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Made in America


Grammer's
Lesson


by Michael Malone
photos by Jeff Katz

"Thank you, thank you, thank you,” effuses Kelsey Grammer. I’ve just informed him I’ll refrain from posing the question he’s asked every time he’s interviewed; the one that will plague him for as long as he portrays the alter ego that has made him rich, famous, and currently TV’s biggest star - the endearingly neurotic Dr. Frasier Crane. The question about where Kelsey ends and Frasier begins. If they’re one and the same; if Kelsey is simply playing Kelsey. There’s even a lyrical harmony to ‘Kelsey Crane’ and ‘Frasier Grammer’ that the real names can’t boast of.

But I won’t ask him. Grammer laughs a villainous laugh and thanks me again. That’s four thank you’s, if you’re scoring at home.

It’s the voice you notice first. Grammer’s diction and enunciation are decidedly Frasier-esque; he tosses around words like “syllogism” and “travail” without blinking, and masterfully marries tricky adverbs with equally cumbersome adjectives. But the voice does not boom the way Frasier’s does. It doesn’t fill the impossibly resplendent Waldorf Astoria suite in which we sit the way it filled a certain Boston watering hole then, or the Seattle airwaves now. Though still very much a work-in-progress after 16 years, Frasier is so real, so believable, so dead-on, it’s hard to imagine that there’s any acting going on, that there’s a difference between the actor and the role. Yes, the voice - the reverberating, rumbling baritone, spewing overeducated philosophy, boundless frustration, and earnest angst and, in turn, making America feel better about itself every Thursday night - the voice sounds, well, normal. Later, I play the tape for friends. They don’t believe it’s Frasier. I tell them it’s not.

On a late January day, temperatures in the teens, after a morning that included appearances on “The Today Show,” “Good Housekeeping,” and “Pure Oxygen,” Grammer, recently 45, looks downright comfortable. Absent is Frasier’s ubiquitous stuffy attire - hell, Frasier Crane would mow the lawn in a suit - and in its place is J. Crew comfort and an easy grin. Sporting a cable knit sweater and blue jeans, in his stocking feet, beautiful wife Camille by his side, the bespectacled Grammer is in his element. Absent too is Dr. Crane’s frenzied side-to-side head wag, and the pop-eyed glare that announces to the world that his blood is rapidly approaching boil. The room service French fries are soggy, but Grammer is unbowed. If it’s possible to look at-home in a room that’s been lived in by thousands before you, Kelsey Grammer has pulled it off.

A promising theater career was scotched, or at least put on hold, when Kelsey Grammer, son of a musician father and vocalist mother, first met Frasier. The Juilliard-educated actor was earning a legitimate thespian’s living in New York when Frasier entered his life in 1984. His Broadway credits included Macbeth and Othello, and he was doing an Off-Broadway version of Sunday in the Park With George when Grammer’s co-star, Mandy Patinkin, introduced him to a casting director who was seeking a funny leading-man sort for a support role in “Cheers.” This unlikely Hollywood Type, whose previous TV credits included a few soap operas and a single appearance on “Kate and Allie,” had his foot in TV’s door.

“NBC gave me what’s called a ‘personality test,’” recalls Grammer, referring to the five-minute taped interview during which he was asked all sorts of odd personal questions. “I said something really dorky, and sort of chuckled,” he adds, breaking into a “Beavis and Butthead” laugh. “I thought I’d just embarrassed myself, but that’s apparently what sold them on me.”

“Cheers” executive producer Glen Charles would tell Grammer years later that, when the show’s execs saw that tape, they knew they had their man. Adds Grammer, “(Producer/director) Jimmy Burrows thought I was the funniest-looking man he’d ever seen.”

Alas, not everyone was as keen for their new barmate. Shelley Long, who we remember as Diane Chambers and, frankly, not much else, saw the needling psychiatrist as a threat to her character’s well-being. “Shelley made it very clear that she didn’t feel comfortable with Frasier around,” says Grammer. “That affected my livelihood in a very personal way, so I made it my mission in life to make sure Frasier stuck around.”

