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The Sitcom Sultan

Kelsey Grammer keeps riding the wave looking for ways to please his audience through TV, film and stage
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Kelsey Grammer, January/February 2013

Kelsey Grammer became an actor because “it was the closest thing to surfing I could do for the rest of my life.”

Growing up near Cocoa Beach, Florida, Grammer spent his spare time chasing waves—at Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale “and Boca had some nice breaks.” But he discovered acting in high school and found the same thrill treading the boards as in riding a surfboard: “There was something about it—the energy, the magnificent connection.”

Forty years later, Grammer is still riding the wave as an actor—despite the occasional wipeout. Professionally, there haven’t been many spills. Grammer’s career got its liftoff in 1984 in what was supposed to be a brief arc as a guest star on the classic sitcom “Cheers,” as the very proper Dr. Frasier Crane. He ended up playing the character for 20 years, in 203 “Cheers” episodes, before effortlessly segueing into one of the most successful spin-off series of all time, “Frasier,” for another 263 episodes. The latter show earned him a shelf full of Emmy and Golden Globe awards—and set a record by winning five consecutive Emmys as best comedy series.

But as he talks a few days before Thanksgiving, the storm clouds apparently already are forming about his latest series, “Boss,” a one-hour drama that just finished its second season on the Starz pay-cable network. Asked whether there would be a third season of the show, for which he won a Golden Globe in its first year, Grammer is politic as he says, “They’re talking about it. In my mind, the show is designed to be five or six seasons long in its telling. But there are other options if it turns out the show won’t go on. We have another idea of how to button things up so the show comes to a natural end.”

Here’s hoping that’s true—because two weeks later, Starz announced that the show had been cancelled. A two-hour movie—to wrap up the storylines—was being discussed. Which is no less than Mayor Tom Kane deserves. The character at the center of “Boss,” Kane—played by Grammer—is the mayor of Chicago, a man who wields what seems to be vast political power over the far-ranging precincts of his city. He’s a natural politician and a raging megalomaniac, who also happens to be suffering from a degenerative brain disease that leaves him prone to hallucinations. He’s slowly losing the ability to hide the fact that he can’t tell what’s real from what’s not and spends precious time chasing unorthodox and experimental remedies—or trying to cover up his illness.

But that doesn’t stop him from running his city like an iron-fisted dictator. By the last episode of the second season, he had faked an assassination attempt on himself (to buoy his poll ratings), all but crushed the career of the journalist who threatened to discredit him and nearly let his wife suffocate before bringing her back from the brink to remind her that her life is in his hands.

Even before that, however, Kane was never afraid of erring on the side of Tom Kane. Every city project seemed to line his pocket in some way, even as he dallied with women who weren’t his wife while letting his drug-addicted daughter go to jail (briefly) for the political message it would send. Early on in the series, Kane nearly tore a man’s ear off for failing to hear and act upon his wishes—and then put that same ear down a garbage disposal when the severed appendage was later offered to him as a trophy.

Is there anything this guy wouldn’t do?

“Nothing,” Grammer says, with mock gruffness—a gravel and gravity in his voice. It’s a long way from the elitist tones of Frasier Crane, or Grammer’s own voice, for that matter, which is higher and lighter than you’d expected. “What’s great about playing Tom Kane is that he’s ruthless and capable of anything,” Grammer continues. “He’s always aware of what must be done to maintain power, and he’s willing to do it. The kind of mind he has is usually five or six moves ahead of everybody else. I think I understand his nature.

“If I have the luxury of exploring him more fully, I want to find that something in him that redeems him, something nobody knows about. I want to find that belief, on some deep level, that belief that he’s doing the world some good. His final curtain should finally reveal that in some way, so the audience senses that losing him is truly a loss.”

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