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Sweet and Sourpuss

He may be a grumpy simpleton on ‘Everybody Loves Raymond,’ but Peter Boyle is a complicated guy with a radical past.

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Frank Barone, renaissance man? Yeah, right — and he once danced ballet, too. Frank Barone, onetime Christian Brother, muttering Latin chants in search of a higher state of consciousness? Not on your life.

But Peter Boyle, who plays the cardigan-wearing, ”holy crap” curmudgeon on the CBS sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, is no Frank Barone.

”I lived in the Middle Ages for three years” is how Boyle describes his mid-1950s brush with the Christian Brothers order, which wasn’t all that unusual a choice for an Irish Catholic middle-class kid growing up in Philadelphia. Cop, priest, fireman, Brother. The options were limited.

”There was lots of praying and meditation and you were cut off from the world,” says Gerry Molyneaux, a former high school classmate and still a Christian Brother in Philadelphia. ”But as pious as Peter was, when there was a break he’d be reading the Beats and breaking out the jazz albums.”

”It just got too intense, so I went off to New York City to study acting,” says Boyle, 65, who saw the profession as just another form of soul-searching and spiritual longing. ”Theater comes from the Mass; that’s how it started. So I guess there was that attraction. But I felt like I had failed God when I quit being a monk.”

Hair loss was his penance, but the great lunar baldness only added to the mystique of Boyle, whose most inspired film roles were in the company of a couple of Bobs named De Niro and Redford, along with his legendary portrayal of the Frankenstein monster.

”He has a hipness about him in that Christopher Walken sense,” says Ray Romano, who was intimidated by Boyle when they met on the set of Everybody Loves Raymond in 1996. Romano had seen several of Boyle’s movies, including his pitch-perfect role as Wizard, Robert De Niro’s existentialist guru/fellow cabbie in Taxi Driver.

”Go out, get laid, get drunk,” Wizard tells De Niro’s Travis Bickle. ”You know, do anything, because you got no choice anyway. I mean, we’re all f — -ed.”

”The creative forces of nature are going on all the time, and I was trying to make contact with it,” Boyle says in typical ’60s lingo, describing Wizard. The lines were improvised, he says, after he and director Martin Scorsese hung out at an all-night Manhattan cafeteria with real cabbies listening to the dark poetry of their tales. ”Sometimes you can find a way to tap into that unconscious and ride the wave.”

When he first met Boyle, Romano was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to connect with a man who likes to make contact with the unconscious. ”But he was from New York, I was from New York, I didn’t know anyone out here [in L.A.], and there was another apartment available in my building, so he moved in.” They began doing the town together, with Boyle’s unmistakable mug getting Romano into chichi lairs like the Sky Bar. Boyle also introduced Romano to his mafia of fellow actors, directors, musicians, and former beatniks.