- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Television’s “King” had no problems abdicating his throne for his first big-screen role. CBS sitcom star Kevin James embraces second-banana status in “Hitch,” a new romantic comedy with Will Smith and Eva Mendes in the flashy lead roles.

“The King of Queens” plays Albert, a doughy accountant who hires Mr. Smith’s character to teach him how to be a ladies man.

The supporting billing is just fine with Mr. James. He is well aware that if his name appeared above the title in his first big movie he might not get the chance to make another one should the film fail. Fellow CBS sitcom star Ray Romano suffered a telling career blow when his “Welcome to Mooseport” starring vehicle crashed last year.

“There’s always a certain amount of guesswork,” Mr. James says regarding a television actor’s jump into meatier roles. “It’s a leap of faith.” Mr. James’ faith may be tested by the calamitous overplotting in “Hitch,” but he matches Mr. Smith laugh for laugh in their adroitly performed interplay.

The original script didn’t have as many of those bits as we see on screen, he says.

“It’s a Will Smith movie. …In the beginning, the role [of Albert] wasn’t that big. Will and I really clicked, and we expanded the part more and more,” he says.

The film’s distributor must recognize their rapport; the movie’s trailers lean heavily on Mr. James’ awkward dance moves.

Part of that clicking meant improv moments made the final cut. So did hastily rewritten scenes that kept the stand-up comic on edge.

“It’s difficult when you have to rewrite as the sun’s going down without really preparing,” he says. “We had to do that a couple of times.” Mr. James rolled with the changes, all the while trying to make sure his comedy was recalibrated for movie audiences.

“It was my biggest concern,” he says of the difference between the two mediums. “You wanna contain your facial expressions and sit on yourself a little more.”

Like many a sitcom star these days, Mr. James started out on the comedy circuit as a regular-Joe comic who looked the part. His breakthrough came in two stages.

Network producers discovered his stand-up act during the 1996 Montreal Comedy Festival, which led to a recurring role on CBS’ “Everybody Loves Raymond.” He made enough of an impression there with fellow comic and pal Mr. Romano to land his own sitcom, the blue-collar-based “Queens.”

It never would have happened if he had listened to the first agency that represented him, he says.

“Before I got my TV show, my agent was saying, ‘You’ll be the funny neighbor guy; you’re not really a lead,’ ” he recalls. “Maybe I’m not a typical lead, but if I put limits on myself…” The comic switched agencies and soon ascended to sitcom stardom.

“Queens,” which airs at 9 p.m. Wednesdays, is one of television’s chubby-hubby-hottie-wife shows. This sitcom, though, has been on the air since 1998 and will become the network’s comic anchor once “Everybody Loves Raymond” retires in May.

“It’s tough to come up with fresh ideas,” Mr. James admits, saying writing meetings often stall when the participants realize a potential story idea has been used already in a previous season.

Mr. James still performs stand-up comedy. He knows he wouldn’t have a show or a movie without it.

“It builds everything,” he says. “It goes hand in hand with me and timing, delivering a joke. You’ve got the interaction with the audience. You’re wearing all hats. You’re everything when you’re a stand-up comic. In a sitcom, you’ve got to give up those responsibilities.”

The stand-up stage also left a permanent mark on his psyche. He knows a joke could bomb at any moment — and so could a movie or show.

“I’ve always had that fear built in me,” he says. “I’m constantly looking over my shoulder. Sometimes that can be an asset.”

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