Ray Romano Gets Deep, Dark And Angsty For Martin Scorsese's 'Vinyl' Ever since Everybody Loves Raymond, the actor says he has been trying to take on more dramatic roles. In the HBO drama Vinyl, he plays a record company executive who contemplates suicide.
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Ray Romano Gets Deep, Dark And Angsty For Martin Scorsese's 'Vinyl'

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Ray Romano Gets Deep, Dark And Angsty For Martin Scorsese's 'Vinyl'

Ray Romano Gets Deep, Dark And Angsty For Martin Scorsese's 'Vinyl'

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is comic, actor and writer Ray Romano. He's showing what a good dramatic actor he is in the new HBO series "Vinyl," which was co-created by Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger and Terence Winter and is set at a record company in the 1970s. Ray Romano became famous in the mid-90s as the star of the sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond," which was loosely based on his life as a married man with a daughter and twin boys. Then he co-created and co-starred in the TV series "Men Of A Certain Age," which was about three men who have been friends since college and are dealing with the changes that come with middle-age.

He also had a recurring role on "Parenthood." In "Vinyl," Romano plays Zak, the co-founder and head of promotion at the record company American Century. The company has been in financial trouble and they plan to sell it to a German company. Zak was counting on this lucrative buyout to maintain his family's lifestyle, but the company's president, Richie Finestra, has started using cocaine again, which has led to impulsive behavior like deciding at the last minute not to sell the company and punching Zak in the nose and breaking it. Zak is furious.

In this scene, Zak is at his daughter's lavish bat mitzvah, which now he can hardly afford. Richie shows up hours late and very high. Richie, played by Bobby Cannavale, apologizes to Zak and insists that he knows how to revive their record company.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VINYL")

BOBBY CANNAVALE: (As Richie Finestra) Man, if you just trust me I can take us there, even if you can't see it right now yourself - OK? I'm finding the sound. Andrea's going to find the look, the sublabel. That's a new start - right? Alibi Records, baby. We're going to shoot right back to the top.

RAY ROMANO: (As Zak Yankovich) OK, you're going to find the sound. And Athena from heaven, she's going to find the look?

CANNAVALE: (As Richie Finestra) Yeah.

ROMANO: (As Zak Yankovich) Right? What am I? Huh? What am I, the party planner?

CANNAVALE: (As Richie Finestra) No.

ROMANO: (As Zak Yankovich) You come in here. You're six hours late for my kid's bat mitzvah. You're high out of your brain. You want to apologize. OK, that's about time. And then there you go. There you go. You're the visionary. And I'm the bagman.

CANNAVALE: (As Richie Finestra) Don't twist my words.

ROMANO: (As Zak Yankovich) You ruined my life and my family's life - OK? I've got a sweet family, yeah [expletive].

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Zak's daughter) Daddy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROMANO: (As Zak Yankovich) I'm not your brother. I'm not a salesman. I'm a rocket man.

CANNAVALE: (As Richie Finestra) I know that.

LESLIE KRITZER: (As Moira) What's going on here?

ROMANO: (As Zak Yankovich) Don't come in here, tell me to double down. Go. Go ruin your family. Oh, oh wait, you did that already - and mine, too. Go, go jump off the bridge. See if you can fly.

KRITZER: (As Moira) Zak, you button it.

CANNAVALE: (As Richie Finestra) I'm going to bring us back, Zak. I promise. Moira, I swear.

KRITZER: (As Moira) Is he high?

ROMANO: (As Zak Yankovich) Don't even look at him. OK? It's enough.

KRITZER: (As Moira) You shut up. Get him the hell out of here.

CANNAVALE: (As Richie Finestra) Moira, wait.

KRITZER: (As Moira) Out.

CANNAVALE: (As Richie Finestra) Zak. Zak, I'm not going to ruin it. I promise.

GROSS: Ray Romano, welcome to FRESH AIR. First of all, I've really been enjoying watching you in "Vinyl." So what is this role in "Vinyl" demanding of you that you haven't done before in addition to snorting coke, having a three-way and being naked?

ROMANO: (Laughter) Yeah, once you get past that, it's, you know, it's much darker. It's much...

GROSS: Yeah.

ROMANO: There's more depth to it. There's more angst of course. In the very second episode of "Vinyl," my character kind of contemplates killing himself - not kind of, he does. And I - it was very intimidating to me because I did the pilot and almost a year later we got the script for the second episode as we were about to start filming. And in the pilot my character is in a good place. He's happy. They're selling the company. They're - and I got to be honest, I didn't even know my character was married in the pilot. Nine months later, you know, I get the second script and I find he's married, he has children. And here he is, sitting in the car in his garage, you know, when the sale of the company goes out, and he's contemplating swallowing these pills.

