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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

Along the way to becoming the white-face version of "Sanford & Son," a funny thing happened. During the cast's first rehearsal, director James Burrows suggested to Pierce, who had been brought in to play Frasier's brother based largely on his resemblance to Grammer, that he clean off a chair with his handkerchief before sitting down. "It was a whole facet of the character that just popped out of that one piece of business," Pierce says.

As Niles grew into what, in sitcom parlance, is known as a breakout character--"It sounds like a skin condition," sniffs Pierce--the show's focus shifted to the Brothers Prim. Originally, there was to have been no brother, inasmuch as Frasier had announced to the barflies on "Cheers" that he had no siblings and both his parents were dead. And however perfect the casting may have seemed of an actor who so perfectly embodied Niles that he prissily parted his name down the middle, before the show went on the air, Pierce was frantically petitioning the Screen Actors Guild to restore his name to David Pierce, which was how he had been known as a New York stage actor.

"David Hyde Pierce sounds so snooty," he says. "Why don't we just call me Sir David Hyde Pierce and drive a stake through the heart of any chance I have to escape being forever stereotyped as this character?"

Initially, it was the crustiness of Martin Crane (played by John Mahoney) that felt as if it were being written to type. But on a show with so many behind-the-scenes relationships between fathers and sons that at any moment you half-expect a three-legged race to break out, it was those stories that imbued the series with unmistakable heart. The character is actually based on executive producer Casey's father, John, a 34-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department who, like Martin Crane, spent several years on mounted patrol.

The thoroughbred that "Frasier" has ridden to an unprecedented four consecutive Emmys as best comedy series is its writing, which has been presided over by Chris Lloyd since the show went on the air. His father, David, who wrote for "The Tonight Show" in New York before coming West to write countless episodes of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Cheers," now works under Chris' supervision pitching jokes two days a week in the writers' room at "Frasier."

"Sometimes it's weird," says Chris Lloyd, "like that moment when you're about 9 and your teacher comes over to your house for the first time, and it's a really weird sight to see your teacher in your house. So now I have my dad in my office." When David Lloyd was working for Johnny Carson in New York, the writer sitting next to him in the room was often Marty Kogen, whose 34-year-old son, Jay, is often the writer sitting next to him now in the conversational mosh pit at "Frasier."

Of all the father-son relationships being played out on the show, surely the most intriguing is the one that comes closest to blurring the line between truth and fiction. Grammer grew up without a father, and Mahoney never had any children of his own. The star's real father, Allen Grammer, was shot to death on the island of St. Thomas in 1968 at the age of 38, after having effectively abandoned his wife and children. "Yeah, he was tragically killed, but I didn't even really know my father," Grammer says. "So the sense of loss isn't anything I can really come to terms with. There's just a sort of huge hole in my life that I'm now discovering is a hole as a result of having this relationship with John."

This creates odd--and surely not altogether accidental--resonances in the show, as in this week's episode when Niles ends a tense scene with Frasier by noting, "We're an odd little family, aren't we?" Not since the cri de coeur of Laura Petrie ("Ohhhh Rob!") has there been such weeping on the set of an American television comedy.

"Sometimes it gets very painful for both of us," Mahoney says. "Kelsey is an emotional person, and in scenes where we're talking about the [show's fictional dead] mother, or about arguments we've had, at a table read, sometimes it takes him awhile before he can say the lines. He'll tear up and he won't be able to speak. Sometimes it'll take him the whole week to be able to do it without going to pieces."

"Oh yeah, we were all aware from the very beginning that this father-son relationship meant a lot more to Kelsey than 'my sitcom dad,' " says Gilpin, whose own father was a longtime radio personality. "If you want to make Kelsey cry, all you have to do is quote Scout from 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' All of his feelings are very close to the surface. The father-son thing goes very deep into Kelsey's core, he takes it very seriously, and it moves him honestly."


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