Celebrity Then And Now
Publication: Albany Daily News. Posted by Ryan Frost
Celebrity Then And Now
Posted by Ryan Frost
The King of Queens, Kevin Can Wait, Paul Blart: Mall Cop
Currently Known For:
Comedian, Actor, Screenwriter, and Film Producer
1990s - Present
April 26, 1965
The King of Queens, Kevin Can Wait, Paul Blart: Mall Cop
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“Pie… it fills the cracks of the heart.” One of the funniest sitcom stars on television today, Kevin James is a comedian, actor, screenwriter and film producer best recognized from his early rise to fame as Doug Heffernan on the CBS comedy series, The King of Queens. With the series running nearly a decade from 1998 to 2007, James skyrocketed to fame and added to his success with films like I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and Hitch before starring in the 2009 surprise hit, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which grossed over $183 million at box offices worldwide and made James a household name on the silver screen. Adding in credits in Grown Ups, Zookeeper, Pixels, and Here Comes the Boom in addition to reprising his role in Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 and lending his voice to the Hotel Transylvania animated film series, let’s take a look at James’ early career and his latest return to primetime television in Kevin Can Wait!
Early Life & Career Beginnings
The second of three children born to an insurance agent and a housewife, Kevin George Knipfing came into this world on April 26, 1965 in Long Island, New York. He was raised in the Long Island neighborhood of Stony Brook where, by his teens, he was a local celebrity thanks to his stellar athleticism. At Ward Melville High School, he led the school’s wrestling team in the 145-pound weight class where he beat his friend and future WWE wrestling star Mick Foley for the top spot. However, by the end of the season, a devastating back injury ended James’ high school wrestling career leaving Foley to take the lead on the team.
After high school, James joined Foley at the State University of New York at Cortland where James played on the school’s varsity football team until a second injury to his back took him out of sports entirely. “I would always love to be an athlete, but it’s got to be a tough day when you have to hang up those cleats,” James said. Although he was forced to hang up his jersey for good, James discovered a surprising talent—his knack for making people laugh—in a public speaking class in college where he entertained his peers and his professor. Before long, he gave up on earning his sports management degree and tried his hand at stand-up comedy.
In 1989, James made his debut as a stand-up comedian at Long Island’s East Side Comedy Club where he was an instant hit among audiences. “My career was a moving target,” he said. “I loved stand-up and I still do. Though once I started doing standup, I said, ‘If I ever got on TV, that’s all I would need.’” He soon made the rounds on various talk shows throughout the 1990s entertaining fans on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Late Late Show, and The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Then, in 1991, he landed his first recurring gig on The New Candid Camera and followed up as an announcer on MTV’s short-lived series, Sandblast. “Then, it was like, ‘Okay, now if ever got on to The Tonight Show!’”
James continued reaching for his dreams and made his way on to The Tonight Show. With his career slowly progressing, he took a huge leap of faith and left the East Coast for Los Angeles where he settled down in Hollywood. Setting his next goal to get a part in a sitcom, it wasn’t long before James met a young comedian named Ray Romano who was just getting started on his own primetime series, Everybody Loves Raymond. Instantly hitting it off, Romano invited James to guest star on a few episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, which introduced James to the CBS network and a whole new audience.
Becoming the King of Queens
“You’ve got to go after your dreams. If you don’t make an effort, nothing’s ever going to change.” Dreaming of starring in his own sitcom wasn’t that far off for James in the late 1990s when CBS offered him the starring role in a new series, The King of Queens, starring Leah Remini as his on-screen wife, Carrie, and Jerry Stiller as his obsessive and often vindictive father-in-law, Arthur. Fortunately, the show was an instant hit and made James a household name on primetime television as the series ran from 1998 to 2007 with James earning a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for his performance in the eighth season.
With a successful sitcom under his belt, James set his next goal for the silver screen and saw that dream come true in 2005 when his made his film debut opposite Will Smith and Eva Mendes in the romantic comedy, Hitch. The following year, he joined his longtime friend Ray Romano in Grilled and lent his voice to animated flicks like Monster House and Barnyard before cashing in on his friendship with Adam Sandler and joining the film mogul in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry in 2007 and You Don’t Mess with the Zohan in 2008. “Half of Hollywood is employed by Sandler,” James later admitted, “because he’s a loyal guy, and once you work with him and then he works with new people, he’ll bring the old people with him, and he doesn’t forget about this guy. He says, ‘Oh, let me get a part for this guy.’ The guy has an incredible soul.”
