Growing up, the Forest Hills Gardens native was raised by his parents Albert and Lucie Romano in a middle-class family on sports and Catholic school.
As depicted in his brother Ray’s television show, “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Romano later went on to become a police officer with the NYPD and to pursue a life he always felt was his duty.
It was there where Romano saw things he said could not be unseen and soon began questioning his faith in God, something he said he always blindly accepted as fact.
He eventually retired and landed a job teaching criminal justice and coaching a local high school baseball team. Romano wrote the screenplay for the 2013 film The Investigator about his class at the school and their search for factual evidence of the existence of Jesus Christ.
I met up with Richard at his childhood home in Forest Hills last week to discuss his investigation, his Hollywood debut and whether he found what he was looking for.
What was it like growing up in Forest Hills?
I thought it was great. It was a great community. You could just walk out of the house and you go knock on somebody’s door and you played in the street, you played in the schoolyard, it was really great and it was a lot of fun.
What school did you go to?
We went to P.S. 34 over here, and me and my brother Ray went to Queen of Our Lady Martyrs, my younger brother went to Our Lady of Mercy, only because it wasn’t open yet when we were that age, and we walked all over the place. We hung out through our teen years at P.S. 34 playing sports.
What was your favorite sport to play growing up?
We played softball, basketball, handball, stickball; we loved it. I don’t know how other towns were, but we were so close in this town. We had the teen club at Our Lady of Mercy. The church was a big thing in this town for us.
In the movie you are depicted as a police detective who coaches and inspires the lives of children on a baseball team. Did you coach in the neighborhood?
Before I was a cop I coached in Little League baseball, Forest Hills Little League, and also in a football league based in Forest Hills.
How did you get into that?
I don’t know, I just remember they needed coaches and there were some kids down by the schoolyard who said something. And actually, me and my brother Ray both coached over there. We loved baseball, we love kids and we had fun. I did that for like 10 years and I think Raymond did it for like five, and it was great. Then when I became a police officer, my time became limited and I stopped.
What made you decide to join the police force?
That was just my dream since right around age 15. There was just something put on my heart and I felt compelled to help people and I thought it was an honorable job. I just felt like it was something that I was called to do.
I started over here at the 110th Precinct in Corona and Jackson Heights. As a rookie, I was there for about two years, then I went to Manhattan, Harlem, Spanish Harlem and I made sergeant and spent the rest of my career in Harlem and other parts of Manhattan.
When did you retire?
I retired right after 9/11.
Were you a first responder?
I was there the next day. And I lived in Queens my whole life up until that point, and then I decided to move out east. The houses were a little cheaper, and I moved to Mount Sinai and then Nantucket.
How do you like living out there?
I hate it. (laughs) I don’t know if you can print that but I feel like a fish out of water there.
So this movie is about you, and your “investigation.” Can you explain what that is and how that came about?
There were a few incidents in the Police Department where there was a shooting, I was in narcotics and one of my officers shot an unarmed man. It was a political event, there was a lot of publicity and I had a lot of notoriety because I was the supervisor in charge and also because Ray Romano is my brother.
I’m sure that got played up pretty well in the NY Post.
Yeah, I think one of the headlines was something like, “Everybody Doesn’t Love Raymond’s Brother.” So I was advised that I should retire after 20 years because I was too high profile and after that I had a personal tragedy. My wife at the time lost a baby and it kind of shook up my faith. I was just questioning things.
Growing up, what was the faith like in the Romano household?
We were Catholics and we were sent to Catholic grammar school, Catholic high school and all the way up to St. John’s University. We did everything: the communion, the baptism, the confirmation and all that stuff. When you’re Catholic, you’re just told what to believe. Sometimes things aren’t explained to you as much as many other denominations. So I was just blindly following. I guess everybody has their own personal hells and demons to live with, but as I was a police officer maybe I had more.
How did you go about searching for the truth in God?
At that same time, I happened to have just landed a job at a school that needed a baseball coach and a criminal justice teacher, and it just so happened to be a Christian school. Right around that same time those students had their own crisis of faith because the youth pastor there was arrested and did a lot of bad things.
The students there believed the messenger and not the message. In other words, whatever he taught them about Christ went out the window because he was arrested, so they kind of lost their faith in everything.
Just as a coincidence, it was at the same time I did. Because I was teaching them criminal justice we were doing investigations on the John F. Kennedy conspiracy and all that, and one of them asked me to do an investigation on Jesus Christ, to see if he really lived or existed.
Where did you go to find that out?
The first thing I had to do was tell myself - and I told them - that I was not going to use the Bible because the Bible could be prejudiced. I went through theologians, and mostly historians, and the study of historical documents and just analyzing the credible historical documents that were not prejudiced for Christianity because I didn’t really care what the Christian documents said.
Who was one of the historians that broke the case for you?
There was a Jewish historian, Josephus, who wrote about the time of Christ, and he wrote about the existence of this leader, Jesus Christ, who led Israel astray, as he says. But he validated the existence of Christ, and I was kind of stunned there. I said, “Wow, so he is a real figure.” So there’s a lot of neutral and anti-Christian sources that say that Christ was a real figure, and I went on from there.
What about sources that questioned faith in Jesus and God?
For me, I didn’t care about that stuff. I didn’t really care about having faith or having blind faith. I needed more. After you finally believe in him, then your faith takes over, but I couldn’t use that. I had to take a logical perspective and take that leap of faith.
After I found out he really lived, I also found out there was debate of his so-called miracles. They were written off as magic and sorcery. It got me saying, “Hm, something happened there.”
In your search, what did it have to take for your own satisfaction?
I finally concluded that if I could see if he rose from the dead, well that’s a pretty fantastic event, but if he rose from the dead then I’ll believe that he’s the son of God, and then I’ll believe that’s the most fantastic story in the Bible and I’ll believe the rest of it.
In The Investigator the team you were coaching at the time plays a big role in this investigation. How did they help you in this search?
In the beginning, a few kids wanted to say a prayer after the game and not many joined in; I didn’t join in either. It just so happened that the end of the baseball year paralleled the end of our “investigation.” I remembered thinking, “I don’t know how my investigations going to end.”
What would have happened if you didn’t find any hard evidence? That must have been pretty intimidating?
Yeah, it was scary. I almost quit. I was going to quit, but something just prompted me to stay.
How did you know you were done?
It was perfect timing. It was God’s timing. It was literally to the last day of the school year when we just finished up our last piece of evidence. I made it a point not to ask any of our students what their verdict of God was. I thought it would be unfair since they were still getting over the youth pastor and how he betrayed them, so I didn’t want to put any pressure on these young 18-year-old men and women.
The last day, one of them asked me, “ What church do you go to Mr. Romano?” And I told them, “It doesn’t matter what church I go to.” So I could see that at the end there, that I wasn’t sure how they felt. I didn’t want to ask them because it was a personal thing. You have to remember it was a criminal justice class, so it wasn’t a Bible class and it wasn’t a theology class. I used to tell them, “ Your Bible teacher or your pastor or priest can preach to you about having the faith, but I’m not going to do that.”
So it was the last day of school, and most of these students were on the baseball team. And maybe not as a dramatic fashion as it was in the movie, but we lost a championship game and the next thing I knew, they were all kneeling down and praying. I kind of figured the investigation worked, and they started believing again.
The Investigator is now screening at the UA Midway Stadium 9 movie theater at 108-22 Queens Blvd. in Forest Hills. Richard is also currently working on a book on his investigation with a working title Sergeant Romano’s Investigation of the Homicide of Jesus Christ.