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Remembering Oscar-Nominated Character Actor Seymour Cassel

Cassel, who died April 7, performed as a child during matinees of his mom's burlesque shows and went on to appear in movies directed by John Cassavetes and Wes Anderson. Originally broadcast in 2006.


Other segments from the episode on April 12, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 12, 2019: Interview with Seymour Cassel; Interview with Ray Romano.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Actor Seymour Cassel, a character actor familiar to fans of the movies of John Cassavetes and Wes Anderson, died last Sunday at age 84. His first screen appearance was a small, uncredited role in the first film Cassavetes ever directed, in "Shadows," in 1958. More than 50 years later, Cassel appeared in an episode of the HBO musical comedy series, "Flight Of The Conchords," and kept working until very recently.

Terry Gross spoke with him in 2006. Overall, Cassel amassed more than 200 acting credits. His later work involved independent films, including Wes Anderson's "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums." In the 1992 film "In The Soup," he starred opposite Steve Buscemi. Buscemi played an aspiring writer with a massively clunky screenplay, and Cassel played the shady character willing to act as the film's finance guy.



STANLEY TUCCI: (As Gregoire) Hello.

CASSEL: (As Joe) Gregoire.

TUCCI: (As Gregoire) Yes, Gregoire.

CASSEL: (As Joe) Bobby Azaro from Queens.

TUCCI: (As Gregoire) Bobby Azaro.

CASSEL: (As Joe, laughter) Guess what?

TUCCI: (As Gregoire) What?

CASSEL: (As Joe) We just developed a mutual friend, Angelica Peena (ph).

JENNIFER BEALS: (As Angelica Pena) Pena.

CASSEL: (As Joe) Pena - what's the difference?

TUCCI: (As Gregoire) My wife?

CASSEL: (As Joe) Point is, you owe her 3,500.

TUCCI: (As Gregoire) Supposed to be 3,000 - 3,000.

BEALS: (As Angelica Pena) Three thousand.

CASSEL: (As Joe) It's 3,500 now. I just bought the debt.

TUCCI: (As Gregoire) You bought...

CASSEL: (As Joe) That's right.

TUCCI: (As Gregoire) Explain yourself.

CASSEL: (As Joe) What the f*** is there to explain?

TUCCI: (As Gregoire) OK. OK. Look. Look.

CASSEL: (As Joe) I thought you'd like that tone.

TUCCI: (As Gregoire) OK. OK. OK. Good. OK. Fine. Fine. Fine.

CASSEL: (As Joe) Sounds good.

TUCCI: (As Gregoire) We can work something out.

CASSEL: (As Joe) I'll send someone by. (Laughter) Happy New Year.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Seymour Cassel, welcome to FRESH AIR. This was kind of like your - your comeback film. Did you and Buscemi hit it off right away?

CASSEL: Yes, we did. I mean, I started in this business a long time ago. And in New York, I used to follow people down the street and imitate their walks. And so I can do Steve's walk, you know...

GROSS: (Laughter).

CASSEL: And I - and it sometimes drives people crazy, and sometimes they say, that's not the way I walk. And believe me. I'm pretty good at it. But we hit it off well. I didn't really know him or know his work. But Steve, I think I'd seen him in one or two films in some small parts. And it was a great discovery for me. He's an actor that reacts. And by that, I mean he listens, and you see him enjoying you.

GROSS: I assume that Steve Buscemi was a fan of yours before casting you. Did he already know you before meeting you? Did he already know your work...

CASSEL: He knew my work.

GROSS: ...Before meeting you in "In The Soup."

CASSEL: He's a big John Cassavetes fan.

GROSS: Yeah, I figured. So before we talk about your work with Cassavetes, I want to talk about your your early - and I mean very early show business career. Although, career is probably not exactly the right word. Your mother was in burlesque on the Minsky circuit when you were...


GROSS: ...A child. And it sounds like you toured with her when you were...

CASSEL: I toured with her, yeah.

GROSS: ...When you were very young. What was her act like?

CASSEL: Well, she was a chorus girl. Then she became a specialty act. And if you know burlesque, Minsky had the main theater here. And he had roadshows. And you'd go from New York to Baltimore to D.C., Kansas City, Mo., St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Boston. But I got to get on stage when I was about 3 1/2. And I'd do the matinees in a little checkered suit and - with the baggy pants comics. And I could only work a matinee.

And I loved that world - you know, to me, the life on a train and then coming back to New York City and - you know, and had some downtime here. And I wasn't in school yet. And when I had to go to school, I was not very happy about that.

