Who wants to be a celebrity contestant on the wildly popular game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Ray Romano, for one. “I’m a big fan,” says the star of CBS’s Everybody Loves Raymond. “Whatever the mystique is about it, I’ve tried to figure it out.” He got his chance at ABC’s Manhattan studios April 7, when host Regis Philbin presided over four nights’ worth of a special all-star edition that included Rosie O’Donnell, Kathie Lee Gif-ford, David Duchovny, Queen Latifah, Dana Carvey, Drew Carey and chefEmeril Lagasse, all playing for their favorite charities. Post-game, Romano—who donated his winnings to the New York Police Department’s drug-awareness program in honor of his brother Richard, a sergeant—spoke with associate bureau chief Tom Cunneff about fast fingers, lifelines and going mano a mano with Reege in the hot seat. Of course, Romano, 42, wouldn’t agree to spill all the beans and risk spoiling the suspense when the shows air May 1-4. And that is his final answer.
How was I going to prepare? It’s a crapshoot with the questions—it’s such general knowledge. I had the fear of looking like an idiot. I’m not saying I’m not intelligent, but I’m not book-smart. What if I trip up at $100 because I don’t know when the War of 1812 was? So I started watching the Discovery Channel at night before I switched over to scrambled porn. The one new fact I had when I went into the taping was that a sperm whale has the largest brain of any mammal. I thought, “That sounds like a $32,000 question.”
The biggest planning involved choosing my five lifelines in case I needed backup help by phone. Phil Rosenthal, my producer, knows about anything entertainment-wise. Patty Heaton, who plays my wife, is very well-read, knows a lot about art—a very intelligent woman, which is why in real life we would never be married. Then I had my friends Joe Bolster, a comic who’s a sports-trivia whiz, and Claude Choo, who’s a carpenter. Claude and I used to stay up till 4 in the morning gambling on Trivial Pursuit. The last slot went to Gene “Bean” Baxter, who does this Los Angeles radio show, The Kevin and Bean Show. He’s like an encyclopedia.
My goal was to beat David Duchovny, because he’s supposedly the brain. We were all fooling around on the set before the taping began. I yelled, “I want you, Duchovny!” The producers gave us a lot of advice on how to play. Like it’s better to use your thumbs instead of your forefingers during the elimination fast-finger round, where you have to be quickest at putting the answers in order. And Dana Carvey gave me lessons on how to impersonate Regis. Dana said, “Whatever you say, you just start it with ‘anyway’—”Anyway you’re out of control!’ ” Dana never stopped doing Reege. He had to detox.
They had a great big gift basket in our dressing room. I’ve done award shows like the Emmys and the Grammys, and this put them to shame. I couldn’t even take it back on the plane. I had to have them ship it. There was electronic stuff, CDs, cameras. I heard the gift basket was worth $10,000. My manager was backstage, taking 15 percent of it.
Cameras started rolling around noon. The first to go one-on-one with Regis up in the hot seat was, big surprise, Duchovny. He’s like the Ice Man, that guy. Cool and calm. When he got up to some serious money, he didn’t even blink. Not even when he had to call up his wife, Téa Leoni, as one of his lifelines. After he read her the question, she just said, “Honey, you’re screwed.” Kathie Lee was next, and Regis kind of ragged on her. Rosie O’Donnell got a lot of crap too, because she kept bragging about how good she was. So there was a lot of pressure on her to be the first one up. She didn’t get up till the third show.
Actually I was the last one to get to the hot seat. By then everyone had gone up but me and Lance Bass, the kid from *NSYNC. For the fast-finger round, Regis asked a music question, so Lance got that one right. After he was through, the producers were going to put me in the hot seat by default, but I said, “No, I want to earn my way.” So it was just me against myself. Regis asked a question about movies—and I did get it. I jumped up and yelled, “Let’s go! Bring it on!”
I was nervous and excited when I got into the seat, and I wanted to make sure I did well and saved face. It was close to 10 p.m., and the audience had started thinning out. I was worried that if I polled them for help on an answer, there wouldn’t be enough people. My mother, Lucie, was sitting behind me with that creepy light on her. That’s an image I had all through my childhood—my mother watching everything I did. “Raymond, get out of the bathroom. Why’s the radio on?”
I lasted in the hot seat long enough that I used all my lifelines. I wanted to buy some extras. All in all, I was kind of happy with how I did. I didn’t win the most but I didn’t win the least either.
I got out of the studio around midnight and went out to eat. Then back in my hotel room I couldn’t sleep. It was 2 in the morning, and my head was just racing: “I could have done this, I could have done that…” But it was a rush. I’d do it again in a second.