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KELSEY GRAMMER : Cheers for Jack

November 26, 1995|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Well.

One of the funniest and most erudite men on TV today pays tribute to his comic inspiration Thursday night in "Kelsey Grammer Salutes Jack Benny."

Grammer--star of the acclaimed hit comedy series "Frasier," which has won him two Emmys--hosts the one-hour salute on NBC. It features funny clips from Benny's classic 1950-65 TV series and personal moments with Benny fans Jay Leno, Phil Hartman and Dan Aykroyd. And, thanks to the magic of special effects, the TV audience will see Grammer interacting with Benny. The special was produced by Grammer's Grammnet Productions in cooperation with the Benny estate.

For more than 40 years, Benny was one of the most popular and beloved comedians in entertainment. He also was considered one of the most generous, despite his public image as a miser. His style evolved from a vaudeville violinist with funny patter to a Broadway emcee. He created a persona of a perpetual 39-year-old-year penny-pincher who never mastered the violin, drove a broken-down Maxwell and kept his money in a vault in his basement guarded by polar bear named Carmichael.

Benny's repertory company was just as memorable: girlfriend Mary (played by real-life wife Mary Livingston), his valet Rochester (Eddie Anderson), announcer Don Wilson and singer Dennis Day. Benny died of cancer in 1974.

Times Staff Writer Susan King discussed the Jack Benny salute with his No. 1 fan, Grammer, who has just written his autobiography, "So Far" (Dutton).

There are just some wonderfully funny clips in the special. Were you involved in picking the clips?

Well, the only one I knew we had to include was "I'm thinking it over." [That classic line was Benny's reply to a robber when he asked him for his money or his life.]

But no, the staff at Grammnet and the producer that we hired basically organized them. I had final approval. We wanted basically to do a testimonial to Jack, not really do something for me. As I always say, "Try to play up to the audience a little bit" and have a look at how Jack Benny was. It was interesting--when we shot the show there were a lot of kids in the house they garnered from the streets and they had never heard of Jack. I said, this is the perfect audience then because the reason I am doing this is to acquaint a whole new generation of people with a comedian who I think was truly one of the greatest and to reacquaint people with how wonderfully funny television can be.

****

What was the reaction of the young audience to the clips?

They loved it. They genuinely laughed. So that was cool.

****

Your affection for Benny really comes across in the special.

Yeah. That's what we wanted to convey. I have talked about Jack for a long time--all through my life. I had basically credited and thanked Jack Benny for the contribution he made to my life, which was primarily what I say in the show: always play up to the audience. That solves so many questions for me in terms of how acting should be done and how television and all entertainment should be done. I think "Frasier's" success is greatly due to that same ethic.

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How did the special come about?

Well, my partner Rudy Hornish one day said, "Kels, we should do a tribute to Jack Benny." I said, "You are right, let's go pitch it." So we went to [NBC President, West Coast] Don Ohlmeyer and it took us about a minute-and-a-half [to sell the idea]. I said, "I always loved Jack Benny and I would like to do a tribute to him," and Don said, "You say to me Jack Benny. You say to me Kelsey Grammer. Let's do it."

****

What makes Benny's comedy so timeless?

He was willing to make fun of himself. There was this warm invitation from him to laugh at him and with him and at ourselves at the same time. He was poking fun of all human flaws basically through this character, who was like an everyman in a strange way.

****

You say in the special you don't remember the first time you ever saw Benny on TV.

I don't. He was just part of the deal. When you grew into consciousness, somehow Jack Benny was around. At least the generation I am a part of, when music became something I was really aware of, it was classical or the Beatles. That's what came to me. And with Jack Benny, it was the same thing.

****

Were those really Benny's props that you use in the special?

Yes, the violin was the real violin and the Maxwell was a real Maxwell and the bear that was in there was the bear they really used at one point. It was fun. ... It was like touching a piece of history.

****

Were did you find the props?

Most of them [came from] collectors and they charged us an arm and a leg for the use (laughs).

****

Can you discuss what acting tips you got from Benny?

Well, actually, I have stolen a couple of his takes basically, which you can sometimes see in a production of "Frasier." Mostly his timing. His reactions. His courage. He was willing to hold something for a very long time.

****

It must have been fun to "appear" with Benny in that clip.

It was OK. It was actually a woman I substituted my body for. It was Connie Francis. It's an interesting process whatever they call it, green screen or blue screen. It was kind of neat to do it. It was fun with Jack Benny's daughter Joan there when we did it. She said it was kind of cool to see me up there with him.

"Kelsey Grammer Salutes Jack Benny" airs Thursday at 10 p.m. on NBC; "Frasier" airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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