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Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal and Doris Roberts worked together for nine years on the hit CBS comedy. But their friendship went much deeper, as Rosenthal tells it. After all, she essentially played a fictionalized version of his own mother. The writer and executive producer remembered his former colleague, who passed away Sunday at 90. Rosenthal recalls Roberts’ audition for the role, how she made the part her own and her many fans, including a certain pop star.
I based the character loosely on my mother, so it was a very personal character to me. The very first audition scene that all the actors reading for Marie Barone read with was taken from my actual life. It was a story that really happened to me, where I gave my parents a gift of the fruit of the month club and my mother reacted as if this was the greatest burden that could be received by anyone, right? I read about 100 women for this part, everyone of a certain age in Hollywood and in New York read with this scene, and Doris Roberts came in and there wasn’t even a close second. She was so hilarious and she just hit it out of the park and she got the mother that was in my head because it was my mother in tone and spirit.
Then she went onto, over the years, create a character based on our writing for her that was indelible. She was a very strong character, and really funny and kind of a rock in the center of the show, and kind of a rock in the center of our lives on the show because she was very, very nurturing and supportive of everyone around her. She was the ultimate professional actress who took class every week even after the show to prove that you can never stop learning. She did it really because she loved the craft so much, and she cared deeply about the craft. She had a fantastic bullshit detector. She had it in life and she had it on the stage. She won five Emmys for her portrayal of Marie Barone, and it’s a testament to her and her abilities and her warmth and humor.
We hit on something very early on, when we wanted to justify how could she do all these terrible things? How could she sabotage her own daughter-in-law? She was kind of the antagonist of the show. I wouldn’t say the villain, but she was the one that most of the other characters were going up against in the show and in the family. When we were trying to figure out what was her justification? What was Marie’s justification for behaving that way, what we hit on was that everything she did came from love. I told her that and because she’s such a smart and great actress, she got it instantly and that gave her the license to kill. She killed every week, and I mean that in the nicest way as a comedian means it. If you watch any clip or any episode, you see somebody scoring left and right. Just on a facial expression, on a well-timed line and on dramatic moments, too.
The last time I saw her, my wife and I took her to see Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett at the Hollywood Bowl. We had a lovely time and we went backstage and we met Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, and Lady Gaga gushed all over. She couldn’t believe she was meeting Doris. She loved Doris. She watched the show and was a fan and that was something, because here’s somebody that you wouldn’t expect to be an Everybody Loves Raymond fan or a Marie Barone fan.
We were very lucky. We had a notoriously close cast and crew, so this is really a death in the family.
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