Red Hot Mama

updated 06/05/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/05/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As Marie Barone, Ray Romano's meddling mother on the CBS hit sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, Doris Roberts plays "a monster, a control freak, an intrusive person," she says. But behind the scenes the 74-year-old actress is more prankster than predator. In one scene, says Romano, "I come in the kitchen and say, 'Here's the pot you wanted, Ma,' and Doris said, 'Okay, here's yours,' and pulled out this huge bag of dark-green leaves that looked like marijuana."

It was actually oregano, but that didn't keep Romano and the rest of the company from breaking up—something they do a lot on Raymond's Burbank set. "I've never been with a cast that has this much affection for each other," marvels Roberts, who knows a thing or two about casts. Broadway roles in the '50s and '60s and guest appearances on such TV staples as All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore and St. Elsewhere led to a five-year run (1982 to '87) as gabby secretary Mildred Krebs on Remington Steele. Roberts's career is so rich, in fact, that Romano felt nervous about working with her when the show began in 1996. "But Doris has been very nice to me," he says. "She tells me how much I've improved."

She doesn't offer only acting advice. On-camera and off, Roberts (whose son Michael Cannata, 43, is her manager) clucks over her colleagues like a mother hen. "Once I had a bad cough, and she kept pushing these herbs on me," Romano recalls. She also brings cookies to the close-knit cast's Sunday-night movie parties.

But don't mistake Roberts for her nudgy alter ego. "Doris is really a party girl," says Peter Boyle, who plays her crabby onscreen hubby. Indeed, while Marie Barone tiptoes through life, Roberts (a Bruce Springsteen fan who was thrilled to meet the Boss after a recent concert) rarely slows down. "Mom is a bon vivant," says Cannata, recalling a cruise they took when he was a teen. "At one point, Mom, in a nice dress, jewelry and heels, climbed into a dumbwaiter that went down to the galley. When she came back up, she was carrying croissants and champagne. She was the hit of the party!"

Life hasn't always been so bubbly. Roberts's father (whom she declines to name) was also a bit of a bon vivant—at least when it came to women: He married seven times. He and Roberts's mother, Ann Meltzer, divorced soon after Doris was born, in St. Louis in 1925. Mother and daughter moved to New York City, where Roberts, then 11, first saw her dad, walking along Broadway. "Oh, my goodness, this is our little Doris May," he said to Ann and asked to take Doris to lunch. "I wanted to go with all my heart. I wanted him to pick me up in his arms and take me away," Roberts recalls. "But if I'd said yes, my mother would've died. So I told him no. And I never saw him again."

In New York, Roberts's mother married Bob Roberts, an employee at her script-typing business. He "competed with me for my mother's attention," says Roberts, who sought solace in the theater. She made her Broadway debut at 31 as Shirley Booth's understudy in 1956's Desk Set. "I've never been an ingenue," she says with a throaty laugh. "I have this deep voice and fat, chubby hands. I'm a character actress."

Roberts's first husband, attorney Michael Cannata, didn't approve of her career, and they divorced in 1962, when their son was 4 years old. She married novelist William Goyen a year later. "He was my lover, my friend, my mentor," she says. In 1976, as she began getting more TV work, the couple moved to Los Angeles, where they bought a Spanish-style hacienda once lived in by James Dean. Roberts dubbed it the Casa de Glade, for the air freshener ads that paid the mortgage.

Goyen's death in 1982 from leukemia devastated her. But, she says, "either you lie down with him or you go on." These days her life is filled with travel (she has been to China twice), three grandkids and work. She was directing a play at L.A.'s Skylight Theater in 1996, when her nuanced Raymond audition knocked 100 other actresses out of the running. "Doris hit that one out of the ballpark," says Raymond producer Phil Rosenthal. "She was so real and funny."

"I wish I'd known," she says. "I would have asked for more money."

Russell Smith
Alison Singh Gee in Los Angeles

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