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Cheers to 'Frasier'

After 11 years of diagnosis: neurosis. The comedy comes to an end. Tears flow.

May 09, 2004|Barbara Isenberg | Special to The Times

There were no empty seats in the Paramount Pictures conference room. At one end of the long table sat Kelsey Grammer, star of NBC's "Frasier," and at the other end, the show's co-creator and frequent director David Lee. In between were cast regulars like David Hyde Pierce and John Mahoney and such guest stars as Anthony LaPaglia and Jason Biggs.

Surrounded by NBC and Paramount executives, the actors read aloud the show's 264th and final episode, a reading punctuated by the sounds of sniffles and stifled sobs. Co-creator Peter Casey had his video camera out, memorializing the occasion, and visiting actress Rosie Perez was on hand with a welcomed box of tissues.

So began the final week of production last March for "Frasier," winding up 11 years of TV visits to pompous psychiatrists Frasier and Niles Crane, their crotchety ex-cop dad Martin, and their assorted lovers, friends and canines. One of the most honored shows in television history, "Frasier" will sign off Thursday with a record 31 Emmy Awards and five consecutive Emmys for outstanding comedy series.

"Frasier" and Grammer conclude a 20-year relationship with NBC that began with "Cheers" and continued with its "Frasier" spin-off when "Cheers" ended in 1993. The last of three long-running hits to end this season, "Frasier" follows HBO's "Sex and the City," which bowed out in February, and NBC's "Friends," which departed last Thursday.

Like "Friends," "Frasier" also concludes with a two-hour finale combining series highlights and a concluding episode. Unlike "Friends," "Frasier" departs with considerably less hoopla -- and less spectacular ratings -- although emotions flowed freely as the final moments wound down.

"I asked Shelley Fabares what it's going to be like since she went through this on 'The Donna Reed Show' and 'Coach,' " says Pierce, who plays Niles. "She said, 'Oh, it's like they cut your arm off.' "

Similar sentiments pervaded the show's set and stars during its final wrap-up. Grammer led the way during an emotional interview with series regulars Pierce, Mahoney, Peri Gilpin and Jane Leeves, saying at one point, "this decade we've shared has been the best of my life." By the time everyone had agreed with him, Grammer's shoulders were heaving and he had to turn away to regain his composure.

Overseeing the show's last season has been the assignment of former "Frasier" writers-producers Christopher Lloyd and Joe Keenan, brought back this season as executive producers. On their watch have come a psychiatric patient with a paralyzing fear of clowns, Frasier's pursuit by a gay opera director, Martin hiding Viagra in a Velveeta box, and the winning arrivals of Wendie Malick and Laura Linney as love interests for Martin and Frasier, respectively.

Expect more of the same in the final episode, "Good Night Seattle," penned by Lloyd and Keenan. The one-hour finale weaves old characters and plot lines through new ones, tying up some ends and unraveling others. The show's leave-taking also features a slew of acting cameos, a chimpanzee and some Tennyson.

"We didn't figure out the last episode until about episode 19 or 20 of 24," Lloyd says. "Once we decided where we wanted 'Frasier' to go, we needed to make sure we had some logical steps leading to that."

During rehearsals on Paramount's Stage 25, formerly home to "Cheers," adults were scurrying around as if it were the last week of school. Cast and crew members were writing farewells on one another's scripts, and cameras were plentiful. On the show's Cafe Nervosa set, photos were being taken for a forthcoming yearbook while memorabilia fans snatched up final call-sheets. There was even a rush on mugs at the Paramount store.

For the final episode's six-hour filming, an invited audience of friends and family filled not just rows of studio seats but an overflow tent with monitors. Inside the studio, Gilpin helped serve pizza to people in the back rows, her hair in rollers for a later scene.

When director Lee finally said, "Ladies and gentleman, that's a wrap" the audience was on its feet. First Grammer embraced his colleagues, then audience members rushed the stage while uniformed waiters came by with champagne. As the evening approached midnight, the crowd moved on to Pinot Hollywood.

For many people associated with "Frasier," the scene was achingly familiar, a replay of their goodbye to "Cheers" 11 years ago. "Before 'Frasier' started, I went onto the empty 'Cheers' set, and it felt like a ghost town," says casting director Jeff Greenberg, who worked on 'Frasier' and 'Cheers' a total of 18 years. "When they pulled up the 'Frasier' floor, underneath it was still part of the 'Cheers' bar floor."

Going forward, Grammer, Pierce and Mahoney all have plans to act in theater, with Grammer also continuing to produce for TV. Both female stars, meanwhile, are focusing on motherhood at the moment, as well as the usual entertainment options. (Leeves and husband Marshall Coben, a Paramount executive, just had their second child, while Peri Gilpin and her husband, painter Christian Vincent, are expecting twins in June.)

As for the show, "Frasier" will continue in syndication for the foreseeable future, observes Paramount Television Production President Garry Hart, who adds that they recently concluded a cable sale to Lifetime Television. "I personally think this show will be running 50 years from now on American television."

That should be some consolation to 7-year-old Ashley Thomas, who played producer Roz Doyle's daughter, Alice, on "Frasier" the past three years. "I'm going to miss the people," Thomas says, getting into her family's black Chevy Tahoe. "I'll miss everybody there."

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