Take the long-limbed comic grace of the young Dick Van Dyke, blend with a large dose of Buster Keaton's deadpan genius, add a dash of Cole Porter elegance, and you get David Hyde Pierce. Like the natty Jungian psychiatrist Niles Crane he plays on TV's Frasier, he's eloquent, intelligent and every inch a gentleman. But unlike pompous, neurotic Niles, he's refreshingly open and unpretentious.
He has conquered Broadway - just ask anyone who saw his breakthrough performance in Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles - and movies, including charming turns in Sleepless In Seattle, Crossing Delancy, Little Man Tate and, most notably, a spot-on depiction of John Dean in Oliver Stone's Nixon. But it's Pierce's hilarious, Emmy-winning interpretation of the well-dressed, badly married Niles that has earned him the affection of millions.
A few hours after completing Frasier's landmark 100th episode, which aired November 11th, Pierce joined us inside a Hollywood studio to reveal the lighter side of Frasier Crane's little brother.
TV GUIDE: When you signed on for Frasier, did you have any idea there would be a 100th show?
HYDE PIERCE: I had no idea there'd be a second show! I had just done a series called The Powers That Be for NBC, which I really liked, and they cancelled it. So I learned the lesson that just because you like it doesn't mean it's going to stay on the air. I had no expectations from Frasier, except that I loved everyone I was working with, thought it was a great script, knew I would have a great time as long as it ran and hoped that they'd give us at least one full season.
TVG: Kelsey Grammer has said that the reason he loved playing Frasier Crane on Cheers was because they let his character evolve. Do you think the same can be said for Niles?
DHP: Oh, yes. Often with big ensemble casts you get a star who has a three-dimensional role, and then you get a lot of one-dimensional supporting characters. But on Frasier, the writers give us room to grow by making all of the characters three-dimensional, with more than just one attitude apiece.
TVG: How did a working-class Seattle beat cop like Martin Crane ever produce a pair of cultured, bon vivant sons like Frasier and Niles?
DHP: People ask that question all the time, in spite of their personal experience. Because most people, if they think about it, will realize that they grew up not only unlike their parents but in reaction to them. It's a very common thing. There are lots of working-class dads who didn't go to college and busted their butts to provide their kids with a proper education.
TVG: That makes sense, but how do you make sense of Niles's marriage? How did he ever end up with a wife like Maris?
DHP: Because he loves her, that's how. She's everything he ever dreamed of in a woman because he didn't have very interesting dreams. It wasn't until he met Daphne that he began to get in touch with what he might be missing in Maris. Though I have a deep suspicion that Maris is amazing in bed. She's this really uptight, skinny woman with pointy teeth and no saliva who tires under the pressure to be interesting. But I think Niles really does love her. That's what keeps him from ending the marriage and running off with Daphne, if she'd have him.
TVG: How far would you like the writers to push Niles's infatuation with Daphne?
DHP: I want them to preserve the tension for as long as possible because it's just so much fun to play for both of us. On the other hand, I don't want it to go on past the point where the audience is saying, “Oh, here they come again, and he's mooning and she doesn't know what's going on and I'm going to watch Home Improvement.”
TVG: At the opposite end of the spectrum, why is there so much animosity between Niles and Roz? Roz is pushing some kind of button.
DHP: I know, and I think it's the sex button. It's really easy to push Niles's sex buttons - he's got a lot of them. She's clearly everything he thinks a woman should be. He thinks a woman should be restrained and refined, and that the man should take the lead. That's part of the attraction to Daphne. She's gorgeous and sensuous and yet she has that English demeanor and is so shy and retiring around him. Whereas Roz is so out there, and so open, and so in your face that Niles is petrified that he would lose control with her.
TVG: Personally, I believe there are two things that keep Frasier so fresh and vital - the writing and the tremendous acting ensemble.
DHP: I couldn't agree more about the writing. If you don't have a good script, there's nothing you can do as an actor. We're in Year 5 now, and today we had the table reading for Episode 101, and it was so funny none of us could get through it. That's an incredible feat. They've assembled the perfect ensemble of writers who balance each other by providing different strengths.
TVG: And the cast?
DHP: We're pretty good, too.
TVG: In some earlier interviews, you've stated that you're nothing like Niles; in others, you've suggested that there are similarities. Once and for all, what's the right answer?
DHP: Well, I'll tell you something, until a few months ago I could say with absolute confidence that I was nothing like Niles. Then I ran into a friend who I hadn't seen since elementary school. He'd been living out of the country and had just started seeing Frasier, and he said, “It's so amazing, because you're just like you were when we were kids.” And I thought, “Oh, my God, you mean I've come back to myself after all these years and this is all it is?” But any actor playing a part must find elements of himself in the character and emphasize them. And when you're playing comedy, you've really got to emphasize them. So it's no fair to say I'm not like him at all. I'm certainly capable of being stuck up and full of myself, plus I like classical music and went to Yale.
TVG: People always focus on Niles's snobbishness and the self-centredness, but to me there's also a little boyishness about him.
DHP: The first things you listed - the snobbishness and the intellectualism - those to me are the least interesting things about the character. What makes the writing and, if I can say, the performance interesting is the other stuff - that Niles can be naive, and it's that naiveté that makes the snobbishness palatable. Here he is leering after the housekeeper, which could be really repellent. Truth is, however, that he's not leering. He's clearly, like you said, a little boy in love. He's smitten with her, and it's not yucky - it's kind of sweet.
TVG: This past summer you went to Montreal to headline the Just For Laughs comedy festival. Given that you don't have a background in stand-up, what motivated you to do it?
DHP: Kelsey did it a few years ago and the festival organizers told me that he'd had a really good time. So I took their word for it and discovered two things: first, that it was one of the best jobs I've ever had; and, second, that Montreal was one of the best cities I've ever visited.
TVG: One last question. Just as Cheers begat Frasier, do you think that Frasierwill eventually beget Niles?
DHP: Not if there's a God in heaven. By the time Frasierhas run its course, which I hope is many years from now, that will be enough of Niles for me. He'll go happily off into the sunset and we'll move on from there.
TVG: Niles aside, would you consider your own sitcom?
DHP: I would always consider television because, for me, doing a show with a live audience is like doing theatre and getting paid for it. But I do miss the theatre and would like to go back.
TVG: So, if Wendy Wasserstein called tomorrow...
DHP: I would answer in a heartbeat.