Doris Roberts, a character actress who labored honorably both on stage and screen for years before finding the perfect vehicle for her talents, the hit sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” died on Sunday. She was 90.
A cause of death has not yet been released. According to TMZ, which first reported the news, Roberts died in Los Angeles. ABC and CBS also confirmed the news.
Roberts was nominated for 11 Emmys, including seven for playing Marie Barone on “Raymond,” winning four for her work on that series; she picked up her first Emmy in 1983 for a guest appearance on “St. Elsewhere,” making for a total of five wins overall.
On “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Roberts’ almost omnipresent Marie Barone (she appeared on every episode of the show, which ran from 1996-2005) made life difficult for her son, Ray Romano’s Ray, and especially for his wife Debra, played by Heaton.
Roberts explained to the website Jewish Virtual Library that to create Marie she combined aspects of Romano’s Italian mother and series producer Phil Rosenthal’s German-Jewish mother. “They are different rhythms, different personas. I meld them together,” the actress said. “This woman could be a harridan. She really is more than meddlesome.” But in her performance she made Marie’s actions more palatable. “Everything I do, I do it because I want (the other characters) to make a better life, a better home. It all comes from love. That’s why I’m very pleased and excited that I have that much of a contribution for that character that makes everyone laugh, because if you laugh at me, you can laugh at your own parents.”
When “Remington Steele” producers were looking to make changes in the supporting cast in 1983 after the show’s first season, they envisioned a new character, Mildred Krebs, as an attractive 35-year-old woman who could be a rival for the affections of Pierce Brosnan’s Steele. Despite how the character was then delineated, Roberts, who’d recently won an Emmy for guesting on “St. Elsewhere,” asked to read for the part and won over executive producer Michael Gleason in her audition — and the character was changed to fit Roberts. She recurred in the second season and became a series regular thereafter, appearing in 72 episodes of the show from 1983-87.
She earned her first Emmy for the fourth episode in the initial season of “St. Elsewhere,” “Cora and Arnie,” in which she and James Coco, longtime friends, played a homeless couple who face devastation as she learns her feet must be amputated, which will render her unable to care for the mentally challenged Arnie.
Recent film work included romantic comedy “All Over the Guy” (2001); David Spade vehicle “Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star” (2003); comedies “Grandma’s Boy,” “I-See-You.Com” and “Keeping Up With the Steins” (all 2006); the romantic comedy “Play the Game,” in which she had a substantial role opposite Andy Griffith; family adventure comedy “Aliens in the Attic” (2009); and Tyler Perry’s “Madea’s Witness Protection” (2012), in which she played the mother of Eugene Levy’s character.
In a 2007 episode of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” Roberts played the ill, mistreated matriarch of an aristocratic New York family. In recent years the actress also guested on “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Middle” (reuniting with “Raymond’s” Patricia Heaton), “Hot in Cleveland,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Melissa & Joey.”
Doris May Green was born in St. Louis. After Doris’ father deserted the family, her mother raised Doris in the Bronx with the aid of her own parents. Doris’ stepfather, whose surname she took, was Chester H. Roberts. He and Doris’ mother Ann operated stenographic service the Z.L. Rosenfield Agency, which catered to playwrights and actors.
In her brief time at NYU, Roberts studied journalism, but she soon moved to the Neighborhood Playhouse to study acting (later she joined the Actors Studio).
Roberts made her Broadway debut in 1955 in a revival of William Saroyan’s comic play “The Time of Your Life.” For the hit original comedy “The Desk Set,” starring Shirley Booth, she played a supporting role and served as stage manager. After an absence from Broadway of a number of years, she appeared in “Marathon ’33,” starring Julie Harris, in 1963-64. She served as a standby for a couple of plays, then appeared in “The Natural Look” in 1967.
