Ellen Gray: Phil Rosenthal's new film is 'Exporting Raymond'

Said Rosenthal: "They told me that no one could relate to this wimp of a guy in Russia, because we're so much more macho. And as they were telling me, I thought, 'This is baloney.' "
Said Rosenthal: "They told me that no one could relate to this wimp of a guy in Russia, because we're so much more macho. And as they were telling me, I thought, 'This is baloney.' "
Posted: April 27, 2011

PHIL ROSENTHAL would prefer I not call him a control freak.

"I don't think it's freakish to want it correct," the star, writer and director of "Exporting Raymond" complained mildly.

It was the morning after he'd screened his new documentary at Philadelphia's Cinefest for an audience that included a few dozen of the nearest and dearest of his Delaware County-native wife, actress Monica Horan.

The documentary, which opens here Friday, is a comic look at Rosenthal's efforts to help Russia produce its own version of his long-running sitcom hit, "Everybody Loves Raymond," replacing Ray Romano, Patricia Heaton and their co-stars with Russian actors, but sticking - mostly - to the original scripts.

Control freakishness, perfectionism - call it what you like: Wanting "it correct" is probably exactly what it took to create, and for nine seasons, produce "Everybody Loves Raymond" for CBS without ever losing sight of Rosenthal's true goal: a slot on Nick at Nite. Because, as he's put it for years: "How many times do you get to make a TV show? So why not try to have it have lasting value?"

That value, it turns out, really has lasted. Now in broadcast syndication on TBS and on Nick at Nite's spin-off channel, TV Land, the original "Raymond" also lives on in 148 countries, where the original actors' voices are dubbed.

In Hollywood, they call this a happy ending and roll credits.

From a comedy perspective, it might've been a little too happy.

Enter Sony, which in 2004 introduced the sitcom genre to Russia with a remake of "The Nanny" that became the country's biggest hit, and followed it up with "Married . . . With Children" and "Who's the Boss?"

"They brought 'The Nanny' over there and had this kind of wild, wild West experience," Rosenthal said.

Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton suggested Rosenthal might make a fictional film about translating an American TV show for a Russian audience and offered him access to Sony's production process to do research.

Rosenthal's thought: Why not take "Raymond" to Russia and do a documentary instead?

"I took two years to work out that deal," he said of the agreement that gives Sony, which hadn't owned a stake in "Everybody Loves Raymond," a share in its international rights.

And then it was off to Russia to see if everyone really did love Raymond. Or Kostya, as the character would be called there.

Anyone familiar with Ray Barone, who over time achieved what appears to have been a seamless blending of Romano's and Rosenthal's personalities, won't be surprised that from the moment the producer landed in Moscow, things didn't go exactly according to plan.

Not Rosenthal's plan, anyway.

Though he'd had "the expectation of control," it appeared the Russians had other ideas.

What had he been told?

"Honestly, they said, 'This is huge. For the first time, the creator of the show is coming over to help.' And I thought I would be welcome. I thought wrong," he said.

Fortunately for Rosenthal, the more things seemed to go wrong for "Kostya," the more they went right for "Exporting Raymond." (And if you want to find out if either has a happy ending, you'll just have to see the movie.)

Beyond deciding from the start that he'd always work with two cameras - to avoid having to fake reaction shots - he'd tried to avoid focusing on the documentary, his first, during the actual filming.

"If I was concentrating on the movie, I couldn't be effective in either part and by either part I mean doing my job with the Russians and being the center of that film. If I was concentrating on the film, I wouldn't be a good subject for the movie. I had to just forget about the movie."

Direction began in the editing room, where after the former actor got over his squeamishness - "at first it's hideous" to watch oneself - he decided "to look at that guy as a character in the movie . . . and then follow that character."

So what did he learn about that guy?

"I seem to have the kind of face, I notice, that hides nothing. That you can actually tell what I'm thinking even when I'm not saying something," he said. "I don't play poker for this reason."

What he can't figure out: "People watch the movie and they say, 'You're exactly like Ray!' I really don't see it."

And though the Russians did their best to convince him of their differences, Rosenthal's still not buying it.

"They told me that no one could relate to this wimp of a guy in Russia, because we're so much more macho. And as they were telling me, I thought, 'This is baloney,' " he said.

"Listen, Ralph Kramden had the same shell, on 'The Honeymooners.' How many times did he say to Alice, 'One of these days, Alice?' 'Bang, zoom.' That day never came. Because Alice could defuse him in one line.

"Just like me, just like every man who's been married. The wife tells you what to do . . . I believe. I could be wrong, because I haven't been in every house. But I just think this is how most people live." *

Send email to graye@phillynews.com.

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