By Frazier Moore
NEW YORK — Patricia Heaton is a wife and mom again.
Of course, much is changed on “The Middle,” her freshman ABC domestic comedy, after “Everybody Loves Raymond,” where for nine hit seasons she played a frazzled hausfrau opposite Ray Romano.
“It’s not normally a great choice, to repeat yourself,” says Heaton, acknowledging her knee-jerk reluctance to go home again, sitcomwise.
But “The Middle,” which airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m., offered her a different place to settle.
“It’s from the mom’s point of view, and it’s not with a bumbling dad who can never do anything right,” she says. “It’s about trying to keep the marriage lively and raise the kids right, but not having enough time and energy to do any of those things.”
It’s also far removed from the Barones’ testy Long Island homestead.
“The Middle” — presided over by its middle-class, nearing-midlife couple, the Hecks — is rooted firmly in the Midwest. There, home is more loving and hopeful than on “Raymond,” if no less challenging, frantic and funny.
And frumpy. At 51, Heaton is a looker, but as pushed-to-the-limit housewife Frankie, she looks authentically dressed down.
“The plainer I am, the better,” says Heaton. “I have these bangs that I clip on. The bangs are the last thing to go on. Then, I can really do the character.”
In their small Indiana town, husband Mike (Neil Flynn) is a manager at a local quarry while Frankie supplements her household duties by trying to sell cars at the town’s lone, struggling auto dealership. Adding to the mix are their kids: sullen high-school jock Axl (Charlie McDermott), insecure preteen wallflower Sue (Eden Shur) and quirky, brilliant 8-year-old Brick (Atticus Shaffer).
“The Middle” should ring true for anyone who has kids or had parents, or ever dreamed of getting an uninterrupted moment to oneself.
And it resonates right now in particular, with much of the country in an economic pinch that seems standard issue for the Hecks.
“But the show is not so much about the bad economy,” says Heaton. “It’s about the American attitude of resilience, and trying to find a new way to do things and put a positive spin on it.”
For Mike and Frankie Heck, the height of celebrating their marriage anniversary is an overnight retreat at a discount motel and a shopping spree at the carpet-remnant outlet.
And by golly, they make it happen, despite all the family imposed obstacles in their way.
The hearty heartland practicality of life for the Hecks surely rings true for Heaton, who grew up in a suburb of Cleveland.
She held on to those values after graduating from Ohio State University and moving to New York, where she struggled to gain a foothold in acting (jobs as a shoe model, among other work, helped pay the bills).
She also grappled with long-buried personal problems, including the unresolved loss of her mother to a brain aneurysm when she was just 12.
“I learned a lot in New York,” Heaton recalls. “I was able to work out all those demons and come to some sort of peace, meet my future husband [British actor David Hunt], get married and be kind of settled before the success came. That was a very loving thing for God to do for me. Because, if it had come any earlier, if I had had money and resources earlier in my life, I would have been dead or in rehab right now.”
In 1989, she and Hunt moved to Los Angeles, where, after a few more false starts professionally, she hit the jackpot with “Raymond” in 1996 — and won a pair of Emmys in the process.
A couple of years ago, Heaton and “Frasier” alum Kelsey Grammer flopped as bickering news anchors in the seemingly foolproof sitcom “Back to You.”
Now, she’s back on more familiar turf — plenty familiar since she and Hunt are busy parents themselves, with four boys ranging in age between 16 and 11.
“There have been times when I was living an episode at the exact moment I was shooting it,” says Heaton.
“There was a scene where Frankie was on the phone with the school trying to solve a problem with one of her kids while she tried to sell a car, and in between takes, while I’m at work at MY job, I’m calling the school trying to solve a problem with one of my kids.”
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