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Beyond therapy

A session on the ‘Frasier’ set finds Kelsey Grammer with a serious case of manic-expressive syndrome

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It’s vintage Kelsey Grammer. Blindfolded as Dr. Frasier Crane, he raises a glass of red. He sniffs. Sips. Ponders. Showing off his wine-tasting skills, Frasier‘s pompous psychiatrist is supposed to say: Big, good balance, perhaps a bit baked. Essence of truffles, long finish. Chambertin ’76. But this is a rehearsal, and Grammer hasn’t yet learned the line. So in his inimitable, Shakespearean baritone, he ad-libs: ”Big…full-bodied…nice t — -…I’d do her!”

The camera crew laughs — perhaps more in accord with costar David Hyde Pierce’s slightly shocked deadpan than Grammer’s roguish smirk. Where Frasier takes great pains to strike the right impression at all times, the unfettered Grammer, 40, clearly doesn’t give a Chambertin. Between scenes, he strolls confidently about L.A.’s Paramount Stage No. 25 like the big man on campus, rambunctious, jesting, goading. He confers with a propman (”That’s the Wassily — that is a cool chair”), debates rock music with a cameraman (”The end of the ’70s sucked. There were some okay groups…Foreigner…”). He’s in especially high spirits on this October morning; later in the day he and his fiancee, ex-model Tammi Baliszewski, 31, are flying to Martha’s Vineyard for the wedding of former Cheers mate Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen. But when a delay drags on, Grammer exhorts, with some annoyance, ”Let’s go! Daddy’s got a suburban to catch!”

As Jane Leeves, who plays loopy live-in caretaker Daphne Moon, describes him, Grammer is ”a big ol’ curly bear.” Well, he may be soft and furry — but he’s got claws. If he tends to conceal them, it’s because he appreciates his position as the head of TV’s smartest sitcom — and the people who have helped put him there. ”Let’s say you’re doing Hamlet,” Grammer says. ”If the guy playin’ Hamlet is a twit, his energy will filter down to everybody else. If he’s not polite or creative or gifted, people will start doggin’ the show. They’ll think, ‘Screw it.’ They don’t put out their best effort.”

So what tone does Grammer strive to set? He sums it up in one word, ”Fun” — then adds pointedly, ”competent fun.” The Frasier staff’s competence has placed the third-season NBC series at No. 9, standing tall against ABC’s Home Improvement and besting that middlebrow ratings monster by earning five Emmys in September — including wins for outstanding comedy series and lead actor in a comedy (Grammer) and supporting actor (Pierce, who plays Frasier‘s fastidious brother, Niles). After the ceremonies, the star rewarded his cast and crew with gold Emmy statuette charms.

Frasier‘s benevolent dictator says he learned how to lead a TV ensemble from Danson, during Frasier‘s nine years as the brainiest barfly on Cheers. ”Ted was certainly very good at it,” Grammer says. ”He wanted to have fun with it. He was a wonderful example, which I followed fairly well — and added a dash extra. I’m a little bit more vocal, a little more with my fingers in all the pots.”

The imposing, 6-foot-2 actor stirs those pots most vigorously during rehearsals. (And licks his fingers: Over the course of one morning he scarfs down french fries, popcorn, and Haagen-Dazs ice cream.) Gathered in a circle with the cast, writers, and producers during a run-through of this week’s episode, Grammer starts by saying ”I have one problem.” In the opening scene, Peri Gilpin’s acerbic radio producer, Roz Doyle, mocks Frasier’s zeal to join a society of wine connoisseurs, but, Grammer points out, ”Frasier has always been making fun of Niles and the wine club. This change seems rather abrupt.” The writers furrow their brows and offer to work on it over the weekend. ”Other than that,” Grammer adds slyly, ”I think it’s…serviceable.”

His objection ultimately produces a punchline. In the final draft Roz says to Frasier, You used to say that club was nothing but a bunch of arrogant, cork-sniffing snobs. To which Frasier replies, That was before I got in.