GROSS: So your mother had a specialty act. Does that mean a specialty strip act?

CASSEL: That's right.

GROSS: So what was her specialty?

CASSEL: Oh, she - she tried dancing with the feathers for a while - you know, the big feather fans. And then she tried a balloon once. But it was just natural for me backstage, you know, chorus girls getting dressed, getting undressed. And hi, Seymour, how are you? And hi, Rosie, how are you? You know, you're just - I learned very early that this was my world. And I was going to learn how to live in it.

GROSS: Now, your mother got married when you were young to - and your stepfather won a casino in a crap game. This must have been...

CASSEL: That's not true. He said that.

GROSS: That's not - I keep reading this every place. So what...

CASSEL: Well, it's true...

GROSS: What happened?

CASSEL: ...That's what I was told. I was 9. And I was living in - on 42nd with his mother and sister. He was a master sergeant in the Air Force during World War II, I guess. He'd been in 17 1/2 years. And we lived down in Fort Myers, Fla. We lived in Miami Beach. I remember the end of the war riding in a car with him and him saying, remember this day. A great man died today. And that was Franklin Roosevelt. And then, you know, we lived in Birmingham, Ala. And then the next thing I know, they were going to Panama.

And that's what he told me, that he won it in a crap game. I later figured out, I got a feeling that he did a little business with some guys in Brooklyn and in the Bronx, you know. I mean, where else would - because we lived in a club - we had the whole corner on Ancon in Panama City. Ancon is the first little town in the Canal Zone. And he also had card games for the officers from the Canal Zone. So he was - he was a busy guy. And I'm not sure what he did, but I'm sure some of it was a little illegal. But he made it work.

GROSS: So you were - you were - you were a pretty streetwise kid.

CASSEL: Oh, totally. And I'm still a streetwise guy. I mean, when people start to talk trash with me, I say, you don't know I've been there. Snoop Dogg, I did a movie with him. And he started with me. And he said, where'd you learn that? And I said, well, between 42nd Street and New York, Snoop, I was doing no good and rapping before you ever started.

GROSS: Cassavetes has been such an influence on independent filmmaking. I mean, he's probably one of the most influential filmmakers in the world of independent film. And he was improvising in movies before that became a popular thing to do. What was his approach to getting the actors to improvise a scene? What were you given before the scene, and how would you work it?

CASSEL: Well, John, with "Shadows" we would do an improvisation. And John would see where the actors' tendencies and their instincts would take them. Then he would write, you know. But with "Shadows," we would just rehearse it again and again and improvise it again and do it.

Once he started writing and wrote "Too Late Blues" and wrote "Faces," you know, there was very - actually, the only improvisation in "Faces" is the songs I make up with the girls in - that I pick up at the Whiskey A Go Go, you know, where I say, put on the red meat, mama, don't want no taters, no onions - because we had no money for music. So John knew that I could kind of make up songs. I'd been doing it, you know, in the late '50s.

But when you get to know an actor and, you know, their instincts as well as John knew mine and Gazzara and, you know, and Gena, he could lead you. You can always add something to a scene because your instincts are to embellish it somewhat to contribute to the text. And ideas come to you, and you try them. And if they're good, you keep them. If they're not, you just eliminate them.

GROSS: You had a pretty major part in "Faces." You don't come into the film until around two-thirds of the way in. But then it's a pretty important part. "Faces" is about - it's basically about a middle-aged, middle-class, very unhappy couple.

So the husband in the couple goes off with Gena Rowlands, who plays a prostitute in it. And his wife goes to the Whiskey A Go Go with her girlfriends. They pick you you up or you pick them up. And you end up going to bed with the wife of this unhappy couple. And she's so miserable by the time, you know, later on about, like, what her life has become that she tries to overdose on sleeping pills.


GROSS: And then you try to revive her.

CASSEL: I do revive her.

GROSS: Successfully.


GROSS: And then I want to play the scene that happens right after that, after you've stuck your fingers down her throat to revive her...


GROSS: ...And kind of slapped...

CASSEL: To make her throw up, yeah.

GROSS: ...Her awake. You're talking with her, and here's part of that scene.


