On Everybody Loves Raymond, the hit CBS sitcom in which he costars as Ray Romano's older brother, there's no mistaking Garrett, 37, for anything other than an endearingly cranky lug. His character, Robert, a divorced New York City cop who moves back in with his parents, is based on one of Romano's real-life siblings. "The big difference is that my brother is not taller than me, and he's not funnier than me," says Romano, the show's star and one of its producers. "Brad brings out a side to Robert we hadn't expected. He's morose, but he's also got some bite."
And while Robert may be grumpy, Garrett, after 19 grueling years of stand-up gigs and failed sitcoms, is positively giddy over the recognition he's finally receiving. "People are Roberting me," he says, laughing. "They yell, 'We love your brother better!' I'm used to that, because I grew up with two older brothers [Jeff, now 45, provides bands and deejays for parties; Paul, 42, is a salesman], and they were always more popular."
But never wittier. In the suburban L.A. home the brothers shared with their parents, Al, a hearing-aid salesman, and Barbara, a homemaker, "Brad was always on," says Jeff. "But you'd never say, 'Shut up,' because he was so funny"—especially when he did an exaggerated gravelly voiced, cigarette-sucking impression of their mother.
For the most part, though, his humor was self-deprecating. "I was the geeky kid," says Garrett, "and the geekiness became funny." At 15, he stood a hulking 6'5" and was, says Jeff, "terrible at athletics—in gym class he would just hang on the bar, unable to do a single pull-up."
Comedy came naturally, though, and in 1978, six weeks after enrolling at UCLA to study theater arts, Garrett decided to try out his nerdy shtick at comedy clubs. In one gig, at L.A.'s Improv, he had to follow some up-and-comers named Williams (as in Robin), Leno and Letterman. "There were these guys and then me getting up there, going, 'I was so big, I was born on the 5th, 6th and 7th,' " he says. "I died miserably. But then I thought, 'I can't wait to do it again,' because it was still less painful than junior high."
With his parents' blessing, he soon joined the stand-up circuit, changing his name from Gerstenfeld to the marquee-friendly Garrett and supporting himself as a hotel-party deejay and as a waiter. Then, in 1984, he went on Star Search and wound up winning the $100,000 grand prize. The exposure led to opening-act gigs for such headliners as Charo, Crystal Gayle, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra. "He called me Greg Barrett," says Garrett of Ol' Blue Eyes. "He'd never remember my name."
But network executives who caught Garrett's act didn't forget him. In 1988 he starred in his first sitcom, CBS's First Impressions, which lasted only six weeks. Garrett wasn't surprised. "They made me a single father from Omaha with a blond, blue-eyed kid," he says. His next series, NBC's The Pursuit of Happiness (1995), cast him as a gay lawyer. It, too, flopped, but Garrett's comic turn was not overlooked. "All I heard for years was, 'Ah, he's too tall.' But that show proved I was an actor," he says. Not that size no longer matters. "Nobody thought of Brad immediately for [his Raymond] role," admits CBS Entertainment president Les Moonves. "But from the first two lines of his audition, he was Robert. He's this big, hulking guy who can be very sensitive."
Just like his portrayer. So why can't the never-wed Garrett find Ms. Right? "I did get four digits of a phone number the other night," he says. "Literally." A woman he approached at a party had given him her area code, then the number 4, before walking away. Garrett sighs. "I want to be with someone who is brighter and cuter than me," he says, only half-joking. "Now, you'd think that would be pretty easy to find."
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles