David Hyde Pierce - The US Interview
He aspired to be a concert pianist, he attended Yale, and now he's learning to appreciate fine wines. If the "Frasier" star thinks he's not like his hilarious high-toned character, he's clearly in de-Niles.
You might do it, too, especially if you were an actor determined not to be mistaken for your character. So it's not surprising that the fellow who walks into a paper-strewn borrowed office on the Paramount Pictures lot is very much...the anti-Niles. If Frasier's Dr. Niles Crane is shaved marble smooth, David Hyde Pierce is today sporting brown-black two-day old stubble. If Niles is a man in gray bespoke suits and Italian loafers, Hyde Pierce is in deck shoes, khakis and a broken-in white shirt. And if Niles is a gentleman who is really not that comfortable revealing his inner workings, well...there are some similarities the actor just can't mask.
A previous admiring TV critic, The Washington Post's Tom Shales, once left an interview with Hyde Pierce calling him "standoffish, aloof, a touch snooty, something of a churl, even a bit of a drip." Nevertheless, this afternoon the actor seems fairly game for a chat. He even makes a little joke about the interview procedure, entering the room and lying down, therapy style, on the office's long couch.
A little psychiatrist humor is very much to the point for a man who plays one on TV. In fact, Hyde Pierce portrays Dr. Crane well enough to have become, for many viewers, a key attraction in what was originally created as a star vehicle for Kelsey Grammer and his popular aristocratic barfly from Cheers. Now, as Frasier enters its sixth season (and assumes the expectation-laden Seinfeld slot on Thursday nights), people close to the show happily recount that Hyde Pierce was hired for his evident strengths before his part was even fully hatched.
Recalls Frasier co-creator Peter Casey: "One [producer] brought in a tape of David Hyde Pierce from his canceled show, The Powers That Be, and said, Hey, look at this guy. He looks so much like Kelsey Grammer, if you ever decide to have a brother for Frasier, this guy would be perfect.' There was something about David that just jumped out on the tape. The way he was so understated. His comic timing and his delivery. We were instantly taken with him."
Hyde Pierce plunged into the role, working up his character by studying co-star Grammer's early days on Cheers. He knew he'd be walking the border between likable and not. "Especially in the early Frasier episodes," he says. "A lot of Niles' characteristics are pretty off-putting. He's uptight, he's snobbish, he's condescending, and he's obsessed with what most people would find pretty superficial - the best wines, the best operas."
Dig down another layer, though, and you find that the actor and his Frasier alter ego seem to share certain traits: a sturdy moral code, a preppie naiveté, a good helping of filial love and a raft of vulnerabilities. "I was closing up my parents' house this summer," recalls Hyde Pierce, "and found a film of my dad throwing a football with me in the front yard. It was like Niles as an 8-year-old - every time he threw it, I'd drop it or it would hit me in the head. I haven't necessarily grown closer to Niles, but I've realized how close I am to him."
The source of the Niles, in that case, is Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Hyde Pierce was born there on April 3, 1959, to Laura and George Pierce - the youngest child in a brood of four. Hyde Pierce's father was an insurance salesman, and the young David had a middle-class upbringing in the stately old racetrack town, upon which the summer folk would descend every year to place a few bets and throw lavish parties. Hyde Pierce discovered his deadpan humor early on, standing in line in his grade-school cafeteria; so it was little surprise when after graduating from Saratoga Springs High School, he took this knack for performing to Yale University, where he majored in English and theatre arts. On the advice of veteran actor Edward Herrmann (Eleanor and Franklin) with whom he performed during a summer at the Willamstown (Mass.) Theatre Festival, Hyde Pierce moved to New York City after graduating in 1981, to "find out if I even wanted to act for a living." He was supporting himself as a tie salesman at Bloomingdale's when he won a part on Broadway in Beyond Therapy, the Christopher Durang play about, yes, crazy psychiatrists. That role led to more theatre, including his playing Laertes, a character who dies a bloody death, opposite Kevin Kline's Hamlet on Broadway in 1986. "I found every single laugh as Laertes that you can find and only realized later that you really shouldn't find any at all," Hyde Pierce recalls.
He started small in film, scoring bit parts in Crossing Delancey and Vampire's Kiss, and then larger roles in Sleepless in Seattle and Nixon, in which he delivered an uncanny portrayal of John Dean. But it was his work as a depressed politico on the short-lived NBC sitcom The Powers That Be that led to his eventual pairing with Grammer in 1993. Frasier was an instant hit, and so was Hyde Pierce, who won an Emmy as best supporting actor in a comedy series in 1995 and has been nominated again this year.
Hyde Pierce now lives in Los Angeles, a 15-minute drive from the Frasier sound stage. He spends a generous amount of his free time doing good works - AIDS walks, Habitat For Humanity projects and, this past January, testifying before Congress to raise awareness of Alzheimer's, which claimed his grandfather. "You can see it in the way David interacts with not only the writers and producers but the crew people and the audience - that he is a very open and giving person," says Casey.
But Hyde Pierce is not used to be open and giving in every context. Possibly to delay his own questioning (or it is out of simply civility?), he wants to know where his interviewer is from. It turns out, curiously enough, to be a small suburb in New Jersey that adjoins the town where Hyde Pierce once had a summer retreat. "I rented a house on a lake right there, with some friends," he says. "Oh, God, I can't tell you, the memories, yeah..." And against his best inclinations, Hyde Pierce goes autobiographical.