And I called my - when I got that script I called my agent right away and I said, did you read this? Did you see where I'm going right - this fast? And I go, I need - first of all, I was terrified to get to that place. And second of all, I need back story. I got to find out what's going on. You know, how does this guy end up here? So there's a lot more going on. The difference between "Men Of A Certain Age" is I'm writing "Men Of A Certain Age," so I know what's coming and I know why it's coming. And here it's all, you know, having to process it and figure out and get myself to that place.

GROSS: So when you said I need back story, did you get it?

ROMANO: Yeah, a little bit. I'd spoke to Terry Winter and I spoke to the director and we went over, you know, what he's going through. And I did a back story myself. I - before we'd even did the pilot - and I don't want to sound all actor-y and all that 'cause I'm not. But I like to write a little bit of a back story - and I did that before the pilot episode - about where the guy came from and what's, you know, what's going on.

And it always goes back to my father. Every back story I've ever written, it's always I'm trying to please my father. So - but I had that kind of ingrained. I had it locked in. And, you know, you go with that but then the writers write whatever they write so it has to kind of go and evolve into where they think the character is. So you kind of meld the two together.

GROSS: So there's an episode where you cry. It was on last Sunday.

ROMANO: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And I don't - you know, I don't think you really needed to do that in a serious way in "Everybody Loves Raymond," which was a sitcom. And I'm not sure you ever had to cry with that kind of like total agony in "Men Of A Certain Age." So did you know how to do that, how to cry on cue? And, yeah...

ROMANO: No. I know you're talking about the last episode. You're talking about the Vegas episode.

GROSS: I'm talking about the Vegas episode.

ROMANO: Yes, but to be - but to tell you the truth, it was the second episode when I was in the car and it ultimately got edited out so you - not edited out, but the way they edited - and I think they did the right choice. They didn't show how bad it got for me in that car. But that moment - and in the script it said - it said tears are running down his face as he holds these pills in his hand.

So, yeah, just from an acting standpoint, that was frightening to me and scary. And I was talking to my agent like, how - you know, this is such a test for me. It's such a - you know, it's the second episode and I want to - I want to make sure I do - I can deliver what they think this - what they're writing for this character. And my agent was very, very sensitive. He was like, well, you better. Well, you better.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ROMANO: Yeah.

GROSS: That could've been enough to make you cry.

ROMANO: Yeah, but exactly, yeah. And by the way I do, in real life - and I'm, you know, I'm at an age where crying is easier for me now. And I like it. I like to - I can cry at a poignant commercial. I can cry at a - this a running joke in my house, but I like the "Star-Spangled Banner." A good "Star-Spangled Banner" can make the cry. No, I'm not kidding. I look them up on YouTube and I find the most emotional ones. And I like a good cry. It's cathartic. It's a release. But I've never been able to be so free to do that on camera the way some actors can.

So the day of, when we were outside that garage door and I was supposed to get in this car and contemplate killing myself, it was my first attempt. I had kind of let myself go and I tried to get into this head of a guy who felt, you know, that desperate. And, listen, we all have things we can relate it to our own life - to moments in our life where, you know, we've been down and been that troubled. And, yeah, you try to dig that up.

And you get there and they yell action, and it's still another two, three minutes before you get to that spot where you need to find it. And I, you know, I just surprised myself that it stayed with me, that I kind of tried to stay in that bubble of where I was. I mean, it seems kind of sad that you have to go there. But it's - I was happy that I could get to that place.

GROSS: What is it in your life now or about your age now that's making it easier for you to cry not only on set but in real life?

ROMANO: Well, when I say age I just think you've lived and you've had all these ups and downs. You know, I'm at a point - I don't want to say midlife but - that would mean I would have to live to 116 if this was midlife. But you're contemplating and you're - I'm still - I would consider myself - I don't know - I want to say a happy person, but I've had my experiences I've had, you know, bouts with sadness and depression and all that. So I guess it's just experience. It's just living life. And you can't avoid the ups and the downs in life, so you just - you try to tap into that.

GROSS: My guest is Ray Romano if you're just joining us. And he co-stars in the HBO series "Vinyl." So how did you get the part? I doubt they wrote the part and immediately thought of you.

ROMANO: No.

GROSS: And I doubt that only because you'd never done anything quite like this before. So there'd be no reason - unless somebody had really been keeping an eye on you and thinking, well, how can we get Ray Romano involved, there'd be no reason for them to make this association.

