FRESH AIR (radio program - National Public Radio) with host Terry Gross November 5, 1998
TERRY GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. "Frasier" is a great example of a sitcom at its funniest with acting at its best. My guest, David Hyde Pierce, has received two Emmys, a Golden Globe, a Screen Actor's Guild award and four American Comedy Awards for his portrayal of Niles, Frasier's younger brother. Both brothers are psychiatrists. Frasier, played by Kelsey Grammer, hosts a call-in radio show, although he's out of work at the moment because his station changed formats. Niles' psychological insights didn't save him from one of the worst marriages and longest divorces in history. The brothers are snobbish, effete, egotistical, and insecure. Although they have a close relationship, they're very competitive and suspicious of each other. Here's Niles calling on Frasier.
[AUDIO CLIP FROM FRASIER (from Season 6 episode "Hot Ticket")]:
Niles: Hello, I know I'm a bit early. I was hoping we might get a bite to eat before the theater.
Frasier: Actually, Niles--
Niles: Yeah, yeah, it'll be on me, of course, to thank you for getting those replacement tickets.
Frasier: About the tickets--
Niles: I know, I know, I owe you money, and my gratitude, and if I keep talking you won't be able to tell me that you weren't able to get the tickets!
Frasier: I just haven't been able to get them yet.
Niles: Oh, I knew you couldn't get them!
Frasier: Niles, please!
Niles: And now it's too late, it's six o'clock!
Frasier: Just calm down. I've made a few well-placed calls, I haven't heard back from a couple of people, but someone will call.
Niles: Well, someone had better call, because everyone who's anyone is seeing this play. And you know who you are if you're not anyone? You're no one! And I've been someone much too long to start being no one now!
[END AUDIO CLIP]
TG: The character of Frasier originated on "Cheers." I asked David Hyde Pierce if when he was cast in the show "Frasier" he studied episodes to get a sense of the same family traits and mannerisms.
David Hyde Pierce: Yes, in fact that's specifically what I did. I watched a lot of old episodes of "Cheers" to get the physical behavior, because I felt like when I looked at my own family-- First of all, I look more like Kelsey than I look like any other member of my real family, so physical resemblance isn't necessarily the key. But what does happen is, people have the same kind of speech patterns, and the same physical mannerisms. We all have had the experience of looking in the mirror and being horrified to realize we were acting exactly like our mom or our dad. And that kind of stuff I thought was what would let people know that we were really brothers: if we moved in the same way, if we had the same tilt of the head when we spoke, if we hit words and voiced words in a similar fashion.
TG: I know Kelsey Grammer is a big admirer of Jack Benny, and you can kind of see that in some of his gestures. Did you go back to Jack Benny also to kind of get to what Kelsey Grammer would be like and register as family traits?
DHP: I didn't. That's something else that Kelsey does which was a whole new kind of acting for me, which is-- I don't know if you know the term sampling, which they can do with pieces of sound technology, you can sample the playing of an instrument with a synthesizer. And Kelsey can almost sample famous actors, like someone who does impressions except what he does is, he will incorporate Jack Benny, or Bette Davis, or James Mason or whoever, into the line that he's saying as Frasier, so that it simultaneously echoes the famous person, but it's really still Frasier speaking. And that gives him his enormous range. I even did a scene where he did Daffy Duck, in a perfectly believable way.
TG: "Frasier" in a way is a show with a contrast between two types of masculinity -- you know, the father who's a retired cop and loves sports and his old easy chair, meat and potatoes, and Frasier and Niles, who are impeccably dressed and they're connoisseurs of wine and food and furniture. And in a way they're almost like, they almost embody certain of the traits that are stereotyped as gay traits, including some of their gestures. And I'm wondering of that's something that's ever discussed on the set or the show.
DHP: We don't ever discuss it on the show, although we did address it actually in an early episode. There's a kind of a famous episode from the first season called "The Matchmaker" where a new station manager took over Frasier's radio station, and the guy was gay but Frasier didn't know it. And Frasier--
TG: That's a very funny episode, yes.
DHP: Oh, you know it. Yeah, well it was a great episode, Joe Keenan wrote it, one of our very good writers. And there was whole mixup where Frasier thought he was setting up this guy to date Daphne, and the guy thought it was a setup for him to date Frasier. And near the end of it, because of a variety of confusing circumstances, this guy also thinks that Frasier's dad is gay. And finally it all gets straightened out at the end, and the guy says, "So your dad's not gay?" and he says, "No, Dad's not gay." And the guy says, "But Niles... Come on."