While Diane left the show following the 1987 season, Frasier stayed till last call. “Cheers” finally blinked the lights in 1993, and there were certainly more logical choices for a spinoff: jock lothario Sam, winsome hayseed Woody, lovably lethargic Norm, and dilettante postman Cliff all seemed like more ratings-friendly characters. Even Carla’s ex-husband Nick got a spinoff - remember “The Tortellis”? Me neither. But who would’ve expected Frasier to run with the ball? Well, Grammer, for one.

“That Frasier got his own show never seemed unlikely to me,” says Grammer as he sips that familiar demitasse. “They realized that the other characters weren’t really going anywhere, while Frasier had always been changing.”

Originally, the idea was to retire Frasier and star Grammer in a new sitcom about a TV mogul-type who’s suffered a horrible motorcycle accident, and runs the business from his bed.

“[Then-Paramount president] John Pike looked at me after reading the pilot,” recalls Grammer. “He shook his head and said, ‘I think sitcoms should be funny.’” There would be no show about a bedridden TV mogul. But relocating a familiar shrink to Seattle, and giving him a call-in radio show and a lively supporting cast... NBC green-lighted the project, and it turned out to be one of TV’s most inventive, clever, and successful shows, one that seamlessly melds vaudevillian slapstick with high-brow wit. Quarterbacking his eponymous show was the inimitable Dr. Frasier Crane, hypertension personified, whom Grammer alternately refers to as a “poor bastard” and a “brave soldier,” one who is “saddled with a hellish overeducation problem.”

“Frasier” exists as proof of casting genius. Martin Crane, father to Frasier and Niles, is played by John Mahoney, who once had a guest role on “Cheers.” Grammer thought Mahoney perfect for the part and asked him to come on board. There’s the sexy and sassy maid named Daphne, played by Jane Leeves, and a mischievous Jack Russell terrier named Eddie. Then there’s David Hyde Pierce, who plays Niles, Frasier’s effete little brother, with whom he shares an uncommon on-screen chemistry.

A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, David Hyde Pierce has followed a career path strikingly similar to Grammer’s. Both appeared at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven in 1982, in different productions. Grammer vaguely remembers an introduction, perhaps a lunch together, but nothing more. When Pierce came to New York, he was constantly haunted by Grammer, whom he resembles both in looks and mannerisms. Theater colleagues repeatedly told him, “Ya know, you should do a show with Kelsey Grammer.”

It was sage advice. Years later, Pierce paid it heed.

“From the moment we met,” muses Grammer, “we connected, as I imagine you would connect with a real brother. I’ve been able to live the brother experience vicariously through Frasier and Niles. Sometimes I look at a picture of John, David, and myself, and think, Geez, this is getting really spooky.”

It’s this rapport that makes the show so credible, so entertaining. Grammer, who sometimes directs episodes of “Frasier,” says the brotherly banter kicked in immediately. “It took two seconds,” he relates. “It just clicked.”

While working on the show keeps Grammer and Pierce in near-constant contact, they still pal around occasionally off the set. Grammer mentions a mutual friend’s art exhibit opening they’ll attend next year in Munich, and their trips to the opera, and messing around on some impromptu piano duets. It’s all so ... well, so Crane, isn’t it?

After garnering three Emmies, a Golden Globe, a People’s Choice Award, and an American Comedy Award for his portrayal of Frasier, Grammer seems to have difficulty distancing himself from the role.

“There is the bugaboo of being Frasier,” he concedes, “and for a creative industry, it’s certainly a world full of people with no creativity. They often do not have a vision beyond what they know.”

Grammer is clearly disappointed about not receiving more film offers, and it’s hard to blame him. It’s almost surreal to think that, in a world where Paulie Shore gets starring roles, an actor of Grammer’s skill and breadth would not have his pick of parts. “I’ve always had a lot of belief in my talent as an actor,” he opines, “and I hope I’ll be given the opportunity to play some different characters.”



Continued on next page...

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