CASSEL: (As Chet) I like you. I caused you a lot of pain and a lot of grief, and I almost killed you. And I prayed, man, oh, I prayed to God. God, please, dear God, don't let anything happen to her 'cause I love her so much, and I'll do anything you say, God. And, man, I don't even believe in him, you know? But, I mean, it doesn't matter. We protect ourselves. So when you're taught ethics and values and honesty and I'm a nice guy and you're a nice guy and this and that, you know, I mean, it just doesn't matter. Nobody cares. Nobody has the time to be vulnerable to each other, so we just go on. You know, I mean, right away our armor comes out like a shield and goes around us, and we become like mechanical men. (Laughing) And I called you a mechanical woman. All you got to do is, I'm so mechanical. Honey, it's absolutely ludicrous how mechanical a person can be. (Imitating robot) I am the sexiest guy in the world. (Imitating robot) I have blond hair. (Imitating robot) I can get all the women I want. (Laughing) You're waking up, aren't you?

LYNN CARLIN: (As Maria, laughing) Uh-huh.


GROSS: That's Seymour Cassel in a scene from John Cassavetes' movie "Faces." Seymour Cassel, tell us a little bit about making that scene.

CASSEL: We were shooting it, and John - as I say to her the dialogue, you know, you think you're mechanical, honey. I'm so mechanical. Look, and I smoke a cigarette mechanically. And John said to me off camera, do the - do a mechanical man. So I did that (imitating robot) you know, kind of a - look at this, honey. And but that's the relationship you have with a director that knows you, that trusts you, that you respect. And you will try anything for him because you know he won't let you look foolish.

BIANCULLI: Seymour Cassel speaking to Terry Gross in 2006. He died last Sunday at age 84. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2006 interview with character actor Seymour Cassel. He first became noticed for his roles in films by John Cassavetes. He died last Sunday at age 84.


GROSS: There's so many, like, myths and legends about, you know, the Cassavetes movies and the people who made them and their adventures together making movies and their adventures together off the set. The impression I always get is that there's a lot of, like, partying and drinking that everybody making the movies did together.

CASSEL: Well, in the '50s, that's what people did. Dope wasn't around. Only up in Harlem could you get a nickel - a matchbox of marijuana. But - so we drank, and it was a social - socially accepted. And people drank highballs and cocktails, and every bar had a piano bar with a pianist who sang and, you know, and entertained.

And then there were joints like Jilly's that Sinatra hung out at and made famous. But there was the Five Spot and Basin Street and, you know, Birdland. And then, you know, 52nd street, I mean, you could stand outside at 16 years old and hear Billie Holiday sing because they always had the door open in the summer. And then, you know - all those clubs.

GROSS: Did any of the partying and drinking interfere with the moviemaking?

CASSEL: No. No. If you got too drunk, we - you know, we would wrap. But, I mean, we didn't drink that much when we worked. We would wait till afterward. John had a basketball court built on his house on Woodrow Wilson. And we'd finished shooting the older actors - Marley, you know, and Dorothy Gulliver.

And some would tire maybe around 3:30 in the morning, at 3. And we'd go out there, put the lights on, you know, take a couple of six-packs of beer and play basketball and beat the hell out of each other. It didn't bother anybody because Frank Zappa lived right next door, and he had a recording studio there. So who the hell were we bothering?

GROSS: John Cassavetes died in '89 of cirrhosis of the liver. What impact did that have on you? Were you still close then?

CASSEL: That - it still has an impact on me. I think of him almost every day. I mean, it was the older brother I never had, and it was the closest male friend that I ever had. And he was extremely influential in how - in creating my career and guiding it and - by loving me as much as he does or did. Yeah, that was the closest person in my life ever 'cause I never knew my father. And my mother, I only knew until I was about 12, and I went back to live with my godmother.

So John became a really - very close person in my life. And we were like - he had lost a brother - excuse me - very young before I met him of a heart attack and misdiagnosed and - so to me, it was the older brother I never had. And I don't know what I was to him, but I know that he loved me. And I love him very much. I mean...

GROSS: Now, I understand that you gave up drinking after he died.

CASSEL: I did. Well, I did it just - when I saw how bad he was, I quit. I quit everything. It was 20 something years ago. But...

GROSS: Your comeback wasn't long after that. Were the two connected?

CASSEL: Well, probably - people were less fearful of me because I was crazy. I mean, people would have one foot in Dan Tana's in LA and one foot inside the door and one out. What's Seymour going to do now? I got to see it, but I don't want to be here when he does it. I mean, I...

GROSS: What were you doing? What were you doing...

CASSEL: Anything I wanted. I was - you know, when I would get a little drunk, I would just be funny and stupid. And that's what people do when they - they either get stupid and mean, or they get funny and stupid. I chose to be funny. Mean was not something I liked to be.

GROSS: So you gave up drinking, and...


GROSS: ...That's when you started to make your comeback. You said people were afraid to work with you before that.