And it was our way of addressing-- Because a lot of people have talked about, especially with Frasier and Niles and a lot of stuff that they do together, that as you said, it's sort of a stereotypical gay relationship, in that they like to dress well, they like fine wine and opera and all that stuff. But there's one critical part of gay relationships which they're not really into, and that seems to me to be the dividing line, and that's more the anatomical area, which is they both love women. And so I think that the rest of it, as you said, it really is a stereotype if it necessitates them being gay because they like those things.
There's a certain sort of, as you described, a different kind of masculinity. There's a very English, as opposed to English peasant, but a kind of upper class English feeling about them. Also a sort of Southern gentleman feeling. It's more of I guess you could say a feline masculinity, as opposed to Dad or Bulldog, who's the sportscaster on the show, who's more of an eating hot dogs and beans, slapping people around kind of guy.
TG: Right. Now the writing is so funny on the show, can you think of an example of a line that you particularly like, that kind of exemplifies [garbled]?
DHP: Yes. There was a scene where there was a party at Frasier's apartment, and no one can find her, and I explain that she fell asleep, and my line is that she exhausts easily under the pressure to be interesting.
DHP: [laughing] And what I love about that line is, if you look at the actual wording of it, it's a little bit wordy, it's a little bit highfaluting, she exhausts easily... But what makes it funny is the description of this personality, because we've all been there. We've all been at parties and had to put on that face, and we know how you go home and it's supposed to have been a party and you're wiped out from the effort. And she just takes it to the n-th degree. So it's a combination of a skillful use of language, but also a skillful just depiction of character. And I think most of the humor of the show, as it should, comes out of the situations like that, as opposed to jokes.
TG: Because there's almost an ornate style of speaking that Niles has, I'm sure his cadences are a little bit different than yours. Was it hard to get into that rhythm?
DHP: Um, that's a good question. It wasn't difficult. Because it's well written it's easy to pick up on the speech pattern, and again, because I was sort of modeling it after the way Kels speaks as Frasier, I had a role model there. One of things that we are always playing with, and one of the differences between the writers who write for our show and sometimes when people send in scripts that they've written, hoping to get hired for the show, is that the writers understand that there's a subtle difference between someone who uses language in a certain way, and just simply writing a lot of big words because that somehow seems to be what the characters are all about.
A lot of times we'll find that you have to tone Niles's language down, because in a given situation -- a very emotional situation, say, for example -- he might not fall into those elevated speech patterns that he would have when he's more relaxed and is talking about the wine club. And I think that's also what keeps him real.
TG: Would you compare your voice and style of speaking with Niles'?
DHP: Um, well it's hard, you know why, because as soon as I start getting analytical and talking about the show and being philosophical about it, then I automatically almost become him. [laughing] I mean, let's see, um, I guess there's a certain other placement in the voice. [doing Niles] He speaks almost in a little higher pitch than I do, and the pronunciation of the words is just a little bit archer and a little bit more enunciated, and um, oh, what's the word? [in his own voice] That sort of thing. And there's little inflections like that that creep in. Sometimes I'll be, like, somewhere else in the country and people will say, "Oh, you don't have an English accent," thinking that I do have an English accent because of whatever it is I'm doing as the character, it reads that way.
TG: Yeah, it's arch and clipped.
DHP: Yeah, and a little bit operatic at times.
DHP: He gets extremely agitated over not very important things. We just had a, he was just invited to a party where he brought a bottle of '81 Chateau Haute Briand [sp?], [doing Niles] and he wasn't there two minutes before he heard a pop, looked up, and saw it being decanted into a punchbowl of sangria, canned fruit and erotic ice cubes! [in his own voice] So it's kind of a higher range.
TG: It must be interesting because, playing a character for so long that you have two different styles of speech that you know so well, your own and your character's.
DHP: Well, and in fact I think I've played him so long that when you asked me the question, about what was the difference between my speech and Niles's, I got extremely nervous because I suddenly thought, you know, I'm not sure there is one anymore. I think that the gap has narrowed over the last six years.
