Prior to his success with the hit sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond” (CBS, 1996-2005), writer and executive producer Phil Rosenthal was originally imbued with the desire to become an actor-his quick wit and effusive charm seemed to make him a natural. Rosenthal was quickly disgruntled, however, with the humiliating audition process and soon turned to writing. At first his luck was no better-he found work on short-lived projects or series in their Swan Song years. But Rosenthal learned from other show runners what worked and what didn’t. So once he got the opportunity to run his own series, he had developed a routine that allowed his writing team to get home in time for dinner-a rarity in a business that works people silly for long hours. Rosenthal reasoned that if his writers were going to write about life, they should have one. For this he earned not only the admiration and loyalty of his staff, but a top comedy series as well.
Originally from New York, Rosenthal crew up in a home much like the one seen on “Everyone Loves Raymond”- his parents, in fact, were the inspiration for Frank and Marie Barone. While attending high school in Rockland County, NY, he met Alan Kirschenbaum, who would later help push Rosenthal into a writing career. The two became fast friends, appearing in school productions of “Little Me” and “My Fair Lady.” Rosenthal later attended Hofstra University on Long Island where he was a theater major, then struggled as an actor and comedian in New York, working at an East Side deli and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from which he was fired for sleeping on an antique bed on display. Rosenthal then moved to Los Angeles to find better luck as an actor and wound up sleeping on Kirschenbaum’s couch-not exactly an auspicious start. Soon Rosenthal tired of the acting game and decided to pursue writing.
It was during a lunch with Kirschenbaum that Rosenthal made the transition-he learned the ins and outs of writing for television in less time than it took to get the main course. He soon sought work in television, teaming up with another old friend, Oliver Goldstick, with whom he wrote for his first short-lived series, “A Family for J ” (NBC, 1990), a sitcom about a homeless man (Robert Mitchum) who poses as the grandfather to four orphaned children to prevent them from being separated. After that show was canceled, Rosenthal moved on to “The Man in the Family” (ABC, 1991), where Kirschenbaum was executive producer. Starring Ray Sharkey, the ill-fated comedy about an Italian-American man who returns home to manage the family-owned grocery store after his father dies lasted for little over a month.
Rosenthal worked with Kirschenbaum on his next series, “Baby Talk” (ABC, 1991-1992), a sitcom based on the feature “Look Who’s Talking” (1989), about a single mom (Julia Duffy) searching for the right man while her three-month old baby (voiced by Tony Danza) fills in the audience on what he thinks. Surprisingly, the show managed to last two seasons despite a change of actresses in the lead role (Mary Page Keller played the mom for season two.) After moving up the ranks from staff writer to supervising producer on another short-lived comedy, “Down the Shore” (Fox, 1991-1993), Rosenthal joined the writing staff on the hit show, “Coach” (ABC, ) where he served as writer and supervising producer for three of its last four seasons.
Rosenthal was ready when the time came to create his own series, though the pilot for “Everyone Loves Raymond” was the first he had ever written. It all started with a lunch meeting with stand-up comedian Ray Romano, who was looking for someone with whom to work on a sitcom. The two swapped stories about their families and bonded right away, finding their family experiences to be mirror images of each other, with Jewish and Italian twists. They then began pitching their show as a “classic, old-fashioned, traditional type of sitcom”-the very thing executives ran away from screaming. But they managed to get the show on CBS, where it was slated for on Friday nights-the worst possible slot. Rosenthal and Romano were afraid that the show wouldn’t last the season, especially after initial ratings were low and focus groups felt the stories and jokes were predictable.
“Everyone Loves Raymond” managed to survive season one, though for season two it was moved to Monday nights opposite “Monday Night Football” (ABC, 1970- ). Panic struck anew: Rosenthal was afraid that men would watch football and women would watch “Ally McBeal” (Fox, 1997-2002), leaving no on to watch his show. But as it turned out, “Everyone Loves Raymond” thrived and eventually became the fifth most-watched primetime series. More importantly, it earned 12 Emmys, including two consecutive awards for Outstanding Comedy Series (2004-2005). Meanwhile, Rosenthal earned respect in the industry, while remaining anonymous to viewers. He did, however, attract the attention of President Bill Clinton, who asked him to write and direct a five-minute short about his last days in office for the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. In the video, Rosenthal depicted a bored and lonely president searching for something to do in his last days in office-washing the limo, doing laundry and mowing the lawn did nothing to help ease his boredom. Both the press and the president loved it.
Over the years, “Everyone Loves Raymond” managed to grow an audience until it became a top-rated first-run show and a major staple in rerun syndication, which would make Rosenthal a wealthy man indeed. Despite the harsh and often cruel behavior of the characters-much of it derived from the writer’s own lives-audiences felt the show was the most realistic in depicting marriage and family relationships. But in 2005, it was time to pull the plug. With no more ideas left, Rosenthal was ready to call it quits. In fact, he and Romano only managed to write 16 episodes for the ninth and final season-six shy of the standard twenty-two. The final episode, however, was written two years prior when Rosenthal believed the show would end after season seven. The filming of the last one was painful-cast and crew were tearful on set, and some cast members became ill, slowing down production for a number of weeks.
As with everything he did with the show, Rosenthal ended it on its own terms-right down to keeping the last episode a standard thirty minutes-he felt too many bloated hour-long final episodes had been damaging to other series in the past. Once it was over, Rosenthal breathed a sigh of relief, though he was sad to leave what he considered to be his family. Meanwhile, rumors swirled about a spin-off with Brad Garrett reprising his Emmy-winning role as Robert, Ray’s big galoot of a brother who lived with his parents at 40, but no formal deal was in place. Rosenthal did produce a pilot for “Vinyl Café” (CBS, 2005), an animated comedy about a quirky family from Toronto, though the pilot had yet to see the light of day.
Rosenthal also flirted with an on-screen acting career with a small role in James L. Brooks’ dramedy “Spanglish” (2004). His wife, actress Monica Horan, had a recurring role on “Everybody Loves Raymond” as Robert’s long-suffering girlfriend Amy, and was eventually upgraded to series regular when Robert and Amy tied the knot.