Also Starring : Daffy, With a Touch of Class : JANE LEEVES MAKES DAPHNE ON ‘FRASIER’ A CRANE NECESSITY
Janes Leeves is asked this question a lot these days: What’s it like to work with Moose, the scene-stealing Jack Russell terrier who plays the adorable Eddie on NBC’s hit comedy “Frasier”?
“It’s actually improved,” she replies good-naturedly. “He’s sort of a scrappy little thing. He didn’t really care about affection. You could pet him and make a fuss of him and he didn’t care.”
Until the Barbie Doll incident. “Recently, he had to do a scene where he had to pick up a Barbie Doll,” Leeves recalls. “He had a lot of pain in his front teeth and they found he needed a root canal. Ever since the root canal, he has been much more affectionate. I always get to work with him now because I am sort of the most patient with him, because it takes time to learn to do the things they ask him to do. If you’re with a dog, you are going to get a laugh.”
But Leeves doesn’t need a four-legged co-star to get a laugh. Last year, she received a Golden Globe nomination for her role on “Frasier” as the daffy Daphne Moon, Martin Crane’s (John Mahoney) nurturing, semi-psychic physical therapist. The feisty Daphne lives with the retired policeman Martin; his son, the pompous radio psychologist Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), and, of course, Eddie.
Leeves has just rushed into her publicist’s Beverly Hills office this sunny but smoggy morning and apologizes for being 10 minutes late due to heavy traffic on Coldwater Canyon. The whippet-slim British actress offers a quick handshake and plops down on the soft leather couch to begin her chat.
The first thing one notices about Leeves is that her subtle English accent is a far cry from Daphne’s working-class one. “Daphne has a Manchester accent,” she explains. “That’s because the character is a working-class character and it sounds more working class. If I did Daphne the way I talk, it wouldn’t be right. It wouldn’t give her that working-class edge.”
Being part of the hit spinoff of the long-running “Cheers” has been a “fabulous” experience for Leeves. The secret to “Frasier’s” success, she believes, is the perfect mix of “personalities, not just between the cast, but between the producers and the writers.”
In fact, she says, “I have written a lot of my own material. They are perfectly willing to listen to you and seek out your opinions on things.”
She recalls the second day of rehearsals for the pilot two years ago, when Leeves and David Hyde Pierce, who plays Frasier’s equally egotistical married brother Niles, thought it would be a great plot twist if Niles had a crush on Daphne.
“I mentioned it [to the producers],” Leeves recalls. “It turned out that one of the producers had the same idea.” On another occasion, Leeves and Dan Butler, who plays the womanizing sports deejay Bulldog, discussed their idea with producers regarding a scene in which Daphne wins a date with Bulldog in an auction.
“It was originally written that I was having this hideous time and was shying away in the back seat. But Dan and I said, ‘Look, why not do the unexpected? Let him have the awful time and let Daphne get drunk.’ The next morning this wonderful sort of monologue of a drunk scene between me and Dan arrived. It was just amazing. I think we all kind of think the same way and find the same thing is funny. Everybody has enormous respect for everyone else.”
One person Leeves definitely respects is Grammer, who, she says, has created the perfect atmosphere on the set from day one. “He never sort of said, ‘I am the star of this show.’ It was very much an ensemble. He is very supportive with all of us and he will fight battles for us, for little line changes and things like that. It has to start at the top.”
Leeves believes she’s so comfortable playing Daphne because the producers gave her the leeway to create her character’s personal history. “I think it helps the characters because they become more of a part of you because it’s your own creation,” she says. “I told [the producers] Daphne would have eight brothers and that would make her comfortable living with all of these men and that she’s a care giver. She thrives on taking care of people, and [I told them about] her insecurity about herself and her feeling she’s not good for much else. I think that stops the character from being the sweet, simple girl who does everything for everybody. I think it’s the flaws in people that make them the most human and easy to identify with.”
Before “Frasier,” Leeves was known for her performances as the promiscuous Blue on the syndicated sitcom “Throb,” Miles Silverberg’s Cockney girlfriend Audrey Cohen on “Murphy Brown” and Jerry Seinfeld’s virginal girlfriend who beds J.F.K. Jr. on a classic “Seinfeld” episode. These days, Leeves is constantly recognized for “Frasier,” which, she says, “is totally nice.”
Though Leeves has carved a niche for herself as a comic actress (even her current AT&T; commercial is a hoot), she’d love a chance to go dramatic. “It’s so difficult in the industry to find good roles for women,” Leeves acknowledges. “I think the best roles for women are in TV, and in comedy, usually. They are strongly written characters. Hopefully, I will find a drama that has that kind of a strong woman character in it. But most of the movie scripts you read it’s someone’s girlfriend or someone screaming or [you wonder] why does the silly cow stay with him?”
During her hiatus, Leeves is supplying the voice of the maternal Ladybug in Tim Burton’s latest stop-motion animated feature for Disney, “James and the Giant Peach,” based on Roald Dahl’s book.
“It’s sort of a blast,” Leeves says with a smile.
“Frasier” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.