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Obituaries | AN APPRECIATION

Playing light, dark sides of irascible

December 14, 2006|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

Sitcom fathers never die, particularly if they're attached to shows with solid foundations, built from the ground up.

In that case, the fathers become indelible and go into syndication. Peter Boyle, a.k.a. "Everybody Loves Raymond's" Frank Barone, was blessed with this fate -- and cursed only if you bemoan that he'll be less recalled for the grittier role in "Taxi Driver" or the hilariously outsize one in "Young Frankenstein" than for the part he landed in 1996.

"Everybody Loves Raymond" featured, in the lead role, Ray Romano, a comedian who had followed the older model of sitcom-nation-building years in the clubs, polishing the act to a spit shine before landing a network show that would both bring out the stand-up voice and hide the fact that the comedian probably wasn't much of an actor.

Boyle's role was like those of a lot of great character actors in this situation: to more or less hit his lines out of the park while waiting to see if the show would coalesce around Romano and creator Phil Rosenthal's premise and casting.

Boyle exuded that weary insouciance, a sense that if this show didn't work, there would be others, other sitcom families in other sitcom neighborhoods and other roles like Frank Barone.

There already had been.

"I've been doing this character -- angry blue-collar guy -- so many times in different versions that it's really easy for me," Boyle told an interviewer in 2004.

With two daughters in school in New York, Boyle commuted to L.A. for the entire run of "Raymond," a series that made him fabulously rich. In the meantime, he made Frank the most lovably hate-filled sitcom father since Archie Bunker, minus the politics (and the Emmy). Frank had retired to the various hobbies of eating wife Marie's cooking and insulting her personally, while also sitting ringside for the fights touched off by Marie's smothering involvement in son Ray and daughter-in-law Debra's teetering domestic bliss.

Typical exchange:

Marie: "I have my own opinions. I'm not just some trophy wife."

Frank: "Trophy wife? What contest in hell did I win?"

He was, like Archie Bunker, a Greek chorus in a cardigan, seated in an armchair before the TV. But he wasn't as actively restive as Bunker (hey, that was the Norman Lear '70s; this was the "Seinfeld" apolitical '90s).

The half-crazed look on Boyle's face suggested all sorts of malfeasance, but this was a sitcom he was doing; every now and then, it even required Frank to commit acts of premeditated kindness. They had put him in a sweater, after all.

Still, Frank Barone's cruelty had, to be sure, a darker flip side, and Boyle seemed to imagine a version of it in 2001's "Monster's Ball," playing a bigoted, retired prison guard opposite Billy Bob Thornton as his conflicted son. Here was another father sitting at home till death took him, only this time the vitriol and misery he embodied, smoking a cigarette despite the oxygen tube in his nose, was chilling.

For many, Boyle was a different kind of Frankenstein first, the one who donned a tuxedo and tails and sang "Puttin' on the Ritz" in Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein." If you were a 9-year-old boy when "Young Frankenstein" hit theaters in 1974, Boyle probably wasn't going to be able to reinvent his image, though to discover him out of makeup taught one a lesson about what it meant to be an actor.

"Young Frankenstein" augured a renaissance for comedy, both at the movies and on TV ("Saturday Night Live" debuted a year later, and Boyle hosted it in 1976). In the era of "Animal House" and "Airplane," Boyle showed up in 1984's "Johnny Dangerously," a too easily forgotten spoof of 1930s gangster movies, with Boyle as the good-hearted and paternal mob boss Jocko Dundee.

In a long line of movies and shows, Boyle tipped irascible both ways, and on a sitcom like "Raymond" he added what a buttoned-down comedian wouldn't but what the genre needs: the sense that there is no filter before the words come out.

paul.brownfield@latimes.com

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