Sunday, September 26, 1999
David Hyde Pierce, in conversation, is exactly what you'd expect him to be: precise, articulate, occasionally a little prickly, wielding a wit as dry as the Sahara — in short, a lot like his alter-ego Niles Crane, the most famously vexing kid brother in sitcom history.
And candid. Pierce doesn't shy away from talking about life A.F. — After "Frasier." In fact, thoughts of his professional future prompted Pierce to plunge into his latest project, a starring role in the 1938 Abbott-Rodgers-Hart musical "The Boys From Syracuse." The Reprise! production opened this week at UCLA's Freud Playhouse. (Pierce isn't the first 'Frasier' cast member to star in a Reprise! musical. Kelsey Grammer played the title role in a star-studded production of "Sweeney Todd" last season.)
"(One) reason I wanted to do a musical was that I'd been toying in my mind with what will happen after 'Frasier' is over," Pierce said. "Something I'd never done is a musical. I wondered if I even could, and whether it was something people would hate.
"Then the call came for (a role in) 'Boys From Syracuse' and I thought, 'OK, then, here's your chance.' It was the perfect opportunity for me."
Pierce has made a career out of capitalizing on such opportunities, and he's a fearless and accomplished stage performer, as anyone who watched his hilarious and extremely focused co-hosting stint on this year's Emmy Awards show noticed.
Pierce even did a little dancing at the Emmys — a slyly comic duet with co-host Jenna Elfman that started the show, a sort of modern-dance interpretation of many of this year's nominees. To his fans, it hinted at unseen musical-theater talents.
Though Pierce swears that he's never harbored a secret ambition to be the next Robert Morse, he admits to a lifelong passing interest in musical theater — and a more than casual relationship with music.
"My own musical experience has been doing cabaret-type stuff in summer stock, and a little bit of Gilbert and Sullivan. I am an amateur musician, though. I play the piano. I'm OK; I'm a pretty good amateur. But I haven't really ever sung on stage much and haven't really trained as a singer."
Pierce was a more serious musician than he lets on. He entered Yale as a music major, intending to become a professional pianist. But a quick look around Yale's prestigious School of Music persuaded him to change his plans.
"I was the best pianist in my town, but Yale was another matter. I quickly realized the really good pianists were in another league.
"I'm a good sight reader, which was sort of my downfall. I can pick up a piece of music if it isn't too difficult, but to actually go back and really (practice) for an hour wasn't my thing."
After switching to theater, Pierce found his calling. A successful stage career quickly followed (like "Frasier" colleagues Grammer and John Mahoney, Pierce has a lengthy and impressive stage resume). After graduating from Yale in 1981, Pierce's first professional acting job was on Broadway in a production of Christopher Durang's wickedly funny "Beyond Therapy." Meaty roles in significant plays quickly followed: Wendy Wasserstein's "The Heidi Chronicles," Peter Brook's production of "The Cherry Orchard," "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Hamlet" at the New York Shakespeare Festival.
On film and TV, Pierce's credits include "Bright Lights, Big City," "Crossing Delancy," "Sleepless in Seattle," "Wolf" and "Nixon." His most memorable pre-"Frasier" TV appearance was in the short-lived "The Powers That Be."
Anyone who frequents major stage productions in Los Angeles knows that Pierce is one of Hollywood's most avid and dedicated theater fans; he seldom misses a big opening night. He has appeared occasionally on stage since "Frasier" began — most memorably in a tense, emotionally charged reading of Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" in 1995, directed by La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Michael Greif. And with all that theater talent on one sitcom set, there has been talk of doing something on stage with his "Frasier" co-stars, Pierce said.
But plans last year to star in a Broadway production of Yasmina Reza's three-man hit comedy, "Art," with Grammer and Mahoney in network television's off-season fell through, reportedly because of scheduling difficulties.
It's a common problem for small-screen stars, and like all TV actors, Pierce gripes that the rigors and demands of a major role, in the short run, can restrict opportunities for other work. But he also knows the level of visibility he enjoys will make his post-"Frasier" career much easier.
"Yes, my present options are limited by the fact that I'm working on 'Frasier.' But I don't feel like there's a dearth of opportunities because of that. When you're lucky enough to be in my position, people are only too happy to give you a job on stage.
"And don't forget, I'm on stage every week on 'Frasier' with a live audience and a good script. ('Frasier's' producers) try very hard not to (tape) things out of sequence, so to me and the audience it really does feel like a little play."
Despite a vague master plan that involves "trying as many different disciplines and formats as I can," Pierce admits that he doesn't ponder too much about the future.
"I'm not a person who tends to think concretely about what's to come. I always read where smart people say you've got to have a goal in life. I completely believe that, but I'm not someone who has goals, beyond working with good people. Looking back on all the plays and movies and TV shows I've done, if I've been lucky enough to be in a position to choose, I've chosen to work with people whose work I respect."
Pierce doesn't rule out another regular TV role after "Frasier," although he doesn't expect to top the experience of working on one of the best-loved sitcoms in network history.
"I can't imagine doing anther show that would come close to what 'Frasier' did. But if I could work with great people again, well, I'd have to give it a shot."
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