December 14, 1998 12:00 PM

Is this any way to treat royalty? Hearing his name called out during a promotional tour for his new CBS comedy The King of Queens last summer, newcomer Kevin James got out of his limo, waded into a crowd of autograph seekers and began penning his signature. “I thought I was pretty cool,” he recalls. “Then they all handed me the autographs back and said, ‘Can you print your name underneath?’ They had no idea who I was.”

Nowadays fans as well as network execs are hailing King James, who has not only managed to have his comedy crowned a success in a season when many new series already face the ax, he’s done it in a no-win time slot, opposite Monday Night Football. “I don’t even watch us,” the 33-year-old stand-up comic jokes. “I watch the game.”

Actually, with CBS committing to a full season’s worth of episodes, James is usually too busy playing his character—sports-crazed, blue-collar working stiff Doug Heffernan—and writing dialogue to indulge favorite pastimes. “The difference between me and Doug is that Doug gets to come home and watch the game,” James says. “I have to come home and rewrite a script.” But James, who first developed the beer-and-pizza-loving prototype for Doug in his stand-up act and played a similar character last year on King’s CBS sister show Everybody Loves Raymond, which stars his longtime friend Ray Romano, is not complaining. “Sometimes I miss having a simple life and just being laid back,” he says. “But I wouldn’t trade it. I’m having too good a time.”

Like the sitcom king of an earlier era, Jackie Gleason’s classic The Honeymooners character, Ralph Kramden, James’s outer-borough Doug is a schlub, an overweight everyman married to a level-headed, sharp-tongued wife (Leah Remini) who, while never failing to show him the many errors of his ways, loves him nonetheless.

Gleason’s character drove a bus; Doug drives a UPS-like delivery truck. And in place of Gleason’s comic foil Art Carney, James jousts with the formidably funny, ex-Seinfeld pater-Costanza, Jerry

Stiller, who says James is the same as his old boss, Seinfeld: a mensch. “He’s always considerate and he’s like that naturally,” Stiller says. “He asks me, ‘What are you eating? Are you keeping healthy?’ He really cares for other people.” Costar Remini agrees that James is as love-able as her onscreen hubby. “He’s a doll!” she says. “He’s the kind of guy you just hang out with on the stoop because he’s so funny.”

Decidedly not from the suffering-for-laughs school of comedy, James is the middle child of Joe, 68, a retired insurance-company owner, and housewife Janet, 60. (Brother Gary Valentine, 37, is also a stand-up comic; sister Leslie, 31, teaches adult education in West Palm Beach, Fla.) For a comic, says James, growing up with a “normal childhood” is a daunting burden: “I gotta come up with stuff from, like, Little League.”

A star running back in high school, James continued playing football at the State University of New York College at Cortland until a back injury ended his career. But stints in community theater and a New York City improv group gave him the performing bug. Before dropping out of college in 1989 to pursue his showbiz dreams, he worked a day job as a physical trainer. “I mean, look at me!” laughs the 5’10”, 250-lb. actor. “I had a very short client list. You can’t be a personal trainer when you’re like: ‘Six reps is fine, you wanna grab a sandwich?’ ”

Better suited for stand-up, James honed his routines on the club circuit, where in 1989 he met a young Queens, N.Y.-born stand-up named Ray Romano. “My first impression of Kevin? Scary.” Only joking, Romano says of his pal. “No, he was a little raw, but he had a real likability up there.”

By 1996 both friends had settled in L.A., a terra un-firma world that James, who maintains a longdistance relationship with girlfriend Helga Martinez, 33, a student in Fort Lauderdale, still hasn’t gotten used to. “I don’t like the fact that the ground shakes,” he says. While sharing a rented condo with his brother, James finds time to regularly beat Romano at golf. “It’s amazing how me and Ray both have shows,” James says. “We laugh and say, ‘How did Goofy and Chubby get an hour of prime-time television between them?’ ”

Steve Dougherty

Julie Jordan in Los Angeles

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