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The Art of His Life

Feb 7, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Philip “Phil” Rosenthal, you grew up in middle class suburbs around New York, dreaming of being an actor. Now, at age 45, you’re the toast of Hollywood as an executive producer. You’ve just finished taping the final episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which you created. It’s going out of production as the No. 1 network comedy and a top comedy in TV syndication. After nine seasons on CBS, your final episode is the centerpiece of this May’s sweeps. And along the way you’ve gained fame, awards and millions of dollars.

So what are you going to do next?

“I have to lie down,” said Mr. Rosenthal over lunch last week in his favorite Hollywood diner. “That’s my next project. I’m lying down.”

He was joking … sort of. Despite offers to carry on with a “Raymond” sequel for big bucks, Mr. Rosenthal is taking some time off. The potential Brad Garrett vehicle is in park. There will be no “Joey”-type spinoff after his “Friends”-style triumph. The closest he’ll come this fall will be supervising some “Raymond” writers under his Paramount deal.

Mostly, after nine nonstop years, Mr. Rosenthal wants time with his wife of 14 years (actress Monica Horan, who plays Amy on “Raymond”) and their two children. In his spare time he will play video games, record commentaries for the DVD release of “Raymond,” finish his semiautobiographical book for Viking tentatively called “The Writer’s Room,” exercise daily and dine frequently at Jar, his upscale Los Angeles chop house.

“Yes! I get to indulge my passions. I love great food,” said Mr. Rosenthal. “I love restaurants. A good restaurant is like traveling for the evening. It’s an escape. It’s an art form, like movies or theater or anything else. I like to support the arts.”

All right, take a vacation. But why kill the golden goose? Aren’t there a lot of good “Raymond” episodes left unmade?

“My answer is: ‘You greedy bastard!'” responded Mr. Rosenthal with mock anger. “210 shows isn’t enough for you? Why?”

He took a breath and shrugged. He has been asked the golden goose question before. “The reason it’s ending is we’ve done everything we can think of with this family,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “Now, if after 210 shows you can say, come on, you’re not trying, I don’t know what to say to you. We are done.”

He said nearly the same group of writers and actors have been there the entire way: “The thing is we tried very hard to come up with a final season and we could only come up with 16 stories. No other reason. Not because of money.”

Maybe. But he admitted there is something else. “There’s an old show-business axiom: Get off the stage before someone says you should get off the stage. So even though to you it seems like we’re leaving too early, I take it as a compliment. It’s time to go. It’s easy to watch. It’s harder to make.”

He has come a long way from that day a decade ago when David Letterman’s production company sent him to meet Ray Romano, then a stand-up comedian. At the time Mr. Rosenthal’s writing and producing credits included a short-lived Robert Mitchum sitcom on NBC, the failed ABC sitcom “Baby Talk” and three years on the hit ABC comedy “Coach.”

“We met at Art’s Deli [in Studio City, Calif.]-where every sandwich is a work of art-and I was not his first choice,” Mr. Rosenthal recalled. “I think he wanted someone from ‘Friends,’ but he wasn’t available.”

Instead, they found common ground. “The only difference was that he was Italian and I was Jewish, which isn’t much of a difference,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “For every story he had about his crazy family, I had one too. So we hit it off. I got a shot.”

Soon they were collaborating, creating characters that often came out of their own lives. “Ray had never acted before,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “So I’m keeping him close to who he is. Keeping him comfortable.”

The supporting cast, many of whom are now multiple award winners, came together soon after. Doris Roberts (as Ray’s mother) and Patricia Heaton (as his wife) won the roles after giving great auditions, as did Brad Garrett, who was the first million-dollar winner on TV’s “Star Search.” CBS’s Leslie Moonves suggested veteran character actor Peter Boyle to play Ray’s father.

Mr. Rosenthal was tempted to defect from “Raymond” only once. After the show’s second season, a Disney division offered him a big-money development deal, but he would have had to leave “Raymond.” He turned down the offer, and Disney offered more. He finally took it. But when it came time to leave “Raymond,” he gave Disney back the money instead. “And it paid off,” he said, “because the show became what it was and I ultimately made a deal that was worth three times that with Paramount once Viacom took over. That merger helped because Paramount was now a sister company to CBS. It meant I could do a development deal and stay on ‘Raymond’ at the same time.”

Tall and lanky, with a nervous laugh and big bright-blue eyes, Mr. Rosenthal is also available for acting roles. He recently had a supporting role in James L. Brooks’ movie “Spanglish.”

“Yes, I’m ready for more roles, but I’ll only do it if they ask me,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “Show you what kind of hams we are: The [‘Raymond’] writers and I have an act. We take it out on the road. We’ve been getting bookings. The act is we tell stories about things that have happened to us in our real lives. Funny stories. And we then illustrate them on the screen behind us with clips from the ‘Raymond’ episodes they became. We talk amongst ourselves and with the audience. And we sell out around the country.”

And he said he was going to take a nap.