Answer Man

‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ mom is based on co-creator Phil Rosenthal’s mom

Doris Roberts played Raymond’s mom on “Everybody Loves Raymond.
Doris Roberts played Raymond’s mom on “Everybody Loves Raymond.

Q: Is the character of Marie Barone on “Everybody Loves Raymond” based on a real person? My mother-in-law shared many of Marie’s characteristics and also shared her Dec. 9th birthday.

Peggy Tinney, of Freeburg

A: If you want to meet your mother-in-law’s clone, you’ll just have to get to know Helen Rosenthal.

Helen is the mother of Phil Rosenthal, the man comedian Ray Romano chose to create, produce and help write the CBS megahit that lasted nine seasons. But, more important, Helen — along with husband Max — provided a never-ending source of hilarious plot ideas. That is, they were funny once Phil survived the frequent real-life frustration of being the son of sometimes stereotypical Jewish parents.

Take “The Toaster” episode, for example. Remember that one from the third season? On the show, Ray Barone gives his parents an engraved toaster as a present, but they exchange it without even opening it.

Guess what? It really happened. For Christmas one year, Rosenthal gave the show’s entire cast and crew — and his parents — a toaster with “Everybody Loves Raymond” engraved on it. When he didn’t hear from his folks for weeks, he called them to see if they had even received it, because they live on the other side of the country. What happened next sounded like something straight from a “Raymond” script, according to a 31/2-hour interview Rosenthal did for the Archive of American Television.

First there was a long pause. Finally, his father hurriedly said, “Oh, yes, we got it, thank you very nice,” hoping to quickly change the subject.

With this, Rosenthal was convinced his parents didn’t even open the box because he at least knows they love him and they’re proud of the show, so they obviously had not seen the “Everybody Loves Raymond” inscription. So he asked his father to get the box and open it so they can see it will mean more to them than just popping up their morning muffins.

“I don’t have it with me right now,” came the reply.

They’re in their home. How can can they not have it with them, Rosenthal wondered, growing increasingly upset. Long story short, Max finally admitted they had taken the unopened Hanukkah gift to Macy’s, lied about buying it there and exchanged it for a coffee maker.

Rosenthal laughs about it now. He even jokes that the person who eventually bought the returned appliance at Macy’s probably took it back, too, because they wanted the “Frasier” model, referring to the old Kelsey Grammar show. But he’s adamant that it wasn’t funny at the time.

“When this happens, I’m not laughing,” he said. “I don’t see something like this as a cute or funny episode of ‘Everybody Loves Raymond.’ I say, ‘When we make fun of people like that, we’re making fun of you (his parents)! I got you a gift. It’s never good enough. How about somebody’s feelings? When you give someone a gift, it’s customary to say ‘thank you,’ not ‘oh, it’s such a problem.’”

As Rosenthal teed off on his dad over his office phone, the show’s writers gathered around to listen to the increasingly heated exchange.

“‘Oh, look, Phil’s having a heart attack,’” he figures they were probably thinking. “ ‘This is our fun for the day.’”

As soon as he hung up, someone immediately looked at him coyly and told him, “You gotta write that episode!”

“I’m not writing it,” he replied. “It’s not funny because to me it isn’t funny and that’s where I write it from — from the point of view of the son who gets dejected so there is something underneath. And I try to explore their side of it. Where they’re coming from. It’s therapy. The show’s therapy.”

So, naturally, it’s one of the nearly two dozen episodes Rosenthal either wrote or co-wrote during the series’ run — and, of course, it’s hilarious and a big hit.

“I watched the episode on television with my parents sitting next to me,” recalled Rosenthal, who recently turned 56. “And at one point Ray calls his parents, ‘You psychopaths!’ So, my mother hits my father, ‘Hey, we’re the psychopaths!’ So she has the ability to recognize that it’s funny afterward — but not before she does the horrible thing.”

That’s just the kind of behavior that helped Rosenthal figure he was sitting on a comedic gold mine when Romano suggested doing a show about Romano’s family, which included a police-sergeant brother who lived across the street with his parents.

“And what I don’t know about his people, I’m going to fill in with characters of my people,” Rosenthal decided when he agreed to do the show. “So my mother is more the mother on the show than his mother. Even though (my parents) live 3,000 miles away, they are just as intrusive. It’s a metaphor that they live across the street.”

And when actress Doris Roberts read the pilot’s “Fruit of the Month” scene while auditioning for Marie Barone, it was a match made in heaven.

“I heard 100 women read for the role, and she was the best,” said Rosenthal, who won a Peabody Award and an Emmy nomination for co-writing the 9/11 telethon “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” which aired on all four major networks. “She read the role the way it was in my head — the way my mother got so impassioned about Fruit of the Month. She nailed that. I believed her, and that was it.”

Now, he says, his mother thinks Doris is hysterical and they’re good friends. His dad, who made four cameo appearances on the show as one of Frank Barone’s lodge buddies, is also overjoyed how everything has turned out. (If you didn’t know, Rosenthal’s real-life wife, Monica Horan, played Robert Barone’s second wife, Amy.)

“It’s made them celebrities in their town,” Rosenthal jokes. “ ‘Oh, look, it’s the crazy parents from “Everybody Loves Raymond.”’ But my dad is hilariously funny. You can’t keep him down. I never dreamed I’d write a show that my father would be in. In fact, I still have trouble dreaming it. But it happened.”

For much, much more of Rosenthal’s insight into the show, go to www.emmytvlegends.org/interviews/people/phil-rosenthal#. To see Phil, Monica, Helen and Max, punch up www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/phil-rosenthal-and-parents-helen-rosenthal-and-max-news-photo/136586744 .

Today’s trivia

Who wrote the musical “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” based on an unfinished story by Charles Dickens?

Answer to Sunday’s trivia: During the first Academy Awards ceremony May 16, 1929, a special award for innovation was given to “The Jazz Singer” for being the first talking movie. Before that, all dialogue had to be displayed on title cards. So one of the 12 regular awards at the first Oscars night was for Best Title Writing, which went to Joseph Farnham, a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He holds the distinction of being the only person to win the award because by 1930, “talkies” had become the rage with “The Broadway Melody of 1929” becoming the first sound film to claim the Best Picture Oscar.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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