March 13, 2000
By Andrew Duncan
Svelte, precise, painfully thin, winner of three Emmys and two comedy awards for his part as the fastidious and pompous psychiatrist Dr. Niles Crane in the multi-award winning sitcom, he delivers a health warning, with a smile, at the start of our meeting on the Paramount lot in Hollywood, where Frasier is filmed. "I'm a nightmare for interviewers because I'm just one big snooze. I had a happy childhood. I love my family. There are no abnormal tragedies. I can give no backstage dirt on who's sleeping with whom and all that stuff." Spare me, I beseech. You'll say you're normal next, and I fight back with comments from the respected Washington Post correspondent, Tom Schales, that he is "boring, stand-offish, aloof and snotty". He grimaces, and responds in clipped tones. "I remember that. the writer's an arsehole. The only excuse I can give on his behalf is maybe he was trying to be ironic".
I will eschew irony then, and say he is a charming fellow, thoughtful, compassionate. "At 40, unmarried and unlikely, he says, ever to be", he originally wanted to be a concert pianist but became a "serious" theatre actor who never thought to be in a TV sitcom or even to live in Los Angeles. Born and bred in Saratoga Springs, New York, he went to Ivy League Yale university and has an East Coast yuppie demeanour that makes it startling that he was chosen to be the "Brother" of Dr. Frasier Crane, played by Kelsey Grammer, who is a robust, thrice-married alcoholic and former cocaine addict. "When we were younger we looked almost exactly like each other," he says. "I'm much more similar to him physically than any member of my actual family. It's the jaw, nose, hair--where it is, where it isn't--and eyes. It's strange because I'm lean and he's, er, bullish. "We've speculated that we could be related. My roots go back to England and Wales and there's a Pierce with a royal connection. He says Grammer was an alteration of 'Cramner', and after Thomas Cranmer was set on fire, I guess they thought it was a good idea to change their name. we have roots in the same area."
The circuitous route to his unlikely sitcom stardom has its roots in his family. His grandfather was an actor and his father, George, wanted to act, but left college during the Depression and thought it was safer to join the family insurance firm where he met his wife, Laura, who worked as a secretary. "We were very run-of-the-mill, middle class American (he has a brother and two sisters). We didn't have the music all the time in the house, nor people putting on little plays but were perhaps more creative and theatrical than you might expect from the upbringing. A sense of humour was part of our life and I was instinctively drawn to making people laugh". At eight he began piano lessons like his siblings..."The standard middle-class thing, but it literally took off with me. I became very serious and played a lot but it was the performing, rather than playing an instrument that was the thrill for me. I don't have the desire for acclamation, or 'Look at me, aren't I wonderful' It's doing something with great concentration, hopefully, well, and receiving the incredible side benefit of response from an audience. When I expressed interest in doing it for a living my parents were not trilled. It didn't sound stable. They hoped I'd be a doctor or lawyer. My dad sat me down with an encyclopaedia opened at Albert Schweitzer... the point being he was a great organist but he was also a scientist and explorer. His attitude was, 'Don't limit yourself too soon.'"
It was at Yale that he realised he'd never make it as a concert pianist. "There wasn't a point when it all dropped away and I was left standing naked by my piano, unable to play. no one said, 'Everyone hates you. You must stop.' It was a gradual realisation I didn't have the commitment to spend ten hours a day practising, and even if I did I'd still not have been good enough. I called my parents and told them, 'Good News, I'm not going to be a musician' They were relieved, but when I added I was planning to be an actor instead, it was probably a kick in the head'"
After graduation he went to New York and sold ties at Bloomingdale's department store. "I'm so ill-equipped as a salesman it was my idea of hell. I'd shrug and say, 'You can buy it if you want'" Luckily he didn't have to do that for long. Potential success came quickly when he was cast in a Broadway play, "Beyond Therapy", in 1982, although his hopes were dashed after a bad review in The New York Times caused the show's demise within two weeks. "I was destroyed. I still remember going to the opening night party and when the review came in, it was over. Deserted. It was a really important indoctrination for me in what happens when you have an incredible script and cast, preview audiences who hurt themselves laughing so much...and then closure. I learnt that the experience of putting something together was the only thing you could depend upon. Commercial success is lovely but I can truthfully say that most of us don't do it for the money. If you look at the number of actors who make any, its like saying, 'I think I'll win the lottery. That's a lovely way to make a living' Actors who want to be famous become movie stars, but most of us went into it because we love to act. After Beyond Therapy I didn't work for several months but was sustained by having seen what was possible. I resolved then that if the fun ever outweighed the hardship I'd get out. I'm still waiting for that to happen."
He worked for several years in New York and Chicago, with no thought of TV. "It never occurred to me that I'd do a TV sitcom, so I was probably snobbish about it. I was happy in the theatre, and didn't think, 'Wouldn't it be nice to be a TV star.'" His first experience was inauspicious. In 1992 he starred as a suicidal congressman in a political sitcom, "The Powers That Be". "It was a huge not-success. It had great writing, terrific cast, and was inspired by "Yes Minister", but obviously lacked that extra thing, whatever it is". It led to Frasier though, which he accepted without reading the script. "When I did read it, I thought I'd made a huge mistake, that Frasier and Niles were the same characters and I was just a clone. Later I realised they were moving Frasier to be more grounded and less eccentric and needed to create someone even more neurotic and extreme in his snobbery. I'm sure there's a bit of me in Niles. I don't know about wine and opera and all that stuff like he does but I'm careful about the kind of work I take and people I work with. You could certainly characterise that as snobbish. I had no thoughts of whether or not Frasier would be popular. None of us imagined it would remain successful for so long.