CASSEL: I was unpredictable.

GROSS: And I think it was largely, like, independent filmmakers that you made your comeback with. You know, your first film was "In The Soup" that co-starred Steve Buscemi. Wes Anderson, for example, has cast you in three movies - "Rushmore"...

CASSEL: "Rushmore."

GROSS: ..."The Royal Tenenbaums" and "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou." How did he first approach you?

CASSEL: He was at Sundance when we won - he had a short called "Bottle Rocket." And what impressed me most was his knowledge of film. And I liked the script, and I liked the part. And so after that, he insisted I be in "The Royal Tenenbaums."

I didn't want to do "Life Aquatic." I was doing another movie. He said, you got to be in this movie. You got to be. And I had to fly to Rome. And then he looks at me, and he said, can we shave your head? I said, Wes, who the hell do you think you are? I'm shooting another movie.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CASSEL: I have already established my hair. He says, well, you could wear a wig. I said, for Christ sake, Wes, you're not the only filmmaker in the world, you know? I'm - why don't I wear a wig here? He said, well, no, the character has to be bald. I said, then do the skullcap. And that was miserable. It's 2 1/2 to 3 hours to put that on.

GROSS: Your new movie "Lonesome Jim" - you play the father in a nuclear family - husband, wife, two sons. And I'm thinking that must be very exotic to you, in a way, because you never really had that kind of nuclear family. Well, I guess maybe you had it as an adult, but you certainly didn't have it as a boy. Does the idea of, like, a real nuclear family seem somewhat exotic to you?

CASSEL: Well, it - I thought being as crazy as I was and knowing that very early - I was my own source of entertainment. When I had my own family - and I still do it with my grandchildren - I created the craziness that my kids grew up around in LA - The Rolling Stones, you know, and Jimi Hendrix and Cassavetes and all this. And their father was a bit crazy, but he loved them very much because it was what I never had. And I was grateful to have it.

Playing a straight family and a guy like that - people suppress themselves, and they get comfortable with a specific way of life. And they don't take chances anymore. And I've - I just knew from 3, 4, 5, 6 years old that life is a chance, and everything you do in it is. And, you know, I wasn't going to climb up the side of a tenement until I was sure I could make it.

You know, and then we'd go up that brick that sticks out on the edge of a - on 42nd Street - on those buildings. We'd go up to the roof. There were only about three of us that could do that when I was, you know, 8. And a new kid would move in, and we'd, you know, say, hey, can you climb? Yes. Come on. Try - he'd get stuck a floor and a half up, and we got to call the firetrucks to come and rescue him, you know? But, I mean, that's - that was kids here. So I was always an adventurer, you know?

And to play this character that I played in "Lonesome Jim" - to play Don - I met the guy, and I met his wife. And to play someone like that - it was tough for me to be that quiet, you know? And I understood who he was. And it's just the safe way, and I've never done anything safe.

GROSS: Well, Seymour Cassel, thank you so much.

CASSEL: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Character actor Seymour Cassel speaking to Terry Gross in 2006. He appeared in such films as "Faces," "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums." He died last Sunday at age 84. After a break, actor and comedian Ray Romano, who recently unveiled a stand-up comedy special on Netflix. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Comic, actor and writer Ray Romano has been plying his craft for a long time and is still finding new ways to challenge himself. He's most famous as the star of the CBS sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond," one of the most successful recent examples of the old-fashioned multi-camera TV sitcom. But he's also challenged himself as an actor, starring in such dramatic roles as a man with a midlife crisis in TNT's "Men Of A Certain Age," a photographer on the autism spectrum in NBC's "Parenthood" and a record promoter in HBO's "Vinyl."

Terry Gross spoke to Ray Romano in 2016, the year "Vinyl" premiered. This year, Ray Romano returned to the format that got him started - stand-up comedy in a Netflix special called "Ray Romano: Right Here, Around the Corner." It was his first stand-up special in 23 years. Here he is on the topic of being a father of a 16-year-old son.


RAY ROMANO: And now he drives. Why do we give 16-year-olds licenses? My son doesn't care about anything. He called me today like, hey, Dad, I'm in the car. Yeah, I don't know. I guess I'm out of gas right now.


ROMANO: What do you mean you don't know, Joe? Are you moving?


ROMANO: Is the car moving? I'm not moving. I'm not moving. I put my foot on the pedal, I'm not going anywhere right now. All right. Well, all right. Where are you, Joe? And he's very calm, now, he's la-de-da (ph). I'm here. I'm on the 101. The 101 is a five-lane highway.


