Chapter 1: In the Beginning: My First Act
In the Beginning: My First Act “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”
Bread, booze, and burrata. If anyone would have told me a few years ago that I would be giving up my three most favorite things on the planet (hubs and boys excluded, of course), I would have taken you straight to the nearest psych ward—because that’s just pure craziness.
But getting old makes you do crazy things… or is it that you’ve finally become sane, and realized what matters most?
In any case, here I am today, over two years without my gorgeous old fashioned, my caprese salad, or my brioche loaf. Why, you might ask? Well, like with so many other things, I blame it on my kids. I’m sixty-two, and my boys don’t seem anywhere near having children, or even steady girlfriends, yet. It could be a good ten to fifteen years before that happens—if it happens. That would put me firmly in my seventies by the time I get to be somebody’s “Nana.” God forbid I’m a drooling, wrinkled sack of bones propped up in a Rascal, receiving the reluctant but compulsory peck on the cheek from little, frightened grandkids.
So because my body and mind are in decline, I decided I need to do everything in my power to keep death at arm’s length and keep myself in tip-top shape, even if it means saying good-bye to Gorgonzola, farewell to French toast, and so long to sauvignon blanc!
Now, no one is guaranteed a single day of life, but assuming I have at least a few years left (God willing) I want to make the most of them.
But there’s another reason I wanted to make some changes. The glorious years of raising my family are behind me, and during the time I was deep into them, I didn’t have much time for anything else other than acting. Now that the boys have more or less launched, some space has opened up in my life to explore those other interests that were put on hold twenty-some years ago. Now if I could only remember what they were… just kidding.
I have lived a life beyond my wildest dreams, and I’m so grateful. Life wasn’t handed to me on a silver platter by any stretch. I’ve worked hard, skinned my knees, cried my eyes out, regretted, doubted, and second-guessed myself along the way. Handing everything over to God changed my life. I’ve gone up and down many different paths, and looking back, I see how the seed for my second act was clearly planted in my first act. I think you’ll find the same is true for you, too.
My first act was, and still is, of course acting, which has been my passion since I can remember. I heard passion described like this: When you do what you love to do at a moderate level, you can call it a hobby. But when you go all out with it to the point that someone deems you
one step short of crazy, that’s passion.
Throughout the years, I’m sure people looked at my life and thought that I have indeed been one step short of crazy in my pursuit of acting. During my early years in New York, a college roommate visited me in a studio apartment I was renting and I heard that when she went back to Ohio she told everyone, “Patty lives in a shoebox!” She was right. But once you’ve garnered some success in your career, most people find “crazy” to be perfectly acceptable.
Growing up, I had no encouragement from anyone to pursue acting or to get into the entertainment business. It wasn’t that anyone dismissed me or discouraged me, it’s just that no one in my family had any connection to that world. However, I’ve just naturally been a performer all my life. As early on as elementary school I was making up songs in Sister Delrina’s class and performing them like I was on Broadway—minus my name in lights and the moldy dressing rooms in the basement. And when my older sisters would bring home a new Barbra Streisand album or the cast recording of Oliver!
or The Sound of Music
, I would immediately memorize the songs and have all my girlfriends in the neighborhood learn them, too, so we could sing for family and friends, or at the very least, belt those tunes out into the universe as we sailed along on a swing set.
I was also an avid reader, and when I had a book with a particularly compelling story line, I would gather my playmates, assign them roles, and act the whole thing out. In fact, everything in my world was potential material for a performance. I loved pretending, I loved dressing up. I had a vivid imagination that was fueled by having only three channels on the black-and-white TV growing up. And no internet. (I just reread that last sentence and realized I am very old.) When you have virtually no entertainment, you pretty much have to be the entertainment you seek. And so I was in every respect! I was fortunate to be surrounded by a gaggle of girls on my street who loved singing, dancing, reading, drawing, creating, dressing up, and playacting as much as I did.
