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When Doris met Doris

Seeing similarities between a sitcom mom and his mother, a reporter sets up lunch, and the topics include ageism, sexism, corned beef and comedy.

October 20, 2002|Brian Lowry | Times Staff Writer

WATCHING the series prototype for "Everybody Loves Raymond" in 1996, long before it blossomed into television's second-most-watched comedy, I was instantly struck by this thought: "Hey, that's my mother."

The reaction, I am pretty sure, was not unique, and one can argue that a significant aspect of the CBS show's appeal stems from people's ability to identify with its situations and personalities -- perhaps none more so than the title character's overbearing mother, Marie, as played by Doris Roberts.

My own mother, it so happens, is also named Doris. And though she doesn't resemble Marie in all ways, they overlap in several key ones -- not the least being that I can't remember ever reaching the living room of my mother's house (one appropriately enters through the kitchen) without being asked if I want something to eat.

In addition, a plot point in the first episode involved Raymond trying to buy his mother a gift by signing her up for a "fruit of the month" club. Watching it, I recognized the blank look of horror that greeted some of our more misguided attempts at buying my mother gifts.

Roberts, I realize, is not Marie, but a gifted character actress who bounced around Broadway, film and television roles -- including a stint on the 1980s series "Remington Steele" -- before becoming an overnight sensation, as it were, in what are now her early 70s. Outspoken and fearlessly willing to criticize CBS for programs such as "Survivor" and "Big Brother," she addressed a U.S. Senate committee in September about ageism in the media, which has become a personal crusade.

When Roberts' publicist called pitching a story about her, a sort-of "My Dinner With Andre" concept seized me -- only this meal would be shared by Roberts and my mother, who lives in the San Fernando Valley and has become a huge fan of "Everybody Loves Raymond."

Forget "When Harry Met Sally." This would be "When Doris Met Doris." If nothing else, I reasoned, putting them together for an hour would, for me, be cheaper than therapy.

Madison Avenue, it should be noted, doesn't care about my mother's viewing habits, since she graduated out of the 18-to-49 age demographic that advertisers covet 30 years ago. Still, Roberts agreed to come to lunch -- a spread of corned beef, turkey salad, potato salad and cole slaw from Art's Delicatessen in Studio City.

Although my mother was never part of the entertainment industry (she worked in the U.S. marshal's office in the 1940s, before she began having kids), she has always been a huge film buff and someone who can rattle off the names of Elizabeth Taylor's various husbands in sequence.

The two hugged when Roberts entered, as if they'd known each other for years. As the discussion progressed, I was surprised by my mother's detailed memory of "Raymond" episodes, until I realized she's been watching the reruns every night in syndication.

Having visited Washington not long before, Roberts began by recounting her experience there, and how she had told the senators, " 'If you were in my business, you'd be out of a job.' Their eyes popped out."

"Look, they've got Strom Thurmond in there, propped up. What is he, 97?" my mother said, while squirting some mustard on corned beef. Thurmond, the senator from South Carolina, is actually 99.

"The thing that really upsets me is the way in which the media treats older people," Roberts continued. "Why are we talked about as old coots, old codgers, old hags, over the hill? That's wrong. They not only dismiss us, but they denigrate us. There's no need for that."

"Really," my mother said.

"I'm working, I'm not looking for a job," Roberts said. "I have a great passion for this subject."

"And you're a good spokesman," my mother said.

"In the last 100 years, the average age of a Nobel Prize winner is 65," Roberts said. "So many people do their best work in their 60s and 70s; why are we being dismissed?"

"I don't know," my mother said. "There's such an accent on youth in Hollywood."

Down to the nitty gritty

My mother had a few specific questions. She wanted to know if Roberts was as good a cook in real life as her character on the show. "They all sit and drool at everything she makes," my mother noted.

Roberts, in fact, is working on a book titled "Are You Hungry, Dear?," a sort-of autobiography interspersed with recipes that she describes as being about "life, laughs and lasagna."

"I was a very good cook," she said. "When my husband died, I stopped cooking. I thought, 'Why am I cooking for myself?' "

At that point, The Times' photographer arrived.

"Would you like something to eat?" my mother asked him, almost before saying hello. I had told her about our plans to photograph the session, but she still wasn't thrilled about the idea.

"I photograph like Grandma Bert," she said, referring to her mother.

Roberts was just warming up about ageism, even after I pointed out that broaching the subject generally makes the executives who run the media business squirm.

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