ROMANO: Nothing. So I assume, like anybody would, oh, you're on the side of the road, now? No, I'm in the middle lane right now.


ROMANO: What do you mean, Joe? Where's the urgency? I swear to you, this is the exchange 'cause I'm panicking now. What's the traffic like? Well, behind me, it's bad. But it's moving in front of me.


ROMANO: I'm going to kick your ass, Joe, 'cause you need fear. You need fear in your life.


ROMANO: And my wife tries to spin it. You know, whatever he does, she puts the spin on it. Well, he doesn't panic. He's Zen. He's a very Zen-like boy, like astronauts. Maybe he'll be an astronaut one day. Oh, you think so? Really? I don't want to burst your bubble, but if he can't interpret the gas gauge on a Mazda...


ROMANO: ...No, he ain't getting in a space shuttle, I'll tell you right now. Give that up.

BIANCULLI: It was 24 years ago, in 1995, when David Letterman gave Ray Romano his big break by inviting him to do stand-up on "The Late Show." A week later, Ray got a call from Letterman's production company, saying they were interested in creating a sitcom around him, which turned out to be the show "Everybody Loves Raymond." Here's that 1995 stand-up routine from Romano's original appearance on "Letterman."


ROMANO: I have a 3-year-old daughter and twin 2-year-old boys.


ROMANO: Wow. Thank you. Single people are here.


ROMANO: Single people are like, yay, twins. Parents - oh, that could have been us. Oh, my God.


ROMANO: I'll tell you. You know, it doesn't matter if you laugh or not. I'm just happy to be out of the house right now. I'll be honest with you.


ROMANO: I will be honest. You know, it's horrible. I make little excuses now just to get out of my house for a few minutes. I'll do anything. Anybody, do you need anything? Anything at all, anything?


ROMANO: Anything from the motor vehicle bureau? How about that?


ROMANO: Can I register something? It's on my way. I'm going that way. I'm just going to go apply for jury duty, that's all. Let me out.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: So when David Letterman had you on the show for the first time in 1995, and he...


GROSS: ...Was so taken with your comedy that he wanted to build a sitcom around you, you must have been shocked.

ROMANO: Yeah. They called my house, by the way. I lived in Queens. I was in a small house in Queens. And it was a Saturday. First of all, who's calling your house - what executive producer from the show is calling you at your house, and not your manager or agent, and on a Saturday?

And here's where I was. I was - I had been doing stand-up for 11 years. I did Johnny Carson in 1991. I did Leno a couple times. I did every stand-up show they had, "Evening At The Improv," the MTV - all those shows. I had my own HBO half-hour, and I loved doing it. I loved doing stand-up.

I was happy to be doing what I loved, but I was - I kind of reached a plateau, I guess, of where I was going to go. And if that's all I did for the rest of my career, you know, it's - it doesn't suck to be doing what you love to do. And Letterman, after I'd done my Letterman set, I kind of thought, well, that was a really good set. So let's see if it had - you know, maybe somebody? And it was Letterman. It was Letterman who was watching from 20 feet away.

And they called me. And I remember my wife saying, Rob Burnett's on the phone. I was in the backyard. I don't know what I was doing. I was hosing off the kids. And I picked the phone up. I was kind of surprised. And he said, listen, Dave liked what he saw. And so we just want to - we just want to say, I just want to tell you that we're interested. So let's see what happens.

Just know, don't - before you sign anything else with anybody else, we're interested. And then, right away - I told them right there, nobody's - there is nobody else. You know, if you're interested, I'm interested. And sure enough, we signed a deal. And here I am.

GROSS: (Laughter) You know, in watching back your appearance - your last appearance on the Letterman show, you started to tear up. Your voice cracked on that.

ROMANO: Yeah, I did.

GROSS: You got very emotional because he had, you know, giving you the green light to have a sitcom. I mean, he really changed your life so profoundly. That show was so successful.

ROMANO: Yeah. Yeah, I'm getting emotional now when I think about it. But yeah, it's true. Look; there are many things that happened in my life. There are many milestones. There are many things that got me to where I am but none more so than the five minutes I did on "Letterman" that night. And then I did - you know, for the next 20 years, I was on his show at least once - sometimes twice. And then - so for him - when he was retiring, it was something. I mean, it changed my life. It changed my children's life. I mean, I'd still like to think we'd be the same people. I think I am - but so many more opportunities. So just to see him go away into - yeah. I mean, it all kind of welled up in me.

