Tuesday, November 27, 2001

NEW YORK — Frank Barone is an unrepentant clod. On the CBS sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” he’s forever riding sons Ray and Robert, needling daughter-in-law Debra, waging war with wife Marie, and unbuttoning his trousers for some after-dinner breathing room as he settles in for a night of TV.

Frank is scrappy, sly and defiant and funny. No wonder Peter Boyle was hired to play him.

Mr. Boyle won this role as patriarchal foil to Ray Romano’s title character after getting lost en route to the audition. He arrived flustered and angry. Voila, thought the producers.

Since then on “Raymond,” Mr. Boyle has worn Frank as comfortably as Frank wears his tatty cardigans, while dining out on lines like “You can tell it’s good art, ‘cause it follows you when you move” and “Try to please the wife? When are ya gonna learn?”

Of course, Frank is just one in Mr. Boyle’s long career of shrewdly off-center performances, also including those in two of the best movies ever made. He was the tap-dancing ogre in “Young Frankenstein” and the guru cabbie Wizard in “Taxi Driver.”

Next month brings Mr. Boyle’s latest film, “Monster’s Ball,” in which he plays the racist father of a prison guard (Billy Bob Thornton) who falls in love with a black woman widowed by the man he put to death.

But week in and week out for “Raymond’s” six-and-counting seasons, “I play a guy who sits at home watching the Knicks on TV,” Mr. Boyle says contentedly, “and then I come back home and watch the Knicks on TV.”

The 65-year-old Mr. Boyle has welcomed a reporter to the light, airy Upper East Side co-op he has occupied since 1983 with his wife (journalist Loraine Alterman) and their two daughters.

The view looking east toward Long Island “Raymond” land is spectacular as a rainstorm rolls in. But Mr. Boyle unquestionably holds the room. A looming figure in tan slacks and an oxford-cloth shirt, he is soft-voiced yet expansive; “opinionated and full of hot air,” he volunteers.

But not particularly weird, he insists, however offbeat his characters may be.

“When I was in high school I wanted to be a leading-man guy, like Howard Keel,” the Philadelphia native recalls. “But then God saw fit to take the hair off my head at age 24.”

• • •

Switching his focus to “a variety of roles that were challenging and different,” he settled on a new goal: “To not be a bus driver going the same route every day as an actor.”

“I’m fascinated by the subtext of everybody’s life,” he goes on. “If I played Hitler, I’d play him as a guy who cries when anybody’s mean to a dog. Not a consistent guy, you know what I mean? The things that don’t fit together in people are what make them interesting.”

Many things in Peter Boyle resist a cozy fit.

He lists some early phases of his life: “I was a child during World War II, in high school during the Korean War, went into a monastery in the mid-‘50s” he was a monk in the Christian Brothers order “came out and turned into a beatnik, worked as an actor, got into psychedelia.”

At the 1968 Democratic convention, “which I still call the police riot, I knew Abbie Hoffman. I went from being an anti-war liberal to being radicalized. Then I came back to New York and did ‘Joe,’ playing this hard-hat hippie hater. I thought it was a goof.”

Moviegoers didn’t. They were chilled by his career-launching performance.

Mr. Boyle became pals with John Lennon, whom he met through his wife-to-be, a friend of Yoko Ono. Mr. Lennon would serve as Mr. Boyle’s best man at his marriage.

In the intervening years, which, he jokes, turned him into a capitalist, Mr. Boyle has mostly stayed busy with TV and movie roles.

But sometimes not: “I’ve been through nervous periods,” he says, “and I had two bouts of illness.”

He had a stroke 11 years ago. “I couldn’t talk right for six months. I couldn’t work for almost a year.”

Then, during a rehearsal for “Raymond” in March 1999, Mr. Boyle was ambushed by a heart attack. “I was lucky and I never lost consciousness and I got help right away. But I was thinking, ‘Oh. My life is so great now. Why? Why?’

“I survived it,” he sums up, “and I gotta tell ya: I am really seriously close to my medication every day.”

He brightens. “The other side is, I’m living in golden time now. I’m working. I take trips to London and Paris. I can afford my medication. I have a good life. And a good view. Look.” He points toward the window. “The sun’s coming out.”


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