TELEVISION : It Hasn’t All Been a Sitcom : Kelsey Grammer’s hit show ‘Frasier’ is a comedic counterpoint to the extreme ups and downs that have marked the actor’s life--events he discusses with an openness Dr. Frasier Crane couldn’t help but admire
Kelsey Grammer is sitting at a small conference table in a modest upstairs office of Stage 25 at Paramount Studios, where he blossomed for the last decade as the pompous, insecure psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane on “Cheers.” He insisted on using the old “Cheers” set for his new NBC comedy, “Frasier,” in which the character has left Boston and a broken marriage to return to his hometown of Seattle as a radio psychiatrist. The vibes certainly are right. This brand-new spinoff of “Cheers” is a hit.
“I do think there’s got to be some kind of ghost thing, a support system, here,” he says, gesturing with his hand at the surroundings. “The energy around this stage is wonderful.”
Grammer is wearing red sneakers, jeans and an open-collared shirt with, as he points out, a surfing pattern--more in tune with himself than the stuffy, vivid character that has led him to fame. There are other surprises. He looks and acts much younger in person than on screen--he is 38.
“I was 28 when I got the job,” Grammer says of “Cheers,” “and, of course, Frasier has been 35 for 10 years. People assumed I was a lot older than I was.”
Part of the reason is his voice, which resonates deep and rich in conversation and laughter, sounding like that of Orson Welles as he zips through his answers and opinions. Grammer is a classically trained actor who revels in the stage--he has performed with the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and regional theater in Buffalo, N.Y., and Minneapolis, Minn., has appeared both on and off Broadway and starred in “Richard II” in 1992 at the Mark Taper Forum.
The stage, he says, “is my first love--it is, I think, what establishes you as an actor.” And the Welles touches are important to Grammer: “The reason I started my production company, the original project I still wish to do, is an Orson Welles thing. We’re thinking of starting it as a one-man show on the stage, a sort of retrospective of his younger years. He’s always fascinated me. When I first got on (“Cheers”), Ted Danson said to me, after about two months, ‘You ought to do Orson Welles.’ ”
Perhaps this wide range of acting inclinations has enabled Grammer to survive in sitcom-land--and in life. First “Cheers” and now “Frasier” have been a kind of comedy counterpoint to personal tragedies, other dramas and self-admitted “irresponsible” behavior that have marked his well-documented childhood and rise to the top.
His father was murdered when he was 13. His 18-year-old sister was murdered when he was 20. His two half brothers were killed in a shark attack when he was 25. He’s had two marital breakups, plus arrests involving drugs and alcohol that brought him jail sentences. These experiences would seem to have prepared him for “King Lear” rather than another TV series.
Yet, with disarming and surprising openness, Grammer discusses all of this quite candidly and bluntly rather than ducking behind the common celebrity stance that it is his private business and no one else’s.
“Yeah, well, at one point I thought there’s nothing to really hide about anything because everybody’s going to write about it anyway,” he says. “My viewpoint is if it comes from my mouth, that will get people to stop talking about it.
“So I’ve talked about things. I really have no apologies to make. I’ve certainly made some mistakes, but I’m not sorry for the things that have happened to me or the things that I have mistakenly done. The best thing about life, in my opinion, is you can grow, you can change, you can fix things, you can make amends, if you will, for things that people may think you may need to.
“The stuff that happens to you, the traffic of life, as I call it, does shape us, but it doesn’t have to define us. It doesn’t have to be what we end up being or the lasting impression that is made by us. So I believe that your duty is to prevail, to overcome your inheritance and your environment and do something a bit beyond what you were given. And the real beauty of the job I’ve got is my work, which keeps me going.”
Grammer, who was born in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, and was brought up in New Jersey and Florida, lived primarily with his mother, her parents and his sister. He adored his grandfather, Gordon, who died when he was 12: “From that point on, all I dealt with was my mother and my sister and my grandmother--three different generations of women who pretty much relied on me to play son, father, husband, child, all at the same time. So that was a little confusing growing up as an adolescent.”