Roberts starred with James Coco and Linda Lavin in Neil Simon’s hit comedy “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” in 1969-71. She appeared in “Bad Habits,” a pairing of two Terrence McNally plays starring F. Murray Abraham, in 1974, and made her final appearance on Broadway in 1978 in “Cheaters.”
She had appeared on television even before she made it to Broadway, making her small-screen debut in 1951 on the CBS show “Starlight Theatre” and appearing on shows including “Ben Casey” and “Naked City” in the 1960s.
Roberts made her film debut in 1961’s “Something Wild.” Later in the decade she had small roles in “Barefoot in the Park” and “Divorce American Style” (both 1967) and somewhat larger roles in “No Way to Treat a Lady” and Kirk Douglas film “A Lovely Way to Die” (both 1968). The actress was fourth billed in the 1969 cult classic “The Honeymoon Killers.”
In the 1970s her career picked up considerably both in film and on TV.
During the decade she guested on shows including “Mary Tyler Moore,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” (as a faith healer), “All in the Family,” “Rhoda” and “Barney Miller.”
Roberts was originally intended to play Vivian, the character ultimately portrayed by Rue McClanahan, on “Maude,” but the producers decided that her persona was too similar to that of series star Bea Arthur.
In 1978 she had a story arc on ABC’s seminal comedy “Soap” as the mother of Father Timothy Flotsky (Sal Viscuso) who curses her son for leaving the priesthood, makes a scene at his wedding, then dies on the wedding night.
In 1979-80 she was a series regular on the single-season sitcom “Angie,” starring Donna Pescow as a Philadelphia waitress, with Roberts playing her mother. Roberts directed an episode of “Angie,” her only such effort.
On “Alice” she guested as the mother of the title character, played by Linda Lavin, with whom she’d worked on Broadway. In the ’80s she guested on “Cagney & Lacey,” “Full House” and “Perfect Strangers,” drawing an Emmy nomination for her performance on the last of these.
She picked up another Emmy nomination in 1991 for her work on a segment of PBS’ “American Playhouse” called “The Sunset Gang,” about life in a retirement community. The actress complained to the L.A. Times when the show debuted: “I won an Emmy for a dramatic role on ‘St. Elsewhere.’ I have yet to be given a dramatic role (to do since) in this town. Comedy is what they put me in. I came from New York theater. I am an actress — I do everything.”
During the ’70 she appeared in films including the Alan Arkin-directed “Little Murders,” Elaine May’s “A New Leaf” and “The Heartbreak Kid,” classic thriller “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (playing the mayor’s wife), “Hester Street,” Joan Rivers’ disastrous “Rabbit Test” and “The Rose” (in which she briefly appeared as star Bette Midler’s mother).
She had a small role as one of the grandmothers in the 1989 Chevy Chase comedy “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” During the ’90s she appeared in films including “Used People,” starring Shirley MacLaine and Marcello Mastroianni; Warren Leight’s romantic comedy “The Night We Never Met,” starring Matthew Broderick and Anabella Sciorra; “The Grass Harp,” with Sissy Spacek and Walter Matthau; and Billy Crystal comedy “My Giant.”
Also during the decade she recurred on HBO comedy “Dream On” as Angie Pedalbee.
She starred in McNally’s “Unusual Acts of Devotion” at the La Jolla Playhouse in June 2009.
In September 2002 she testified before the Senate Special Committee on Aging about age discrimination in Hollywood and how the problem is particularly acute for women. “Many of my friends, talented actresses in the 40- to 60-year-old range, are forced to live on unemployment or welfare because of the scarcity of roles for women in that age bracket,” she declared in part.
She was the longtime chair of the Children Affected by AIDS Foundation, using her Hollywood connections to fundraise.
Roberts was married twice, the first time to Michael Emilio Cannata from 1956 until their divorce in 1962 and the second time to novelist and playwright William Goyen, to whom she was married from 1963 until his death in 1983.
She is survived by her son Michael, from her first marriage, who was also her manager; and three grandchildren.