TG: I know you shoot in front of a live audience, which means that there's real laughter that you have to deal with which will affect the timing. You can't talk over the high point of a laugh. The trick is, I think, as the audience is laughing, and it's a fairly extended laugh, the camera doesn't pan to the audience, it's still on you. So you have to be doing something while you're not speaking during the laughter.
DHP: Yes. Well, we've all become masters of sort of idle fiddling, and you know, stirring coffee during laughs, or you can check your shoelaces and see if they're tied. What it is, if you try to find behavior that the character would actually be doing in the moment, but what you're also doing is you're feeding the laughter, because it just makes people laugh more when they see you riding that wave of laughter, however you choose to ride it out. If Kels and I are in a scene together, then we could do ten minutes of just making faces at each other until eventually we both laugh and then it's over.
TG: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Hyde Pierce, and he's the star of Frasier. He plays Niles, Frasier's brother. Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is "Fresh Air."
[PROMOTIONAL BREAK HERE]
TG: My guest is David Hyde Pierce, and he plays Niles on the series "Frasier." Now, the story goes that no one knew that Frasier had a brother when Frasier was a character on "Cheers," I don't think Frasier knew he had a brother. And then when he was given the new series he still wasn't supposed to have a brother, but the story goes that the creators of the show were given a picture of you, saw this incredible facial similarity, then watched tapes of you, loved your performance and thought, "Well, let's write him in as the brother." Did you see the similarity when you looked at Kelsey Grammer?
DHP: My mom, when I first came out to LA, which is about six or seven years ago, said to me, "Now, you look like Kelsey Grammer, maybe you could be on his show." That was back on "Cheers."
TG: Oh, really?
DHP: Yeah, and no one else thought that at the time. But then, totally without me having anything to do with it, this casting director, Sheila Guthrie, who was working with Jeff Greenberg, the casting director for "Frasier", she brought them my photo. They didn't know who I was, like most people, and like you said, she also brought them some tapes from the only other TV show I'd ever done, the only other sitcom, which was called "The Powers That Be." It was a Norman Lear political satire, and John Forsythe played a senator, I played a suicidal congressman. And they looked at those tapes, and based on those tapes they actually met with me. And this is the humiliating part, because they met with me for about half an hour and then they went away and wrote Niles. So I don't know what that says about me, but that's the way it fell out.
TG: Right. So, it's funny because although I see certain similarities between you and Kelsey Grammer, you're a much more kind of refined version of it? You know, smaller and more elegant?
DHP: Refined is nice, I like refined. You know what? If you see pictures of him-- I saw a shot of him just out of college, it was taken in New York, or also he was on a soap opera back then when he was still going to Juilliard, and he looks-- It's me. It isn't even that he looks like me -- it's me. And so I think we, depending on the year of the show, we look more or less like each other. But there's definitely a familial resemblance kind of thing.
TG: David Hyde Pierce is my guest, and he plays Niles on "Frasier." I'd like to run through some of the movies that you've been in, and maybe you could just say a few words about your part in each one, and what it was like for you. Let's start with your movie debut, "Bright Lights and Big City."
DHP: Yes, that was my first ever. It cost me more to join the union than they paid me to do the film. My agent had to advance me the money so I could do this movie. And I had one line. Michael J. Fox was in this movie, and if you ever see it, there's a scene where he goes t disrupt a fashion show that Phoebe Cates is doing, and I'm standing behind the bar, and I say, "I'm sorry, the bar is closed." That was my first movie line.
TG: Did you practice saying that a thousand different ways before doing it for real?
DHP: Well, for one thing I was a nervous wreck. I mean, I'd never-- I had been a stage actor for many years, I'd been on Broadway and off Broadway and gone all over the place, but I'd never done a movie. And they don't know that and they treat you as if you're and old pro, and it's, "Okay, now this is what's gonna, he's gonna come up, the camera's gonna be here, and you're gonna hit your mark, you're gonna--" And of course you say, "Yeah, right, I'll be there." And you're thinking, "What do I hit? Who do I hit? Who's Mark?" It was very disturbing, but I got through that, and no one was injured, so I think I did okay.
TG: Okay. "Crossing Delancey."
TG: Let me guess. You were the non-Jewish character.
DHP: [laughing] I did one audition for a play in New York they did called "A Shainah Maidel", and it was for a Jewish character, and I had to say the line, "You only love me for my mother's bagels."
