Lynette Rice
May 09, 2005 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Now that the taping of Everybody Loves Raymond‘s series finale is only days away, Ray Romano should be using this downtime to pack boxes in his Burbank office. But old habits die hard. Clad in his typical workday ensemble (flannel shirt, blue jeans, gym shoes), Romano is hunched over his laptop computer, scanning the Internet for nitpickers. It doesn’t take long to find them; after years of frantic post-episode surfing, Romano knows exactly where to locate Raymond‘s harshest critics. (Today, they’re on an entertainment Web page spouting words like mediocre and awful.) ”It keeps you humble,” explains the 47-year-old comedian. ”People come over to me on the street and are nice, nice, nice. But people who hate you aren’t coming over to say they hate you. The Web is a venue to say it.”

Wait, is this Ray Romano talking? Or his alter ego Ray Barone? After spending nine years with both of them, it’s hard to tell where one stops and the other begins. This relatability — an Everyman blend of insecurity, hound-dog expressions, and benign buffoonery — has made Everybody Loves Raymond an unlikely top 10 staple for the last five seasons. (That and the fact that each member of Raymond‘s supporting cast is talented enough to carry his or her own series.) With ratings still strong — the sitcom will finish the season as TV’s No. 1 comedy with 16.7 million viewers — why not go on for another year? It’s certainly a question even Romano’s costars would like answered as they tape the show’s final episodes.

”They are finding some great stories,” says Patricia Heaton, who plays Ray’s wife, Debra. ”We did one last week called ‘The Power of No,’ where Ray realizes if he turns down sex, I’m more likely to be nice to him and want to have sex with him. That’s such a universal kind of thing, I’m surprised it took us nine years to get to that episode.” Marvels creator Phil Rosenthal’s wife, Monica Horan, who plays Robert’s spouse, Amy: ”I’m not being overly dramatic when I say I get the script, read it, and go ‘How are they not repeating themselves?”’ Even Romano’s boss wants the big guy to do another round. ”I know it could go another season and I’ve said that to Ray and Phil,” says Les Moonves, co-COO of Viacom, which owns CBS. ”They want to leave on top — but I still think they’re leaving a year too early.”

So why not, Ray? It seems like the world that lives outside your laptop wants more. Romano says that shortly after Raymond‘s debut in 1996, he and Rosenthal made a deal: Never, never do something the other doesn’t want to do. Rosenthal, in particular, feels this is the perfect time for Raymond to end (the finale airs May 16 at 9 p.m. after an hour-long retrospective) because he’s simply run out of stories. Never mind that he said the same thing about seasons 7 and 8 — this time he really means it. ”We do pride ourselves in going home, getting in fights with our wives, parents, and kids, and making stories from them. There’s a limit to that,” says Rosenthal, 45. ”If we kept getting in fights with these people, they’ll leave us.” Adds Romano, who at a reported $2 million per episode is the highest-paid actor on TV: ”This sounds obnoxious, but even my wife, who likes to spend money, has enough. . .. We didn’t want to feel like we were just cranking out another year because they were going to pay us for it.”

On the set last January, rehearsal for the show’s penultimate episode — No. 209 — has come to a halt because Brad Garrett, who plays Ray’s perpetually envious brother, Robert, is getting silly, and Romano is just plain lost. No matter how many times director Gary Halvorson tells him where to stand, Romano keeps facing the wrong camera.

“Camera A, Ray!” Halvorson yells playfully, pointing to the one that’s clearly identified as such. “After nine years, you don’t know?”

Garrett, meanwhile, keeps cracking up the crew by pointing to several women on set and declaring how he’ll hit on them “the moment we wrap.” (He’s actually happily married with two kids.) Once rehearsal finally starts again, the script calls for Robert to get angry at Ray, but Garrett takes it over the top and starts shouting. “Hold back on that intensity, Brad,” Romano urges. “Save it for later.”

“I just want to get the f— out of here!” bellows Garrett, 45, in the same bombastic voice. “I’ve got six days to go!”

Sitting on a nearby couch, Doris Roberts (nosy mom Marie Barone) shakes her head and sinks her face into her hands. “Oh my God, one more to go. How did we get this far?”