I'll tell you one little story. I'm kind - I'm a kind of superstitious guy - and sometimes too superstitious. But the night that I did the first "Letterman," he was doing a bit about - it was springtime, so he was doing a bit about cutting your pants - summer-izing (ph) your pants. And he took someone from the audience, and he cut their pants into shorts. And then he took Paul Schaefer, and he cut Paul Schaefer's pants into shorts. And then Mel Gibson was the first guest. And he took Mel Gibson's, and he cut his. And then he said, well, I've got to do mine. And he cut his own pants into shorts.

So I was backstage, and I'm watching this. And you know - so I'm talking with my manager (unintelligible). And we're like - and I'm like, should I - do I cut my pants? Do I go out with my pants? And they're like, you've got to do it (laughter). And one of the one of the writers - producers came over with, like, scissors and says, well, you've got to go out - when they introduce you, you've got to go out with your pants cut. And I - we literally were - I had the scissors in my hand. I'm making a big deal out of this, and I probably shouldn't.

But I had the scissors in my hand, and we were ready to cut my pants into shorts. So when Dave Letterman announces this new comic - Ray Romano, here he is - and I walk out, you're going to see my bare calves and knees and I'm part of the joke. And at the last second, I thought, I'm not going to do it. I'm going to just - I don't want to assume I'm part of the clique. I'm part of - you know, I'm the - they don't even know who I am. And now I'm going to go out and be in on the joke. And I don't know. It's too presumptuous; it's too whatever. So I decided not to.

And I went out, and I had the - what I thought was probably one of my best TV sets. And it turned into this - and I still believe had I cut those pants into shorts, the dynamic - something's different. Maybe I have a good set, but there's something. And who knows whether or not all of this happens if I cut my pants into shorts?

GROSS: Well, that's really interesting.

ROMANO: (Laughter).

GROSS: You know what? I'm - here's part of the - how the dynamic might have been different. It would have not only been that, like, you were in on the joke - you know, a part of the clique or whatever. But the audience's first reaction to you would've been like - oh, he's got bony legs or something like that, or, like, doesn't he look funny in those foolish looking shorts that used to be pants a few minutes ago.

ROMANO: Yes, it's distracting. It's distracting.

GROSS: And it takes away from thinking - oh, it's a new comic. I wonder what he's going to talk about.

ROMANO: I don't know if you're kidding or not, but I think...

GROSS: No, I'm not kidding.

ROMANO: ...You're absolutely right.

GROSS: No, I mean that sincerely. Like, it would've...

ROMANO: Well, good. You're...

GROSS: ...Been so off-topic to distract people into thinking about, like, your bony legs and laughing at that when you had, like, genuine comedy to deliver.

ROMANO: Well, I want to say two things. One, I have - my bottom half of my legs are...

GROSS: I didn't mean to assume about your legs (laughter).

ROMANO: ...Fantastic. But that might have been distracting - that they're too good looking. But...

GROSS: Get a load of those gams.

ROMANO: ...I believe that, you know?

GROSS: Yeah.

ROMANO: I have told this story to other people. And they're like, you would have been fine. Don't worry about it. And then what - a little end to this story is when "Raymond" was going off the air - when the last episode was airing, I appeared on "Letterman" that night. And so to bring it full circle, I cut my pants into shorts on that episode just 'cause, you know, what I didn't do 10 years ago, I did for the last episode, yeah.

GROSS: Oh, that's funny. Yeah.

ROMANO: Yeah. So that was cool.

GROSS: That's great.

ROMANO: But I believe those kind of things. I'm like, who knows what would have happened, the whole trickle-down effect? Who knows?

GROSS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: Ray Romano speaking to Terry Gross in 2016 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2016 interview with comic actor and writer Ray Romano. His first stand-up comedy special in 23 years, "Ray Romano: Right Here, Around The Corner," is now on Netflix.


GROSS: So when you started on "Everybody Loves Raymond," the show was - it was kind of billed as like very loosely based on your life - you know, a married man, father of three kids - a daughter and two twin boys and whose parents lived very nearby and who are always kind of showing up and visiting a little too long. And (laughter)...


GROSS: ...You know, it's kind of interfering with the married life of this couple.

Did you have a long talk with your family before the show started and say - you know, to say - hey, people are going to be making assumptions about who you really are based on the characters in the sitcom. Some of those assumptions will be true; some of them will be false. Some of the portrayals are going to be more negative than the way I really feel about you. Or you know, like, what kind of (laughter) - what kind of heart-to-heart did you have?

