Cool TV Couples: Frasier and Niles Crane
''Frasier'''s shrink siblings talk about what's next for the show
Kelsey Grammer, a hale man who tends toward big gestures, a big headline-making private life, and a big house decorated with big chinoiserie in the big hills north of Los Angeles, greets David Hyde Pierce with a big bear hug. The two haven’t seen each other in the two months since production wrapped on the first season of NBC’s Frasier, wherein they play brother psychiatrists Frasier Crane, the Freudian (Grammer), and Niles Crane, the Jungian (Pierce), so smoothly, so innately, and with such uncanny physical similarity that a viewer might happily buy the notion that the two actors are bred from the same rich stock.
They are not. Pierce, a slighter fellow who prefers quieter movements, quieter clothing, and a personal life conducted beyond the range of inquiring photographers, takes in the sweep of Grammer’s giant foyer. He cocks his head in one of the toucan-like movements Niles makes when contemplating the mysterious ways of humans. ”So this is what 10 years of Cheers does for you,” he concludes. Then, relaxing his narrow shoulders, he strolls loosely into his colleague’s TV room, where the movie Sink the Bismarck! is playing to an appreciative audience of Champ, the host’s aging greyhound.
Grammer, 39, bustles. Pierce, 35, sits placid. Grammer hustles a cigarette. Pierce holds a glass of water very still. At rest, they move at different tempos. At work, they are tuned to the shared wavelength of siblings. Grammer: “You’ve got a delivery of a certain line. It was” [he speaks this fast and strung together] ‘what-have-you-done-say-“I-love-you”-right-now!’ Pop!”] (They laugh.) Pierce: “That’s right!” Grammer: “Brilliant!”
Shrinks have been known to be lax about their personal relationships, but Frasier’s oversight was extreme: For the nine years he appeared on Cheers, the noted pompous therapist never knew he had a younger brother. When the sitcom went off the air last year and executive producers David Lee, David Angell, and Peter Casey began developing a spin-off that sent Crane, now divorced, back home to Seattle to dispense psychiatric advice on a radio call-in show, they envisioned Frasier putting up — and putting up with — his father, Martin, a retired cop. (FYI: on Cheers, Frasier’s father was a research scientist — and deceased.) But they had no plans to include a brother in the mix. Then casting director Sheila Guthrie showed the producers tapes of Pierce in Norman Lear’s 1992-93 comedy The Powers That Be, playing a compellingly funny, suicidally depressed congressman. After which, the powers that be decided that the physical similarities between Pierce and Grammer were too remarkable to pass up.
Pierce, a former New York stage actor who originally planned to become a concert pianist (and who, like Niles, graduated from Yale), prepared by studying early episodes of Cheers. ”The main things I was looking for were physical gestures that I realize family members have,” he says. ”My sister lives out here and we’re very close and I realize talking to her that I hear a lot of my own intonations, even in the way we start hesitating and the way we move our heads. That’s what I was looking for — the tip-offs that are non-spoken things.” He puffs out his chest and pulls back his head in a demonstration of Crane family self-satisfaction.
”David puts a lot of time into things,” says John Mahoney, who plays Crane pere. ”Kelsey gives the impression of flying by the seat of his pants. You see David on the set testing furniture, doing a lot of work by himself. Kelsey comes out and likes to see what happens.” Jane Leeves, who plays Daphne, Martin’s semi-psychic live-in physical therapist (and the object of the married Niles’ lustful infatuation), focuses on body parts. ”Kelsey has a face like a piece of rubber. He can stand there and do amazing things with one eyebrow lift. David is more physical, in a way; he’s expressive in the way he lifts a shoulder.”
Grammer: “In terms of the needs of the show, you don’t want to have a sitcom about two entirely anal people. Frasier has matured. And his younger brother is back where [Frasier] was a few years back.”
Pierce: “You started maturing on Cheers.”
Grammer: “Yeah. Some characters on Cheers basically started out the way they ended. I think if we ended up with that kind of deal, our show would croak. Because nobody has characters that are so damned lovable that you don’t want to change them at all.”