Acting her rage
Everybody loves Doris Roberts, but it’s a battle for recognition when you’re getting old, writes Darren Devlyn
DON’T assume age has doused the fire in the belly of outspoken actor Doris Roberts. Roberts, one of TV sitcom’s most recognisable faces through her nineyear run as meddling mum Marie Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond, seems as softly spoken and sweet.
Any mention of ageism and its effect on actors and viewers, however, prompts her to lash out at the TV and advertising industries she says are obsessed with youth.
Roberts, 77, is fired up by a recent Guide story explaining the role advertisers play in what we watch and how advertisers fight for viewers deemed the biggest spenders.
In Channel 10’s case, that means viewers aged 18-49; for Nine and Seven, viewers aged 25-54.
Though networks argue the casts of City Homicide, All Saints and Neighbours, for instance, feature older characters, there is no escaping the fact TV has an overtly youthful skew.
Roberts, in Melbourne on a short holiday, believes she speaks for many mature-age actors and viewers in being made to feel redundant.
It’s outrageous, she says, that advertisers and networks think the way they do when over-55s watch more TV — more than four hours a day — than any other demographic.
‘‘Ageism is rampant and it’s wrong,’’ Roberts says. ‘‘There is no reason (for the mature) not to be working. We are living longer, taking better care of ourselves. We are having more sex than in the history of the world and that’s a good thing . . . in fact, it’s a great thing. And I look this good because of it.
‘‘But ageism ... it’s the last bastion of bigotry. Nobody protects older people.
‘‘I’ve been doing a lot of comedy (she won four Emmy awards for her role in Raymond) but I also won an Emmy for playing a bag lady (on St Elsewhere) and I’d love to do more drama. But nobody is writing it for older people. They seem to airbrush us out of society. I’d like ‘old’ struck from the vocabulary and the word ‘older’ used instead because from the moment you are born you are getting older. So call me older, but don’t call me old.’’
Roberts has long been renowned as someone who stands up for her rights. Never was this more apparent than in 2003 when a pay dispute rocked the Raymond cast.
Though star Ray Romano made up to $2.8 million an episode, his costars were on considerably less.
Roberts, Brad Garrett (Robert), Patricia Heaton (Debra) and Peter Boyle (Frank) played hardball with the CBS network and cut a ‘‘backend’’ profit deal that could earn each of them $15-20 million.
Les Moonves, president of CBS, described dealing with Roberts as like negotiating with your mother, conceding she was the ‘‘centre of the wheel’’ on Raymond and that the show couldn’t function without her.
‘‘I knew they couldn’t do the show without me, so the one negotiation I had (with Moonves) was fabulous,’’ Roberts says.
‘‘He listed all the people who’d been fired from TV for asking for money. When he finished I said, ‘I’m grateful to you forever for giving me this part because it’s moved my career to the top. I’ll love you forever and goodbye’.
‘‘So I guess we negotiated. But you have to know when you say that to someone (threaten to quit) that you are prepared to let it go.
‘‘The first run of syndication of Raymond gave CBS $1 billion, so you have to share the money around a little, right?’’
Pay dispute aside, Roberts has nothing but praise for the cast.
Tears well in her eyes when she considers the bond she shared with screen husband Boyle, who lost a battle with cancer 15 months ago.
‘‘We trusted each other, admired each other’s work,’’ Roberts says of Boyle. ‘‘It was as if we’d been married 45 years. I’m a close friend of his wife (Loraine).
‘‘Three years before we finished on the show he came to me and told me he had bone cancer.
‘‘He asked if he should tell them (producers) and I said, ‘Do not tell them because they will treat you like a dying man and you’re not. They won’t write for you, they’ll be worried if you’ll have the strength to do the job’. So for three years we kept this secret. He shared this with me only (not other cast and crew). I was fortunate enough to be in New York when he was dying.
‘‘All of us on that show were grown-ups. We came to work well prepared, knew our lines, we didn’t fool around.
‘‘For four years I worked on Remington Steele. There were three of us and Pierce Brosnan and Stephanie Zimbalist did not speak to each other. Oh my God,’’ she adds sarcastically, ‘‘that was fun.’’