One of the appealing traits of Grammer in “Frasier” is the vulnerability that belies his pomposity. Cut to real life: “Yeah, I’m fairly vulnerable, but I do hide it a lot for my own survival. I was very vulnerable to the constant information I got from my mother, my sister and grandmother that I wasn’t doing good enough. No matter what happened, really, I was always letting one of them down. My relationships with women have by definition been a little rocky and shaky.”
Of all the turmoil in his life, which he calls “landmark events,” Grammer acknowledges: “There’s been a lot of stuff. And also I got in some trouble for drugs. I was irresponsible about fulfilling my obligations to the courts. That’s the way I’ve been about a lot of things. I tend to procrastinate, try to run away from things sometimes. Hence I became an actor--acting gives you a great opportunity to express yourself honestly without being accountable for it. See what I mean? It’s not really Kelse--it’s that character. You get off the hook.”
Considering the turbulence that has marked Grammer’s personal life, little, if any, of it has carried over to the production of “Frasier,” according to several of his co-stars. John Mahoney, featured as Grammer’s retired cop father--who, with his now-famous dog Eddie, moves in with him--says: “He’s never late. I’ve never, ever seen him lose his temper. He’s very open about the whole thing. There’s not a shred of tension.”
David Hyde Pierce, who portrays Grammer’s equally pompous psychiatrist brother, says: “Whatever is going on in his personal life, it has never affected the quality of his work. He’s unfailingly good-hearted and good-spirited on the show. His concern while we’re working is with the script and what we’re working on.”
Pierce, like Grammer, is a major scene-stealer, and the two of them make an often-memorable pair in their exchanges.
Says Grammer: “Obviously, both of us have stolen liberally from Jack Benny. Jack Benny’s my favorite comic.” Of the challenge of Pierce’s strong presence, Grammer says: “That’s what’s good. I never in my life want to back away from someone who’s gifted and talented. You want to surround yourself with the best possible group of people in the world and just throw yourself into it.”
Has there been any effect on Grammer’s work because of his personal traumas?
“Well,” he says, “I think there must. Also, my life has been full of a lot of great richness and joy. I love life--I think possibly because of the tragedies that have been marked along the way.”
And after all the ups and downs, does “Frasier,” with its immediate success, represent something special to him?
“In terms of my career, this is the height,” Grammer says. “This is something I was hoping to achieve. I got my own show, and it’s a good show. I’m proud of it. All the stuff that happened to me before that was basically, I think, in preparation to get to a point of having this much responsibility.”
In addition, he notes, the show is about “a man discovering a family that he hadn’t had. And what’s a nice parallel for me is that I’m discovering a family that I never had. Kelsey gets to come along for the ride. I have a relationship with a father and a brother. I never had any of those things. So it is fascinating to talk to ‘my dad.’ It’s been interesting for a man to explore the relationships between the men in his life.”
Grammer’s input into “Frasier” has been buoyed by some heavyweight support. First there was Paramount, which talked him and the show’s producers into continuing the Frasier character from “Cheers” rather than creating a new one.
“I thought originally that Frasier should die with ‘Cheers,’ ” the actor says. "(But) I like him. He tries to stay true to his word. And he’s a decent chap who’s overwhelmed at times, but he’s still staggering on with rejoicing.”
Then there’s the fact that “Frasier” has the potent lead-in of “Seinfeld,” with the two series emerging as the top spear-carriers for NBC. But there is also the fact that “Frasier” retains more than 90% of the audience from “Seinfeld,” which indicates, even this early in its premiere season, that the new series has the legs to stand on its own.
Already, “Frasier” is commanding a reported $204,000 for a 30-second commercial spot, sixth highest among the series in network prime time. And members of Viewers for Quality Television, a grass-roots organization, have voted it the best new comedy of the season.
Behind the scenes, “Frasier” drew on its “Cheers” heritage by lining up three former producers and writers of the classic series, which ended last spring--David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee. The trio, which also created another NBC success, the sitcom “Wings,” are the executive producers of “Frasier.”
In another important move, Jim Burrows--who co-created “Cheers” with Glen Charles and Les Charles--has directed about half of the “Frasier” episodes thus far.
