Tuesday, September 21, 1999
You don't have to be crazy to spend the past two weeks the way David Hyde Pierce has. But it probably wouldn't hurt. First, the waggish co-star of NBC's "Frasier" returned to Paramount's backlot to begin shooting for the new fall TV season.
Then, just nine days ago, he took a brief hiatus to co-host the Emmy Awards with Jenna Elfman, mixing trademark Mojave-dry commentary with a ludicrous interpretive dance homage to the evening's nominated programs. Hyde Pierce wore tights for the occasion.
"I'm so glad I put on pants," he deadpanned moments later while receiving the best supporting actor statuette for his portrayal of Dr. Niles Crane, fastidious sibling rival to Kelsey Grammer's fumbling Seattle radio shrink. It was the second time Hyde Pierce had won the TV industry's most coveted prize.
Now catch your breath and get ready for the encore: Starting Wednesday, Hyde Pierce will be the piece de resistance in a staged concert version of "The Boys From Syracuse" at UCLA's Freud Playhouse. The production also stars Jason Graae as Hyde Pierce's conniving twin and Lea DeLaria as one of the boys' amorous foils.
The Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart chestnut, which is being produced by the "Reprise! Broadway's Best in Concert" series, will mark Hyde Pierce's first live L.A. theater appearance since performing in Terrence McNally's "It's Only a Play" at the Doolittle in 1992.
Rehearsal time for "Boys," which is based on Shakespeare's early romantic farce of mistaken identity, "The Comedy of Errors," consisted of barely a week and a half, sandwiched between "Frasier" tapings, Emmy rehearsals and minor inconveniences like eating and sleeping.
"I looked at the schedule and thought this was a good way to lose a little bit more hair," Hyde Pierce says, speaking by telephone between engagements.
As witty and calmly deliberative in real life as Dr. Niles Crane is manic and insecure, the actor, who turned 40 last April, comes across as a man with a solid sense of his own priorities and abilities.
He has good cause. While any number of TV and film stars got their big Hollywood break without benefit of a stage career, Hyde Pierce spent more than a decade pumping thespian iron in New York and at regional theaters around the land.
That's one reason why his services as a character actor are frequently in demand in Hollywood. He recently appeared in "Nixon," and will be seen in Warner Bros.' upcoming "Shiny New Enemies," and in Andrew Bergman's "Isn't She Great." In the latter, he plays a book editor opposite Bette Midler as "Valley of the Dolls" author Jacqueline Susann.
So although "Frasier's" final installment may be years away, it's unlikely Hyde Pierce will be drawing unemployment checks when the show's producers decide to pack it in.
"Let me put it this way," he says. "I'm lucky enough to be in the position where, if I wanted to, I could work all the time. However, I'm kind of picky, which is another luxury I have: Aside from the luxury of being able to work all the time, I have the luxury of being able to choose not to work. So I can pick my projects."
OK, but why pick a musical?
"Well, because I have always - well, not always, I have recently always - wanted to do a musical," he says, laughing. "It's because it's something I've never really done."
"But as I look at life after 'Frasier,' there's always a possibility of another television show, there's certainly a possibility of going back to the stage, doing comedies or new plays or whatever. But the one thing I had never done in a professional way was a musical. Part of this is for me to find out whether I could realistically aim for that in a professional way after 'Frasier.' And when they called about 'Boys From Syracuse,' it seemed like the perfect thing, because it's a relatively straightforward piece that's vocally not going to be that challenging for me. And the run is only a few weeks, so how bad can I be?"
Marcia Seligson, producing artistic director of Reprise! says she met Hyde Pierce last March at the opening-night party for the Reprise! production of "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street," which starred Hyde Pierce's "Frasier" cohort Grammer. When Seligson learned that Hyde Pierce was studying voice with Calvin Remsberg, a friend and colleague of hers, the producer knew she'd found her man.
