These posts are about great acting performances sustained across the full run of a television series.
When Dr. Frasier Crane first bellied up to a certain Boston, below-ground bar, there was no inkling that the character would be a fixture of network television for the next twenty years or so. Brought in to provide an extra impediment to the pendulum-swinging romance of the two leads of Cheers, the eminent psychiatrist proved a better fit than was originally expected. For Kelsey Grammer, the actor charged with playing Frasier, a gig initially promised as no more than a few episodes transformed into an inescapable role that cemented his place in history of television, winning him four Emmys along the way. It was more than pure luck. Frasier worked because of the brimming ingenuity of Grammer’s performance.
Initially, Frasier operated with roughly the same sensibility as Diane Chambers (Shelley Long), the accidental barmaid who sparred and smooched with the watering hole’s proprietor, former Red Sox relief pitcher Sam Malone (Ted Danson). When one of Diane and Sam’s many breakups sent her to an institution to seek mental care, Frasier was one of her psychiatrists and, in an egregious breach of ethics, soon her lover. When Diane swooped back into Cheers, Frasier was in tow, offering a mildly disdainful appraisal of the den of inebriation and moments of ponderous pontificating. When Diane broke it off, Frasier should have theoretically exited the narrative, but Grammer was too good to call closing time on. The writers laid the character low. He was embittered by the romantic jilting and left pining pathetically after Diane, the struggle so significant that at one point he’s said to have squandered away his practice.
The dash of vulnerability was exactly what was needed to make Frasier a fuller character, less of a foil for others and more his own, multifaceted person. To a degree, Long’s own self-chosen departure from the show a couple years after Frasier’s introduction meant the Grammer could shoulder the cultured antagonist role against the middlebrow barflies that was part of the show’s established mechanics. But, in Grammer’s rendering, Frasier clearly wanted to be in the bar. He sought camaraderie that, it was suggested, was absent in the pretentious circles in which he previously roamed. With his stentorian baritone and ability to vocally twist a word until it nearly ruptured. Grammer was one of those actors who could make a single word funny just with his delivery.
When Cheers ended, the creative team pulling the plug on their own terms at the conclusion of eleven seasons of television, there was still money on the table. After a few other ideas were pitched, it was settled that Frasier would get the spinoff treatment. To get the new show as far from its ancestor as possible — including geographically — Frasier went back to him hometown of Seattle, where he secured employment as a radio host, dispensing quickie advice to troubled callers. More importantly, Frasier creators David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee introduced members of the good doctor’s family, including his working class father (John Mahoney), who would have been comfortable as could be taking up a corner stool at Cheers, and his brother, Niles (David Hyde Pierce). The latter role, conceived because the producers saw Hyde Pierce’s head shot and were tickled by his resemblance to Grammer, handily illuminates how the character of Frasier had been slyly and artfully shaped over the years.
When the writers wanted to figure out what Niles would do or say in any given situation, they used a simple baseline: He was Frasier if Frasier had never discovered Cheers. With that context, it’s easy to see how Grammer shifted the character in increments over the years, making him looser and prone to moments of humility that contradict the educated superiority he instinctively wields. Across the run of the second series, Grammer signals the way Frasier is his rough-hewn father’s son just as he’s the offspring of his more cultured mother, and that slice of his similarly cracks open why he was able to eventually find a home Cheers. Grammer plays all these contradictions — and Frasier’s occasionally exasperation at the skirmishes of his own being — knowing they enhance the punchlines.
Like its predecessor, Frasier lasted eleven seasons. Although Grammer is trying to nudge a sequel series into being. His desire to return to the role is understandable, given the alternatives. It also strikes me as deeply ill-advised. He already has an uncommonly lengthy performance that is commendable from beginning to end. Better to leave dead air than to open up the microphone again.