Doris Roberts in the Age of Crime and Murder
Saddened to hear of the recent passing of Doris Roberts, and heartened to hear all the appreciation. She was of course best known in recent years for having been on Everybody Loves Raymond. But (in an almost identical bit of stunt casting to Jerry Stiller’s on Seinfeld) the reason she was cast was that she was already known. If people didn’t know her name, they knew her face, mostly from bit parts and commercials. She was the go-to face and voice of “New York lady”. She had been that my entire life, and had been acting in television for 15 years before I was born. Barefoot in the Park (1967) and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), I think of her in stuff like that. She represented a comical side to a part of New York that we all love: down-to-earth, honest to a fault, and often lower-middle-class. She was the perfect person to represent a contrast to a world that seemed to be going crazy in the late 1960s through the 1970s, with crime going through the roof and “weirdos roaming the streets!” Here are three films I thought of in that context:
No Way to Treat a Lady (1968)
Rod Steiger is an Odeipal serial killer with a thousand faces in this thriller. George Segal is the detective on his trail. Roberts is the sister of one of Steiger’s potential victims who thwarts him rather hilariously when she comes for a visit.
The Honeymoon Killers (1969)
Amazing to see Roberts in this seminal low-budget exploitation flick, which influenced everybody from John Waters to Francois Truffaut. And while she was known for her comic portrayals, Roberts is essentially “straight” in this one, inadvertently triggering a killing spree when she sets her psychotic friend up with a lonely hearts marriage service. The characters live in Alabama; wondering why a New York lady lives there is one of the film’s more savory pleasures. We are disappointed when Roberts leaves the narrative relatively early in the movie, as she always livens the screen with her presence. By this point, Roberts had been a professional actress for around 20 years and yet it seems light years before her later fame.
I’ve blogged my enthusiasm for this over the top gonzo satire written by Jules Feiffer and directed by Alan Arkin here. In this semi science fiction scenario, New York crime, especially gun violence, has reached levels of absurdity. Roberts and John Randolph play hero Elliott Gould’s parents in a scene written especially for the movie (i.e., it’s not from the stage play). The pair of them are chillingly aloof from their estranged son, barely seeming to have an emotional connection to him at all.
Watch these movies, and Doris Roberts’ performances in them. Every one a gem!