The Sitcom Sultan
Kelsey Grammer keeps riding the wave looking for ways to please his audience through TV, film and stage
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Landing the role of Frasier Crane in “Cheers” seems like just one in a series of cosmic dominoes that had to topple exactly so in order to propel Grammer into what is probably the defining role of his life. For starters, “Cheers,” the series he joined at the start of its third season (as the new romantic interest for Shelley Long’s Diane Chambers and romantic rival for Ted Danson’s Sam Malone), barely survived its first season; it was nearly canceled, despite strong critical support.
When he was cast as Dr. Frasier Crane, the character initially was slated for only a seven-episode run. Instead, Frasier was plugged into the intelligent and well-executed character comedy and became a mainstay of the show, well after Long left the cast. “I was just meant to be a foil for Sam and Diane’s relationship—but I was funny enough that they decided to keep me around,” he says.
“I remember him being incredibly funny,” Ted Danson says of Grammer’s audition. “Kelsey is an incredibly talented guy. He’s very smart, very bright—and his ability to learn lines is uncanny. When we’d be about to shoot a scene, he would appear to not be paying attention right up until the camera came on and the audience was there. And out came all this complicated comedy with flawless timing.”
As the end of “Cheers” drew closer, Grammer negotiated an exit to spin off “Frasier,” launching the new series in the fall of 1993, a few months after the final episode of “Cheers” aired. The fact that “Frasier” was a hit wasn’t a surprise, given the “Cheers” lineage in the pedigrees of the creative team behind the show. “It was always a pleasure to realize how good it was,” Grammer reflects about “Frasier.” “To go to work and realize you’d be doing something that was a cut above was energizing. I had a place to go that was always challenging and interesting and fun.”
But the fact that the show survived network timeslot meddling after the first successful season does qualify as a bit of a miracle. “I’m not surprised the show was a success,” Grammer says. “But I am surprised that it did go for 11 years. That is consistently surprising to me. When they called me after the first season and told me they were moving us to Tuesday night opposite ‘Home Improvement,’ I was concerned—but I believed in the show. I always thought we would find an audience, no matter what they did to us in terms of scheduling.”
The show was moved to Thursdays but “I think we were pitted against ‘When Animals Turn on Their Masters,’ or something like that. So we went back to Tuesdays and that became our home where we finished out a great run.” The success of “Frasier,” Pierce says, has to do with both the quality of the writing and the chemistry of the cast, an ensemble the included John Mahoney as Niles’s and Frasier’s father, Jane Leeves as the father’s attendant and Peri Gilpin as the lovelorn producer of Frasier’s radio advice show.
“Kelsey is the kind of star who is not intimidated by others’ success,” Pierce says. “He regularly looked to the other actors for input. He didn’t demand to have all of the funny lines.” The longer they worked together, Pierce says, the more fraternal the two actors felt in real life. “From the beginning, we had this personal timing and chemistry—the chemistry of brothers,” Pierce observes. “It was a match made in heaven. We wondered one time if we went back far enough, whether we’d find that we were actually related. We almost knew what each other was thinking.”
With great success, however, comes great press scrutiny. Which is when problems that Grammer had been able to control or hide began to get public attention. His tragic personal history included a father (who he’d rarely seen after his parents divorced when Grammer was 2) shot to death when Grammer was in his teens; a younger sister who was abducted, raped and murdered; twin half-brothers who died in a scuba-diving accident—all within a few years of his departure from Juilliard.
So his long-time drinking—and eventually cocaine use—began to cause Grammer public problems when he gained some fame playing Frasier Crane on “Cheers” and “Frasier.” A series of arrests for drunk driving and cocaine possession, beginning in 1988, threatened his career—particularly a 1990 arrest that culminated in a three-year sentence of probation and community service. The last public episode involved a 1996 car accident while intoxicated, after which he entered the Betty Ford Center for a 30-day stint.
“What you see is what you get with Kelsey,” Danson says. “But he was always professional, even when he was going through his hardest time. He wasn’t secretive about that stuff; he’s very much who he is.”
Pierce recalls that, even as the media storm built in 1996, Grammer approached it all head on: “He was always an open book,” Pierce says. “That’s part of his power. He’s a very courageous guy. He didn’t want to waste time hiding things. There was nothing that happened that we weren’t aware of. But we loved him and we were as supportive as we could be. I know the show helped him through that. No matter what else was going on, his craft was sacred to him. And he wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of that.”
Grammer has stayed out of trouble since then—“It’s been 15 years since I was pulled over for DUI,” he observes. When he sobered up, he also gave up tobacco: a cigarette habit, as well as a passion for cigars. Not that he doesn’t remember his years as a cigar connoisseur with fondness.
“I did enjoy Cuban Cohibas and several others,” he says. “There’s an art form to it. Smoking a cigar was taking a moment out of the day, usually in the evening, sitting in a bucolic environment, enjoying the taste of tobacco. But I decided to put some things behind me at a certain point. They weren’t the best thing for me, in terms of my health. Do I miss cigars? Sometimes.”