ROMANO: No, you are correct (laughter). You know what I've been trying to do since "Everybody Loves Raymond - and which by the way I love and it's my legacy I guess if you want to say, but I'm not done. I don't want to retire. I'd like to keep going. And I'd like to do something different. And when I say different I mean something a bit dramatic. I still want to do comedy. And it's hard. It's hard for people to see you other than that character that they saw for nine years. And I get it.

So the luckiest thing in the world happened. Martin Scorsese - the casting woman, Ellen Lewis - she's been his casting partner for everything he does. She told my agent - well, my agent actually went to her after he saw the script and said, what do you think of Ray Romano? And she said, well, that's an interesting choice, but have him send in a tape. If he can get on tape by Monday - I think this was like a Thursday - Marty can look at it. And so I went and I videotaped myself. I went to my buddy's house and we did three scenes. And I tried to look '70-ish - in the '70s.

GROSS: 1970s.

ROMANO: 1970s. Yeah, not 70. I had to look from the 1970s. And I went to my wardrobe. I actually - it was very easy to find a shirt in there that fit in that era. And...

GROSS: I'm sorry to hear that (laughter).

ROMANO: Yes, I know. I told my wife, who is constantly trying to throw those things out - I said I told her it would come in handy one day. But - so I put that on. I did a couple of scenes. We sent it and the feedback we got from Ellen was Marty likes what he saw - I'm trying to remember exactly what he said. And he said he knows this person, meaning he knows the guy I was playing. He goes, he knows this guy. And - but also, he's never heard of Ray Romano. And, you know, my agent was, well, you mean he's never seen the show.

He goes, no, no, he's never heard of Ray Romano. And it turned out to be a blessing. He - they said I was in the running. That's what we heard for about four to five weeks. And one day my agent called with my lawyer on the phone in a conference call, and I knew I either did something - either TMZ found me in a bad way or there's some good news coming. And, yeah, they said I'm in.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ray Romano. And he is now co-starting in "Vinyl," the new HBO series which was co-created by Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger and Terence Winter. And of course he starred in "Everybody Loves Raymond" and co-created and starred in "Men Of A Certain Age." Let's take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Ray Romano, and he's now starring in "Vinyl," the HBO series set at a record company in 1973. So your New York accent is kind of - and I'm from Brooklyn - is kind of one of your trademarks. And I could see, like, certainly on "Vinyl" it really works in your character's favor 'cause your character - even though he's in LA - he such a, like, a New York kind of guy. And I'm wondering if there's times when you felt that it really worked to your advantage and other times that you felt it was maybe, like, standing in your way because it's such a distinctive sound that you have.

ROMANO: I don't think it's standing in my way, especially for this - especially for "Vinyl." When I read a script that calls for someone else, not from New York, then I wonder. I did one movie - I did an indie movie called "The Last Word" and Geoff Haley wrote and directed it. And it was about a conductor - an orchestra conductor - and the New York accent was not going to work for that. And I went to a dialect coach, I guess, and we tried to weed it out a little and instead of saying coffee I had to say coffee - that kind of thing.

But I liked it. I like putting on a little bit of a voice.

You know, what kind of works for me sometimes is to hear my voice a little different in my own head. And it's not even - you may not even be able to hear it. I'm sure nobody else hears it. But when I do - when I do this mammoth on "Ice Age," it's a different voice. Why I do "Vinyl" - the guy on "Vinyl" - when I did "Parenthood" I brought the timbre of my voice down. It kind of helps me be this other character. For "Vinyl," it's supposed to be New York and it's supposed to be - but I have to - I kind of tweak it a little more than I am really. I kind of...

GROSS: I can hear that.

ROMANO: ...Yeah. I have a little - a little line, a little mantra, I guess, before the scene starts in "Vinyl" 'cause there's one line in the pilot where he says, now they want to look at our financials? So before each scene I just have to - they want to look at our financials - our financials. I just say financials over and over in hopes just to click in to that accent. But - and again, I - if I asked my wife, she'd probably just say, no, you sound like that all the time.

GROSS: (Laughter) Are there any relatives in your family who had a stronger New York accent than you did that you grew up listening to, that you can channel when you need to?

ROMANO: Well, I think I - I think, you know, when I look at either a home movie, a home video or even videos of my stand-up from the first year, second year, third year, I had a stronger New York accent. And, you know, my brother was a New York City cop. All my buddies, you know, we grew up in Queens and I still see them to this day. You know, we - yeah we - it's all authentic. But I think, when I look at my stand-up from the beginning, I kind of - it cracks me up because I do - I do talk a little bit like that. And the jokes are horrible, too. So that makes me laugh.

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, good news. We're about to hear some of your early stand-up (laughter).

ROMANO: Oh, no.