Raymond started — inauspiciously enough — with a minor felony. Romano’s dad, Albert, stole the code to his son’s answering machine and taped the following outgoing message: “You’ve reached Anna and Ray. If you want them, leave a message at the beep. If you want me, Al Romano, I’m at 268-2006.”

Rather than calling the cops, Romano used that very prank to persuade a budding sitcom writer named Phil Rosenthal to base his first TV show on the comedian’s boundary-free home life. The two met in 1996 after Romano signed with David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants and started looking for someone to write his show. The production company, meanwhile, had received a sample script from Rosenthal, whose previous credits included the ABC comedy Coach. Over pastrami sandwiches in L.A., Romano regaled Rosenthal with family tales. “Ray told me that his parents lived close by and were always bothering him, and that his brother Richard was a police sergeant who lived with the parents and was very jealous of Ray, and who touched every bite of food to his chin before he put it in his mouth,” recalls Rosenthal. “And I said, ‘Well, it doesn’t sound like there’s anything we can use there.'”

He immediately crafted a script — but with Romano playing sportswriter Ray Barone instead of stand-up Ray Romano, to avoid similarities to Seinfeld. CBS agreed to buy the show in 1996, and Rosenthal turned to the task of casting what would become TV’s pushiest family. Doris Roberts (Remington Steele) and Peter Boyle (Young Frankenstein) were immediate picks as meddling Marie and crotchety Frank, and Rosenthal chose stand-up comedian Brad Garrett to play Robert. Finding Ray’s masterfully sarcastic wife, Debra, however, almost killed the show before it even began. After auditioning some 200 women, Rosenthal says a CBS exec demanded that he cast a veteran blond TV actress (he declines to name names). Fearing his show would turn into Bridget Loves Bernie, Rosenthal threatened to walk. “The best advice I got was from [Taxi co-creator] Ed. Weinberger, who said, ‘Do the show you want to do, because in the end they are going to cancel you anyway.'” Moonves disputes any demands for a blonde but says, “We wanted a non-ethnic woman, somebody who wasn’t Jewish or Italian, more middle-of-the-road. Patricia ended up fitting that type.”

She also nailed her audition. “I was in a big hurry because I had a babysitting conflict with my husband,” recalls Heaton, 47, whose previous credits included the Designing Women spin-off, Women of the House. “Even though he’s British, and Ray is from Queens, they have this universal male idiocy that crosses all continents. I had a certain amount of impatience I put into the reading that worked.”

For all the confidence that Rosenthal had while developing Raymond, Romano was more comfortable wallowing in self-doubt. His biggest problem was what to call the show: In the pilot, Rosenthal used an anecdote about how Ray’s brother Richard used to sarcastically moan that everybody loved Raymond — and that became the comedy’s working title, much to Romano’s chagrin. “Even though you love and hate yourself, you hate yourself more,” he says, “so the last thing you want is the show to be called Everybody Loves You.”

Romano futilely tried to offer alternatives (a framed list, including I’m Raymond, Raymond’s House, Raymond’s Game, and Relating to Raymond, hangs on his dressing room wall), but Moonves wouldn’t budge. “Trying to appeal to him with humor,” remembers Romano, “I said that this show was going to be top 10, and I was going to have to live with that title for the rest of my life. Les said, ‘Ray, if this is a top 15 show, you can change it to whatever you want.'”

That possibility seemed very remote after Everybody Loves Raymond premiered Sept. 13, 1996. Though critics immediately embraced the show (“So little of Raymond is actually new, yet almost all of it feels absolutely fresh,” said USA Today), the comedy lured only 9.3 million viewers in its Fridays-at-8:30 p.m. time slot, and was soon floundering in 73rd place. “We had Moesha right on our ass,” says Romano. “Nobody had watched CBS on Fridays since Gomer Pyle,” says Rosenthal.

