Ray Romano hopes everybody loves his new TNT series

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Art Streiber/Courtesy TNT/MCT
Scott Bakula, from left, Ray Romano and Andre Braugher play three pals who share a mid-life crisis in TNT's new show, "Men Of A Certain Age," premiering on December 7, 2009.

BURBANK, Calif. — Everybody may love Raymond except for Ray
Romano himself. The star of the long-running hit sitcom “Everybody Loves
Raymond” has managed to stay the same guy he was when he was repairing
futon mattresses for his best friend and living in Queens.

In Hollywood that’s as rare as real blondes.

One of the things that’s kept him humble is his 21-year
marriage to Anna. When “Raymond” premiered, Anna was in New York with
three little kids and Romano was in L.A. He and his friend, Kevin James,
decided to celebrate in Las Vegas. Romano phoned to tell her.

“She said, ‘Oh, really.’ So I just played along and
went, ‘Hey, my show aired last night. You know what? Millions and millions of
people saw me on TV.’ I’m just goofing around with this bravado. ‘OK? So that’s
why I’m doing what I’m doing, ’cause I am a TV STAR.’ She said, ‘You’re still
the dick I married.'”

Laughing, and leaning back in his black vinyl office chair,
Romano says, “That’s good for me. There’s somebody in my life you get the
truth from.”

Now the father of four kids (a daughter, 19, twins, 16, and
an 11-year-old), Romano is the counterpoint to his character in the endearing
new TNT show, “Men of a Certain Age,” which premieres next Monday.

The comedian plays a party-store owner with a gambling
problem, who is separated from his wife. Scott Bakula as a wanna-be actor and
Andre Braugher as a car salesman make up the trio of old pals who are sharing a
mid-life crisis.

Romano admits he, too, likes wagering. “I’ve gambled.
I’ve dipped my toe in there, but it’s not as dramatic as what Joe’s going through.
But I know the world. I grew up going to the racetrack in New York and betting
in football pools and this and that. And I work in Vegas, so I know the world.
I have a penchant. I am attracted to throwing a bet down here and there, but I
control it.”

Though “Raymond” catapulted Romano into the
highest tax bracket, you’d never know it by looking at him. He’s dressed in a
white T-shirt with “Kentucky” written on it, an unbuttoned teal-blue
suede-cloth shirt and jeans. On his left wrist is a plastic LED watch.

While “Men of a Certain Age” is both funny and
touching, it shines with veracity, a quality that Romano (who co-wrote the
first episode with Mike Royce) treasures.

“I got a passion for this kind of thing where it’s just
real,” he says, brushing his hand through his salt-and-pepper hair.

“But I don’t need to do heavy melodrama. I don’t mind
doing something that’s funny and dramatic at the same time as long as it’s
real. I think I’ve had my fill — I love what I did on ‘Raymond’ but I’ve had my
fill of that type of comedy where it’s a little broad and slightly farcical and
heightened past the reality level. But I like doing something that people can
relate to on a real level.”

Another element that keeps Romano, 51, down to earth is his
disbelief in his own good fortune. “I don’t know if this is true of all
comedians, but we don’t really believe the success we have. You think at any
minute someone’s going to expose you as an imposter. You really can’t get too
big for your britches ’cause you don’t believe that. There’s both things going
on. Sometimes you think you’re the best thing in the world, but sometimes you
think you’re worthless. It’s a weird mix, the dichotomy of the perception of
yourself. I’m just always so grateful that people want to see anything I do I
don’t think I have it in me to be too ‘dickish.'”

In fact, when he began in standup he quit several times for
a year or more. At the 10-year mark he suffered real doubts even though he’d
done all the major talk shows. “At the same point these comics were
getting development deals for TV shows — Tim Allen had a show, Roseanne had a
show, Jerry (Seinfeld) had a show, Brett Butler had a show — so these were
happening to all the guys who were up at that level.

“I thought, ‘I love standup but I love to progress and
do the next thing, is that going to pass me by?’ I was 36. My exposure was out
there. It wasn’t like they hadn’t seen me. But it just wasn’t happening. And I
just thought, ‘Well, it’s never going to happen,’ and I had a little bit of a
lull there where I wondered if I wanted to be doing it 10 years from now.”

Finally one Saturday the producer of “The Late Show
with David Letterman” phoned Romano. “I was in the backyard yelling
at somebody or my wife was yelling at me. He called up and said, ‘Hey, we liked
what you did (on Letterman’s show) would you be interested in a development
deal?’ They sign you up and have a year to develop a sitcom around your
persona, or whatever. They said, ‘Just want you to know we’re interested. Don’t
sign with anybody else because we’re interested.’ I said, ‘There IS nobody
else.”

Letterman’s production company produced “Everybody
Loves Raymond,” which ran for nine seasons. As it turned out, everybody
DID love Raymond.

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The overhauled version of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s
Adventures in Wonderland” falls down the rabbit hole on Sunday when the
Syfy Channel airs the first of two parts. This modern version not only features
nightmarish objects like a casino made of cards, a city poised many stories
high and a brunette, Roman-nosed Alice, but creatures few of us recognize.

Matt Frewer (“Max Headroom”) steals the show as
the White Knight and Kathy Bates does a yeoman’s job as the red-headed Queen of
Hearts. But Carroll’s wit is lacking and so are the precious moments we recall
from the book. Writer-director Nick Willing adapted the work. He also directed
“Tin Man,” TV’s modern version of “The Wizard of Oz” two
years ago. Neither production managed to conjure the magic of the original,
twisted as they are into modern times. I guess we’re lucky, at least, Alice
isn’t texting the White Rabbit.

———

Alan Alda will be hosting a new three-part series on PBS
called “The Human Spark,” which tries to answer the eternal question:
What makes us human? Alda queries scientists on the subject with surprising
results. It wasn’t enough to just narrate the series, says Alda. He wanted to
join the fray.

“I’ve spent all my life, as an actor, trying to learn
how to relate because that’s really at the heart of acting. If you’re really
there in the same space with the other person, something happens that the
audience finds irresistible, so you really have to learn how to do that. The
only training I ever had was in improvising — the kind of improvising we did
forced you to relate to the other person. That’s where you got the scene, what
you tossed back and forth between you. What interests me a lot is that kind of
lifelong search turns out to be … at the heart of what makes us human.”
The show airs Jan., 6, 13 and 20 (check local listings).

———

One of folks’ favorite characters on NBC’s “30
Rock” is the sweet-tempered page, Kenneth, played by Jack McBrayer. Tina
Fey, star and creator of the show, says she patterned the character of Kenneth
after McBrayer. He admits he does share some qualities with his fresh-faced
do-gooder. “Well I think just very generally, you know, kind of being a
people pleaser and always wanting to do good at my job. And I will be the first
to admit sometimes I’m not exactly sure how this big world works. But I just
try to cope with it as well as I can,” he says.