GROSS: So last year, in 2015, you were one of David Letterman's guests on one of his final shows before he retired. And when you were a guest on one of those final shows, you talked about how he had changed your life, first by giving you your big break by having you do stand-up on the show. And then, a week later, a week after that stand-up, someone from his company - his production company - called you and said that Letterman was interested in creating a sitcom around you, which turned out to be the show "Everybody Loves Raymond."

So what I want to do first is play the stand-up that you did on David Letterman's show in 1995. And then we'll talk about what happened with that. And, Ray, would you just confirm for me after we've heard this that this is the stand-up that you did then? I'm almost sure that it is. It was an extra on the "Everybody Loves Raymond" DVD set. Is that the original one?

ROMANO: That sounds right, yeah.

GROSS: OK.

ROMANO: I'll know. I'll know exactly.

GROSS: You'll know it.

ROMANO: I remember exactly what the set was. So go ahead.

GROSS: OK. So here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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

(APPLAUSE)

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

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: Single people love - yay, twins. And parents - oh, that could've been us. Oh, my God.

(APPLAUSE)

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. 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, you need anything? Anything at all, anything. You need anything from the Motor Vehicle Bureau, how about that? 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.

That's it.

GROSS: We'll pick up where we left off with Ray Romano after a break. We'll hear two stories about Romano and David Letterman - one about Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants, the other about pants. Romano is now co-starring in HBO series "Vinyl." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ray Romano, who's now starring in the HBO dramatic series "Vinyl," which is set at a record company in the 1970s. Romano starred in the CBS family sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond" from 1996 to 2005. It was produced by David Letterman's company Worldwide Pants. After the series ended, Romano co-created and co-starred in the series "Men Of A Certain Age," and he played a recurring character on "Parenthood." When we left off, we'd heard the clip of his first appearance on the "Late Show With David Letterman."

So when David Letterman had you on the show for the first time in 1995 and he was so taken with your comedy that he wanted to build a sitcom around you, you must've 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 - what executive producer from the show is calling you at your house - and not your manager or your 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'd love doing it.

I love 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 doesn't suck to be doing what you love to do. I had thought, you know, Tim Allen got a sitcom. Roseanne got a sitcom. You know, not compare myself with Seinfeld but Seinfeld - is that ever going to happen? And I had figured a lot of people had seen me. I had done enough. I have the exposure. If it's - if they're not coming at some point, you got to just accept that maybe it isn't going to happen.

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 - you know, maybe somebody - and it was Letterman. It was Lettermen 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 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 - I told him right there nobody - there is nobody else (laughter). You know, if you're interested, I'm interested. And sure enough, we signed a deal and here I am.

GROSS: (Laughter) So, you know, we were talking earlier about learning how to cry on cue when you're doing "Vinyl" 'cause, you know, it's not something you really had to do on "Everybody Loves Raymond," for example. But, you know, in watching back your appearance - your last appearance on the Letterman show, you started to tear up. Your voice cracked on that. You got very emotional because he had, you know, given 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 when he was retiring it was - 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 and to - yeah, I mean, it all kind of welled up in me.

I'll tell you one little story. I'm kind of a 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, summerizing (ph) your pants. And he took someone from the audience and he cut their pants into shorts. And then he took Paul Shaffer and cut Paul Shaffer'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, I start talking with my manager and this and that. And I'm like, should I? Do I cut my pants? Do I go out with my - and they're like, you got to do it. And then one of the writers - producers came over with, like, scissors and says, well, you got to go out - when they introduce you, you 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 David 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 then 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: Wow, 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 and, 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...

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 you're absolutely right.

GROSS: No, I'm not kidding. No, I mean that sincerely.

ROMANO: Well, good...

GROSS: Like, it would've 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: ...Are fantastic. But that might've been distracting, that they're too good-looking.

GROSS: Get a load of those gams.

ROMANO: But I believe that. You know, I've had - I've told this story to other people and they're like, you would've been fine. Don't worry about it. And 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.

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've happened? The whole trickle-down effect, who knows?

GROSS: Yeah. Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is Ray Romano, and now he's co-starting on "Vinyl," the new HBO series set in 1973 at a record company in New York. So let's take a short break. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic, writer and actor Ray Romano, who's now starring in "Vinyl," the new HBO series set at a record company in New York in 1973. He, of course, starred in the sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond" and co-created and co-starred in "Men Of A Certain Age," which is about three friends who are dealing with turning middle-aged.

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 live very nearby and who are always kind of showing up and visiting a little too long and (laughter) 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 hard talk did you have?

ROMANO: 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 the, 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, you know, 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 people. People spit at me. But when Raymond goes everybody loves Raymond.

So I told this story to Phil and Phil said, well, that's - we have to use that. We have to use that as the title. And I said, oh, 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 love with the title and he would not - I tried desperately to change that title.

GROSS: Why?

ROMANO: Nobody wants (laughter) 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, well, not everybody loves Raymond and this and that 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 do they have to make him so goofy? Why did the - and, 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 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 time or some point at the time and he became a little 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). 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 hired for the original cast, and on day two of rehearsal for the pilot I got let go (laughter) or they went in another direction is what did they told us. And I deserved to be fired I think and, you know, I can say now - and even then I kind of knew I was out of my league. I wasn't ready. It just - it didn't feel right.

I had a great audition. 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 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's 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, 'cause, 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 deal - find out how to do that.

GROSS: My guest is Ray Romano, who starred in the sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond" and now co-stars in the HBO series "Vinyl." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is comic, writer and actor Ray Romano. He co-stars in the HBO series "Vinyl." When we left off, we were talking about starring in the CBS family sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond."

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've 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 week. And 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's, you know, I'm not Justin Bieber where the - my fans can't - I can outrun my fans, put it that way.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ROMANO: 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. 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. It's - kind of remains - I think I'm just - and this is maybe a negative way of looking 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 one of three men dealing with middle age, men who'd been friends since college. And you co-created the show.

ROMANO: Yes.

GROSS: 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. I mean, I came from New York and moved here to do the show. And for the next nine years, I was kind of in this bubble, in this submarine of just work and stress over the - and it's a good kind of stress, but the next script and, you know, I was in the writer's room. And I was in the editing room. And it was just - it consumed me. And then my kids were growing up. And I tried to do everything.

And then here the show was ending and now - 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, where - what is this now? I'm - my kids are teenagers? And I live here? I live in LA? It was kind of an odd, new feeling. And at first, I liked it. I kind of said, oh, let's see what's next. And then, you know, I was going to a therapist. I've been going to a therapist forever, but my therapist then said - when the show was ending he says, do you want to start coming twice a week? And I said, no. You know, I don't - I'm running out of things to talk about now. I'm not going to come twice a week. And sure enough, in three months after the show ended, I was going twice a week.

It was really a hard adjustment all of a sudden. And I finally talked with my friend Mike - with my buddy Mike Royce, who was also a writer on "Raymond." And he said, you know, he's got the same feeling. And, you know, it's kind of this weird, where am I? What am I doing now? What's, you know, where's my next passion and purpose? And, you know, am I at a part of - a time in my life where I accomplished what I wanted to? Then we said, let's write about it. 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 - we want to do it real. And keep it funny, but 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 cancelled 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: So one more question about "Vinyl" before we have to wrap up. How is being in "Vinyl" now affecting what you're listening to and watching? It's set in 1973. There's period music from the '70s and earlier throughout the series - either music that's supposed to be playing in the present or flashbacks from the past. So is that affecting what you're listening to now and what you're watching?

ROMANO: I'd say very - yes, a little bit but not a lot because I grew up in that. I was a teenager in the '70s. And that's the - my playlist on my iPod right now - on my iTunes right now. My wife, you know, whenever she gets in the car with me, she dreads it because she's going to have to hear my music. You know, they make fun of me a little bit on the set because my favorite band in the '70s was Chicago. So Bobby Cannavale, he's quick to give me crap about that.

But they were great in the '70s. And they are great. But in the '70s, they were a different group. But I had all that. I had Led Zeppelin. I had, you know, Black Sabbath. I had The Stones. I listened to all of it. So - I mean, they're turning me onto some new stuff because I wasn't, you know, a connoisseur of music. But it's also just the coolest thing in the world to - you know, 'cause in that period of my life, so many things are happening. I'm reaching puberty. I'm getting a girlfriend. I'm whatever. I'm breaking my heart. And all the music plays a part of that.

And now I'm getting to act in scenes with, you know, actors who are playing them. But we're re-creating - I mean, I was in a scene with David Bowie. I'm in a scene with Elvis. I'm in a scene with - you know, Led Zeppelin's in the show. It's just - that's why when I look, I go, what am I doing in this show? It's just too cool.

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.

GROSS: Ray Romano co-stars in the HBO series "Vinyl."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR - why so many pitchers in little leagues and major leagues are blowing out their elbows and needing surgery and what that means for pitchers and for the sport. We'll talk with sports writer Jeff Passan, author of "The Arm." And journalist Jacob Bernstein, son of Carl Bernstein and the late Nora Ephron, will talk with us about his HBO documentary about his mother. I hope you'll join us.

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