Sitcoms stars move on to features

James ready for the big screen

So how does one properly follow up a nine-year TV run?

There’s no magic formula, but if past precedent of long-running series is taken into account — “Friends” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” being the most recent — the best strategy for an actor closely associated with a character would be to move from the small screen to the multiplex, at least for the time being.

For “King of Queens” co-star Kevin James, that seems to be the plan.

James will be seen in theaters starting July 20, toplining with Adam Sandler in “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.” The Universal comedy, about a pair of straight firefighters who pretend to be gay in order to get domestic partner benefits, is directed by Dennis Dugan.

“We’ve been trying to line up pieces on the board for the past five years and then he broke out in ‘Hitch,’ ” says James’ manager, Jeff Sussman. “We want to keep him visible in the film world.

“I think the success of ‘Hitch’ surprised a lot of people, but not us. People saw him as a TV guy, but there he was someone completely different.”

Leah Remini, who is looking forward to spending time off the set with her young daughter, hasn’t decided in which medium she’ll go forward with. What she is firm about, however, is staying on comfortable turf.

“I want to do films that are close to home and with people I can have a great time with,” she explains, just days after shooting the series’ final episode. “I have no desire to fly to Malaysia and live out of a suitcase, though some people like that.”

Both have been given an opportunity to branch out — without worrying about where the next paycheck is coming from — due to the enormous longevity of “Queens.”

As both actors look back on the series, they agree it would’ve been impossible to imagine that the show would be a hit for CBS and in syndication after launching in 1998, and how it would affect their careers.

“What’s so weird is that you never see a show go that long, and I certainly didn’t expect it,” Remini says. “When we did the 100th episode, (Sony TV chief) Steve Mosko toasted us and said, ‘Here’s to 100 more.’ I figured he was an idiot.”

Remini had been looking for a steady job before “Queens” came along. She had guest spots in skeins such as “Friends,” “Cheers” and “NYPD Blue” as well as a multiepisode arc in “Saved by the Bell.”

James was an established standup comedian playing the club circuit, making an impression with the nets, which were trolling for the next Jerry Seinfeld or Ray Romano.

He recalls the transition as anxiety-ridden, even though he had experience in front of live audiences doing his live act.

“I remember knocking on the door in the pilot and my heart was beating so hard,” James says. “Then, in the second episode I was so down and depressed. I wanted my character to be more natural and less sitcomy, but that didn’t work. You learn different levels and how to play real moments. There’s no better training ground. It’s like doing a play every week.”

Remini remembers in the early years she would have a few tussles with the writers, trying to persuade them how her character would act in certain scenarios. After a while, though, she realized that the scribes had a beat on how to find the funny.

“We would have arguments, but I learned early on that there’s a definite rhythm, and you have to trust that,” Remini says. “The writers know what they’re talking about, and I learned that they know their jobs and I knew mine.”

Both actors said that while they were disappointed the series was never a critical darling or Emmy and Golden Globe winner, the public’s appreciation of the show resonates with them more.

“We were the little show that could,” James explains. “We moved nights, and I thought we were dead in the water so many times. We were never a ‘Friends’ or ‘Raymond,’ but the fans supported us, no matter what.”

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