“In the time of your life, live — so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it all.”
These words from William Saroyan’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, The Time Of Your Life, have a connection to Doris Roberts in more ways than one. First, her appearance in the 1955 City Center production of that play was her stage debut. More importantly, these words seem to capture the essence of her life and career. She seems determined to live every minute of her life. And for that, we can all be grateful and inspired.
Doris and I chatted earlier this week about her career, acting, life, and the importance of courage. Here’s our conversation:
You had your stage debut in the 1955 Broadway revival of William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life. That’s astounding. It was astounding. (laughter) The performances were incredible. Did you hear who was in the cast?
Tell me. Gloria Vanderbilt for one. Carol Marcus Grace Saroyan Saroyan Matthau. I say all her names because that’s how many she had. She was married to Saroyan twice. Harold Lang was in it. It was a long time ago. It was quite something. I had three lines. That’s all I had. After Gloria Vanderbilt came on stage and did her scene, which was not very good unfortunately, I came out and said, “It’s floozies like her that raise hell with our racket.” Well, the audience went crazy. They stomped and whistled — their hands went flying into the air. (laughter) At the opening night party, Mr. Saroyan came to me and said, “I’m going to have to cut that line.” I grabbed him by the lapels and I said, “No, please! I only have three lines. Don’t take that one away from me.” So, he didn’t and every night the audience went insane. It was a lot of fun.
In light of the career you’re having and the all the years you’ve already put in, I think it’s poetic your debut was in a play called The Time of Your Life. And I’m still kicking!
You’ve won five Emmys for your work in television. Some might be surprised that your first Emmy was not for your role as Marie on Everybody Loves Raymond. The first one was in 1983 for a dramatic role on St. Elsewhere – I loved that because I played with my dear friend, Jimmy Coco. I loved the work that I did in that show, too. And I’m glad I won the Emmy for it.
One of the recurring themes when other actors are asked about you is how hard you work and how much you work. Your Raymond cast mates are all on record about your tireless work ethic. Where does that drive come from? Very simple — I love what I do. I can’t think of anything else in the world better to do than act. I just adore doing it. I am happiest when I’m working. It’s just great. I’ll tell you a little story that happened to me recently. I was sitting in a little, tiny coffee shop on Robertson and a woman sitting at another table came over to me and said, “God put you here.” And I looked at her and said, “Oh… ok… thank you.” (laughter) She said, “No, no, no — I’m from Iraq and I lost my son in the war. And you – only you — brought me back to want to live. I would watch you on television every night when I came home and you would make me laugh.” Then she told me, “I’m here to be operated on and I came into this little coffee shop and of all the millions of people I could meet in America, YOU are sitting there? Only God could do that.” Isn’t that something? That I act and I love what I’m doing and that I could make someone’s life better – oh my goodness. If I have a bad day, I think of that moment.
The ability to touch someone through a performance goes beyond talent. When that’s going on there’s usually something happening at the heart level. At that point you’re bringing something of yourself to the character that touches the audience. How much of being able to do that came from your training with renowned acting coach Milton Katselas? He was the best. He asked me once to do Anastasia. So I read all these books on Anastasia the Empress and I came in with a Russian accent. I did two sentences in Russian. The first was directed to the two men on the stage who were my guards – to tell them to pick this young woman up and throw her out of the room. And the second was to tell them to go get her and bring her back in. Both sentences in Russian. At the end of it the class was very responsive and they gave me a little standing ovation, which was lovely. Then Milton said to me, “I don’t like the way you’ve done your hair.” I pulled out a picture of the Empress and showed him that I had imitated the way she wore her hair. He said, “Yes…but that’s the way Anastasia’s Empress did it. What’s Doris’s Empress like?” (pause) That boy changed my acting. I didn’t hide anymore. I bring more of myself to everything I do now. So, he did a lot for me. He gave me the courage to do that. And I will always be grateful to him.
Courage is a word I associate with actors the more I’m around them and watch what they have to do. Where do you summon that courage from when you’re stuck or afraid in your work? You go to what the character is doing and you try to focus only on that. You don’t worry about the response from the audience. You do your homework. It’s a craft. A lot of young actors think showing up is enough but that’s not what it’s about. It’s a real craft. A lot of homework should be done. It’s exploring and improvising. Then it’s very exciting when that character comes alive.