ROMANO: Well, I didn't have a talk before. But I had a couple of talks during (laughter). First of all, let me just say that, you know, I - thank God for Phil Rosenthal, who - you know, they hooked me up with Phil Rosenthal, who wrote the pilot script. And we talked about our families together. And Phil took his parents and my parents and kind of melded them together to become those parents. So it wasn't an exact portrayal of every - down to, you know, the nitty-gritty of my family.

But the only real issue was maybe the brother character 'cause my brother is a New York police officer - or was then at that time. And he actually coined the phrase - I don't know how many people know this. But the title "Everybody Loves Raymond," it's - I mean, I guess most people do, but some still don't. It's said sarcastically in the pilot - in the pilot episode.

And this is a quote from my brother, my real-life brother, who was a police officer. And he would come in and - in real life, he would come over. And he'd see - what? - I got an award, or I got something for stand-up comedy. And he would jokingly, kind of tongue-in-cheek he'd say, well, look at Raymond. Raymond gets awards when he goes to work. You know, when I go to work, people shoot at me.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ROMANO: People spit at me. When Raymond goes, everybody loves Raymond. So I told this story to Phil. And Phil said, oh, that's - we have to use that. We have to use that as the title. And I said, well, please don't. And he said, well, let's just use it as the working title. And then we'll change it when - you know, when it comes time to go to pilot. And of course, Les Moonves, the head of CBS, fell in love with the title. And he would not - I tried desperately to change that title.


ROMANO: Nobody wants (laughter) that. It's just asking for trouble.

GROSS: People taking it at face value, thinking that you think that everybody loves you.

ROMANO: Well, even if they don't take it at face value, to this day - to this day, someone will start an article with, well, not everybody loves Raymond, and this and that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ROMANO: And yeah, but as far as my family, my brother, who was this tough street cop and a real good cop and really dedicated - and the way Brad Garrett was being portrayed - was portraying him - was slightly goofy. And my mother used to say to me, why - why do they have to make him so goofy? Why did - and I'm - Ma, it's just - it's fictional. It's nothing, you know.

But my brother then became - first of all, he loved what Brad Garrett, the character that he became. And - and we did a couple episodes to show what a good cop he was and what a good soul he was. And my brother was very into that. And he met Brad. And he told Brad that he's proud that he's portraying him.

And not only that, my brother was single at the - at the time, or some point at the time. And he became a little mini - mini celebrity. So I think he was more than happy to be portrayed in this - you know, in any TV show.

GROSS: So what was it like when you started on "Everybody Loves Raymond"? You're the star of this network sitcom. And I don't think you'd ever really had an acting job before. (Laughter).


GROSS: So everybody's relying on you to be really great in this, and you're, like, not experienced.

ROMANO: No, I had - the one experience I had was getting fired from a sitcom. I got fired from "NewsRadio." I don't know if you remember the show "NewsRadio."

GROSS: I do remember the show.

ROMANO: Yeah, I was - I was in the original cast. I was - I was hired for the original cast. And on day two of rehearsal for the pilot, I got - I got let go (laughter). Or they went in another direction is what - is what they told us. And I - and I deserved to be fired, I think.

And, you know, I can - I can say now - and even then I kind of knew I was out of my league. I was - I wasn't ready. It just - it didn't feel right. I had a great audition. I - the showrunner saw me, saw my HBO special and asked for me to come in and read. And I had a great audition. He was cracking up. And he just wanted to hire me right there. And he did.

And then I performed for the network. And then at the table read, I could feel I wasn't quite getting it. And then during rehearsal I could feel it also. I was just stiff. I just - I just wasn't ready. And I got let go. I got fired. And then five months later, I want to say, is when I did my "Letterman" spot. And the following year is when "Raymond" came.

But I was stiff in the beginning of "Raymond," too. They got an acting coach for me. HBO was also one of the producers, along with Worldwide Pants. And somebody from HBO said, listen, we want to hire an acting coach for you. What do you think? And I said, all right, you know. They said, yeah because, you know, it's a little different than stand-up. When you talk, people talk back to you now. I go, oh, yeah, that's - OK, let's see how I can find out how to do that.

BIANCULLI: Ray Romano speaking to Terry Gross in 2016. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2016 interview with comic, actor and writer Ray Romano. His current Netflix special, "Ray Romano: Right Here, Around The Corner," is his first stand-up comedy special in 23 years. Here's a taste.


ROMANO: You know, the other day, my wife got all of us together, all the men. And she passed a new ordinance in the house, new law. She said, I'm not answering any stupid questions. She goes, from now on, if you ask me a question that you should know the answer, I'm just walking away.


