On a recent vacation to South Carolina, actress Doris Roberts was constantly stopped by fans of the CBS comedy "Everybody Loves Raymond," in which she plays Ray Romano's meddling, opinionated mother.
"One woman ran into the bathroom [behind me] at the airport and waited until I finished doing what I had to do and then said, 'Would you please give me your autograph?,"' says Roberts, an Emmy Award-winning, 40-year-plus veteran of Broadway, movies and TV ("Remington Steele," "Angie").
Everybody, she says, tells her the same thing: They love the characters played by Roberts and Peter Boyle, who portrays Ray's equally intrusive dad. The parents live across the street from their son and his family in Long Island, N.Y. and thus feel free to drop by anytime.
"They say, 'You are my mother,' 'you are my mother-in-law' or 'you are so real.' It's shocking," Roberts relates. "I guess I'm the mother from hell. Well, not quite hell. Maybe purgatory."
"We do what people do in real life," echoes Boyle, who won an Emmy two years ago for "The X-Files" and is best known as the singing-and-dancing monster in Mel Brooks' classic "Young Frankenstein."
"It's very gratifying," Boyle says. "[Fans say] 'You're just like my father.' They are people you know and the way people really are on the other side of the TV set--not behind the TV set, but in front of it."
The characters of Marie and Frank are "pretty much" based on executive producer Philip Rosenthal's parents. "The actual physical situation of the show is based on Ray's life," Rosenthal says. "But I never met his people, so I didn't know them. I filled them in with my parents and how crazy they are."
The Rosenthals, their son relates, love "Raymond." But he adds, "They hardly know that's them."
It's that reality that makes Marie and Frank's overbearing relationship with son Ray, long-suffering daughter-in-law Debra (Patricia Heaton) and sad sack eldest son Robert (Brad Garrett) so funny.
"They never go into sketch land," Rosenthal adds. "As good as the Costanzas were on 'Seinfeld,' they just yelled. They were kind of one-dimensional. We're trying to make these guys three-dimensional."
And Rosenthal and the writers are trying to expand the parents' roles for the third season this fall. "We have to listen to this baloney [from executives]--most people do in television--about how [the show] is not about the old characters. 'Don't try to put old characters in the show.' The truth is, the audience loves characters regardless of their age. If they are good characters, they are good characters. These two are proving that. If they weren't funny, no one would care if they were 18-year-old hunks."
Boyle, the father of two teenage daughters, says it's taken a while for his offspring to "adjust and accept" his role as Frank.
"The one group I think that isn't an audience for our show is teenagers," Boyle says. "But [my daughters] have come to watch it and really like it and they get the funny stuff."
Roberts says any parent is capable of acting like Marie and Frank. "It stems from real love," she says. In one episode, she recalls, Marie tells Ray, a successful sports columnist, that he "could have been something."
"I think every crew member moaned," Roberts says. "They had heard that from their mother or father. [Parents] don't mean to be cruel at all. It's just that they have such expectations and they have lived longer than you have. They think by telling you what to do, they are saving you from the problems of living, which is, of course, not what you are supposed to do."
Roberts, who is the mother of a grown son and a grandmother of three, says her offspring gets a kick out of the series.
"He laughs," Roberts says. "He said, 'You can learn from this, Mother.' We were recently driving on the freeway and I said, 'Aren't you getting off at La Cienega?' He said, "No, Mommy. But I'm going to get you a little wheel so you can drive along with me.' "
"Raymond" marks the first time Roberts and Boyle have worked together. Both, though, had followed each other's careers. "He had seen me [in New York] in 1962 in 'The Death of Bessie Smith,' " Roberts says. "He had come into New York as a young actor. He said wonderful things about me."
"That's true," says Boyle. "I knew of her work for years. When I was first in New York as a starving actor, I saw her in that show. I also saw her in 'Last of the Red Hot Lovers.' "
Boyle says they clicked immediately. "I sort of knew where Doris is coming from and we just work together well. There is a lot of mutual respect."
"I think our timing is superb,' Roberts offers. "I can always finish his sentences and he can do the same for me. It's very easy. We can work off of each other."
"They are fantastic actors," Rosenthal says. "They are really great character actors. Sometimes I'll see a way of how it should be done when I am writing it and they might have a different take on [something], which is sometimes or usually better."
Boyle says he and Roberts approach the material as two "old New York actors. We have actors' questions because we don't come from stand-up comedy. We look for things: 'Why is the character saying this? Would he really be saying this? What does he really mean?' And then later, I try to make it funny.
"One of the reasons the show works is I think everyone in the show--Ray and Patty, Brad and Doris--we all have our shot. We all have our moments and we are all in there. It is that ensemble thing that gives it a special energy."
"Everybody Loves Raymond" airs Mondays at 8:30 p.m. on CBS.