CBS took a chance in March of 1997 and moved the show to Mondays. “This was a fabulous show that nobody was watching, so I gave it a six-week tryout,” recalls Moonves. “I said, ‘Guys, this is it. If it works we’re okay, but if it doesn’t we’ve got a problem.'” The risk paid off: Viewership leaped to 13.3 million in season 2, and by the time Raymond moved to 9 p.m. in year 3, it had become CBS’ most-watched comedy. (It peaked in 2001–02 with more than 20 million viewers.)

Now about that title…Romano reminded Moonves about his promise, but CBS had no intention of messing with its newly minted hit. “I remember calling Letterman from a pay phone [during season 3] and asking him if he can do something about it,” says Romano. “He said, ‘The show’s going to take on a life of its own, and you won’t have to worry about it.’ He said he couldn’t do anything.”

During a break from taping, warm-up comedian Mark Sweet keeps the studio audience entertained by hypnotizing a pudgy young man and getting him to harass Rosenthal for paying the cast a mere $5 a hour. Cheerfully, Rosenthal agrees to play along. “At $5 an hour you’re gonna break the bank. It’s 5 bucks a week!”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” says the mesmerized fan. “I understand. You’re really cheap.”

Everyone delights in the exchange — especially since money was a very unfunny topic in August of 2003, when Heaton, Garrett, Roberts, and Boyle called in sick (while coincidentally negotiating a boost in pay). Their brief absence from the set not only delayed production on the eighth season opener but prompted Rosenthal to nix Garrett — who became the lone holdout — from an episode. “I realized that I couldn’t get fired,” remembers Garrett. “But I wasn’t going to end this incredible job knowing that I wasn’t being taken care of.”

Romano, who had already negotiated his record-breaking deal, stayed out of the talks and was relieved when CBS finally agreed to equitable salaries (around $250K an episode) and profit participation among the supporting actors. “I remember Seinfeld saying to just worry about the comedy and the money will come,” says Romano. “If you just worry about the comedy, you will end up — fortunately in my place — where people resent how much money you make.”

Money and critical kudos — 56 Emmy nominations and 12 wins (including best comedy, and acting awards for Romano, Heaton, Roberts, and Garrett) — came easy for Romano, but what didn’t follow was the buzzy zeitgeist that Seinfeld, Friends, and Will & Grace all enjoyed. (Heck, even EW waited until the show’s finale to give Raymond its first cover.) Reasons Romano: “I think the show is just as good as any show, but I know what sells your cover — and it’s not my ass.”

True to form, the half-hour series finale — which Rosenthal outlined in November 2003 when he was considering pulling the plug at the end of season 8 — won’t be supersized or stunt-filled, and that’s just fine by the cast. “It’s not like it was with Friends, like whether Ross is going to end up with Rachel,” explains Romano. “There are no big cliff-hangers that required people to sign confidentiality agreements. We want to recognize that it is the end of the show without really saying it. But we’ll satisfy the audience’s desire for a little heart.” Adds Boyle: “Doris won three Emmys for abusing Frank, and it would ruin it if we started lovey-doveying in the finale.”

The actual final taping of the show was postponed two times because Heaton came down with laryngitis. “I was all prepared,” Rosenthal says. “It was like an execution. They would tell me today was the day and then they would make me wait again.” When asked if the throat trouble was perhaps a psychological manifestation of her desire to keep the show going, Heaton jokes, “Yes, I’m just a completely unreliable actress who faked it. I had two sick people in my house, and then there was the whole emotion of the final thing…. Physically, I was just worn down.” (The cast would ultimately tape the series finale Jan. 29 in front of a studio audience of mostly friends and family.)

Saying goodbye hasn’t been easy for any of the troupe. “I’m going to miss the camaraderie, and the parking. It took me 25 years to get that kind of parking,” says Garrett. Roberts is a tad more serious: “I’ve been crying for two weeks. This was my home.” Romano is feeling more resolve than regret — at least for now. “In the first episode of this season, when Ray accidentally slammed Debra into a refrigerator [after trying to lift her in a moment of glee], I got more response from that scene from people than I got in the previous eight years. That was really encouraging,” he recalls. “But I think this is the absolute right time to end. To go another year would be compromising the show.” And just imagine what the Internet critics would say about that.

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