A line in another scene puts a pained look on Grammer’s face. Frasier says to Niles, whose nose bleeds whenever he tells a lie, For God’s sake, stop bleeding or I’ll give you something to bleed about. “It’s so un-Frasier,” Grammer protests, “it’s extraordinary.” He had the same response when the director suggested that Frasier put down his grocery bags on his expensive sofa: No way. So the groceries go on the floor, and the writers come up with a new retort: The truth, Niles. Only the truth shall make you clot.

The writers readily accept criticisms from the cast, partly because, as executive producer Linda Morris puts it, “they feel confident that if they just let you know what’s not working, it’ll be fixed.” As Grammer elaborates, with a kingly laugh: “I don’t tell anybody how to do anything. Unless I actually have to.”

Unlike such tumultuous sitcom hits as Roseanne, Grace Under Fire, and Ellen, where producers and writers seem to come and go as swiftly as script revisions, the Frasier lineup has remained fairly stable. Of course, executive producers David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee are well acquainted with Frasier: They worked with Grammer for five years on Cheers before leaving to create Wings. Three years before Cheers‘ last call in 1993, Grammer approached the trio about a new series. Paramount and NBC eventually persuaded the group to make the show a spin-off, and they began sketching out a new life in Seattle for Frasier Crane.

Nowadays it takes nine writers to fill 24 episodes a season. “We raid and pillage our own lives,” says executive producer Christopher Lloyd. “We’ll happily confess the most embarrassing things.” Last season’s episode in which Frasier ran into ex-wife Lilith at a tropical resort was based on a real-life incident. This season, Frasier’s gruff ex-cop father, Martin (John Mahoney), revealed a lifelong ambition to write a song for Frank Sinatra—in part because Lloyd once had a boss who harbored a similar dream and kept scraps of strange lyrics on his desk.

The writers keep one rule in mind: The smaller and more human the dilemma, the better. Consider the episode in rehearsal—a scratch in Frasier’s floor leads to an escalating construction job the day that he is to host the wine club, and Daphne becomes smitten with the contractor—to Niles’ chagrin. Other stories this season will revolve around such simple premises as Frasier’s quest to find a new friend after he realizes he hasn’t made a new one since moving to Seattle, and his frenetic efforts to disprove an accusation that he lacks a sense of humor. The writers are also plotting how Frasier might run into his ex-girlfriend and former Cheers barmaid Diane Chambers, if Shelley Long agrees to sign on for an episode.

The writing staff isn’t above throwing in a banana peel. “No one knew what a great physical comedian Pierce was,” says Lloyd. They found out thanks to executive producer Casey’s then 7-year-old son, Brendan, who suggested during the first season that it would be funny to see Niles bang his head on something. They cooked up a scene in which pencil-limbed Niles struggled to hop up onto a kitchen counter, only to crown himself on the stove hood and ricochet off the refrigerator. Pierce, 36, performed the stunt so deftly that the writers have slipped him more slapstick. In the episode in rehearsal, Niles tries to give Frasier a spark by rubbing his shoes on the carpet. Pierce raises his arms as if to do a flamenco dance, then takes tiny, scuffling steps backward and forward, repeatedly poking Frasier in the stomach, until he bellows, Stop poking me! Pierce’s little dance wins a burst of laughter from the crew and an approving smile from Grammer.

One member of the cast does only physical comedy: Each episode, Lloyd says with quiet resignation, “the dog’s gotta do something really funny or really cute.” Eddie—or Moose, as he’s known to his trainers and costars—”is not the sort of animal that licks you or plays with you,” says Mahoney, 55. “If you want him to wag a tail, you gotta pay him. You’ll never see Moose doing Equity waiver.”

“When we first met Moose, he was a really cantankerous little dog,” says Gilpin, 32. “In the second season he had to carry a Barbie doll into the room, and he kept dropping it. They found that he needed two root canals. And ever since, he’s been the happiest dog in the world, a different creature.”