“My partners and I have a proprietary interest in (“Frasier”),” Burrows says. Noting the generally acknowledged comfort and ease with which “Frasier” has gotten off the ground, he adds: “You have a lot of residual effect from ‘Cheers.’ The producers are really secure and know what’s funny. It’s wonderful writing. And I love Kelsey.”
What was important to Burrows, who credits the producers for making it work, was that the Frasier character become to the new series what the Sam Malone character (Danson) was to “Cheers.”
“What had to be done was you had to make Kelsey ‘Sam’ and be smart enough to bring in David Hyde Pierce to be Kelsey,” Burrows says. “You can carry on the intellectual nature of the character through David--it’s a lot of stuff Kelsey would have done on ‘Cheers.’ That was their (the producers’) invention. And Kelsey had to show much more emotion and vulnerability than on ‘Cheers’ and say a lot of straight lines. When I was directing the pilot, I kept saying he’s got to be more emotional, he’s got to be more like Sam, and we were all in agreement.”
Initially, says Casey, one idea for a series without the Frasier character was that Grammer would play a magnate modeled after the late Malcolm Forbes, running his empire from his bedroom after a motorcycle accident. Then the idea was that “Frasier” would center around the life of the former “Cheers” psychiatrist as a radio personality, but the show seemed too similar to “WKRP in Cincinnati.”
Finally, says Lee, the creators came up with the notion of Frasier reacquainting himself with his father in middle age, “something many of us are going through right now. Whenever you do a series, you’re looking for an emotional hook. It gives depth and breadth to the characters.”
As with most good comedies, there is more going on in “Frasier” than just the gags.
Says Angell: “We have to remind ourselves not to try to joke it up if a page or two goes by without a laugh. We’ve gotten some nice moments out of that.”
Despite his all-star support, Grammer hardly seems putty in anybody’s hands.
He acknowledges “resisting the concept a little bit” when he was asked to go in and read with actress Jane Leeves, who plays the off-center, semi-psychic home care worker: “I thought, oh, my God, it’s ‘Nanny and the Professor.’ ”
Before the reading, he says, he made it clear that “I don’t want to do ‘Nanny and the Professor'--I’m not going to do it. I said, ‘You’ve got to convince me it’s not a stereotype and it’s not going to be just a silly little device in the show.’ And they did. And she did. It was instantly: ‘Hire her. That’s fabulous.’ ”
Grammer and Dr. Frasier Crane now have been part of each other’s lives since 1984. And, the actor says, “We’ve grown together. I’m a bit more haphazard and a bit more casual personally. But there’s a side of me that would rather sit around listening to classical music at night and reading a good book than to be hanging out with a bunch of contemporaries and going crazy. But I do tend to do the other thing.”
He acknowledges a wild streak not far below the surface in both himself and Frasier: “That is there.” He also offers that “now I’m in therapy. There’s no question I need it. Oh, yeah, twice a week. And I’m really happy about it. It started about a year and a half ago. It’s a great help.”
He says all this with an affecting, and unaffected, gregariousness. As a younger man, he motorcycled cross-country to join the Old Globe Theatre. He still makes it to Hawaii occasionally to surf. Of growing up in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., he says that surfing “was a big, huge part of my spiritual development, more than almost anything else. I surfed the whole East Coast. I sail now. I’ve got a 37-foot sloop. That intimacy with the ocean is a big thing for me.”
Professionally, if not personally, he has been fortunate. Even a truncated stay at the Juilliard School, where he met legendary producer-director John Houseman, paid off in the long run: “I didn’t really know him. He was running the drama department. He would have kind of a closure meeting with those of us who got kicked out. I got kicked out--for a perfectly good reason: It wasn’t working out.
“But John Houseman did call me in for this last meeting and said a great thing to me. He said, ‘Read the great novels. It’s a way of getting yourself experiential data about a universe that doesn’t exist anymore, a world that does not exist anymore, of relationships, mores, styles of associating that don’t exist anymore. As an actor, if you don’t have that kind of information, you will never be able to portray with authority and style those periods.’ The advice was dead-on. I had the insight to take advantage of the advice.”