James fell into comedy with a little more grace than his screen characters. In the mid-'80s, a community theater role turned the college football player into a laugh-addict. Instead of wrapping up his sports management degree, he bailed for a life on the Long Island stand-up circuit, where he'd continue touring for nearly a decade. He describes his first gig in 1989 as "a revelation." But at a time when many young entertainers would cling to lofty goals, James stuck to immediate ones.
"[My career] was moving target," he says. "I loved stand-up, and I still do. Though once I started doing stand-up, I said, 'If I ever got on TV, that's all I would need.'" He did, appearing in a short-lived MTV sports series called Sandblast.
"Then it was like, 'Okay, now if I ever got on to The Tonight Show!'" That happened.
"Then after that, 'If I ever got a part in a sitcom...'" Ray Romano, a pal from the stand-up world, hooked him up.
"Then it was if I got my own sitcom..." Two years after his praised Everybody Loves Raymond appearances, CBS launched King of Queens.
"Then if I got in a movie…" Hitch, starring Will Smith.
"And then it was, if I got my own movie..." You didn't see Grilled, the 2006 crime comedy that paired him with Romano, but it happened.
"'If I could do this, if I could do that' -- that's life," he says. "That really is. I don't think we'll ever be completely satisfied here, and that's what keeps us moving."
I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry gave James his first high-profile movie role and paired him with sure-thing box-office star Adam Sandler, whom the actor met years before at the Comic Strip in New York. "I was a fan of his. I think he was Remote Control or SNL, but he was so nice to me then. He watched my set and he told me some stuff, and he was just a good guy. He just said, 'You're going to be great!' I said, 'All right, man.' Was never going to talk to him again." The two reconnected when Sandler set up offices on the same studio lot where James shot The King Of Queens. "The guy's responsible for so much stuff that I have, it's crazy."