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'King' bids a funny farewell

It doesn't quite rank up there with the end of "The Sopranos," but another popular long-running series is starting its final run -- "The King of Queens."

The series' 200th episode, which premieres at 9:30 p.m. Monday on WIVB-TV, is similar to tonight's season premiere of "The Sopranos" in that both involve visits to vacation homes.

It is the first of seven final episodes for the CBS sitcom, which has followed the adventures of the blue-collar married couple, Doug (Kevin James) and Carrie Heffernan (Leah Remini), for nine years. It's also popular on cable and in syndication.

Inspired by "The Honeymooners," "Queens" has been a strong ratings performer locally. It is ending for the usual reasons series end -- its cost is rising, the writers don't want to repeat themselves and James is flexing his comedic muscles in the movies.

In a conference call with critics this week, James said it was time to end his days as a deliveryman. "It feels like the right time," said James. "It came from CBS and became mutual. If I were to go on now, it would just be for selfish reasons."

So the fat pay checks are ending. An inside "King of Queens" source from Western New York told me hours later that James wasn't telling the full story. Rob Schiller, an Amherst High School graduate who has directed 187 of the show's 206 episodes, said James was ready to move on.

"This is just my conjecture," said Schiller in a telephone interview. "Kevin is at a point now that his movie career has gotten busier. He has a movie ['I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry'] coming in a couple of months with Adam Sandler that he shot in the middle of our season last year.

"I don't think he can juggle both things anymore," Schiller continues. "We tried this year and did 13 episodes around his movie. Now he has more and more offers. If that Sandler movie blows up, he'll be just as busy. And it is where his heart and his creative mind are right now, and who can blame him?

"We all like to stretch. It's been a good run. And we've told a lot of stories. It is hard to find stories to tell without bringing a baby into their world and we didn't want to do that. We kind of felt creatively we had gone as far as we could go really," Schiller says.

He added CBS would have only considered another season if salaries and other costs were reduced. "It is very easy for him to say it's CBS, but in Kevin's heart, he's done," said Schiller.

James may be playing a blue-collar worker envious of friends who can buy summer homes, but in real life he's become a multimillionaire. The actor had a simple answer when asked why he thought the series -- which is the longest-running live-action sitcom currently on the air -- was so popular. "We're a simple show," said James. "That's something I'm proud of."

Schiller's answer also simple -- James and Remini.

"Kevin is appealing to both men and women," said Schiller. "Women found him cuddly and cute and adorable and men weren't threatened by him. And Leah is good eye candy for the guys and women liked her sassiness. Kevin is a big funny man. And the laughs came very easily with him."

Schiller said the writers and producers felt it would have been difficult to continue the series without repeating stories unless the Heffernans had a baby. Years ago they decided they didn't want to go there.

Monday's opener is a typically amusing episode, which finds Doug and Carrie lamenting their spending habits and getting so jealous of the financial success of Deacon (Victor Williams) and Kelly (Merrin Dungey) that their friendship is threatened. There also is a subplot involving Doug's scheming father-in-law, Arthur (Jerry Stiller).

Schiller said the final three episodes, which will air during the May sweeps, have a story arc that culminates in the hourlong finale. It is no secret that it involves Doug and Carrie's disagreement over whether they should move to Manhattan.

"That sort of creates tension in their relationship," said Schiller. "Each has to give and take a little bit to get what they want. At the end, there's a little bit of a twist, which is kind of fun."

It would make perfect sense that the couple might revisit the baby question since the writers can't worry that a child would ruin a show that is ending. The last scene was shot a few weeks ago on an airplane, though it was filmed out of order and isn't the final scene that will air.

"It was a monologue scene for both," said Schiller. "Both were terrific. It was very easy to use the emotions they had to make the scene emotional. There were a lot of tears flowing that day and that night. It was very sad. Kevin cried like a baby with his curtain call."

On the cover: Kevin James, left, Leah Remini and Jerry Stiller. Also, James Gandolfini, bottom.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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