"The greatest challenge in half hour TV series is that the writers have to churn out so many episodes, and it's a grind to maintain standards, let alone our high ones. I don't know how long it can last but the actors aren't interested in leaving. We know how lucky we are to have found something this good and each other. There's a danger of becoming complacent, but I think we stay on top of it. Inevitably you'll see similar situations after seven years, but we challenge ourselves to find new, unexpected ways to play them."
The unconsummated sexual frisson between Niles (who is currently dating Mel, the plastic surgeon of his ex-wife Maris) and Daphne is likely to be resolved in the current series on Channel 4 but he is coy about such matters. "We met the writers to discuss the future of the relationship and they wanted our input. Our input was, 'That's fantastic'" What's fantastic? "Whatever it is they said." Come on, I coax. It's only a sitcom he's protecting, not some state secret. "I think it's inevitable we get together. It would be wrong if we didn't." Phew!
There is, he says, a hierarchy in Hollywood. TV is considered second best to films. "At the Golden Globes you definitively feel film actors are the royalty. I don't care. I'm lucky to be able to do what I love and be paid. I was just as happy during the ten years I was in New York earning a minor percentage of what I earn now." Inevitability he's worried about being typecast. "I turn down a lot of movie offers and they are usually not so well written. But if I had to choose between being typecast and not having a show like Frasier, I'd say I'm OK with the way things are. "There's a good likelihood that by the time it's run it's course I won't be financially constrained to do whatever comes along. I'll be able to pick and choose, and if I'm unable to have a wider career in film because I'm typecast as Niles, that's OK. I'll do stage plays and be happy as i am".
Meanwhile though, he makes movies during the three months Frasier is off the air... with parts in Sleepless in Seattle and as John Dean in Oliver Stone's Nixon. His latest, "Isn't She Great?" is about the original block-buster novelist, Jacqueline Susann. He is her editor and John Cleese a publisher. "He's a long-time hero of mine. Monty Python was a huge influence on most of my generation in high school, so it was a dream come true. We had a great time and I learnt a lot. just because he goes to a psychiatrist doesn't mean he's difficult." reactions to the film are mixed, he admits, and there are ominous similarities to Beyond Therapy and The Powers That Be. "I thought it was one of the best scripts I had ever read, with one of the best casts ever assembled, but it is not one of the best movies I've ever seen and I don't know why" He is also in "Chain of Fools" with Claudia Schiffer..."Terrific cast, wonderful script, so it's probably just awful, although I haven't seen it yet and I'm still very hopeful."
He refuses to be involved with politics ("I don't want audiences looking at me and saying, 'There's that Democrat, or whatever'."), but has testified before a Congressional committee in favour of $100 million in extra aid for Alzheimer's "They have to find a cure, and the key is research. Most people died before it became a problem, but now we're living longer and it's a terrible way to go at any age". He has a personal interest. His maternal grandfather and father both died from the disease "It's made me more aware of what I can do now, in terms of everyday living, I don't fear death, although I know there is some hereditary element to Alzheimer's. It also affects those around you. my mum, who died two years before dad, covered for him, which is common with Alzheimer's patients. He'd ask her to suggest what he ate in a restaurant, and only she realised it was because he couldn't decipher the menu. The spouse takes up the slack for a number of complicated reasons...privacy, mainly and embarrassment.
"My mum died of pancreatic cancer and I believe her susceptibility to disease was increased by her being a caretaker for her dad and then my dad. Aside from the physical problems of any illness, you have a person asking the same questions over and over again. It got to the point where dad couldn't be alone for more than 20 minutes without going into total anxiety. If you went to the store, he'd be furious and disorientated when you returned and say, "Where were you" Imagine that happening 50 times a day. There's an additional torture. It's a sobering thought that the person who raised you, or the one you chose to spend your life with, has no idea who you are. You may as well never had had a life together. I'd wish everyone to die being able to look around, know where you are, and say goodbye to the people you love. That is a great privilege.
We discuss theatre, always his passion, and something he misses in Los Angeles. "I'll never forget being in "The Cherry Orchard" in Moscow. The audience stood in the aisles, holding their translations. It was their life blood. It's so wonderful performing for people like that because it's a shared need." Frasier must seem pretty tame by comparison? "No, It's not Chekhov or Shakespeare, but it provides great comedy grounded in reality. The other day I took a friend to the emergency room in an Arizona hospital because he had been bitten by a dog. A woman there said, 'I can't believe you're here. Would you talk to my husband who has pancreatic cancer? The only thing that has given us any joy recently is your show. It brings such happiness into the home.' I spoke to the husband and a week later received a letter saying he'd passed away. it's not like we've doing charity work, but something like that reminds you not to take too lightly making people laugh. I think the most important thing I can do is act and try to illuminate whatever the audience is going through, or take them away from their cares by amusing them. In some cases, it's a pretty good thing we're doing".
Thanks and gratitude go out to Michele who graciously typed up this interview. Thanks also go out to Jen who scanned the photo from the interview, but as I had the same photo from a previous interview, I used the old one. Thanks guys as always :)
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