July 11, 1995
LOS ANGELES - Easterners may have run into David Hyde Pierce long before he turned up on "Frasier," as the well-pressed but psychologically rumpled psychiatrist Dr. Niles Crane.
He was a security guard - all 6 feet and 160-odd pounds of him - at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Upstate New York. "I was the single most ineffective security guard in history," he recalls.
Actually, Pierce was just fine when the New York City Ballet or the Philadelphia Orchestra, in its late Eugene Ormandy era, were in residence. "I was expert at helping elderly patrons through the gates," he says.
But classical music often gave way to other performers: "Aerosmith and, I don't know, Death Blood," he says. "There would be nights when they'd chain their motorcycles to the fence and try to pull it down."
Pierce didn't bother pulling the other way, though it would have been good practice for one hilarious scene in "Frasier" last season, in which Niles hung desperately onto a doorjamb as security guards tried to pry him from Seattle's most exclusive men's club.
He's hanging on in real life, too, to some of the things "Frasier" might have taken away from him - his privacy, his range as an actor. Though goodness knows he's not complaining.
"I'm so satisfied with everything that they've given me to do. ... I look forward to getting back to the show," Pierce says genuinely. "I miss my friends in `Frasier.'"
But it would be nice if tabloid reporters would stop hounding his mom and dad back in Smallville, back East, and looking through his garbage in Los Angeles.
And it would be wonderful for people, especially showbiz people, to acknowledge that he is almost as different from Niles as Woody Harrelson's "Natural Born Killers" psycho assassin was different from the oft-befuddled Woody the bartender, whom Harrelson played in "Cheers."
"What a very smart man; what a brilliant thing to do," says Pierce, who has followed Harrelson in taking a role in an Oliver Stone film. It's not the lead ("Fortunately, it never is," Pierce says wryly), and it's not quite the stretch from bartender to killer, but it sure isn't Niles Crane.
Pierce is playing John Dean, White House aide, in Stone's film "Nixon." Anthony Hopkins is President Nixon, battling through the last two years of a blighted administration.
The real events took place from 1972-74, several years before Pierce, 36, went off to Yale and took the summer job at Saratoga. "I knew it was happening, but I didn't care," he says. "I had more important things to worry about."
He has learned more about Watergate recently. He met with Dean and his wife, Maureen, frozen in memory as the young blond couple who seemed so out of place amid the sinister Nixon team: H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, G. Gordon Liddy.
The Deans "have been very helpful," Pierce says. "The best thing in meeting him was establishing a more balanced picture of who he was.
"Knowing that he was alive, I'm nervous playing the part. You want to do justice to someone if there's an actual person, a human being, involved."
As real as Niles Crane seems - "the key to making the show work is to make the characters people" - he's a fake, the constantly evolving creation of the "Frasier" writers' minds.
And he is not David Hyde Pierce. Some of the disparities are obvious as the actor sits, speaking openly, eyes focused, relaxed - almost - in a San Fernando Valley restaurant.
He wears a droopy jacket, baggy black dungarees, Nikes and what could be the most wrinkled shirt west of the Mississippi.
"Being typecast," he says, "it's one of the things you worry about as an actor, but it's what happens when you're on a TV show where a gazillion people see you."
And being typecast as Niles - if it weren't so funny, it would be insulting.
"David is like the antithesis of Niles," says Jane Leeves, who plays Daphne, the unknowing object of Niles' longing. "I just want to go over to his house and do a little bit of ironing for him."
"I don't think David knows what an iron looks like," says John Mahoney, who plays Niles' father, in a separate conversation after that.
Wait a minute. Is there some cabal here? Has Pierce put out the "I-am-not-Niles" word to his fellow actors, the way Nixon protested that he was not a crook?
"We really did not compare notes," Mahoney swears. "David's absolutely, absolutely nothing like his character."
Why, he even has a dog named Emma, a wheaten terrier not entirely unlike Eddie, the Jack Russell terrier on "Frasier." She jumps on people. "We're working on it," says Pierce, who grumbles, only partially in jest, "I was trying not to reveal anything of my private life."
But Mahoney is less guarded. His insight on Pierce's habits continues the not-Niles theme. "David's the only one in the cast who doesn't smoke, poor guy," Mahoney says. "You know how most nonsmokers are so sanctimonious?" Niles, thy name is sanctimony! "But David doesn't preach - not in the least."
And he doesn't, though he does come back to certain subjects politely. Repeatedly, but politely.
How do you respond, Mr. Pierce, to a bio from one of those computerized databases that says you specialize in playing "neurotic priggish people of privilege?"
"That's so funny. ... I would strongly disagree with that," he says. "I've played a hunchbacked gnome who was a ghostwriter and pushed himself around on his hands."
He has played waiters and bums, understudied to Bill Irwin as Lucky in the Steve Martin-Robin Williams production of "Waiting for Godot" ("I never went on, thank God"), and toured Japan and the Soviet Union in "The Cherry Orchard" ("I was a lower-class servant with pretensions").
Pierce discusses one of the fun aspects of Niles: that there is more to him than meets the eye. The actor likes those sorts of parts.
"I'm drawn to show you someone who seems to be one thing, but is actually another."
After more than 10 years in regional and New York theater, including Broadway stints in "Beyond Therapy" and "The Heidi Chronicles," Pierce started in television three years ago in Norman Lear's "The Powers That Be."
It was a hilarious examination of the most dysfunctional of politicians' families, but a show that could not rise out of the sweepings when NBC was on the ratings floor.
He played Theodore, the suicidal congressman and husband of Valerie Mahaffey, who was the anorexic daughter of a senator.
"In many ways, Theodore was the most clear-minded character in that entire show. He wanted to kill himself because he knew what was going on," Pierce says.
"That's why I object to the `neurotic' description."
The description that nobody but Pierce has mentioned for an hour?
Really, we won't mention it again.
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Copyright © Donrey Media Group Jul 11, 1995.