As I got older, my love for performing grew even stronger. I was always auditioning for plays and musicals. Strangely enough, when it came time to choose a college and a career, I didn’t immediately decide to major in theater. My mother passed away when I was in the seventh grade, and she was the only one to take notice of my performer’s personality. She signed me up for ballet and acting classes, but she wasn’t there when it came time for me to figure out where to go to college and what to study. And unlike today, there was no tutoring, no SAT prepping, and no college tours. From our neighborhood, everyone pretty much went to the closest state school. My sisters and brother went to Kent State, so it was assumed I would go there, too, no questions asked. But one bad experience there colored my view of the school. When I was in middle school, I went there to visit my oldest sister, Sharon, and she had me watch the Hitchcock thriller The Birds
. Pretty scary stuff. We also ate pizza and drank Hawaiian Punch, and the combination of all three of those things made me throw up. I could never look at Kent State the same way again. The only other school I had ever visited was Ohio State. And by “visit,” I mean I had gone there to watch my high school sweetheart at a wrestling match one time. That was better than nothing, so I became an Ohio State Buckeye, and that’s all the thought that went into my higher education.
I next had to decide on my major. No one ever said, “Gee, Patty, you like to sing and be in plays. Do you think you want to be an actor?” And why would they? My father worked as a sportswriter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer
, and had no interest in theater or music. No one I knew had ever had anything to do with any aspect of the entertainment industry. My older sister Alice seemed to be headed for an acting career, winning a summer acting scholarship and studying theater at Kent State. But when my mother died, Alice came home to take care of me and my younger sister, Fran, and her aspirations were set aside. So the only other theatrical event in the family was the yearly roast for the newspaper my dad sang in (badly) and acted in (worse). In fact, journalism was what we knew best, so it was journalism I picked. My dad assumed that after college I would come home, and he would use his connections to get me a job at the local paper or with one of the TV stations. At that point in my life, I had never even been on a plane, so the idea that I would end up in Hollywood was entirely unthinkable.
But I was deeply unhappy in college and it wasn’t until the middle of my junior year that I realized the depression I had been experiencing since my mother’s death wasn’t just due to her passing or the lack of counseling I received for it. It was also because I wasn’t pursuing my passion. I liked writing but not journalism—I always thought that I was more interesting than the people I had to interview. That’s an actor’s ego right there, folks! But in my own defense, there wasn’t a lot of anything interesting in Columbus in the ’70s. I finally decided I was going to pursue a career in acting, or at the very least, change my major.
Making the Switch
It took quite a bit of courage to tell my dad that I wanted to change my major to theater. Think Dorothy approaching the great and powerful Oz. Because both my dad and brother were journalists, and I wasn’t half bad at writing, majoring in it made sense to my dad. It’s just what our family did. So as I prepared my speech in my head, I just knew I was going to get a lot of resistance, and I dreaded the battle. But I dreaded journalism even more. I finally screwed up the courage to tell Dad. Looking back, I’m not sure why I was so trepidatious. Sure, my dad helped me take out the loan for college, but I was the one paying it back, and if I was paying for college myself, it should be my decision, right? I had a good argument in my mind, but still, I guess we all need our parents’ approval. I’ll never forget sitting across from him in our living room one weekend, nervously wishing I had Toto to cling to. My dad was sitting there in his T-shirt and jogging shorts, legs crossed, reading the newspaper. It was quiet for a moment. I finally just said, “Dad, I want to change my major to theater.” He looked up at me, paused for a moment, and said, “That’s fine.” And that was it. No problemo. I realized later that it wasn’t so much that he was “fine” with theater, he just didn’t believe that I would actually pursue it after college. I’m sure he was certain that I would come home, and he would get me a job locally, in journalism, as predicted.
I wonder how often people don’t pursue their passion because they feel they need to get permission from someone first? How often do we take the road of what’s expected of us even though it’s a road we were never meant to travel?
Baby Steps to the Elevator
There’s a scene in the 1991 film What About Bob?
where an accomplished psychiatrist played by Richard Dreyfuss is helping Bob, a man riddled with phobias, played by Bill Murray. In his office, the psychiatrist explains to Bob that he doesn’t have to worry about every detail of his life, he only needs to take “baby steps” or set small, reasonable goals, one choice at a time. Bob feels a sense of relief and renewed purpose. He starts with baby steps across the office floor, then baby steps down the hall, then baby steps to the elevator. The doors open, revealing an elevator packed with people. Unfortunately, Bob is claustrophobic. Bob takes a deep breath, coaching himself quietly to take baby steps into the elevator, and as soon as the doors close, we hear Bob completely lose it, screaming at the top of his lungs as the elevator descends. Gotta love Bill Murray.
