Patricia Heaton is one of America’s favorite TV moms from her roles as Debra Barone on “Everybody Loves Raymond” to the more current Frankie Heck on “The Middle.” But she took on a completely different role for the upcoming Hallmark Channel movie, “The Christmas Heart,” premiering Dec. 2 with an encore airing on Friday, Dec. 7 at 8/7c.
Instead of actress, Heaton put on her executive producer hat for the TV movie, written by her brother Michael Heaton, who covers pop culture for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Michael originally wrote the script more than a decade ago, but it never got made — until now.
“I guess when the time is right, the time is right and it all came together with wonderful actresses — Teri Polo and Tess Harper,” Heaton tells XfinityTV.com in an exclusive interview. “We couldn’t have asked for better actresses than that. I have seen it five times and I cry every time I see it.”
“The Christmas Heart” tells the uplifting story of the tight-knit neighbors on Arthur Avenue, who have lighted Christmas luminaries for 40 years. But that long-standing tradition is cancelled when teenager Matt Norman (Ty Wood) is hospitalized in desperate need of a heart transplant. As his parents anxiously pray by his bedside, a donor is found. But it remains to be seen if a storm will keep it from arriving in time to save his life.
In this interview, Heaton reveals how she and her brother Michael, now friends after driving each other crazy as kids, came up with the idea for “The Christmas Heart,” what to look for on next week’s Christmas episode of “The Middle,” and more.
Did you and your brother Michael always want to work together?
We are very, very close. Actually when we were younger, we used to fight like crazy. I am not kidding you. I had an all-girl, secret club in our garage when I was younger. He and his friend got into our garage and read all our super-secret diaries. I was so mad. He locked the door so we couldn’t get in and we knew they were looking at all our stuff. I was pounding on the door so hard, I broke the glass of the window and cut myself. I got punished because I was the one who broke the glass. I remember crying. I was sitting on the front steps and my friends were all sympathetic and bringing me pretzel sticks to make me feel better.
Michael used to get my little sister to help hold me down and then they would drool spit over me. One time he sent her to get peanut butter to spread all over my face. We were dire enemies for a long time. Then he went off to college and moved to New York. I visited him in New York once and, after that, we became really fast friends. He is a great story guy because he is a writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Because of the line of work he is in, he meets people all the time. He sees everything — and I do, too– as a movie. When I hear someone’s story, I think, “That would make a great movie.”
The part of “The Christmas Heart” that he came up with from his life was the luminaries lining the street. From there, he spun this dramatic tale about the heart transplant and the plane. We had it for a long time and we were so happy when Hallmark bought it. They did such a great job of helping us put that together.
Were you involved in casting, or did you leave it to the director?
We were involved in the casting. You put your list together and Hallmark puts their list together and you find the common people.
As an actress yourself, what did you look for in casting your leads?
Teri is really interesting because she can do both comedy and drama. I didn’t know her as a dramatic actress but I saw some of her work and I thought she would be great. Tess, of course, is an Oscar-nominated actress and I always knew how wonderful she was. I thought I would just look for somebody who really has chops. Some people get on TV because of the way they look. I think we had characters that were written very real, so we needed actresses who were very real and that is what we got with these two.
You mentioned the luminaries. Is that actually something that happens in Ohio?
Yes. When my brother first got married, on the street where his apartment building was in Ohio, a lot of people put out lights all along the street. That is what inspired him to write this. That happens all around the Midwest. You see that a lot. I think what people do is take big, gallon milk jugs and cut the tops off and use those. The ones we used in the movie were a little fancier.
One of the messages of the film is the importance of being an organ donor. Is that a cause that is important to you?
My brother has had friends who have gone through that, as have I. One friend who is a diabetic went through a double transplant. Another friend of mine had radiation treatment to get rid of cancer, but the side effect of that was her lung got so scarred, she couldn’t breathe. So she had a lung transplant. I have been very close to the subject myself, so I know how important it is and what a difference it has made in my friends’ lives. It just so happened that it worked out for the story.
Do you appreciate the fact that you went from one successful comedy to another?
I had one in between called “Back to You” that didn’t really go, so there was a stumble there. It wasn’t really our fault. It was the writers from “Modern Family.” It was me and Kelsey Grammer, but it is all about timing and the stars have to align. It is tough. I think Ray Romano was doing a great show when he went to do “Men of a Certain Age,” but that only lasted a season and a half or two seasons. I am very fortunate to be on “The Middle.” I never thought a set could be so nice and fun to go to but “The Middle” is lovely people, there is no drama. Everybody likes to get the job done and get home to their kids. And, the writing is fantastic. I was at a table read yesterday morning and it was so much fun and we were all laughing our heads off and joking. We have become a really tight family.
How do your parenting skills compare with Frankie’s?
I think I am exactly the same as Frankie. I make all her mistakes. I either do too much or too little. She either lets it go or she is trying to control too much stuff. I have the same problem. I have a hard time finding balance. I try really hard and nothing works out. You try to get your kids to do this or that, or be this or that and they don’t cooperate whatsoever. You say, “OK, screw it. Go ahead and do your homework on your own.” Then, of course, they come home with terrible grades. Then you think, “I’m sorry. I should have been working with you.” You can never really win with kids. It keeps you humble.
Anything coming up on “The Middle” that we shouldn’t miss?
Next week is our Christmas episode and Frankie has to take a job in a discount store to get enough money for Christmas presents, plus she can get the discount. So, it is about her getting stuck working at this place.
“The Christmas Heart” premieres Sunday, Dec. 2 at 8/7c on Hallmark Channel. Then, the Christmas episode of “The Middle” airs Wednesday, Dec. 5 at 8/7c on ABC.