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DHP London Times Interview

(This transcript is from the London Times/February 19th, 1997 - a big thank you to Michele from the DHP Board for sending this one our way!)

Showbiz stardom isn't all Oscar night bashes in Bel Air and getting invited to Fergie's children's birthday parties. There is always a downside. For David Hyde Pierce, who, for the second year running, has just won an American Comedy Award for his role as Niles, Dr Frasier Crane's snooty brother in the sitcom Frasier, the downside is having to spend most of a weekend stay in London inside a hotel room filming promo links for Channel 4.

Having 20 cameramen, make-up girls, sound recordists, directors and publicity people hang on your every whim while you record two-second promos that range from "Watch Channel 4" all the way to "This is Channel 4" is not merely the price of so-so television fame. It is the price of a startling new brand of fame that has become the special preserve of American TV sitcom stars.

It is one thing to wonder how a pompous, churlish Seattle psychiatrist like Niles got to be one of the best-loved comedy characters in America: I mean, weren't we told that American audiences like their TV heroes to be appealing and in control, and that's why our testy, put-upon Victor Meldrew was made more cuddly when One Foot In The Grave was unpicked and retailored for Bill Cosby? Pierce, who in addition to his two American Comedy Awards has won an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award for the role, hands the credit to a script which has created three-dimensional characters, "selfish and petty in some ways, but also generous and good-hearted in other ways, which is like most human beings".

OK, OK, but how did American TV sitcom topple Hollywood as the place where top actors now ache to be seen? Because while we weren't looking, it has.

Why else are stars such as Julia Roberts, Elliott Gould, Tom Selleck and Danny DeVito the kind of stars who spent years crawling out of the Mogadon miasma of afternoon TV soap, actors who would until recently have sacked their agent if he had suggested doing a cameo on a television sitcom all now queueing up to appear on Friends, and Larry Sanders and Frasier? How come the stars of Seinfeld are now demanding more cash per episode than many well-known Hollywood stars earn per film? Why is Michael J. Fox now starring in a television sit-com rather than in movies? Pierce thinks it could be because "TV has become more legitimate. In Frasier, in the radio station, we have all these call-ins. People call in to Frasier for help, and the people they get to do the voices of the call-ins are an amazing array of celebrities. We've had Timothy Leary and Patti Hearst and Henry Mancini, Jodie Foster, the playwright Wendy Wasserstein, a broad spectrum of people."

Yes, but why do they all suddenly want to? "Hopefully, it's a testament to the quality of the show, that people are not embarrassed to be associated with it. But also I think that as more and more TV people have become movie stars people such as Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis that it's starting to be an easier move back and forth between the media."

Pierce never planned to be on TV at all. An East Coast boy, Yale-educated, he had turned his back on a musical career ("I found out that I didn't have the interest to work the hours, and nor did I have the talent to pursue any sort of concert career"). He was happy doing repertory theatre, places where his name was in lights in 20-watt bulbs, if at all. A TV star? Just never crossed his mind.

"Not ever! I thought I would be going nowhere near television. I just had no interest. It's much more separated over there than it is over here. People don't tend to go as frequently back and forth from one to the other. I was very happy. I was in New York doing theatre and I loved it. Even now I still prefer doing stuff in front of a live audience, which is what we have on the show.

"The episodes are written and directed and performed for the audience that is there, like a stage play. Some of the best laughs that you can get are the ones when you just stand there, because they've given you a wonderful line to deliver. And you just let the laughs wash over you. That's a great pleasure."

He describes Niles as "intelligent, well-dressed and badly married . . . Niles's wife, Maris, is cold yet distant, but Niles loves her . . . probably because she reminds him of his mother. His relationship with Frasier is a mix of sibling rivalry, condescension, passive aggression and brotherly love."

So do Pierce and Niles have anything in common?

"Oh, probably more than I care to admit."

Pierce is certainly more relaxed than Niles, and although his diction is precise, it doesn't have that clenched-buttock angst that Niles has mastered.

What about any natural affinity?

"No. I think he's someone who, if I had the choice, I would spend as little time with as possible."

But Pierce adores the role and adores his fellow cast members. He rates Kelsey Grammer Frasier Crane as "the best. Not only because he's so talented, but also he is the most generous actor. None of us would have the success in the show that we have if he didn't allow us to.

"There are plenty of stars who don't want anyone else to shine. He's the opposite of that. He feels, like, he looks better, the better the people are around him. And we love working together."

But where does Pierce go from here? Frasier could be on air for another three years or so. Maybe longer. He has done low-key, walk-on parts in movies The Fisher King, Crossing Delancey, Sleepless in Seattle, Wolf; he played John Dean in Oliver Stone's Nixon and he is aware that he is being slightly strait-jacketed by Niles Crane.

"It's a little scary. And I wouldn't even say I'm seen as an American comedy star. I'd say I'm seen as Niles, the character on the show, and that's very scary." Which is why he is fishing around for a film role that will snap his fans out of their prejudices and preconceptions.

Predictably for an industry famed for its skill at thinking creatively, so many of the film scripts that plop through Pierce's letterbox in Los Angeles "are so similar to Niles that I turn them down out of hand. The rest? So far I still haven't found anything I want to do film-wise".

Theatre still owns his heart Pierce's first stop in London was Wyndham's, to see Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay in Art "but in trying to combat the whole people-seeing-you-as-a-certain-character problem, just the mass exposure of a film makes it seem more the right thing to do at this point".

So maybe something directed by Tarantino? Tell us David, do you see yourself in a sharp black suit, looking mean and pumping bullets into people?

"Yeah, but that's just in my private life. I'd love to be a film star, but I don't see that really happening, except on a very small scale. I keep turning down all those Sylvester Stallone roles."

Meanwhile, he is called away again to pucker his lips for the camera in the now oven-hot Savoy bedroom and to swoon: "I love Channel 4." The long march to stardom is made up of thousands of such small, unglamorous steps. Only nowadays, it's the sort of TV work that Julia Roberts and Jodie Foster might well kill for.

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