Though that didn’t go well for Bob, the philosophy is a good one. My journey to a long and successful career in Hollywood was just a series of baby steps, the first one being changing my major in college. Ohio State is not known for its theater department, but that was what was available to me in the moment, so I took it—a baby step. That baby step also had a huge impact on my mental well-being. I was a long way from making my living as an actor, but the feeling of knowing I was doing what I loved, and what I believed I was supposed to be doing, helped alleviate some of my depression.
At this point, I was ready to graduate from Ohio State. I did what I had to in order to finish up a BA in theater on time. It consisted of taking a couple of acting classes, some theater history, costume design, play analysis, and being involved in a few productions. I got it done, but it didn’t prepare me at all for a career in the theater, or even for one of those Old West shows at Cedar Point amusement park. In this business, the smart way to go about building an acting career is to go to a reputable theater school. You graduate after having done lots of school productions, so when you’re out job hunting, you get a hand up from the schools’ alumni. If you come from Juilliard or Yale or Carnegie Mellon, there are a lot of successful alumni who will open a door for you. Plus, all of your classmates are up-and-coming writers and directors who know you and will cast you in their productions in New York. I didn’t have any of that at Ohio State.
After I graduated, I really didn’t know what I was going to do. So I went back home and got a job as a waitress at a local Cleveland restaurant that had a slight whiff of the mob to it. I was the sorority girl wearing a Peter Pan collar and pearl necklace among hardened old gals with bouffant hairdos and blue eyeshadow. I couldn’t get a drink order straight to save my life. On my second day of work, my high school pal Kathy called me and said, “Hey! Let’s move to New York!” Without a second thought, I wrote a note and left it at the hostess desk for my boss, saying, “I quit—I’m going to New York.” And I never looked back. This wasn’t quite a baby step, but I knew it had to be my next step.
Well, first I had to have one more big conversation with my dad. This one wouldn’t be as simple as the last one. I announced to him that I was moving to New York and he said, “Oh no, you’re gonna stay here and I’ll get you a better job.” In that moment it dawned on me that I didn’t need his permission anymore, and I gently replied, “I’m not asking you, Dad, I’m telling you.” He was a bit taken aback, but I remember I detected a slight smile on his face. And he said, “Well, in that case, I’ll give you eight hundred dollars. Good luck.” And with that, I was off to the Big Apple!
(Side note: Today, I simply could not imagine letting my kids go off to another city without knowing where they were staying, who they were going with, or what kind of job they were getting. I’m not sure which kind of parenting style is better… I suspect my dad’s is.)
Kathy arrived in New York before I did and got us a fourth-floor walk-up in midtown with no air-conditioning in July. The only other person I knew in New York besides Kathy was my brother Michael, who I saw very little of the first year I was there. As far as getting a career going, I knew nothing. I had no agent, no manager, no headshots, no acting classes, and no real training—just a little bit of raw talent and a whole lot of passion. I didn’t know what I was doing. At all. I think the lesson here is that when the steps you are taking only make sense to you, when you go against everyone’s better judgment because you simply can’t function on this planet otherwise, when your passion pushes you to seek your fortunes in a place you’ve never been before, then maybe that’s really what you have
to do. Now, if you can do it in a way that makes a bit more sense than the way I did it—like possibly have an actual plan or make some connections first… well, that would be good, too. But when you’re on your own like I was, you just say a prayer to your guardian angel and head out the door.
I guess you could say I was operating on a wing and a prayer, minus the wing. But I figured if I would just keep moving forward, doors would open that needed to open, and the ones that stayed closed… well, I would pound my head against them until I was bruised and bloodied, and then do it some more. It took about fifteen years before doors actually started opening, but I did get little bits of encouragement along the way. And though there were often times when the flame inside of me sputtered, it never completely died out.
What also made it difficult was that everyone I had grown up with was getting married and having children, buying homes, and finding jobs—basically being normal people with normal lives. I was living with two roommates in an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, sleeping on an old crappy futon, next to a dresser I picked up at the Salvation Army. (Incidentally, stripping that dresser and re-staining it was great therapy for me at a time when I couldn’t afford a human therapist.) But not only did I not have a career in acting, I didn’t have a career in anything. I was either hostessing at various restaurants, running the Xerox machine at People
magazine, or proofreading in mergers and acquisitions at Morgan Stanley. I would do anything I could to stay afloat. But you know what? I was okay with that. I was poor but mostly happy, pursuing what I loved. At Morgan Stanley I was surrounded by Wall Street types who drove out to their houses in the Hamptons on the weekend, while I toiled away with my little theater company, trying to produce a play. I never felt any envy or jealousy because I was doing what I loved and didn’t need a house in the Hamptons or a car to get there. When I got to my happy place—the stage—I actually felt like the richest, most successful gal in the world.