During a lunch break, Moose’s trainers put him through his paces—hit the mark, get a treat. His costars have a bit more trouble nailing down their parts, although the studio is crammed with rewards for them, too: tables covered with bagels, sandwiches, yogurt, fruit, cookies, salads, pastas; a popcorn machine; and a drawer stocked with candy and cigarettes.

Enjoying a smoke in the Crane kitchen, Leeves is deep in concentration. She has worked out a whole history for her character and, as Gilpin says, “can tell you where Daphne was in ’82.” Leeves offers an example: “I told the writers that Daphne’s comfort with these men is that she comes from a large Catholic family where they all got into fights. She was the only girl, so she took care of them all. She got her hair pulled, but she can fight back.”

Maybe Leeves, 33, could learn something from her character: The actress is often the butt of Grammer’s and Mahoney’s teasing. “There’s always one person in a cast who gets ‘Kick me’ written on their back,” she acknowledges with a smile, “and that’s me.” At one point, when Leeves tarries, Grammer chides, “Damn you, my good woman!” A bit sheepishly, he then adds, “I’m just in a hurry to get back to my nap.”

Pierce, meanwhile, usually maintains his best Niles stone face. During a later break, the actor sits at Frasier’s grand piano and softly plays an opera aria from memory. He hates being idle: “You get an episode where you only have one scene, and that depresses you, because it’s so exciting to do stuff on the show.” This week Niles is busy preventing Daphne from admiring her blue-collar suitor, so Pierce studies an open script as his fingers play a waltz.

Grammer, by contrast, seems to consult the script as little as possible. When he can’t remember a line, he stumbles through it or waits for the script supervisor to call it out. Or, as in the case of the wine-tasting scene, he’ll make up something. Another line—The brie is sweating up a storm—trips him up time after time. At one point, Grammer says, “The brie is…sweatin’ its ass off!”

“He really likes to fly by the seat of his pants,” says Leeves. “He freaks guest stars out on show day because we have a line-through in makeup and it appears he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But then when we’re on the set, it’s right there.”

Casey admits that when creating Frasier, “there were certain concerns on our part” about Grammer’s work ethic. “Of course, when we were at Cheers, Kelsey was having quite a few personal problems. He has since become far more reliable and steady.”

Whether he’s cajoling and blustering on the set or openly discussing his demons (a past cocaine addiction, two failed marriages—including one to a former exotic dancer who Grammer claims was abusive—and, in separate incidents, the murders of his father and sister) in his soon-to-be-released autobiography, So Far…, Grammer refuses to hold back. (One exception: He won’t comment on the allegations of sexual misconduct with a then 15-year-old New Jersey girl. Though two courts refused to charge Grammer, a civil suit is still pending.) He seems to be saying This is me—take it or leave it.

“He is the most un-uptight person on earth,” says Gilpin. “There’s nothing about him that wants to give you a different impression about who he is.”

“Kelsey’s emotions are right there,” says Mahoney. “He cries very quickly, he laughs very quickly, he loves very quickly. What we have in Kelsey is probably the most generous actor any one of us has ever worked with.”

Ah, but beware if you are the poor guest actor who stumbles into these ranks unprepared. This week, the key role of Daphne’s new love interest is played by Tony Carreiro (Lethal Weapon 2). During Carreiro’s first rehearsal Grammer seems displeased. “Can we get Tony to open it up a bit?” he bellows in (almost) jovial frustration.

Carreiro quietly assures the star that he’ll do better. “You got a wife and kids now?” Grammer challenges, as if in 30 seconds Carreiro has fleshed out the personal history of his character. “So that’s the cut of your jib.”

“You’re starting to scare me,” Carreiro jokes with a nervous smile.

“You gotta step up to the plate,” Grammer says later. “You can’t walk into a show like this and not be in fightin’ trim. Because we’ll kill ya. I mean, we’re not all that generous.”