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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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.”
Grammer isn’t saying whether that finale would include the sight of Kane finally succumbing to his debilitating condition. But Grammer has enjoyed the irony in playing a man of great power who finds himself at the mercy of something he can’t control: his own body.
“He’s now faced with something bigger,” Grammer says. “Death has come knocking earlier than expected. And it is uncompromising.”
Playing the character meant toggling between states of consciousness: the alert, eagle-eyed, supersensitive professional and the man slipping into dementia, who cringes or shouts at imaginary figures and nightmarish environments—until he is yanked back to reality. It’s a tricky line to walk.
“Even if you’re playing an insane person, there’s something sane to connect to,” Grammer notes. “What’s great about Tom Kane is he does care deeply about Chicago—and about his place in it, his place among the men who have run Chicago. There’s something redeeming in that.
“Of course, he tends to believe that what’s good for Chicago should also be good for him. He believes that having him in charge is what Chicago needs.”
“Boss” was not an obvious choice for Grammer—nor Grammer for “Boss,” at least not based on his track record for the preceding 25 years or so. He did, after all, play Frasier Crane on NBC for 20 years—and then followed that up three years later with “Back to You,” a Fox sitcom that cast him as the vainer, nastier, shirtchasing Chuck Darling. Chuck was a TV news anchorman forced to put his tail between his legs and return to his old station in Pittsburgh, after a spectacular flameout in Los Angeles. There, he discovers that his ex-flame coanchor (played by Patricia Heaton, just out of “Everybody Loves Raymond”) is the mother of an adolescent daughter he didn’t know he had.
“That show was like the greatest gig ever,” Heaton says. “Kelsey is a really great guy who is really efficient. He works really quickly. My kids didn’t even know I was working on a show; I was always home. I was sad when that show was canceled.”
The series earned some strong reviews—and featured a cast that included such rising stars as Josh Gad and Ty Burrell, as well as veteran comic actor Fred Willard. The zing and the drive came from the rivalry and attraction between Grammer and Heaton, in a show created by the same veterans of “Frasier” who went on to create “Modern Family.” But a strike by the Writers Guild of America that started in November 2007 shortened the series’ exposure just after its premiere—and when the strike ended in February 2008, the series barely got the chance to play out its first season before being canceled.
“I thought that show had a good head start but unfortunately not,” Grammer says with a shrug.
He’s quick to admit that his next series, ABC’s “Hank,” about a disgraced Wall Street executive forced to go live with his family in his wife’s rural home town, deserved its quick dismissal in 2009: “It was not a good show. We never found the right tone or rhythm.”
So he began discussions with “Boss” creator Farhad Safinia about the possibility of a drama.
“I said I was interested in an updated King Lear,” Grammer says. “We thought about Washington, D.C., as a sort of central power place—but then we gravitated to Chicago. It’s possible for a man with big shoulders and vision to leave an impression on a city like Chicago. D.C. is a lot more amorphous; Chicago is like a fiefdom, a minor kingdom. And there’s definitely something Shakespearean about this character.”
Grammer was classically trained at the Juilliard School and had worked extensively in Shakespeare (including a limited run of Macbeth on Broadway in 2000). But he still had to convince Starz executives to consider him for the part.
Actor Martin Donovan, who played Tom Kane’s right-hand man in the first season of “Boss” (until Kane had him killed because of a betrayal), says, “Anybody who has played the same character for 20 years—well, I don’t know that I’d be able to shake it off. You get into patterns and rhythms. But when he was being Tom Kane, I’d have to remind myself that he had this background that he never got to show as Frasier.”
“I thought it was time to surprise people,” Grammer says. “Frasier was a successful character; now I wanted to go do the flip side.”
People make the mistake, says David Hyde Pierce, of assuming Grammer is like his most famous character. “Watching ‘Boss,’ I realized that Kelsey is a lot closer to that character than he was to Frasier,” says Pierce, who won multiple Emmy Awards playing Frasier’s brother Niles, and set a record by being nominated in each of the series’ 11 seasons.
“Kelsey is a very powerful guy. And he carries that power easily. It shows what a great actor he is. Frasier so frequently was confused, powerless, befuddled. Kelsey, however, is a leading actor with an incredible gift for character.”
Donovan adds, “He’s powerful—but he’s not intimidating. He was absolutely a strong presence. But he doesn’t wield it, or power-trip people. The guy has got a tremendous emotional reserve. He had a lot of pain and anguish in his life—so he has a lot to draw on emotionally. The role of Kane required emotional, volcanic volatility. You can see that in his work. But that’s what we do as actors—draw from our own emotional history.”
“Frasier is definitely more of a stretch for me than Tom Kane,” Grammer says. “ When I walk in to work at ‘Boss,’ I just learn my lines and I’m available. With Frasier, there was a lot more artifice; a lot more of it was about getting from laugh to laugh. Originally, in ‘Cheers,’ Frasier provided hit-and-run comedy: Get on with a bit of energy and get off. On ‘Cheers,’ Frasier was a satellite character. But on ‘Frasier,’ he was the center and everyone else was a satellite. And Frasier reaped a lot of what was funny about them; he was used to reflect what was going on. His reactions allowed the audience to participate in the show with him.”
But the well-meaning snob, the persnickety psychotherapist living in a world that seldom meets his expectations—that was only a character, not a reflection of the actor. “I’m not as affected as Frasier,” Grammer says. “I don’t live in that world. I’ve got a lot of issues. I guess I’m more emotional than Frasier. Frasier is a little more bogged down in the minutiae. Tom Kane lives big and I’ve always been that way. I try to live and love fully, with my whole heart.”
It extends to his relationship with his castmates. Though they now live on opposite coasts, he and Pierce see each other and talk regularly—and make a point of catching the other on Broadway, when one of them has a show.
Pierce noted, “When you’re together for 11 years on a show, especially at the ages we were, a lot of life happens. People get married, sometimes many times. It was a very close company. I feel particularly close to him, like a brother. I adore him.”
Grammer had graduated from Juilliard (where he was classmates with Mandy Patinkin) and was waiting tables and looking for work in New York, when he had a revelation.
“I realized that, as long as I was waiting tables, I wasn’t an actor—so I quit my job,” he recalls. “I said I was no longer a waiter and I got a job acting two days later. I’ve worked ever since.”
He put in a number of years working in regional theaters, then began working regularly in New York, on and off-Broadway. In fact, he was understudying the original production of Hurlyburly on Broadway, while rehearsing for the first workshop production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, when he got the call to read for “Cheers.” Grammer admits that he looked down his nose at the idea of doing television, when the role of Frasier was first offered. “I got called in for what they call a personality read, and a couple of weeks later they flew me out to California and gave me the job. I was such a snooty kid about working in TV. I thought, ‘Dear God, this could ruin my career.’ ”
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.