Even now, I think, What if it hadn’t worked out? What if I hadn’t become successful? What if I had spent fifteen or twenty years going down this path and I hadn’t gotten
Everybody Loves Raymond or
The Middle or any of the other shows that led me to where I am now?
All things considered, I think I would still have been happy that I pursued the path that I did. The fact is, it would have killed
me to do anything else, like work in an office. The few times that I did have an office job, I had an internal time bomb that would go off around the six-month mark. I would start self-sabotaging—show up late, call in sick—I just couldn’t do it anymore. I’d end up getting fired or quitting. I much preferred the variety of working in a restaurant or temp job, where every day was different and I would meet new people constantly. As it happens, that’s the perfect temperament for someone in the entertainment industry—new scripts, new actors, new shows—it’s ever-changing. So even if I hadn’t been successful, I still would have been glad I gave it a shot. Thankfully, things started to happen for me, little by little.
The love affair I had with New York started fading at around year eight or nine. I was getting worn down by the fast pace and the rushing around, without much to show for it. I had taken many acting classes, paid for numerous headshots, lived in seven different sublets and one rented apartment over the course of those years, and I didn’t feel like I was making much progress. It wasn’t all a complete waste of time. I learned so much from my wonderful two years in the Meisner program taught by the extraordinary William Esper. I had produced a couple of plays and received a good review from the New York Times
. But I had also gotten married and divorced, struggled with depression, and had mounting debt. There was one distinct moment toward the end of my time in New York, when the smell of the urine in the subway finally got to me, and I decided I had done all that I could in that crazy city. Yes, I was ready to give up New York, but not quite ready to give up acting.
I had been to LA once, to participate in some industrial shows. I was hired to sing and dance about the products of companies like Kinny Shoes and Avon. These industrial shows were paid trips out west that introduced me to the big open sky, the sunshine, the happy attitudes of Californians. So, when my current husband, Dave (who was my then boyfriend), told me he was going to LA for work and asked if I could join him with his frequent flyer companion ticket, I said yes! I was excited to leave behind dreary New York City for the bright and sunny City of Angels. I worked out the details in my mind: I had a little extra money coming in from a commercial I had shot, and I had a cousin in LA who I could stay with. I would take the play I produced in New York and produce it in LA and invite casting directors to see it. It was more of a plan than I’d ever had in my life, and it sounded brilliant to me. Baby steps.
I packed my bags (and a huge box of sample shoes I had bought when I was shoe modeling) and told my very patient roommate, Barb, that I may or may not be back… and off I went. I arrived in LA only to find out that my cousin had a cat to which I was highly allergic, so he set me up in the back bedroom of his girlfriend’s mother’s house in West Hollywood. Right after I placed my toothbrush in the bathroom (with no cat hair, thank God), I set about using my commercial money to produce my play.
There was an openness to LA that I never experienced in New York. Whereas the theater community tended to be smaller and more tightly knit and much harder to break into in New York, LA was very different. People were much more laid back, which I attribute to the year-round gorgeous weather and the abundance of beach access. So I produced the play, got a lot of casting people to attend, and started getting auditions for myself, even though I didn’t have an agent. I also started attending an arts group at the local Presbyterian church. I found a community of faith and started a new life.
Laying Down the Dream
Letting go of something you love is never easy. Being willing to release a dream, to bury it like a seed, takes faith and trust. Somehow, a farmer trusts the process of planting a seed, and when he lets go of what he has in his hand, he knows he will get a harvest in return. After all, a seed is really just potential. The question is: In our own lives, are we willing to let go and trust the process?
While I was in New York, I was really struggling for work. I felt like I just couldn’t get ahead. I would have angry internal conversations with God. I’d say, “Why would You give me this desire and then shut all the doors? Seriously, this isn’t funny!”
