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All In Their Family

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 came and let me know that they were affected by what was affecting me," Grammer says. "I had spent about a decade wrestling with it, going in and out, some days more focused, but then others considerably out. The fact that it could have jeopardized what I do best is a sadness. The fact that we took care of it is a triumph. It sounds overly simplistic to say that I got it finally, but I did."


Grammer's demons have either been exorcised, or they have simply been stunned into a state of stupefaction by his life-is-a-banquet approach to rehearsal: an ursine Auntie Mame, suggestively eyeing a platter of pigs in a blanket. Let other actors dig into their characters, Grammer is digging into fresh supplies of sushi, mustard, nachos and onion dip from craft services. "The burger patties and pickles, that's like every morning," says Pierce. "I have to say, there were several years when I couldn't even look at that. And now I've started ordering them."

While rehearsing this week's episode--titled "Room Service"--with guest star Bebe Neuwirth, Grammer walks into a bedroom scene still munching on something. The script calls for Frasier to embrace his ex-wife Lilith passionately, so Grammer does this, methodically sucking his teeth one by one throughout the clinch. "I just ate some tuna," he explains to Neuwirth. "I'm sorry."

"He is a man of strong appetites," affirms Lloyd. "I've traveled in a limousine with Kelsey in New York, and his driver knows to stock the car with peppers and capers. So if capers are standard issue in his limo. . . ." Do the math.


Grammer affects something he calls "requisite disrespect" for rehearsal, a stripping away of all the process's artifice that bears a striking resemblance to the "think system" used by Professor Harold Hill in "The Music Man" and has the collateral benefit of holding Grammer's workweek down to about 15 hours. Though it can lengthen out to a 40-hour week when Grammer starts to discourse on his acting method. "I first started to theorize about requisite disrespect in the late '70s . . . ," he begins.

"Kelsey likes to come in and rehearse a scene once," Lloyd says. "Other shows, they're going to rehearse it six times, and six more times the next day. By the time you get around to shooting it, it's been rehearsed to death."

Grammer doesn't actually learn his lines until moments before each scene is shot in front of an audience on Tuesday nights. "In the early days, that used to terrify me," says director and executive producer David Lee. "But he thinks it makes it more real. And you do get the feeling the words are just occurring to him as he says them."

It's more than a feeling. While the show is being filmed, he runs lines between scenes with script supervisor Gabrielle James. "He likes that feeling of near panic," says James. "When he doesn't know what he's going to say, he'll look at me and say, 'Damn you!' " To calm himself, Grammer inhales deeply. A burrito, say, or a bucket of chicken wings. "I think part of what keeps it fun for him is that he skates on the edge," Lloyd says. "That's probably thrilling for him, those two hours."

Despite the periodic havoc this wreaks ("The poor guest stars always completely freak out," snickers Gilpin), Grammer demands his requisite disrespect. "So what if I like the act of slipping and sliding a little bit?" he says. "I can be just as focused as a son of a bitch when I have to be. I also know that it makes the show more interesting, actually gives it energy, so that people can spend a decade working on something and have it not get stale."


One of the running jokes in the episode being rehearsed is a recurring case of narcolepsy from which Niles is suffering. At one point, he nods off with his head in Frasier's refrigerator. "In real life, [narcolepsy] looks like a sitcom," observes Grammer. "David's acting is so good, it looks fake."

"It's my gift," replies Pierce.

After rehearsing a scene in Lilith's hotel room, Grammer, Pierce and Neuwirth lounge on the furniture and discuss the ways in which the story affects the lives of their characters. This discussion has the ring of group therapy, which may be what you are asking for when you put three psychiatrists in a bedroom farce, except that it is an everyday occurrence at "Frasier." It is creative democracy in the guise of anarchy, actors challenging the sacred text. On most shows, this is not permitted; the stars simply huddle silently with an executive producer, followed by massive revisions.

"People always talk about what a happy set it is, and I think that goes back to those discussions," Lee says. "No one feels disenfranchised; everyone feels like part of the process. The only rule we have is that everybody has to say everything out loud and in front of everybody else."

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