What are some other things you saw Milton Katselas do that helped actors learn and grow in their craft? First of all the room was filled with love. There were no cliques. If anyone went on stage we all went on stage. You were quite secure that you were going to be taken care of. You knew you were going to be approved of and accepted and you were going to be given the best chance to do your work. I love going to class. I still go to class every Saturday morning.
At the Beverly Hills Playhouse? I sure do. Every Saturday.
What’s a typical Saturday class like for you? Are you teaching, being taught or all of the above? All of the above! (laughter) It’s wonderful.
TOUCHED is a new movie that premieres on the PixL movie channel February 8. It’s a dramatic movie and you have the lead. It’s a meaty role and you have to carry the film. What was your experience like from an acting perspective working on this movie? The courage it took was to be as mean as I had to be, because actors all want to be loved. It’s a role that’s really acerbic. She screams at people and treats them very badly. But there’s a scene in which she asks one of the nurses to stay. And the nurse says, “Why should I? You’ve already fired me.” And my character finally tells her the truth – that she’s afraid of dying and she doesn’t want to be alone. That’s why she behaves the way she behaves. It’s not right, but that’s why. So, I had to have the courage to play that character really mean.
How challenging is it to play a character who is making choices you would never make in real life? Or that you hope you wouldn’t make. Once I have the character down in my brain and my imagination, I’m pretty free to follow whatever the right path is for her. But I have to do that work first so that I’ll be on the right road. And I have a good imagination. When I was in kindergarten I was in a play and I had one line: “I am Patrick Potato and this is my cousin Mrs. Tomato.” (laughter) And I heard that laughter and that’s the bug that’s been biting me ever since. I love to be able to make you laugh and cry in the same sentence. I’m blessed that I’m doing what I do. Just blessed. I can’t think of anything that would give me the joy that I have from acting.
What’s different about Norma from any other character you’ve played? I don’t think I’ve ever played a character as mean as this one. But you understand her in that one scene when she admits she’s afraid of dying. Because we’re all afraid of that in some way, but in order to let people really know who you are, you have to have the courage to let them see that fear. That is the underbelly of this woman – the softness about her that she’s in pain, that she has problems with her son. You have to have courage to let others see that – and she finally does have the courage to let others see it. When you see that in another person, you have to take another look. You have to say, “Wait a minute, I’ve misjudged this woman. She has pain in her life and she’s doing the best she can with it.” [Norma] does end up doing the best she can – there’s a happy ending and a love story. It’s all there.
What do you hope the audience takes away from TOUCHED? That you have to give people a second chance. You have to look closer. Sometimes we hide from showing people our pain. You know, we cover it over. We don’t want to show that we’re weakened. Or we don’t want to cause anyone discomfort by making them listen to our story so we cover up. But we shouldn’t have to cover it over. Friendship accepts all of that.
It’s interesting that you bring up friendship – because friendship is a major theme in TOUCHED. In the movie we see some characters struggling to have authentic friendships and others pressing on until they achieve an authentic friendship. Sometimes women, unfortunately, think that in order to survive you have to be tough. We don’t. We just have to be honest. If you keep that tough shell over yourself, you’re never going to let people know who you are – who you really are. You have to have the courage to show who you are and just know that some people will accept you and some people won’t. The people who can’t accept you – that will be their problem, not yours.
Was there pain or loss in your life that helped you come to these realizations? Oh absolutely. My second husband* died – a few years ago now. I was alone. My son was out of the house – he was in school. I had no one. I loved this man very much. I didn’t know which way to turn. So what I did was put a lot of my energy into the acting and it kept me occupied. I didn’t allow myself too much time to mourn because you have to move on. You have to move on or else you’re just left behind and you get sicker and weaker and more afraid. And that’s not good for anybody. (*Doris’s husband was celebrated author, William Goyen. They were married from 1963 until his death in 1983.)
This film is a kind of entertainment that some would say is in short supply today. I’m so proud to be a part of TOUCHED. I go to the movies and I see all the movies when it’s Oscar time. I’m so tired of watching the violence that’s in movies today, and the pornography that’s in the movies. To think that a movie so full of life, like TOUCHED is available at home without commercials, is just amazing. And I look forward to many more of these kinds of movies. I hope a lot of people watch it and enjoy it. And I hope we see many more movies like it.
TOUCHED premieres on PixL on Saturday February 8. For more information visit PixL’s website.
Doris also appears in THE LITTLE RASCALS SAVE THE DAY premiering March 18.