The only time his substance abuse ever seems to come up anymore is in articles about him: “And I think, ‘Dear God, do they have any idea how long ago that was?’ There are no longer substances that control me. I don’t think that’s the thrust of my identity any longer. I would like to believe that it is not the tragedies and challenges of my life that define me but rather what I have accomplished in spite of them. That to me is a far more compelling narrative. If I were to run for office, it wouldn’t even be an issue.”
Grammer has, in fact, contemplated the idea of seeking public office: “I’ve thought about it seriously,” he says. “But then I’d have to quit acting. And I love being an actor. I’m not quite finished with that yet.” Grammer’s marital life has been almost as public as his personal struggles. He married for the fourth time in 2011—to Kayte Walsh, a British flight attendant—and, in mid-2012 at the age of 57, became a father for the fifth time. His children range in age from 29 years to seven months—and he has a year-old grandson.
His divorces and remarriages have all served as media fodder, particularly his last one: Ex-wife Camille was filming episodes for the first season of Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” even as their marriage was unraveling.
Grammer, however, seemingly shook it all off, says Heaton: “He wears his celebrity so lightly,” she notes. “When you’ve been through as much as he has, you know which stuff ultimately is not important. I really learned from that. He’s a very relaxed guy.”
Asked about the optimism implicit in marrying for a fourth time, Grammer smiles and says, “Ahh, yes, Samuel Johnson. But this has been a revelation about true love. I’ve spent more than half my adult life in search of love. Just when I was ready to quit, something came along and surprised me. Kayte has been a continuous revelation. I’ve had different lessons from the past but the one I’m living today is one where I am consciously present, attentive and honest about how I feel and connect. I admire my wife. I enjoy her. And I know she loves me.”
He’s similarly effusive about becoming a father again: “It’s hard to describe why it seems better this time,” he says. “It’s not that there was something missing in the past; all of my children are extraordinary. But I am in a real partnership in raising this child. I was not as hands-on in the past. We have no nannies; we take her everywhere. I prefer to live it that way. “It doesn’t seem like a different experience being a parent this time. But being present can make all the difference, day to day, morning to night, just being there. Quantity is quality for a child. I want to spend as much time as I can with all my kids.”
Which means attending to his own health. Grammer had a scare in 2008 when he had a heart attack in Hawaii, after the cancellation of “Back to You.”
“It meant a new landscape for my physical life,” Grammer says. “The pills and the working out—I’m focused on trying to stay in shape. All I could think when it happened was, ‘Don’t show me anything fancy—don’t show me the light. I’ve got things I need to do.’”
Grammer was nominated for a Tony Award when he starred in a Broadway revival of La Cage Aux Folles in 2010, and is eager to return to the stage, though he says that doing a Broadway musical “is like running a marathon every week.” He still has roles he’d like to play, though some of them are out of reach. “I’d love to play Hamlet but I’m too damn old,” he says with a laugh. “And I’d like to play King Lear, but I’ve still got 20 years to get to that. I’d love to do another musical and be back on Broadway. And I’d love to make one great film.”
One would assume that, after 20 years of playing Frasier Crane (reportedly earning more than $1 million per episode for the final few seasons as star and executive producer of “Frasier”) in two shows that perpetually yield residuals from syndication reruns, Grammer would not need to worry about earning a living; before his last divorce, his fortune was estimated to be in the $100-million range.
But Grammer quickly speaks up to debunk that notion. His divorce from Camille reportedly cost him $30 million. Past marriages and child support, as well as a lifestyle that includes two houses in Beverly Hills (one of which he’s trying to sell) and one in Malibu, a home in Hawaii and a ski lodge in Colorado, among others, require a breadwinner who keeps the machine oiled.
“When you produce at a certain level, you don’t have the option of not doing it,” Grammer says. “You need to keep feeding the beast. There are a lot of things in place that require me to keep working. “But I like to work. When I was a kid, I was inspired by John Smith at Jamestown, who said, ‘No work, no food.’ I think that’s the natural order of things. I just believe in it.”
If anything, he says, he gets even more satisfaction from acting now than he did as a young man. Age brings experience, if not wisdom, to draw upon when you’re on the stage or in front of a camera, in ways the younger Kelsey Grammer could only imagine.
“That audience is a living, breathing thing,” he says. “And it’s about them. When you go through acting school, they tell you, ‘It’s not about the audience—it’s about you and the character.’ That sounds a lot like masturbation to me. It’s not art unless someone looks at it. You must attend to the audience or it will bite you. But it’s wonderful to live in that moment. When I was on Broadway, for three hours every day, it was a pretty nice way to make a living.
“With practice comes an ease about acting. I love the human experience and I love exploring it through the human imagination. What’s great about acting is that the canvas is your imagination. If you’ve got a good imagination and you’re a good observer, you can do anything. It just requires trust—and the willingness to surrender to the kid in you.”
Contributing editor Marshall Fine writes about movies and entertainment on his website, www.hollywoodandfine.com.