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Pierce Doesn't Even Like Niles Crane

Television: The actor won the 'Frasier' part of the fussbudgety brother before the first script was written.

April 06, 1996|TOM SHALES | THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — Truth is, most actors are kind of boring, and David Hyde Pierce is not the glorious exception to that rule. He's standoffish, aloof and a trifle snooty. He may have been born to play Niles Crane, fussbudgety brother of Frasier Crane, on NBC's "Frasier," and fortunately, he does.

He plays Niles very, very well, so well that he recently won a Screen Actors Guild award for the portrayal and earned an Emmy last fall. And though he may resemble Niles in some ways, they're hardly twins. For instance, Pierce is 36 and Niles, Pierce says, is 38. Quite a stretch for a young actor, eh?

"Our taste in music is similar," Pierce says. Classical, he means. "We both play the piano. We both went to Yale. I'm definitely not as finicky, though, and certainly not as neat."

Pierce got the role partly because he bears a slight resemblance to Kelsey Grammer, star of the show; they could be brothers in real life. On the show, they're a pair of spatting siblings who both practice psychiatry in Seattle. When Pierce auditioned three years ago, Niles existed only in the minds of the producers, and vaguely. Pierce wasn't asked to read any lines because there weren't any lines.

"I met with the producers and we just talked for about 45 minutes, about what the brother might be," Pierce recalls. "Niles was going to be a Jungian and Frasier was going to be a Freudian--things like that were tossed around. Not long after that they offered me the part and I thought, 'What part?' I hadn't seen a script.

"Now when I think about the character, it's a little upsetting, that they met with me for 45 minutes and this is what they came up with."

Would Niles be a friend of Pierce's if he really existed? "I think I couldn't stand him. I remember people like him at school and never really hung out with them--people for whom their world is the only world."

Pierce is thin, slight, fair and single and doubts he'll be married by the time he's 40. Born in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., he studied music at Yale and then spent a dozen years appearing in Broadway and off-Broadway plays before becoming a citizen of TV Land. He's also been in such movies as "Wolf" and "Nixon."

*

On the show, Niles is married to the elusive Maris--so elusive that she has never been seen by the audience, only talked about. Pierce says there are no plans now for Maris ever to show her face.

"Originally, they were going to show her--not have her seen for a few episodes, then show her," Pierce says. "They didn't want her to be like Norm's wife on 'Cheers.' " Norm's wife wasn't seen, either, and "Frasier" is a spinoff of "Cheers." The character of Frasier Crane originated there.

"Once the show was a success on its own, and they didn't have to worry about separating it from 'Cheers,' they just forgot about showing Maris because they were having such fun writing this character bit by bit."

Niles, and therefore Pierce, has had many great episodes built around him, like the one in which he tried auditioning for fatherhood by carrying a 10-pound sack of flour around for a week. Hilarious--and touching. This year, the big Niles episode was supposed to be the one in which Maris left Niles and ran off to New York. It was recently rerun and, while it was funny, it sure wasn't the classic this viewer expected.

When I told that to Pierce, however, he went into a snit. "Well! This interview is over!" he said half-jokingly (or maybe three-quarters). He kept mulling the negative comment over in his mind and finally snapped, "[Expletive] you, I liked it!"

Actors are touchy, you know.

Pierce says he's having a wonderful time playing Niles, and it certainly shows on the air. "I always said I would do this as long as the good things outweighed the bad things," Pierce says. "So far, they still do."

Good for him. And good for those of us who love those whooping Cranes--both of 'em.

* "Frasier" airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC (Channel 4).

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