It all started with a kiss on the lips, said Ray Romano yesterday at the Hollywood Chamber Of Commerce ceremony featuring the unveiling of the Star on Hollywood Walk Of Fame for actress Patricia Heaton. Romano told the story at the event that when he was auditioning wives for the long-running sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond" he auditioned over 100 actresses and the rehearsal scene involved a kiss and Heaton was the only one who didn't kiss Romano on the cheek like the others but went right in for the lips. "I was desperate for a job!" laughed Heaton. Now, of course, Heaton is headlining her own hit sitcom over at ABC as Frankie Heck on "The Middle," which wraps up season three tonight with a family tradition that is always perfect for finding comedy and a touching moment or two - the family wedding.
"There's a wedding coming and it's Mike's brother, Rusty, played by Norm Macdonald," teased "The Middle" co-creator Eileen Heisler during a post-ceremony event held at Cleo in the Roxbury Hotel in Hollywood. "[Rusty] kind of springs a little bombshell that he's getting married and then there's a little bombshell that the location of the wedding is uncomfortably close to the Heck's."
Atticus Shaffer, who plays youngest son, Brick Heck, pointed out that the event on tonight's finale is noteworthy because it is breaking new ground for the show. "It is kind of special because it's the first Heck wedding that you've seen in all of the series so it will be really cool and a nice way to introduce the concept into the show and it's a nice way to end the season."
Heaton said that the fact that Rusty's wedding happens at the unkempt home of the Heck family predictably drives Frankie into a manic state. "Frankie tries to redecorate the house in 24 hours and then she has a complete and utter meltdown," she said, laughing. The actress admitted to knowing firsthand what Frankie goes through in feeling overwhelmed in everyday life and believes the audience can easily relate to that, too. "There are so many things going on and I don't think the human brain is wired to do as many things that are available. The immediacy of everything... your calendar, your texts and tweets... " One thing that helps her get through the busy days? "I found the solution - and this is not a paid endorsement - [but] those 5-hour energy drinks. They work," Heaton said, knowingly.
While much of "The Middle" focuses on family conflict and comedic situations, Heisler hinted that tonight's episode won't be all frenetic mania. "The season finale is a very fun, very sweet episode," she said. "The family kind of degenerates into stress, as you can imagine [but] it kind of brings some closure to some things that have been going on with the Heck's house falling apart and it's a really nice episode."
With the writers just back to work this week on Season Four of the series, Heisler said that hiatus is the best time to get new material for the show because "you can fight with your spouse and then come back to work! Those are the best stories and those are the ones that people relate to." For example, a recent episode where Frankie and Mike argued over a simple piece of furniture in their house didn't just come out of thin air. "We've all had a million fights with our spouse," Heisler said. "We did it recently where [Frankie and Mike] were fighting about putting a bed together which came from one of our writers who said he got into the biggest fight in his life trying to put a bed together. Anything is just fodder for us!"
Looking ahead to possible storyline shifts for this fall's new episodes, Heaton was not opposed to a new job situation for Frankie since her time working at a car dealership hasn't been full of success. "She's been there awhile," the actress said, "and I don't think she's sold a car yet."
One thing the writers don't have a lot of control over is that the young cast of actors playing the Heck children - Charlie McDermott (Axel), Eden Sher (Sue) and Shaffer - are all growing up. "It's a good and bad thing," says co-creator DeAnn Heline. "As the kids grow you go, 'No! Stop!' but what we try to do is just embrace it."
For Shaffer, he's fully aware that Brick is growing up and is trying to make sure his character keeps his Brick-ness. "It is something that is different," he explained, "and it's kind of shying away from the Brick character and into a more normal person so it's definitely something new and it will be something new for me." Would the young actor like to see Brick find a girlfriend and have some romance down the line? "I think that's way too soon," Shaffer said. "He's only 10! I think that's, like, season 6!"
With the sibling feuding that happens often between Axel and Sue, Heline hinted that season four would see more mixing as their worlds collide at the same high school. "We'd love this year for them to take a class together," she revealed. "He's a senior, she's a sophomore so maybe there's some class they have to take together. They're so funny together those two."
By the time the writers get to season four of a series, said Heisler, there is one thing that makes things a bit easier. "The fourth season is great," she said, "because you know the characters. The first couple of years you're going 'Are these the kind of stories we're going to tell?' Now we know but the tricky thing is not to fall into clichés and have them grow but yet stay the same characters that people love."
While it may be a pitfall for some series as they age, one thing you probably won't see anytime soon is a forced 'event episode' for "The Middle." "There's just a lot of shows on the air," said Heline, "so we're always looking for something we can do to bring people to the show but you want to stay true to your show and not have it be completely ridiculous or have it be too stunt-y and have something that will feel more organic."
Heisler is also well aware that "The Middle" has been a solid performer for ABC but has flown a little under the radar. However, she's glad that the tide is turning somewhat and the show is getting more love. "We really feel that there is a nice critical groundswell and that more people are finding the show and liking the show and we're really happy about the critical acclaim that we've gotten and that's really amazing." She does admit that, "it's been hard to be in the shadow of 'Modern Family.' People, I think, didn't expect our show to be as good as it was so it needs to keep the word of mouth going."
For Heaton, the success of "The Middle" is a culmination of over two decades of working in Hollywood and while she may not have been thrilled during the Walk of Fame ceremony to have a 1990 guest spot on the series "Matlock" mentioned (she said she told herself to "Own it!" instead of be embarrassed by it), she hopes she's passing on some of her experience to the young people she works with. "One of the things I'm very big on is people producing their own things. Actors, especially, taking a little bit of control by looking for material that they can produce for themselves... Charlie McDermott actually has written a screenplay and is shooting it right now and Eden is in it. That's really the way to go so you'll always keep working."
The third season finale of "The Middle" airs tonight at 8:00/7:00c on ABC.