The Evolution of Ray Romano

Credit: Macall B. Polay / HBO

From 1996 to 2005, Ray Romano ruled network TV. More people tuned in to the final season of Everybody Loves Raymond than any other sitcom — and this was back when people still tuned in to watch sitcoms on network TV. There are upsides to that kind of mass success — gobsmacking royalty checks in perpetuity, your mom's friends know you're a big shot — and drawbacks, namely that the cool kids go out of their way to pretend not to notice you. For Romano, one of the cool kids was director Martin Scorsese, who cast the 58-year-old Romano as a coke-snorting record exec in his HBO show Vinyl without having seen any of his decade of stand-up comedy or the sitcom some 20 million Americans watched every week. "It was the best thing that could have happened to me," Romano says. "He didn't have the guy from Everybody Loves Raymond ingrained in his head."

On most of the shows you've been on, you had some authority because you helped create them. On Vinyl, Scorsese is in charge. Was it hard to let go?
Was it hard? No. It wasn't hard with him. I'm not gonna tell Martin Scorsese how to film. Watching him, that's a different animal altogether. He's got his own style, his own shots. On the first day we were doing a scene where we're at a conference table, and the camera was craned in on a long neck all the way up to Bobby Cannavale's face. We were deep in rehearsing, and Bobby said, "Guys, we're doing a classic Scorsese shot right now. Right now!" It was kind of blowing us all away.


Was that scary?
Absolutely. It gets a little deep for my character. There's some heavy stuff that he deals with, so that was frightening. And then I had to get naked, which was petrifying.

Really? You do?
Yeah, in episode seven. That's a warning, it's not a plug. Keep the kids away from episode seven, and not just kids — anyone with a weak stomach.

How did you research the part? It's probably been a while since you were on the hookers and blow circuit.
Yeah, you gotta go way back to . . . never. So how did I research it? I just tapped into my fantasies — my fantasy Rolodex. No, that wasn't my world. I can openly say I've never done cocaine or a hooker.

When Raymond ended, you had tons of financial security and nothing much to do. That could have gone badly.
Well, it did go badly. It went nicely for a couple of months. It took a while before I realized, "What now? I'm 47, and three out of four of my kids are teenagers, and I live in L.A. now?" I felt like I came out of a submarine. Like, how did I get here?

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So there was no sudden panic?
No. It was slow. It manifests itself in different ways. I got shortness of breath on the golf course, and, little by little, it was like there was a cloud over my head. Then it hit hard, this void. I'm not gonna say I was severely depressed, but I had anxiety. After a while I realized that I'm a person who needs to work, so I started doing more stand-up and writing with my writing partner, Mike Royce. We were both kind of going through some of the same shit, and we came up with Men of a Certain Age. In the second season, the show won a Peabody Award, and a month later they canceled it!

And now you do only what you want.
Well, I don't have to do anything for the money. I don't know if that's a dickish thing to say, but I have zero financial motivation to do anything. I know what I like to do. I love doing stand-up. It still gives me a high.

You grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, when they had legendary concerts at the tennis stadium. Did you see any?
Yeah, I grew up 10 blocks from there. I wasn't a crazy concertgoer. I didn't smoke pot or anything. But we would try to sneak in, and I could never get in. The Who played there, and my brother managed to sneak in and I didn't. But I didn't tell him that. So that night he tested me: "What'd the guitar player do at the end?" I had to make some shit up, and I didn't know that Townshend broke his guitar, you know. So he caught me.