Dr. Niles and Mr. Hyde Pierce
By: Christopher Loudon
© 1998 TV Guide
How did Frasier's David Hyde Pierce spend his summer vacation? Much of the two-time Emmy winner's hard-earned hiatus was spent in Québec, working with fellow comedy heavyweights Bette Midler and Nathan Lane on Isn't She Great, the big-screen biography of author Jacqueline Susann. Arriving for a late night interview at Montréal's trendy L'Express bistro in chinos, creased button down shirt and wire-rimmed glasses, Pierce looks every inch the well-bred, well-educated, slightly rumpled preppie, which, indeed, the 39-year-old Yale graduate is. We're told there'll be a 15-minute wait for our reserved table. His TV alter-ego - natty, neurotic Niles Crane - would, of course, fly into a priggish snit. Pierce, instead, is content to stand patiently by the bar. He's curious to know about the new fall TV season and, since Frasier has won the coveted Seinfeld time-slot, is especially interested in the series that will surround his. He's pleased to hear that Jesse, Christina Applegate's single-mom sitcom which precede's Frasier at 8:30, looks like a solid hit. "She was so good on Married...with Children," he generously observes, "and I'm glad that they're allowing her to do something different. I also like it that her show is so different from ours." Pierce admits he was trepidatious that NBC would schedule Encore! Encore!, the sophisticated Nathan Lane sitcom developed by Frasier's producers, in the 8:30 slot, explaining that, "There's nothing worse than putting two similar shows back-to-back. Viewers don't want to watch one show and then sit through another half-hour of almost the same thing. So, there's Friends, then the Applegate show, then us, then Kirstie Alley's show and then ER? They're all very different shows, so it sounds like a pretty good night." Actually, it sounds like TV's golden mile.
Settling into a corner table, Pierce seems remarkably unperturbed by the fact that an entire restaurant full of people is trying hard not to stare at him. "You get used to it," he shrugs good-naturedly. "It happens enough that you don't really notice it anymore, unless it's really obvious or silly. I was at my hotel eating breakfast the other day, sitting by myself at a little table. Right next to me was a group of about 16 kids and I could hear them loudly whispering to one another, 'Is that him? It looks like him. It might be him.' and finally I turned to them and said, 'Yes, it's him.' Another time I was chased through a chateau in the Loire Valley by a bunch of American school girls."
"I am, by nature, a fairly shy person," he continues, "and one of the things I had to learn was, when you're on a popular show and people feel they know you, what used to pass for shyness can be perceived as rude. I do feel more vulnerable, but people are always nice. Nobody ever comes up and throws food on me and says the show is crap. What's strange, though, is that there's people who come up to you and say, 'Hey, are you that guy on Frasier?,' and I say, 'Yes,' and they say, 'I never watch it.' I've never understood the psychology of that."
The waiter proffers menus and a wine list, assuming Pierce to be as keen an oenophile as Niles. "I'm trying to learn more about it, but I really don't know a whole lot about wine," he concedes, and asks the waiter to make the selection. Placing his dinner order, he watches as unnecessary cutlery is cleared away. Niles would, of course, know his fish fork from his butter knife, but Pierce whispers conspiratorially, "Don't you always feel bad when they take away one of the spoons? It's like you ordered wrong. You think, 'Oh shoot, what could I have had that they would have let me keep the spoon for?'"
Though he's happy to talk about Frasier, what's top-of-mind is his current film project. Like most TV stars, he tries to choose outside endeavours that distance himself from his small-screen persona. He admits, however, that his Isn't She Great role as Susann's editor is rather Niles-like. "I'm playing a kind of WASP-y, fairly well-off Connecticut guy, which is not that far from Niles. But it was such a good part and such a good script that it was never a question. The curse of being on Frasier is the challenge of finding writing that's that good in any other medium. I've been looking at scripts for two years, then this came along. It's a terrific script, written by Paul Rudnick [Jeffrey, In & Out]. It's an incredible marriage of his obvious comic ability and a very serious side that I think he handles tremendously well."
And what's it like working with two larger-than-life performers like Midler and Lane? "Just funereal," says Pierce, with his trademark deadpan delivery. "No, really, it's great. And the thing that makes it great is that they're both so good. People can be a hoot on the set, but if they're not good to work with that tires very quickly. These two are both such pros. And, I think the stellar thing about this movie, and the brilliance of the casting, is the rapport between them as husband and wife. They're really very different people, but they work off each other beautifully."