"I'm a big 'Frasier' fan, and I just think he (Hyde Pierce) is so funny. I just think he's one of our most gifted comics," Seligson says. "And I think the part doesn't call for Placido Domingo, you know what I mean?"
If "Frasier" wasn't such a well-oiled network machine, Hyde Pierce's theater sabbatical might not have been so doable. But as the critically acclaimed sitcom chugs into its seventh season, it's like a "moving train," the actor says.
"We know the characters. In fact, we even know the rhythms of the characters so well that you don't have to spend that much time learning the lines. They kind of come to you. If the lines are well- written, which they almost always are on 'Frasier,' they stick."
Raised in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., a picturesque, culturally minded town on the edge of the Adirondack Mountains, Hyde Pierce grew up in a household where witty repartee was plentiful.
"It wasn't the Round Table at the Algonquin, but a sense of humor was always just a part of our life," he says. "My mom had a very dry wit, and my dad had just a nutty wit, and he was also very physical, sort of a physical comedian, brilliant dancer - he and my mom were amazing dancing together. But he could also be very sort of crazy on the dance floor.
"In fact, the Alzheimer's Association had wanted some family video footage that they could put into a sort of promotional thing. (Hyde Pierce's father died of Alzheimer's several years ago.) And I was looking through all the video we had of my dad, and basically nothing was usable because back when he was fine, he was so nutty that you couldn't use any of that stuff because people would look at it and say, 'Isn't that sad?' and we would say, 'No, no, that's when he was good!' So there's definitely a streak of that in the family."
(Today the actor serves as a chairman of the local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.)
Hyde Pierce began laying the groundwork for a theater career while studying drama at Yale. Originally, he'd planned to become a pianist but couldn't envision a future built around endless, solitary practice. (He still plays the piano for fun and has been teaching himself to play blues.)
Besides a strong faculty that included several working professionals, Yale's drama department had close ties with the prestigious Williamstown Theatre Festival in rural Massachusetts.
It was there that Hyde Pierce got to spend summers performing classic plays with "really the best people in the business." One year he did "Cyrano de Bergerac" with Frank Langella. He also performed in George Bernard Shaw's "Candida" opposite Edward Herrmann and Blythe Danner, and he understudied Christopher Reeve ("because we look so much alike") for a production of "The Cherry Orchard." Hyde Pierce also sang at Williamstown's cabaret theater, mainly evenings of standards by Irving Berlin and the Gershwins.
After graduating from Yale in 1981, Hyde Pierce planned to continue his education with graduate studies in drama, setting his sights on London acting schools.
But at the urging of his friend Edward Herrmann, he decided instead to move to New York. A casting director invited him to read for Christopher Durang's "Beyond Therapy," an acidic comedy about neurotic yuppies.
Hyde Pierce got the part, the play was a smash, and his career hasn't slowed since. His other New York credits include Wendy Wasserstein's "The Heidi Chronicles," Peter Brook's production of "The Cherry Orchard," and the New York Shakespeare Festival productions of "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Hamlet."
He has starred in the feature films "Bright Lights, Big City," "Little Man Tate" and "Sleepless in Seattle," among others, and also starred in the short-lived "The Powers That Be" before signing on with "Frasier."
What does he imagine are the warning signs when a popular sitcom has run its course?
"I think when you walk through the supermarket and people come up to you and say, 'Oh for God's sake, let it die!' - that's always a sign," he quips.
Then, the joke having hit its mark, Hyde Pierce considers. His life may be insane, temporarily. But for a guy who plays one of TV's biggest head cases, he seems to know right where his own head is at.
"There's always the option to end it," he says of "Frasier."
"For me, it's a horrible option to contemplate right now. I'm not ready. But I think all of us are ready if we start looking at it and thinking, 'Wait a minute, the well has run dry.' And that's really more a writing issue than anything else. We all love it too much to see it suffer."
What: "The Boys From Syracuse."
Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA, Westwood.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; tonight through Oct. 3.
Tickets: $45 and $50. Call (310) 825-2101.
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