James’ growing success on the silver screen took a new turn in 2009 when he landed his first starring role in Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which grossed over $39 million in its opening weekend in North America and became the top movie in the United States and Canada. This instantly made James a bankable Hollywood star as he took on comedies like Grown Ups, The Dilemma, and Zookeeper. In 2012, he snagged the leading role in the mixed martial arts comedy flick, Here Comes the Boom, which was a flop at the box office but remains close to James’ heart in what he calls an ‘inspirational comedy.’
“I thought it would be a little different and funny in a different way, and I loved the UFC at the time, and I thought it would connect, but then I realized it was a tough audience to find… I still love the movie, but it didn’t connect the way I would love it to have connected,” James said. “I want to inspire people to be a better version of themselves, to take control. Only they can take control of what they do which, in fact, can inspire those around you in that it really has an effect on other people, how you act in a situation… It feels to me that when people become complacent, and we all do in our lives at some point or another, that you need to take the best of yourself and basically apply yourself to become the best version of yourself. That, in turn will inspire those around you, hopefully, to do the same… in this movie, particularly, it happens with one teacher who lost his way…”
Later Projects and Return to Primetime
After Here Comes the Boom, James reprised his role as Eric Lamonsoff in Grown Ups 2 and as Paul Blart in Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, the latter of which he also wrote and produced. He starred as Dr. Fox in Little Boy and as William Cooper in Pixels before once again returning to the animated Hotel Transylvania franchise to voice Frank in Hotel Transylvania 2. Other credits on the silver screen include True Memories of an International Assassin in 2016 and the 2017 Adam Sandler comedy, Sandy Wexler. As for television, James made a guest appearance on an episode of Liv & Maddie in 2015 but admitted that he’s become more and more selective with his projects, only picking roles that truly interest him.
“Doing a movie because it’s weird and it’s out there, I don’t know, that just doesn’t interest me,” he says. “At this point in my career, I’m not trying to impress anybody that way with saying, ‘Look what I can do.’ I just want to connect with the audience, and it’s all about story. Now, if it was a story that was weird and out there, but I connect with it, man, I’d love to do it. I’d absolutely love it.”
James found that connection in 2016 when he co-created the primetime television sitcom, Kevin Can Wait, which premiered on September 19, 2016. The show focused on James as a retired New York police officer and father of three alongside his wife, Donna, played by Erinn Hayes. However, by the show’s second season, James decided to shake things up a bit and killed off his on-screen wife with the second season premiere jumping forward a year with James’ new love interest, his former King of Queens costar Leah Remini as Vanessa Cellucci. “The plot of the show didn’t have enough drive,” James said. “If we got through a second season, I wouldn’t see us getting through a third. We were literally just running out of ideas… Now I have to deal with my daughter in a different way, and she’s gonna go to college, or one’s getting married, or the holidays. And it deals with things in a different, weightier way.”
Sadly, the show’s new plotline did little to help ratings as Kevin Can Wait was canceled after its second season in May 2018.
With the cancellation of Kevin Can Wait freeing more of James’ schedule, the 53-year-old actor and comedian has more time to focus on life at home with his wife, actress Steffiana de la Cruz, and their four children. Of course, that doesn’t mean that he’s taking it easy since he’s reprised his role as the voice of Frank in Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation and is busy looking for his next project. “I want to do movies that I'm proud of where my kids, at some point, can see and I can feel comfortable sitting there watching it with them. And movies that just move people. That make people feel a little better about themselves when they leave the theater.”
Over the last few years, James has spoken more about his goals as well as the shift in his personal life, specifically his faith, as he works to become a better example for his children and fans. “My father always took us to church and we went as a family. I knew, at times in my life, where I would not fall away completely out of the faith, but just not be as faithful and not learn as much. Later on in life, I just started coming back to my faith more and more. And I’m continuing to learn more and more each day and trying to be that person God wants me to be,” he says. For James, projects like Here Comes the Boom are his way of bringing faith and positivity back into today’s society. “I think there’s a huge lack of faith. I think it’s like, like I said it’s become more and more about me and what we can do, ‘me, me, me’ and living for ourselves for this time. I think it hurts us not only in the afterlife, but I think it also hurts us while you’re here. I think it hurts us to live that way while you’re on earth.”
For James, he’s working to do his part to honor his faith, which is something we’ll undeniably see in his future projects on the silver screen and on television. After all, he’s still a huge name in Hollywood who knows a healthy balance between comedy and compassion. “I just want to put some positive stuff out there,” he says of his future in the industry. “If it works, great. If it doesn’t, no problem.”