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EVERYBODY LOVED PETER

Even when he was playing dangerous brutes, as in his 1970 breakthrough movie “Joe,” audiences responded positively to the enormous talent of Peter Boyle, who died in New York on December 12 at the age of 71. But his fans and colleagues grew to truly love Boyle during the nine seasons he played the endearingly grouchy dad of the title character in the hit sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond.” I met him in 1976 on the set of “Taxi Driver” and was immediately taken with his intelligence, kindness and offbeat humor, and I was pleased to sit down and talk with him for this 1978 Newsday interview. --GUY FLATLEY

The Boyles were God-fearing folk, and they didn’t raise their cherub-cheeked, gentle-spoken son to be a whiskey-swilling, fanny-pinching sham of a preacher. So how can it be that Peter Boyle, that awesomely pious Philadelphian who spent four prayerfully celibate years as a Christian Brother, has been spotted of late frolicking about the California countryside, his eyes boozily ablaze and his hands feverishly afumble in the performance of fake miracles?

“I’m Doctor Melmont, a somewhat misguided minister who’s bald, except for a little wisp tied into a knot at the top and a kind of flowing stubble that makes me look like a cross between Benjamin Franklin and Jesus and the Three Stooges,” explains Boyle, picking at a skimpy Scarsdale Diet portion of tuna in a Central Park West restaurant. He is as burly, naked-domed and piercing-eyed as the hippie-hating hardhat in “Joe”--the gutsy melodrama that spewed him into the movie limelight nearly a decade ago--but his manner is sweet and mellow as he describes his role in Marty Feldman’s recently completed “In God We Trust.”

“I travel around in a beat-up bus that converts into a chapel and I preach the gospel and sell religious trinkets and work bogus miracles. Deep down, I have a good heart, but I’m very fond of the grape...the sauce...so I suffer various delusions.”

As sure as there’s a god in heaven, redemption is just around the slapstick corner. “Marty is an orphan, a total innocent brought up in a monastery, and when the monks are threatened with foreclosure, he is sent out into the wicked world to raise money. That’s when he becomes my assistant...the before and the after in one of my little miracles. In the end, I sort of sober up and am reunited with my long lost daughter, a hooker played by Louise Lasser, and I perform the ceremony when she marries Marty. Love wins out.”

Love won out for Boyle in 1976, the year he wed freelance writer Lorraine Altermann. “When you decide to formalize a relationship, things get more intense,” Boyle philosophies. “You’re suddenly confronted with your own selfishness and you reach a point where you’re forced to change, to open up. That’s what’s hard about marriage, and that’s what’s beautiful about it.”

When the wedding bells rang out for the Boyles, they weren’t Catholic bells. “We got married at the United Nations chapel, which is nondenominational, but I still go to Mass. I hear people say they’re fallen-away Catholics, but that’s never exactly true. Watching the Pope in Poland on TV, I was moved--so incredibly moved--yet there were certain matters of doctrine in his speeches that I just can’t go along with. I guess you could call me a modified Catholic: I definitely believe in God, and in the human race evolving to a spiritual destiny.”

Boyle’s thespian destiny manifested itself at a tender age back in Philadelphia, where his father was a reigning hotshot in the realm of tiny-tot TV. “ I was bitten by the showbiz bug early in life, and it’s not so surprising that I became a Christian Brother when you stop to consider that theater begins in church, especially if you’re Catholic. I’ve always wanted to act, maybe because acting is a way of reaching people on a very deep level of universal feeling. I feel I can reach and touch and move people in a way that I couldn’t if I didn’t have the medium of theater, of film. Not that a profound communication takes place every second. There’s a rhythm to it, and when it happens, when everyone sees and feels the same thing at the same time, it’s an amazingly special moment.”

Once Boyle had said goodbye to the Brotherhood and had fled to the beatnik haven of Greenwich Village, those amazing moments struck with gratifying frequency, shaping a funky prelude to a solid career that would include such memorable portraits as the bigoted construction worker in “Joe,” the political smoothie in “The Candidate,” the ineptly criminal hubby of Louise Lasser in “Slither,” the love-struck monster in “Young Frankenstein,” the seedy detective in “Hardcore” and the tormented, spiffily toupeed war hero in “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure.”

“I started out down on Bleecker Street with Louise Lasser in “Third Ear Premise,” directed by Elaine May, and Lenny Bruce was right next door at the Café Au Go Go. Woody Allen, who was married to Louise at the time, would join us and we’d all hang out at the Dug Out Café. Woody was the same then as he is now, only younger and cuter...we were all cuter then.”

Boyle wistfully assaults his blob of tuna. “It was after Kennedy, but before the Beatles, and there was a feeling of camaraderie and complete insanity. I was a beatnik, dutifully reading my Kerouac and my Ginsburg, and I had a beard and a loft and I took all the drugs there were to take. But at a certain point, I blew the whistle and said I can’t go on living stoned.”

Thanks to the miracle of movies, the 43-year-old Boyle will have a chance to relive some of those stoned times in “Where the Buffalo Roam,” a cinematic salute to the efforts of Rolling Stone journalist Hunter Thompson to rescue hordes of puffing, sniffing junior citizens who were abruptly yanked from their spacey highs and plunged, lengthily, into prison.

“Some of those kids were getting 30 years for having just one joint in their possession,” says Boyle, “and Hunter, an idealistic madman in search of the American dream, set out to correct those injustices. Bill Murray, from ‘Saturday Night Live,’ will play Hunter, and I’ll be his lawyer--a psychedelic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but, instead of guns, we’ll be toting little pills.”

Boyle, who has yet to demonstrate his range on screen, would gladly give up tripping for warbling. “I have a strong, full voice, capable of great sweetness,” he says, “but I’m a very bashful singer. What I’d love to do is open in a nightclub that’s designed like a big bathroom, and my voice--a breathtaking blend of Waylon Jennings and Pavarotti, with just a touch of Mel Torme thrown in--would come out from behind a huge shower curtain, and the audience would say, ‘What a wonderful voice--who is that?’ But I’d never come out of the shower.”

But even singing takes a backseat to smooching. “I want to show feeling of a gentle nature for another human being, I want to have a relationship,” complains the bald, generously bellied Boyle. “So far, my only romantic role has been in ‘Young Frankenstein.’ Come to think of it, that wasn’t so bad...I actually got to make love to Madeline Kahn.”