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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
By Marshall Fine | From Kelsey Grammer, January/February 2013
The Sitcom Sultan

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.”

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.

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.

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