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Roberts opens her 'House,' heart to the homeless

Doris Roberts can barely talk, but that won't stop her from speaking out.

The five-time Emmy Award-winning actress (four of those for "Everybody Loves Raymond"), has always been outspoken on topics that touch her heart, so there's no way a cold will keep her from discussing homelessness, the topic of her new Hallmark Channel original movie, "Our House." It debuts at 9 p.m. Saturday on the network, followed by an encore at 11 p.m.

"People need to know about this. The homeless situation is terrible, just terrible. And now, after Katrina . . .," Roberts says, her voice trailing off as she searches for words about the thousands still homeless from the hurricane. "Well, I don't know how this is happening in our country. It just doesn't seem right."

In "Our House," Roberts plays Ruth Galloway, a wealthy Beverly Hills widow who attempts suicide out of despair and loneliness. A homeless woman named Billie (Judy Reyes of "Scrubs") finds Ruth unconscious on the street and saves her life, but is mistaken for a mugger by police.

Learning Billie has been arrested, Ruth gets the charges dropped and tries to get through Billie's defenses to learn more about the young woman. In the process, Ruth also learns about the startling number of homeless people living on the streets around her. Armed with that knowledge, Ruth finds ways to help and, at the same time, give new meaning to her own life.

"There are 100,000 homeless people in Los Angeles alone. If you put them all together, you would have the 17th largest group of people in the country -- that's a city," Roberts says, her voice gaining strength with her passion. "How does this happen?"

Just as Ruth had closed her eyes to the homeless in the movie, Roberts says we tend to do that in real life as well. On this subject, she loves to quote her late husband, writer Robert Goyen, who said, "When we see infirm or handicapped or older people, or the homeless, we tend to turn away. We shun them and we take away their light."

"That's all true," Roberts said. "I do that. I'll be in my car and I'll stop at a red light and I'll see someone with a sign asking for food and I deliberately look away. I don't look at them because it might cost me a dollar. We all do that. We don't want to get involved.

"They are very sad people and they all need a chance," she continues. "I hope that 'Our House' might touch people's hearts, and if it does, that would be wonderful."

Since making her first television appearance in the early 1950s, Roberts has had a versatile and productive career on stage, screen and television. Besides her regular TV roles on "Raymond" and "Remington Steele," she has made numerous guest appearances and starred in TV movies including "The Diary of Anne Frank," "A Letter to Three Wives" and "A Time to Heal," as well as big-screen features.

Throughout her career, Roberts has felt it has been important to focus attention on different social concerns. "I am blessed. I've had a good life," she says. "I have a great career. For nine years, I was on 'Everybody Loves Raymond' and that's now seen in 171 countries around the world. So whatever I say, can be heard."

In 2002, she made headlines by testifying before a Senate Special Committee on Ageism in Washington, D.C. stating, "Gentlemen, if you were in my business, you would be out of a job."

She is a founder of, and active with, the organizations Children Affected by AIDS and Puppies Behind Bars, a program in which inmates train puppies that are then given to senior citizens and children.

Roberts' concern about homelessness actually started when she was preparing to play a bag lady on "St. Elsewhere" in the 1980s, a role for which she won an Emmy Award.

"I did a lot of research and it was shocking," Roberts recalls. "I went to Santa Monica, I went downtown. I couldn't believe all of the people living out there."

In addition to wanting to be part of a movie that addressed this important social issue, Roberts says the character of Ruth in "Our House" was also appealing for the simple reason that it stretched her as an actress.

"I loved the role," she says. "I'm being selfish here, because it's a part people don't think I could do. For so many years, they knew me as Marie Barone and I'm nothing like her," Roberts laughs. "This woman [Ruth], to see her humanity, well, it shows people how nice I can be!"

e-mail: truberto@buffnews.com

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