When Joey debuts this fall, it’ll have a huge legacy to live up to — and we’re not talking about Friends. In 1993, NBC launched their riskiest sitcom spin-off to date, Frasier — a series that lasted 11 years and earned five consecutive Emmy wins for outstanding comedy. As Frasier Crane takes his final call May 13, the cast and crew look back at how they transported the brainy Cheers barfly to a Seattle radio station, making him one of the longest-running prime-time characters (tied with Gunsmoke’s Matt Dillon) on TV.
I: ‘IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE?’
In the winter of 1992, NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield was faced with replacing Cheers, NBC’s most-watched comedy. Littlefield and Paramount Network TV (which produced Cheers) decided spinning off Frasier was the solution, and they wanted Cheers scribes Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angell (who died during the Sept. 11 tragedy) to do it. But Kelsey Grammer was dubious, and the three writers had a very different, and in retrospect, ridiculous idea for a new series.
WARREN LITTLEFIELD I’d talk to anybody who would listen and say, ”Hey, Cheers spin-off — is there anything we want to do here?” No one was particularly motivated until late in ’92 when Ted Danson called and said, ”I can’t be Sam Malone anymore.” It took me a few minutes to figure out whether it was a prank call.
JOHN PIKE (PRESIDENT, PARAMOUNT TV, 1986 — 1993) I thought the best thing to do was to put Peter, David, and David together with Kelsey. But Kelsey did not want to reprise his role as Frasier. Everybody agreed — it’s hard to spin a character off. We tried it with The Tortellis [a short-lived spin-off built around Carla’s ex-husband], but Nick Tortelli was despicable. You can’t build a show around somebody you hate.
KELSEY GRAMMER (Frasier) I just thought Frasier should die with Cheers.
PETER CASEY We wanted Kelsey to play this Malcolm Forbes-type character who had this magazine empire. He was a motorcycle enthusiast who was in an accident and was paralyzed from the waist down.
PIKE I was absolutely speechless. I didn’t know quite what to do, so I took a couple of beats and said, ”You know, whatever it is you want to do, I’ll get it on the air. But this is one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s not funny.”
CASEY We had been burned by the critics when we created Wings. They called it ”Cheers in an airport.” We thought, Do we really want to go through that comparison all over again?
PIKE I told Kelsey [a spin-off] could be an absolute grand slam because we could get the old Cheers time period, and it would be the most delicious transition in the history of TV. Kelsey said, ”I trust your instincts, and I really do want to be very, very wealthy.”
GRAMMER As long as we didn’t take Lilith and didn’t have children on the show.
CASEY The initial idea for Frasier was to have it take place in a radio station. But David Lee said it’s going to start looking like WKRP in Cincinnati. Meanwhile, David Lee’s father had a stroke, and he was also trying to help his mother find care for his father. One day he came into the office and said, ”What if the father is somehow disabled, and Frasier has to take care of him?” Here’s a man whose life is devoted to counseling other people about their problems, and he can’t manage his own at home.