocre show, lasted several years.”

From that point on, Harper did not star in any other television series, but she did show up in a variety of series and made-for-tv movies, including a recurring role on The Office in 1995.

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Valerie contributed to many causes during her career. She was a big advocate of the Equal Rights Amendment in the ‘70s and ‘80s. She co-founded L.I.F.E. with Dennis Weaver, a nonprofit that gave food to the hungry in Los Angeles.

Valerie re-married in 1987, wedding Tony Cacciotti whom she remained with until her death.

Harper continued in stage work throughout her career. From 2005-2006, she portrayed Golda Meir, touring throughout the US.

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She accepted the role of Claire Bremmer on Desperate Housewives in 2011. In 2013, she returned to her dancing roots, appearing on Dancing with the Stars, partnered with Tristan MacManus.

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In 2009, Valerie was diagnosed with lung cancer. She fought the illness, but in March of 2013, she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, given only months to live. Those couple of months turned into six years. Harper discussed her disease in 2015: “I talk to the cells all the time. I say, ‘What the hell are you doing? Not only are you destructive, coming in and ruining all my plans, but you are dumb! You are killing the host. If you take a low profile, I can live with you, here on the edge of the sword. You can fall one way or the other.’ Right now, things are working fantastically. Tomorrow, I don’t know.” Her philosophy was “We’re all terminal; none of us are getting out of this alive.”

Harper was fondly remembered by her co-stars when she passed away. Mary Tyler Moore who died before Harper, said she was devastated the day Valerie called her to tell her about the cancer. Ed Asner, who played Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Show, remembered his years working with Harper: “A beautiful woman, a wonderful actress, a great friend. . . . Her brilliance burst through and shined its light upon all of us. Goodnight beautiful. I’ll see you soon.”

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Alyssa Milano who played her daughter on an episode of Melrose Place, said “Valerie Harper was always the most gracious and kindest actor on the set. She will be missed. Rest in Peace. ”

Valerie Harper had a unique gift of making us laugh, not at her characters, but with her characters. We could all relate to her. She was a role model for how to keep a positive attitude about living with a terminal illness. It’s a rare person who learns to work hard while making it look easy, fight for causes that help others, inspire others to live better while she was dying, and infuse laughter into every aspect of her life. We will truly miss you Valerie Harper, but we will remember you for all the gifts you left behind for us.