LOS ANGELES, Sept. 26 (UPI) -- Patricia Heaton already has starred on two shows that ran for nine years each, Everybody Loves Raymond and The Middle. Her new CBS sitcom, Carol's Second Act, premieres Thursday at 9:30 p.m. EDT on CBS and it could be Heaton's third big act.
After Carol (Heaton) retires from teaching, she decides to become a doctor at age 50. She's doing her internship at a hospital with all the recent medical school graduates who are in their 20s.
"There are people that have done that, that have gone late in life to do a completely different career," Heaton told reporters of the Television Critics Association in August. "It's unusual but it's a very cool thing to sort of encourage and inspire people who feel like they need a change in their life, to tell them it's not too late."
Carol's Second Act came to Heaton when she had wrapped The Middle and found her personal life in a state of flux.
"My kids are pretty much out of the house, and my second long-running show was done, and I was feeling a bit at sea not knowing what I was doing," Heaton said. "I'm no longer a full-time mom and I don't have a job as an actress. I very much felt the things that a person like Carol would feel of 'who am I without these things?'"
Having launched many TV shows, Heaton was familiar with the sort of anxieties that come with premieres. She shared some of her "actor's nightmares."
"I'm driving on Vine, and I stop my car in the intersection, and I can't get my hands out of my pocket," the 61-year-old said. "I have to abandon the car because I'm supposed to be at a table read that I actually miss. That was last night. So I think it's a good sign that I'm excited about this."
While Heaton has no plans to change careers, she also has no plans to retire. She hopes Carol's Second Act takes her another nine years. If it lasts longer, or she outlasts the show, she says she still won't stop.
"I think my perfect scenario is that I would die on a sound stage," Heaton said. "That's how I want to go. Full hair and makeup when it happens so that the photos are good. As long as I'm No. 1 on the call sheet when it happens, so I get top billing in the news article."
Even if it weren't acting, Heaton would want to work. That she's still able to headline TV shows only gives her more opportunities.
"I've been working since I was about 16," Heaton said. "I started at a department store in high school because I never wanted to have to ask anybody for money. I wanted to be able to make my own decisions about what I want. I value that independence. So, I've been used to working for a really long time."
Heaton doesn't know what to do with too much time off.
"I was in Montana for three weeks," Heaton said. "I can only take so much leisure before I start getting really antsy and I have to get back to work. I think it's an internal thing that you're born with. You want to go out and challenge yourself and put yourself in scary positions to see if you can do it. I just think it's my nature."
Carol is still 11 years younger than Heaton in real life. Heaton felt the demands of medicine probably made age 50 the absolute latest a person could embark on for such a career.
"Just realistically, to be able to get into medical school, I would think they would take your age into consideration," Heaton said. "So if you start at 60, and you don't get into your internship until you're 65, that would be a problem, right? I am 61, and I don't have a problem with [playing a 50-year-old woman]."
Heaton even suggested to executive producers Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins that they needed to age her to look more convincingly 50.
"In fact, I kept saying, 'I don't think people will really believe I'm in my 50s, right? Do I need to do gray in my hair?'" Heaton asked rhetorically. "I have sort of a dysmorphia about how I look. I've always thought I looked like Angelina Jolie until I looked in the mirror, and then I realized I don't."
The producers decided not to gray Heaton's hair. It's clear enough how out of place Carol might feel in a class of medical interns.
On the set, however, Heaton could mentor a cast of newcomers. She takes this role seriously and remembers when she was in their shoes, playing Linda Lavin's daughter on 1992's Room for Two.
"She was so kind to me, and she was such a mentor on not just about working, but life in L.A. and how you can do life in L.A. and make it great," Heaton said. "I try to be that for all the kids on The Middle and try to make myself available for anything and give advice. It's so important to have a mentor."
It's not only at work that Heaton gives back. She also uses her platform to support humanitarian causes, as an ambassador for the NGO World Vision. "
"I was just recently in Rwanda to talk about a water project and reconciliation programs since it's the 25th anniversary of the genocide," Heaton said. "I'm very psyched to be a part of bringing clean water to about 100 countries."
Whether aiding communities in Rwanda or putting smiles on people's faces for 30 minutes on Thursday night, Heaton chooses projects she feels make a positive impact.
"I think at the end of the day, you have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'I stood up for the voiceless and for the poor and the hungry,'" Heaton said. "Life is bloody hard, and you just have to try to make it easier for other people around you."
Being a famous TV mom allows Heaton to bring attention to relief efforts, and then she returns to the set with a new perspective.
"I think it's important to have other interests and to be well-rounded," Heaton said. "Also, it gives you more things to bring to your acting. The more experiences you have in life generally will make you a better actor because you have more experiences to draw on."