There's no middle ground to Patricia Heaton's newest television effort: She's very happy to be a producer.
As she continues starring in ABC's Wednesday sitcom “The Middle,” now in its fourth season, the two-time Emmy winner for “Everybody Loves Raymond” also is behind a project that's a family matter in several ways. Debuting at 7 p.m. Sunday, the Hallmark Channel movie “The Christmas Heart” was written by Heaton's brother Michael, a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
“I think Michael's passion for his other writing comes from his being able do these kinds of stories,” Heaton says. “As a journalist, you pretty much report facts, so to be able to spin this wonderful tale out of your imagination is sort of a nice outlet. We've had this story around for a long time; I talked about it in a meeting with Hallmark, and they pretty much bought it right away. That was really exciting.”
“The Christmas Heart” was inspired by some of the Heaton family's Ohio neighbors, whose tradition of lining their street with holiday luminaries factors into the script. The fictional characters may abandon that long-standing practice to help a teenager (played by Ty Wood) who needs a heart transplant. His parents (Teri Polo, Paul Essiembre) ultimately get unexpected and meaningful support from their neighbors, as weather conditions threaten an aerial mission to deliver a donor heart.
Tess Harper (“Tender Mercies”) also stars in the drama, and Heaton says it's “just so exciting to see something that you've worked on for so long come alive. And in particular, these actors are amazing in these roles. It's slightly heavier subject matter than you would think for a Christmas movie, and we were really appreciative that Hallmark wasn't afraid to go there. The payoff is just huge at the end.”
Because of her shooting schedule on “The Middle,” Heaton didn't have much time to visit the Winnipeg filming location of “The Christmas Heart,” but she regularly received footage to look at.
“I know how good it is,” she says, “because I was watching the actors do the same scenes a couple of times, seeing them just standing there right before starting ... and still, it was really moving.”