Kevin James is not your typical star. Whether he's on TV ("The King of Queens") or in movies ("Paul Blart: Mall Cop"), the Stony Brook native looks and acts like a Long Island everyman. That's because he's one of us, which is something he cherishes.
When James returns to his home turf Thursday, he will be greeted by not one but two crowds for back-to-back performances at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury.
"Long Island audiences are the greatest," James, 48, says from his Florida home. "Westbury is literally the most exciting venue I do because they are my people who I grew up with."
STARTING STAND-UP For James, comedy was a way out of his warehouse job on Long Island. He made his debut at the East Side Comedy Club in Huntington under the tutelage of owner-comedian Richie Minervini.
"While most club owners would turn me away, Richie would push me out there," says James. "I was like Bambi walking across the ice."
James' lighthearted, clean comedic style came from his L.I. roots. "I think most comics have to draw from some evil stuff in their lives. But I had an unbelievable upbringing on Long Island," says James. "Plus, the dirty stuff just wasn't for me. There's so much to laugh at that's clean."
Onstage, James blends observational humor with physical comedy. "I've always loved Jackie Gleason, John Candy and John Belushi," says James. "These were big guys who were athletic in the way they moved. They were the ones I related to."
TAKING OFF ON TV After building a buzz on "Star Search" and at the "Just for Laughs" Montreal Comedy Festival, James made several appearances on the CBS series "Everybody Loves Raymond," starring his stand-up buddy Ray Romano. The network liked James so much that in 1998 they gave him his own show, "The King of Queens," where he played Doug Heffernan, a parcel-post delivery man.
James was paired with fiesty actress Leah Remini, who made waves on "Cheers" and "Fired Up." The blue-collar couple's bickering chemistry turned them into a modern-day "Honeymooners."
"Leah to me is one of the funniest people on the planet," says James. "We instantly loved each other. We fought, we argued like a married couple. There was a comfort level between us."
The show was an overwhelming success for nine seasons and continues to live on through syndication.
"The greatest gift I get is when people say to me, 'I'm Doug and my wife is Carrie. We do the same things,' " says James. "That's the home run you want to capture when people can see themselves in your character."
FEATURED IN FILM When it came time to transition to movies, James came out swinging when he made his mark as Will Smith's client in the 2005 rom-com "Hitch." But it was "Saturday Night Live" alum-turned-movie mogul Adam Sandler who made him a leading man.
"I first met Adam at The Comic Strip, and we clicked right away," says James. "He was a nice guy who told me that I was going to make it in this business. That had such an impact on me."
Sandler saw James' potential and started developing projects for him. It began by giving him a cameo in 2004's "50 First Dates," followed by co-starring together in "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry." Sandler then produced James' starring vehicles "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" and "Zookeeper" and put him in the "SNL" ensemble family comedy "Grown Ups." This summer Sandler and James will reunite for "Grown Ups 2."
"All the movies that I've done with Sandler have been pure fun," says James. "Our families are together all the time. It's one of the greatest friendships I have."
Despite all his success, James inevitably returns to the microphone. "I love that rush of getting people to laugh," he says. "If my job never changed from when I started performing stand-up, I'd be fine."