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All In Their Family

COVER STORY

What makes the Emmy-winning 'Frasier' tick? Maybe it's the fact that the cast and writers know one another's and the characters' tics so well.

March 01, 1998|Bruce Newman | Bruce Newman writes regularly for Calendar

They are the Cartwrights of the Me Generation--Ben, Hoss and Little Joe on their blond-wood, urban Ponderosa--Oedipal cowboys for a nervous age. They are sophisticated and intelligent, pompous and snooty, highbrow, low-cal, nonfat, half-caf stuffed shirts. Custom-made shirts.

"They are exactly the kind of people we all like to make fun of," says co-star Peri Gilpin, referring to the edgy, eponymous hero of "Frasier" and his brother, Niles, who saddle up NBC's forever Jung comedy every Tuesday night. "But they always come back to what's really important. They can see right through themselves."

That latter quality is also evident on the show's set, and in the writers' quarters, where egos--alter and super--coexist in the manner of a slightly eccentric family in which each member secretly believes it is the others who are truly crazy. By turns, they are gracious and prone to issuing "dummy up" warnings to each other in pig Latin when things get too frothy in front of a reporter on the set for the week. "Ix-nay on the Irstie-kay Alley-kay,"remonstrated one of the show's stars, using his fiendishly clever patois to halt a funny story that was being told during rehearsal for this Tuesday's episode, which was produced in mid-January.

When "Seinfeld" goes off the air at the end of this season, the four-time Emmy-winning "Frasier" will become NBC's comedy standard-bearer, and already there are nervous murmurings about it being too smart for its own good, too wonky to ever draw huge Middle American numbers. "I sometimes think 'Frasier' gets a bad rap for being an intellectual show," says David Hyde Pierce, who plays the neurasthenic younger brother, Niles Crane.

It seems unlikely, however, that "Frasier" will be dumbing down any time soon. "I am solidly convinced, and I always will be, that the audience is hungry for us to play up to it," says Kelsey Grammer, the show's star. "They are engaged by language that is not commonplace. I think they find intelligence fascinating. Most people do. The most interesting thing people do, after all, is think."

IT HAD TO BE JUJU

Stage 25 on the Paramount lot has remained the one fixed star in Grammer's universe, a firmament distinguished by the recurring big bangs of his personal life. "They basically took the 'Cheers' set down and sent it to the Smithsonian," says Gilpin, who plays producer Roz Doyle, "built the 'Frasier' set and brought in the four of us to surround Kelsey. It was like joining an existing entity that was part family and part well-oiled machine."

Grammer is nearing the end of his 14th season playing the same character--he completed the front nine on "Cheers"--which is longer than the life spans of such television icons as Archie Bunker, Hawkeye Pierce, Sheriff Andy Taylor, Uncle Miltie and practically anybody else you might care to name, short of the many incarnations of Lucy, whose Paramount sound stage "Frasier" now occupies. And though Grammer has occasionally sought diversion during this marathon run in liniments and powders that slowed him to a 12-step crawl, he has never sleepwalked his way through a performance.

Unlike most TV actors, Grammer doesn't try to distance himself from his long-running character. "I've been given the opportunity to play what is arguably one of the greatest characters in television [history]," Grammer says, "through which I get to let go of all my juju. And I don't get bored with him because I, frankly, am not bored with who I am. Frasier goes on his journey of self-discovery, I go on mine, and I loan all of mine to him. All his madness, all his principles, everything about him, I pretty much give that blood. I'm in there."

And he's listening. Early last season, the show was forced to shut down production for a month after Grammer concluded a long downward spiral into alcoholism with a short downward spiral into a ditch in his $66,000 sports car. "We shouldn't sugarcoat it," says Peter Casey, one of the show's creators and executive producers. "The last week or two before that were awful, just awful. Everybody was worried, from the studio to the network to us. We were thinking, 'This should be the greatest opportunity of all our lives, and it looks like it's about to get washed away.' "

Grammer was removed easily from the wreckage of his car, but it wasn't until later, when members of the show's cast and production team confronted him, that he was removed from the wreckage of his life. That intervention persuaded Grammer to check himself into the Betty Ford Center.

"It was evident to us that he was going through something," says Christopher Lloyd, the show's head writer. "He was late, he would be a little bit grouchier. Never to the point where you'd use the word 'unprofessional.' I could put on a tape from the week before he went into Betty Ford and a tape from the week after he got out, and you wouldn't be able to tell which was which. But it was starting to make things a little tenser on the set."

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