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Ray Loves 'Raymond'

June 15, 1997|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ray Romano lives in Queens with his wife, 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old twin sons. His meddling parents live down the street. And his older brother, a police sergeant who touches his food to his chin before he eats it, lives with his parents.

On his TV show, Romano's sportswriter character lives in New York with his wife, young daughter and twin sons. His wildly intrusive parents live across the street. And so does his older brother, a police sergeant who touches his food to his chin before he eats it.

"We don't make this stuff up," said Romano, the stand-up comedian turned star of the CBS sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond," which the network recently renewed for a second season. "Although some of what you see is indeed make-believe. When I come home and say, 'Hi, honey,' and give her a kiss, that's acting because that doesn't happen in my house. There's a lot more kissing on the show than in real life."

"Yeah," agrees Anna, Romano's real-life spouse. "And they talk a lot more in the show than we ever do at home."

Romano said that he and Anna were watching the Thanksgiving episode together when he walked into his fictional bedroom and began to tell Patricia Heaton, who plays his wife in the series, a story about his mother (played by Doris Roberts) and her cooking.

"We have about a two-minute conversation, and Anna turns to me and says, 'You talked to her just then more than you've talked to me in the last week.' And I tell her, 'They write the dialogue for me. I have to say it. If we had writers at home, I'd talk to you too.' "

Romano says his real-life family relishes their wacky TV portrayals. Especially his father, who is played on the show by Peter Boyle.

"My father wants to show Peter Boyle how to do it," Romano said. "He plays along with it. Loves it. His friends will say, 'Did you really do that? Did you have the dog neutered?' And he'll agree to whatever we did on the show. He's like the king of the Elks now."

Phil Rosenthal, the executive producer and creator of the series, said he decided to keep the show close to Romano's own life because it was funnier than anything he could have dreamed up. He also figured that, as a stand-up who didn't have much experience acting, Romano would be most comfortable performing in his own voice, in the manner of Tim Allen on "Home Improvement" and Jerry Seinfeld on "Seinfeld."

The show, which was mostly praised by critics, initially flopped on Fridays last fall, only to surge when CBS benevolently moved it to Mondays at 8:30 p.m. in tandem with "Cosby." "I think the appeal of the show comes from two things," Rosenthal said. "First, it's all real-life--families, wives, kids, parents--and the audience can identify with it. If you don't have kids, you at least have parents. And the other thing is that, even if you look at all these characters as oddballs--and Ray is admittedly neurotic and fretful and his family is obviously somewhat cartoony--there's this innocence about his perspective. He feels like he's the only one in the world who feels this way or has to deal with people like this or has this worry or that pang of guilt. He's very genuine and very innocent and it's charming, I think, because, of course, it's not true. Tons of us feel the exact same things and know just what it is he's going through."

As he heads into the second season, Romano worries about how neurotic he can permit his character to become. As the father of three children, he wonders, how weird and pessimistic can he be in the name of comedy before he steps over the line and becomes a deleterious force?

"Our show isn't going to be about issues like 'Grace Under Fire,' but there is a resolve at the end. It is based in some sort of neurotic reality," said Romano, who on the day of this interview was balking at leasing a house here for his wife and children because the Beverly Hills neighborhood seemed "too cramped."

"See what I mean?" Anna Romano interrupted. "Cramped. We live in Queens, where all the houses are connected to each other, and he thinks California is too cramped."

"I am neurotic. See, it's not acting," Romano continued. "And here I am, the father of three young children, and I want to write a show where I have anxiety attacks, and we're all very concerned about that. Can the star of the show be a father who has anxiety attacks and flips out? Will that sit well with people? Whereas in 'Seinfeld,' they don't have that problem. They can kill a woman by licking envelopes and no one cares.

"I'm always scared about people asking me about family morals and family TV because I don't want to be a spokesperson for something like that. But I don't want to be a bad model either. So we have these parameters because he has a family, but we're still going to be weird and do our thing for adults."

It would be easier, perhaps even more popular, to let the kids on the show take a more prominent role and transform it into some cutesy "Full House"-replica, but Romano vows that won't happen. His is a show about adults who just happen to have kids. That won't change, even as the 2-year-old boys who play his twins on TV get older and less inclined to keep their "traps shut for more than three seconds" whether they have scripted dialogue or not.

"The kid issue is going to be the biggest change for our coming season," Romano quipped. "In order to continue using these kids minimally as they grow up, we're going to send them to school real young. Or they might get kidnapped. Or one of the twins might end up being mute. It's one thing for my father to be king of the Elks, but to be upstaged by toddlers? I get enough of that at home."

"Everybody Loves Raymond" airs Mondays at 8:30 p.m. on CBS.

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