BY 1987, THIS MAGAZINE-HAD BECOME Patricia Heaton’s personal nightmare. For while the 29-year-old performer was scrambling to get auditions, she supported herself as a part-time copy clerk at PEOPLE, clocking considerable time in the duplicating room. “To watch story after story go through the copy machine about newcomers and new movies and new shows,” says Heaton, now 34, with a laugh, “was a lesson in humility and a form of torture.” She made herself a promise: “I will not be standing in front of this copy machine for the rest of my life. Something will happen.”
Something did. After a score of odd jobs that included scooping ice cream and modeling shoes, Heaton has a starring role opposite Linda Lavin in the ABC sitcom Room for Two, now in its second season. The Cleveland-born Heaton plays a New York City TV morning-show producer, and Lavin is her widowed mother, whose brashness earns her a job as the program’s commentator. Says Lavin: “Patty’s my new love, somebody with whom I don’t have to finish sentences. That’s what makes it look like she’s my daughter.”
In fact, the twice-divorced Lavin, 55, has no children, and Heaton has been without a mother since her own mom, Pat, died of an aneurysm when Patricia was 12. “We went to parochial school around the corner,” says Heaton of herself, three sisters and a brother. “The last thing I said to my mother was, ‘I’ll see you at lunch.’ ” Curled up on a couch in the living room of her one-bedroom L.A. apartment, she pauses, then quietly adds, “But I never saw her again.” The Heaton brood were raised by their father, Chuck, a sports columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Though Patty says her dad has “always been encouraging,” he did urge her to come home and find a job on his newspaper when she was in her late 20s and still struggling to make it as an actress.
The career disappointments were hard to bear. After earning a theater degree from Ohio State University in 1980, Heaton moved to Manhattan. Financially, things were tight; emotionally, she was strung out. Competing for acting jobs with graduates of Ivy League drama schools, Heaton says, “I felt like an outsider and like I wasn’t good enough.” Marriage to another actor in 1984 ended in divorce three years later. Heaton says she rebounded from the “really dark period” that followed with the help of a therapist. “Waitressing and therapy are the two prerequisites to becoming an actor,” she says, adding that she also drew strength “from my family and my faith.”
Not to mention a very lucky sublet. In 1988, Heaton rented the apartment of David Hunt, a British actor who was leaving to work in Baltimore. When he returned a few months later, the two kept in touch. “It was that tiny person (the 5’3″ Heaton weighs only 100 lbs.) who has such a huge heart that I fell in love with,” says Hunt, whose most prominent role in the U.S. involved playing a psycho in the 1988 movie The Dead Pool. Heaton resisted at first. “There was a part of me that said, ‘Another actor. No way!’ And then, of course, I married him.” The couple moved to L.A. in 1989, where Heaton appeared on thirtysomething as a gynecologist treating Patricia Wettig’s cancer-stricken Nancy. Two years later, she won the part of Jill Kurland on Room for Two.
The pixie-haired Heaton was immediately heralded as a style setter back home. “Everybody in Cleveland is asking for the Patty Heaton hairdo,” jokes her brother, Michael, 35, an entertainment columnist for the Plain Dealer. “We’re all real proud of her. Patty’s got talent and great hair.”
But she still doesn’t have all the togetherness she would like. Hunt recently left for a two-month shoot in Tunisia, where he will star in the film The Tremor of Forgery. More separations arc ahead; when he returns, he plans on taking another apartment in New York. “He feels torn, says Heaton, clearly not pleased with the prospect of a commuter marriage, “because he wants to be with me, but not here. Most of his opportunities come outside of L.A. It’s difficult, but I have to learn not to take it personally.” She has already learned how to stave off depression. “To be mentally healthy you need a certain amount of detachment,” she says. “I don’t put my self-worth in my job, because tomorrow I might not be working. It’s nice to know there’s a place for me in the industry, but I haven’t taken myself off any temp lists yet.”
TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles