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Small Screen: Low profile pays off for star in HBO’s Vinyl

PASADENA, California — Not everybody loves Raymond. In fact, not everybody has even heard of Ray Romano, though his popular sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond, ran for nine years and turned Romano into a comic star.
Ray Romano stars in Vinyl, HBO's tale of the music industry in the 1970s.

PASADENA, California — Not everybody loves Raymond. In fact, not everybody has even heard of Ray Romano, though his popular sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond, ran for nine years and turned Romano into a comic star.

One person who had never heard of him was Martin Scorsese. The film director was casting HBO’s explosive saga about the sex, drugs, and rock and roll era of the music industry of the ’70s. And when Romano’s agent read Vinyl, which airs Sundays, he urged his client to submit an audition tape.

“So I went to my closet and said, ‘Do I have anything that looks ’70s-ish? And sure enough, there was a shirt that looked a little bit Miami Vice. And luckily my hair was a little bit long. I came out of the shower and just let the bangs fall down. And did this scene with my buddy, we videotaped,” recalls Romano in a hotel room here.

They sent Scorsese’s casting partner the tape. She reported back that the director was familiar with the character in Vinyl, but had never heard of Romano.
“He’s not a sitcom fan,” shrugs Romano, “he’s a movie film genius and had never met, heard of me, or seen me — which ended up being a blessing because he didn’t have a preconceived idea of me. There was no baggage. They said I’m in the running, and about three or four weeks later they said, ‘He’s in the running.’

“And one day my agent and business manager both called on a conference call. I thought they weren’t both going to call me for bad news. They just told me, ‘Congratulations, you got the part.’

“I said, ‘Now the fear begins. Now I have to meet Martin Scorsese and actually act for him.’ Then I got excited, nervous. My agent told me to call him and have a conversation with him, and all day I was anxiety ridden. But he was great. He was easy, he was laughing, he was funny.”

The trepidation was genuine for Romano, who still suffers doubts about being an actor.

He started as a standup comic and still performs when he can.

“I really think if you were to ask me what are you a professional at? I’m a professional standup. Am I a professional actor? I act. I don’t know what a ‘professional actor’ means. But I think in my core I am a professional standup comedian,” he nods.

“As negative as I am, as self-deprecating as I am about myself, I’m really good at doing that. Acting is still a learning process. It’s slow. You come from a sitcom, nobody wants to see you do anything dramatic. So you make your own show. You make Men of a Certain Age, and do a little comedy and a little drama, and some people see it. Then you do Parenthood, and some people see that. Then you get lucky to be cast in this thing.”

Romano thinks that most standup comedians share a common denominator, “They need what they get onstage; something that was missing from them,” he says.

“I, I don’t want to criticize or blame anyone, but my father happened to be a guy who grew up without a father of his own. He had a hard time expressing himself. He was very undemonstrative. My one joke is if my father hugged me once I’d be an accountant right now. I wouldn’t have needed what I did.”

Acting comforts him in a different way, he says. “It’s hard for me to express myself in my real life, that my father passed down to me, unfortunately. So it’s nice to put on a mask and a costume and be able to do it as somebody else. You don’t mind the attention. It’s exciting. It’s exciting to get into someone else’s skin and transform yourself.”

It was a heady ride for Romano when he helmed the sitcom. But when Everybody Loves Raymond ended, Romano tumbled into a tailspin.

“It was sad at first, then exciting because it was nine years of being in this bubble and working with all my energy. And then it was like an emotional crash.”

The first year of the show, he didn’t move from his native New York. The second year the family relocated to L.A. Romano had three small children at the time.

“The kids grew up, we had another baby, but the whole time I’m 24/7 consumed by the show. And then it ends overnight, and it’s like you come out of a submarine. And it’s literally almost like, ‘I live HERE now?’ ’My kids are grown?’ ‘I’m not in New York anymore?’ It took a few months until the void overtook me. And I had trouble, a lot of emotional struggles until the next thing comes along.”

Romano had been in therapy most of his life and was running out of things to say.

“But when the show was ending my therapist said, ‘Do you want to start coming twice a week?’ I was like, ‘I don’t even want to come once a week.’ And sure enough, after three months I was going twice a week. He knew this was a big change for me.”

Married for 28 years, the father of four (three still at home), Romano says, “I would get sad during hiatus, I wasn’t getting depressed, I was aimless. OK, you’re this middle-aged man now with no direction. Financially I didn’t have to work again, but spiritually and emotionally I did. My family’s most important, but when I’m happy I’m a better parent and better husband, and work makes me happy.”

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