DHP: [laughing] And I, you know, I didn't believe me saying it. And they were very nice during the audition, no one asked me to leave or anything. But anyway, no, I was the non-Jewish character in "Crossing Delancey."
I love that movie, by the way. It was a sweet film, and what I most remember about it was, I had to learn to play the cello, my character was a cellist. And there was a scene where Amy Irving, who is the lead in the movie, is having a birthday, and all of us who work in this little bookstore with her were singing "Happy Birthday" to her and I was playing it on the cello. And I literally, they paid for lessons, I learned how to play "Happy Birthday" on the cello. Amy Irving, who had done a movie called "The Competition" where she had to pretend to play the cello, made endless fun of me because, you know, I was squeaky. But I finally got through the take and did it, it was all perfect. And that scene segued into a scene on the phone from Florida where her parents' friends, who were a barbershop quartet are finishing singing "Happy Birthday" over the phone. Well, when they put the film together, they guys singing the barbershop quartet were in a different key, so they dubbed the cello playing. So what I had slaved for weeks to learn, I never had to do in the first place, they were just going to lay it in anyway.
TG: Tough luck.
DHP: So that was hard.
TG: "Sleepless In Seattle."
DHP: Oh, that was my first connection with Seattle, and of course it was a big hit movie. I had a very small part in it, but the funny thing is, if you go back and watch it, the little scenes that I have, I play Meg Ryan's brother. I'm actually married, I'm in a very similar marriage to the one that Niles has with Maris. The actress who plays my wife is a little on the petite side, and she's kind of shrewish the way the character is written, and we have sort of a [laughing] a hate-hate relationship, I think. So it was sort of foreshadowing the rest of my life.
TG: In Oliver Stone's movie "Nixon" you played John Dean. What did you do to get in character?
DHP: Met with John Dean. Had several meetings with him. And did a lot of reading about John and whole Watergate crisis, and found out that depending on which book you read, John Dean was either a completely innocent victim of this whole thing or the evil mastermind behind the entire Watergate scenario, which was a little bit of a history lesson. And the other thing I did was watch the tapes of the hearings. Other than that it was just the thrill of acting scenes with Anthony Hopkins.
TG: What did you do with your voice for John Dean? It's such a familiar voice for people who remember the Watergate hearings.
DHP: Yeah. I didn't do a lot. There was a little bit of-- I'm trying to think what it was. He's from California, and it wasn't that he had a particular accent. I think maybe some of the vowels were a little flatter than mine. Again, none of us were trying to do exact imitations of the people. I mean, Anthony Hopkins is the most obvious example. But when he did Nixon, he's completely capable of doing a spot-on, Rich Little-quality Nixon impression. But he didn't want people to watch him do a Nixon impression, because the most you get out of that is sitting there thinking, "Oh, he's really good doing a Nixon impression." So he kind of split the difference between hinting at Nixon's actual voice, and certainly getting the physical mannerisms, but really making it more of a character performance for him. And to my taste I think that's a pretty smart choice.
TG: So I want to hear about other movies and stuff that you have coming up outside of "Frasier."
DHP: Uh, I'm a voice in this new Disney Pixar movie, "A Bug's Life," and that opens, I think it opens around Thanksgiving time.
TG: What's the voice?
DHP: The voice is Slim, who is a walking stickbug. He's one of those bugs that's sort of tall and has several sets of hands and is bug-eyed... I guess they're all bug-eyed, come to think of it, but he's particularly bug-eyed. And it's got a great cast. Technologically it's awe-inspiring, you just can't believe how beautiful it is. But that's not the point of the movie. It's a really good story, it's very well told...
And then I did, over the past hiatus I was in Montreal shooting a movie which is a biography of Jacqueline Susann that starred Bette Midler as Jackie, and Nathan Lane as her husband and manager Irving Mansfield. John Cleese is in it, Stockard Channing, and it's a great cast. It's a terrific script by Paul Rudnick, who wrote "In and Out," "Jeffrey," the Addams Family movies and stuff like that.
TG: David Hyde Pierce, it's been a real pleasure to talk with you, I really want to talk with you.
DHP: Thanks, Terry.
TG: David Hyde Pierce, who plays Niles on "Frasier." I'm Terry Gross and this is "Fresh Air."
[INTERVIEW ENDS WITH JAZZ PIANO RENDITION OF FRASIER THEME]
(This transcript is courtesy of Kathy Churay)