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Emmy Countdown : They’re Not Nominal Nominees : Can a sitcom actress who plays the star’s wife win an Emmy? She’s a longshot but Patricia Heaton of ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ hopes so.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the hit CBS sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Patricia Heaton plays a mother of four--three kids and a husband, sportswriter Ray Barone (Ray Romano). As Debra Barone, Heaton has arguably the least glamorous role in TV: the sitcom wife.

You know the sitcom wife; she’s the one who’s supposed to look pretty but also domestic, forever waiting patiently--preferably in the kitchen--for her husband, the show’s star, to come home and be funny.

But Sunday night, Heaton the sitcom wife will play Heaton the first-time Emmy Award nominee, as the real-life mother of four walks down the red carpet with her husband, British actor David Hunt, to vie for a statuette as best actress in a comedy series.

This is a breakthrough season not only for Heaton but for “Everybody Loves Raymond.” The blue-collar comedy set in suburban Long Island has overcome the trend toward upscale, urban sitcom worlds to garner nominations for series star Romano, co-stars Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts and for best comedy.

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True to form, Heaton’s up against glossier choices. In addition to two-time Emmy winner Helen Hunt (“Mad About You”), other nominees include actresses helped in part by the sex-sells principle: Jenna Elfman (“Dharma & Greg”), Calista Flockhart (“Ally McBeal”) and Sarah Jessica Parker (“Sex and the City”).

On “Raymond,” Heaton, 41, doesn’t get to wear short skirts and tight clothes. For one thing, she’s been pregnant two out of the first three years the sitcom’s been on the air. And besides, high heels and miniskirts aren’t terribly practical when you’re dealing with an extended family that includes the nightmarish, interloping in-laws from across the street, played by Boyle and Roberts.

“For once, they’ve given a sitcom wife failings and vulnerability and her own mental instability,” says Heaton of Debra. “A lot of sitcom wives are long-suffering and patronizing.”

With four young boys at home ranging in age from 7 months to 6 years, Heaton found the 5:40 a.m. phone call informing her of the Emmy nomination exciting--to a point. “It was pretty thrilling and awesome, but I did go right back to sleep,” she says.

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Though Heaton says she’s since grown a bit tired of the hype, the planning and the distractions (“Oddly, there was a moment when I started getting very annoyed by it all”), she’s also had time to reflect on the road that led to her first Emmy nomination. Should she win, in fact, she’d like to pay tribute to her former, more obscure life.

“Having watched these award shows for so many years, I think it’s boring if you just thank people,” Heaton says. She’d like to do something more spontaneous: maybe talk about the people who supported her when she was a struggling actress, working as a hostess in a New York restaurant called La Tablita, or her co-workers at Morgan Stanley, where she worked the graveyard shift proofreading merger and acquisition contracts.

Heaton moved to Los Angeles nine years ago. She didn’t have an agent. But gradually, the work started to add up. There were the recurring role as an oncologist on the ABC drama “thirtysomething” and a supporting role opposite Linda Lavin in the short-lived ABC sitcom “Room for Two.”

When Heaton auditioned for “Everybody Loves Raymond,” she was one among hundreds competing for the role of stand-up comedian Romano’s wife. She thought the pilot script was wonderful, but she also thought Debra was the most underwritten part.

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“It wasn’t a great day for me to audition,” says Heaton, who had a baby-sitter waiting at home. “They were being very chatty. I [kept thinking], ‘I’ve got to get home.’ ”

But since landing the part, Heaton has proved herself to be more than simply a foil for Romano and co-stars Brad Garrett, Boyle and Roberts.

It remains to be seen, however, if Emmy voters will feel this way. For though there have been exceptions, statuettes have tended to go to actresses playing fiercely independent single women, like Candice Bergen in “Murphy Brown” or Shelley Long’s Diane Chambers from “Cheers.”

“But I have to say, because the writers on our show understand marriage so well, underneath the sitcom stuff they get to the meat of what it’s like to be married,” Heaton says. “Especially when you’re dealing with children and adults. In one sense it’s not a stretch for me. On the other hand, I think it’s as complicated emotionally as any character I’ve done.”

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