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Cheers to the long run

On the 'Frasier' set, the challenges of an 11th season meld with those of moving on.

September 21, 2003|Barbara Isenberg | Special to The Times

One night next May, Seattle's most famous radio psychiatrist, Dr. Frasier Crane, will undergo the most profound form of separation anxiety: exile from the network prime time that has pretty much been his home for two decades.

As a new television season is starting and close to 40 new network series are set to bow, "Frasier" will conclude one of the longest-running, most successful tenures in television history. Kelsey Grammer and colleagues will be back in the job pool -- although none of the show's principals is likely to starve any time soon -- and NBC will conclude a relationship that began with "Cheers," then continued with its "Frasier" spinoff when "Cheers" ended in 1993.

"I started out wanting nothing more than to be a working actor," Grammer says. " 'Frasier' has given me a life I never would have dreamed of having and has brought arguably the greatest success to all of us. It's a show we're proud of."

With smart writing and a finely tuned ensemble, the tale of pompous psychiatrists Frasier and Niles Crane, their crotchety ex-cop dad, Martin, and his goofy home health care aide, Daphne Moon, has earned award after award, including a record 30 Emmys. "Frasier" is the first series to win five consecutive Emmys for outstanding comedy series, gliding past such four-time winners as "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "All in the Family" and even parent "Cheers."

But after its being nominated for best comedy series its first eight seasons, the Emmys have bypassed "Frasier" the last two years in that top category. The showiest prize it could nab at tonight's awards ceremony would be a supporting-actor-in-a-comedy nod for cast members David Hyde Pierce or John Mahoney.

Still, for "Frasier's" cast and crew, there's more at stake than industry accolades as they head for their last curtain call.

The process of trying to go out a winner was well underway by summer in the "Frasier" offices and sets on the Paramount Pictures lot in Hollywood. There, over the course of the last few months, they have mixed the hard work of preparing for a 11th and final season with the sometimes even harder task of preparing to move on.

"I'm in complete denial," says Peri Gilpin, who plays radio shrink Crane's feisty producer, Roz Doyle. "I know the situation will never be duplicated, no matter what I do in my life. Emotionally, it's going to be tough."

Two episodes back to back on Tuesday launch the show's final season. When the "Frasier" cast gathered to read the show's initial script aloud in early August, a packed conference room sighed audibly as director and series co-creator David Lee began by announcing: "This is the last first reading."

"It was like you were looking at things for the first time again because you were looking at them for the last time," recalls actor David Hyde Pierce, who plays brother Niles Crane. "Walking out of the reading, you mentally put yourself in the position of the day after [the show wraps], when it was the 'Frasier' set."

THE CHALLENGE

So begins a television season that will also almost certainly bid farewell to NBC's "Friends," HBO's "Sex and the City" and possibly CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond."

Beyond just figuring out how to wrap up the series, "Frasier's" writers, producers and cast have the extra challenge of restoring some of the diminished luster. In the last few seasons, many viewers, as well as some people intimately involved in the show, have found the humor diminished and believe that some of the show's rich interactions among the core cast have grown tired. Ratings dipped, and the excitement that once surrounded the show began to disappear.

"[Co-creator] Peter Casey, Kelsey and I decided it was time for it to go," Lee says. "It's getting more and more difficult to keep 'Frasier' fresh and hard to keep jumping over the bar when it's set that high."

Adds Pierce, also aware of the challenges, "There's something very classy about not just going until finally someone shoots us but saying we think there's a way to shape it so that this 11-year-long piece of television will end as well as it began."

"Frasier" debuted Sept. 16, 1993, when creators Lee, Casey and the late David Angell moved "Cheers" regular Dr. Frasier Crane from that bar in Boston to a radio call-in advice show in Seattle. Besides series regulars Grammer, Pierce, Gilpin, Jane Leeves and John Mahoney, hundreds of "extras" like Mel Brooks, Stephen King, John McEnroe, Yo-Yo Ma and even Paramount studio chief Sherry Lansing have called in "performances" to Frasier Crane's radio show.

"We all knew it was good when we did the pilot," recalls Leeves, who plays Daphne, now married to Niles. "But it wasn't until two or three years into it that you start to believe you're on a hit. Just because something's good doesn't mean it'll last."

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