Isn't She Great also offers Pierce the chance to act with one of his comic heroes, John Cleese of Monty Python fame, who plays his boss in the film. "That tipped it for me," he says. "When people ask who influenced me, I always say John Cleese. Also, Bob Newhart. And I had only realized this recently. I had a flashback of when I was growing up, and remembered watching Monty Python and The Bob Newhart Show and laughing hysterically. Alec Guinness was also a role model of mine, because he has that quality of doing the most with the least, with the smallest gesture. That's my taste in acting, and both John Cleese and Bob Newhart are masters of that."
Inevitably, the conversation shifts to Frasier's victory in the hard-fought battle for its new time-slot. "It drove us crazy until we got it," says Pierce. "Every single interview began with 'Do you want the Seinfeld slot?,' and we all said, very honestly, 'No, it doesn't really matter.' Kelsey had personal reasons for wanting it, because of all those years that Cheers was on Thursday night and it felt like home for him. The rest of us said, 'we have a good show. It will be a good show on Tuesday night, it will be a good show on Thursday night.' That said, when I got the call, I thought, 'Wow, we got the mantle! We're pope now!' But it's totally ridiculous because it won't affect the show. Still, it's nice to be acknowledged, and you feel like NBC is saying, 'Seinfeld was our prime show, and now this is our prime show.'"
Pierce is also excited about entering his sixth season with so many Frasier storylines in flux: "When we shot last season's final episode, it didn't really register with me. I read the script and said, 'Okay, Frasier is fired from the station and so is everybody else.' Then I began to wonder what's going to happen next. They can't come back and just say all is forgiven, so they've got to move forward. At this point in the show, I think it's a really smart and organic way to throw something new into the mix. It certainly didn't feel like a gimmick, and I think people will love watching Kelsey try other jobs."
Though Season 6 will also finalize Niles' messy divorce, he assures us that we haven't heard the last of his never-seen spouse, Maris. "There will always be a Maris," he says, "because she is such a great character. In fact, I think NBC should give her a spinoff show in which she never appears." Naturally, Niles will continue to yearn for Daphne (Jane Leeves). Again, Pierce gives the writers credit for handling their relationship so well: "You may remember that last season there was a wonderful episode in which Niles and Daphne go on a date. Or, at least, Niles wants it to be a date, but Daphne just thinks she's helping him prepare dinner for another woman. That entire episode came out of an hour-long conversation between Jane and me and all of the writers, because the issue came up of 'where do we go with these two?' Although they didn't feel they'd reach the point where they couldn't keep the suspense going - and this is what I love about our writers - they felt it made the characters look stupid to go on much longer without some change. If they're as sensitive as they are to everything else going on around them, why aren't they picking up on this? What we hit on was this situation, which brought the characters closer together without Daphne knowing what was going on, and with her saying to Niles that it's not possible for him to have a productive relationship in the wake of his divorce. That bought us time to say that nothing's changed and we don't have to bring them together, because I think that would be just awful."
As the evening winds down, the talk turns to Pierce's close friendship with Grammer. Though extremely circumspect about his personal life, ("The first year I was on the show, it took an interviewer about 45 minutes to get it out of me that I even had a dog, and even then I wouldn't tell him the dog's name."), Pierce does reveal that he and his co-star "are extremely close. And, surprisingly, we're a lot alike. We don't tend to do the same things, and if we weren't on the same show, it's unlikely that we'd run into each other socially. The show brought us together, and there's a very strange transference that happens in playing brothers. We just respond to each other in a very deep way."
Though he admits that such familial affection extends to all of his castmates, Pierce cautions that, "Everybody being nice to each other is not a prerequisite for a successful show. If you have to choose between working with nice people or talented people, you have to choose the talented people because that's what makes the show good. We've fallen into a situation where everyone on the show is so generous and so good. That's when you know you've won the lottery."
Finally, the waiter approaches to find out what type of coffee Pierce would like to finish his meal. Niles Crane would demand a double cappuccino, half-caf, with just the right amount of low-fat foam and a light dusting of imported cinnamon. "No, no coffee for me," says Pierce. "I'm happy to stick with just water."