I got to the point that when I was auditioning, I just couldn’t control my nerves because every role meant so much to me. Each opportunity felt like it would make or break me and I just carried a lot of insecurity and frustration about it all. The irony of the situation was that I believed deep down that God created me to be an actor, but I was behaving like it was all up to me to make it happen. I was not willing to let go and trust the process. I was doing it my way and mad at Him for not helping me. It was at this point that acting became more than a passion; it became an obsession—it became the center of my life. Today, people looking from the outside might say, “Well, acting is the center of your life. It’s what you do. You are an actor and producer.” And yes, I do those things, but they are not the center of my life. Those things don’t define me. If it all went away I would still have an identity outside of that because my faith is the center of who I am.
Back when I was living in New York, I hadn’t yet made this internal shift. In my mind, if I didn’t become a successful actor, I’d have to retreat to a mountain in Tibet and live in monk-like silence with my shame. I carried this pressure and frustration with me to LA. At the time, the Presbyterian church I was attending was organizing a mission trip to an orphanage in Mexico. I decided to go and roped Dave into going with me. We were just there for the weekend doing some repairs on the building and playing with the kids. We laid down some sod that I was sure would never grow, and fixed a sewage line that I hoped would stay fixed. Though none of us spoke Spanish and none of the kids spoke English, we connected in a meaningful, authentic way. I’ll never forget their sweet smiles as they shyly held our hands when we threw them a little party. When the weekend was over, I returned to LA, and I noticed something was different inside me. For the first time in forever, I experienced… peace. It was an unbelievable peace that I can’t even describe. Unbeknown to me, God had really been working on my heart in Mexico. Afterward, I honestly thought, Well, I don’t need to be an actor. I could go right back and work as a missionary in that orphanage and be satisfied for the rest of my life.
Being raised a devout Catholic, I knew I needed to have a little chat with God about it all. So I knelt down in my cousin’s girlfriend’s mother’s back bedroom that I was renting in West Hollywood and just said, “Lord, I give it all to you. I get it now. Here’s the acting. I will stop pursuing it if that’s what you want me to do and I’m happy to go back and work in that orphanage.” Then something happened that I will never forget. As the words came out, I could almost physically feel a transformation inside of me. It wasn’t an easy prayer and it came from the depths of my being. As I prayed, I had a visual in my mind of a rod bending, which to me represented my will and my pride softening as I made the decision to surrender. And then, suddenly, I felt a release. It’s hard to describe, but it was a release of the pressure, worry, stress, and burden I was carrying. I immediately felt light and truly free inside. It was like an exchange took place inside me—I gave God control and He gave me rest for my soul.
I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next, so then I said to God, “I’m giving this all to you, but right now all I see before me are upcoming auditions. So I’m going to keep pursuing those things as long as they keep coming and if you have another path for me please show me very clearly and I’ll go down that road. But I need you to make it very, very clear.” And that was my prayer.
After that, I was very different at my auditions. I wasn’t as obsessed with getting the job or scared about running back to Cleveland with my tail tucked between my legs. Mostly I was just excited to see what I could do with the material. I wanted to present something wonderful to the producers, casting directors, or whoever else was in the room. I wanted to make them smile and help them find something they didn’t even know was there. It was really actually fun when I stopped worrying about whether or not they liked me.
For me, handing everything over to God changed my life. After my prayer, I had so much more joy and confidence and—lo and behold—I started getting work! I felt reconnected to acting in a way that started to elude me while I was in New York. Acting became fun again—which is the way it should be!
A few years later, I landed my career-defining role as Debra Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond
, which ran for nine seasons on CBS, followed by my role as Frances “Frankie” Heck on the ABC sitcom The Middle.
And somewhere in the midst of all that, I took on the role of mother, four times over. But through it all, as my relationship with God deepened, so did my desire for charity work. It started with that trip to the orphanage in Mexico and the impact that it had on me. I couldn’t forget my desire to do more charity work; I just sort of shelved it while life unfolded.
When you think about your own life, is there something that you’ve shelved or set aside because of other obligations or priorities? In our younger years, it’s easy to pile our plates with pursuits and good intentions. At age thirty, we don’t think of sixty as the time to take life by the reins and do all that is in our hearts. At age thirty, we think we have it all figured out and sixty looks like one foot in the grave! But thirty years is a lot of time to learn, accomplish, and reflect—which is what leads most people into their second act—myself included.