ROMANO: And I was like, whatever. You know, I don't want to show fear in front of my kids.


ROMANO: I'm not going to show fear. I have an image for the boys. I didn't think about it. I let her go. And then the next day, I really didn't think about it till I couldn't find my sweatpants. I couldn't find my sweatpants. And I was walking up to ask her, and then I stopped myself. And I go, oh, no, is this one of those?


ROMANO: And then I thought, I can't live like this.


ROMANO: And I just - I, look, I said, whatever happens, happens. I said, I can't find my sweatpants. And she looked. And she didn't say anything for a second. And then I got to admit, my heart started beating a little faster.


ROMANO: And then finally she just goes, check the dryer. They're probably in the dryer. I go, OK. I walked away and went, I got away. I got away. It worked. She scared me. I got away with it. And then I thought, I can't ask her where the dryer is.


ROMANO: I got to find that dryer. I got to - we got the boys. You know, we all talked about it. Nobody knew. Nobody really knew. We all went in separate directions.


GROSS: What was it like for you when you first became famous? It's probably something that you wanted for yourself. But the experience of it might have been very different than what you were expecting.

ROMANO: You know, when you say famous, I guess the first time anyone ever recognized me - I was telling my wife about this the other day that I remember exactly when "Everybody Loves Raymond" started. I remember the first person. I was - we had gone back to Queens. It was during a hiatus weekend. I went to a gas station, and I was pumping my gas. And a woman said, hey, aren't you on that show? And I said, yeah, I am. Thank you, you know. And that was it.

And then, you know, it was still a long ways off before I ever had to worry about being somewhere - and not that I have to worry. I mean, nobody is, you know, I'm not Justin Bieber. My fans can't - I can outrun my fans. Put it that way. But yeah. But it's - I want to say strange, but it's not - it doesn't really affect my life too much really. I mean, yes, it does. I - here's what I say. Before I thought my cab driver hated me, and now I think my limo driver hates me.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ROMANO: I think it's all the same, yeah. And this is maybe a negative way to look at it, but I'm just as neurotic if I had never gotten famous or rich. I think I would be equally neurotic because I was neurotic before, and I'm neurotic now. And I'm - I think I'm just as happy as I was then.

GROSS: So a question of "Men Of A Certain Age," in which you played 1 of 3 men dealing with middle age, men who'd been friends since college. And you co-created the show. So a lot of people, when they reach middle age, just try to act like they're not. You know, like, people want to seem like they're young forever, whether that means, like, getting surgery or just dressing a certain way or behaving a certain way.

And so I think it's great that you decided to, you know, write a show about men who are middle aged and really examine in both dramatic and comic way the range of some of those experiences of reaching midlife. And I'd be interested in hearing, like, why you decided to do it and to do something that had, you know, at least as much, if not more, drama in it than comedy.

ROMANO: Well, when "Raymond" ended, I was at first very excited - not very excited for it to end, but excited that I was going to, I guess, see what life was like. It was a bit of a cool feeling in the beginning because now you're - all of a sudden, you've got all this time. And you've got this money and this fame now. And - but it was like coming out of a submarine. It was like, what is this now? My kids are teenagers. And I live here. I live in LA.

It was kind of an odd, new feeling. I finally talked with my friend, Mike Royce, who was also a writer on "Raymond." And he said he's got the same feeling. And, you know, it's kind of this this weird, where am I, what am I doing now? What's, you know, where's my next passion and purpose? Am I at a part - a time in my life where I accomplished what I wanted to? And we said, let's write about it we.

That's what "Raymond" was. "Raymond" was writing about what you know. Let's do that. We're not going to do a sitcom, of course. Let's do a single camera and write about it. And that's where "Men Of A Certain Age" came out of. And we won a Peabody Award, and then they canceled us. And I have to give credit to TNT because they put us on the air. So I'm not blaming them, but it ultimately didn't find the right home, I don't think. We still miss it. I still miss that show. It was a passion of both of ours.

GROSS: Ray Romano, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

ROMANO: Well, I appreciate it very much. Thank you, too.

BIANCULLI: Ray Romano speaking to Terry Gross in 2016. His first stand-up comedy special in 23 years, "Ray Romano: Right Here, Around The Corner" is now on Netflix.


BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, journalist and biographer Robert Caro talks about unearthing the seamy details of political deal-making to understand the nature of political power. Caro spent decades researching the careers of President Lyndon Johnson and New York City power broker Robert Moses. His new book is called "Working." Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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