Actress Patricia Heaton's secret to success
Moms. That’s what I’m best known for playing on TV.
Maybe you’ve seen me as beleaguered stay-at-home mom Debra Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond or in my current role as Frankie Heck, a Midwestern car saleswoman and mother of three, on The Middle.
In real life I’m a mom too, of four boys! I love my family and I’m grateful to be making my living as an actress—both are huge blessings in my life—but there was a time when I wasn’t sure I’d have either.
It was 1989 and I’d just moved to Los Angeles after a nine-year stretch of trying to make it as an actress in New York. I was 31 years old (that’s ancient in Hollywood) and was renting the cramped back bedroom of my cousin’s girlfriend’s mother’s house—yup, that’s how low I was on the totem pole. I had gotten engaged—my fiancé, David, was also an actor—and was just barely scraping by, auditioning for every bit part you can imagine.
Back in my hometown, Bay Village, Ohio, most of my friends were married, with families, and had homes and steady jobs. I longed for that. Still, I put acting first. It was what I’d always dreamed of doing, a life plan that was somehow meant for me. My dad, a sportswriter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and my mom, a homemaker, instilled in my three sisters, my brother and me a strong sense of faith.
We went to church as a family every Sunday. We said grace before meals and read stories from our collection of books on the lives of the saints. God was in everything that we did and we soaked it in. Then, when I was 12, my mother died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. Losing her was the hardest thing I’d ever gone through, but at the same time it cemented my belief in everything I’d been taught. Especially that life is a journey, and it’s short, so we should live for God and do the best we can.
Now, though, eking out a living in Los Angeles, I was starting to doubt that. I mean, I was doing the best I could, and here I was still struggling after years of work. Where was my big break? And how would David and I ever support the family we’d dreamed of if I didn’t get a steady job?
One Sunday, a few weeks after I’d moved, I drove around the city and prayed to God (okay, more like argued) about how I felt. If this is what I’m supposed to be doing, why isn’t there a single door opening? Why, Lord?! What are we doing wrong here? There was no answer. No epiphany. Just silence.
Shortly afterward I heard about a mission trip to an orphanage in Mexico through the church we had started going to, First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. The kids at the orphanage didn’t have a lawn to play on, so volunteers were needed to go down there and lay some sod.
My parents had always taught us to help someone else whenever we were feeling sorry for ourselves…and this was definitely one of those times! I called David and told him about it. “I think this’ll be good for us,” I said. I had to admit, it would also be nice to have a few days when I didn’t have to worry about finding work.
David and I packed up a van full of church members and off we went. A bumpy three-hour ride later, we arrived at the Sparrows Gate Orphanage, a collection of humble stucco buildings run by a couple who introduced themselves as Dean and Alba Tinney. “Let’s get to work, guys!” they said nearly the second we got out of the van.
We were split into groups—one to help repair broken sewage lines and another to dig into the dry ground to prepare it for the sod. It was my first real exposure to hard physical labor and to Third World living. I didn’t speak Spanish and the kids didn’t speak English, so during breaks we played ball together and just plain ran around, laughing. At night, the volunteers slept in little bunkers on cots. There was total technology deprivation—no TV or radio or phone.
When the project was finished, we threw the kids a party to celebrate. I looked at all their bright, shining faces and felt connected to something much bigger than myself. I might have been only 150 miles from Los Angeles but I felt worlds away.
On the drive back I couldn’t stop thinking about the trip. Something, inexplicably, had changed inside me. The feeling of remoteness from daily life, the physical labor and those joyful kids had brought me complete fulfillment…and it was fulfillment in something that had nothing to do with me being a successful actress! In fact, it was the complete opposite. It was about being involved in something that wasn’t about me. And to think, if I hadn’t joined the church, I would’ve missed the trip altogether. Maybe God does know what he’s doing after all, I thought.
That night, I knelt down in that little back bedroom I called home and I prayed aloud. “Okay, Lord,” I said. “I’m sorry for arguing with you before. You can have this whole acting thing. I’ve been hanging on to it till it has practically become an idol. I will walk away from it if it’s not what you have in store for me. I will do whatever you want me to do, but you have to make it really, really clear.”
As I spoke it hit me that in all my years of praying and going to church, this was the first time that I had relinquished complete control of my life to God.
Not long after, I landed a six-episode stint on thirtysomething, a guest appearance on Matlock, and more auditions than ever before—all without an agent or a manager. And you know what? If I didn’t get a part, I wasn’t devastated. I didn’t torture myself about it. It didn’t seem like the end of the world, because I knew that God had it under control.
Remember how I said I longed for a family too? The following year, 1990, David and I got married. Three years later we had our first son, Sam. Three more boys followed: John, Joseph and Daniel. And then it finally came—my big break on Everybody Loves Raymond. I was able to bring the boys to work with me, something I know was a huge blessing from God, since a lot of moms don’t have that option.
Today, the boys are almost all teenagers, and I work 12 to 14 hours a day on my new show, The Middle—although they’re so busy with school and extracurricular activities I think they hardly notice! I try to instill in them that same faith I had as a child. David and I take them to church every Sunday, and we always say our prayers before bed.
The boys like to incorporate prayers for family and friends and whatever’s happening that week, things like “Lord, let Nana have a safe trip home tonight,” or “Please help my younger brother do well on his test this week.” It’s all very sweet.
We’re hoping to take the kids to the Sparrows Gate Orphanage at some point (ever since we could afford to, David and I have been financial supporters of the organization). We want to teach them the importance of the kind of work Dean and Alba do. Last spring my oldest son and I traveled to the African country of Sierra Leone for a 10-day medical mission. It’s good for the boys, I think, to step outside of L.A. and outside of themselves.
Whenever I worry about their futures, their health and what they’ll do when they grow up (their ideas on that change by the minute, from gamer to musician to actor to guitarist), I pray that they’ll spend their lives in service to others and loving other people, in the knowledge that God created them to do good.
One thing I don’t worry about, though, is whose hands their futures are in and who they can turn to when they’re not sure what choice to make. Because when we fully surrender to God, just as I did in that tiny back bedroom many years ago, he gives us all we need. And sometimes abundantly, more than we can imagine.
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