As TV’s most famous psychiatrist, Frasier Crane has solved the problems of many. And when Kelsey Grammer, the actor who plays him, spiralled into despair after his own battle with drink, drugs and family tragedies involving murder, abduction and rape, he too found that the shrinks know best. Today he is recovered and, in an exclusive interview, he tells Simon Fanshawe how he came to reclaim his life and to strengthen his position as one of America’s greatest comedy actors
Kelsey Grammer has huge, flat feet. His trainers look like canoes, and his arches have fallen further than Icarus. This may seem an incredibly unfair way to start – after all, this man is a comedy god – but it is the first thing I notice about him. His vulnerabilities hit you before anything else. Not his achievements. Not his record number of Emmy nominations (seven), his eight years on Cheers, his six on Frasier, his hall-of-fame status as one of the great comic actors of American television. None of that.
He shambles towards me across the Frasier set, as behind him, rather unnervingly, the Seattle daytime skyline is wheeled away and replaced by Seattle at night, and what I notice is that he lollops, clown-footed, like a big, friendly lug of a man. He shakes my hand, puts his arm around my shoulder and smiles. It’s a Big Guy kind of arm-around-the-shoulder. But there’s something about his smile. It took me hours to work out what it is with his mouth. Then it struck me: when he frowns, which he seems to do only in jest, both ends point south, as they’re supposed to. But when he smiles, which he does a great deal, his mouth simply stretches all the way back around his face, like a long, straight line drawn from one cheek to the other. And that’s it. He’s a tall man, who looks older than he is, physically fatherly, and with a bellow of a voice. Yet, when he smiles, he looks like Charlie Brown. He is a man-child. Kelsey Grammer is, in fact, a six-year-old boy living in a 43-year-old grown-up.
‘Absolutely,’ he says. ‘I was only saying to my wife last night, as I was trimming the Christmas tree, “I’m just a big kid, and that’s the way it’s been for a long time”.’ He pauses, then adds, ‘I’m not such a troubled kid now.’ When you start to find out about Kelsey Grammer, the first things you discover are to do with trouble. Drugs, drink and woman trouble. Not that he tries to hide it. He’s even written a frank, if occasionally grandiloquent, autobiography, So Far. But the kind of messes he got himself into in the past surround him like legend, and go before him on the Internet, in the tabloids, and in Hollywood gossip. No story is ever written about him that doesn’t begin, ‘Troubled star of Frasier…’
And journalists bend their stories to fit in these bits of his life, usually to the exclusion of anything else. It’s why he rarely does interviews; why this is the first time he has spoken to a journalist in a long while, and never at such length. It may be significant that it’s for publication in Britain and not the US. Whatever his reasons, he decides to trust me, despite what he says normally happens.
‘Journalists have an arc of what the article is about, and then they talk to me, but the arc maintains. They just fit in what I say, piecemeal, where they want it, and I come away feeling betrayed and like I wasn’t even in the room.’ There is certainly vulnerability here, but he is more resigned than self-pitying.
Self-pity is off his agenda now. He says lightly, ‘My daily diet is a little ridicule and shame. But now I can read something negative in the press and not take it completely personally.’ This is one of the reasons he has decided to go live on the Internet on his own home page ( kelseylive.com), chatting one-to-one with fans and, once a month, on camera. ‘It’s a way of taking my life back a little.’
The articles don’t, by and large, tell lies about him, just partial truths. He did take truck-loads of cocaine, drink gallons of alcohol, wreck a few cars, get arrested for possession and drunken driving in 1988, get jailed in 1990 for 11 days for failing to turn up for his arraignments on other charges. But, as he says now, ‘I didn’t so much drive under the influence of drink as of deep despair. I wasn’t physically incapable of driving a car, but emotionally incapable.’
In 1996, he quit drinking for good. ‘You go in and out of addictions, and then you hit your bottom. My bottom came in August of that year. For four weeks, I barely slept.’ In September, he wrote off his sports car. He was lucky just to be charged with driving without a licence. ‘They were dark days, when I was malcontented and lost and incredibly depressed and full of self-loathing.’ So he checked into the Betty Ford Clinic. And he has been to AA. But while he does have a tendency – often self-mocking – towards grand language, he employs none of the self-indulgent psychobabble beloved of celebrities who, unlike him, have little of interest to talk about except how much of their barely deserved riches they spent up their nose or down their throat. He has a more interesting, and frankly terrifyingly, grief-filled life-story to tell, more of which later.
And he also has way more zest for life. ‘I take great joy in it,’ he booms delightedly. ‘That’s why it’s so hard to talk about the depths of despair and stuff, because most people wouldn’t have known that I had been there. I am basically a happy person.’ He then adds, ‘I could see the beauty in the world even in the darkest moments of my life.’ The last sentence is perfectly formed and delivered. He is a great phraser, as well as a great Frasier.
For the meanwhile, he can tell me stoically that he’s climbed all the way up the 12-step programme. ‘It just became clear to me, one day after I’d stopped drinking, that I was going to live this way now… The other way was a lot of fun. I had a ball. It stopped being fun, that’s all. Towards the end, it fell apart. It used to work great for a while, but then it started to corrupt my choices and make my life unmanageable.’ He prayed. To God? ‘Actually, I’m quite comfortable calling it God, and comfortable to talk of speaking with God, but most other people get uncomfortable when you talk that way.’ So, was sobriety a prayer answered?
‘Absolutely.’ It’s surprising. He doesn’t seem religious. He was brought up a Christian Scientist, but belongs to no denomination now. ‘I go to church to listen to a friend of mine talk. But if it was up to me, I would probably tear down the institution completely. But it isn’t up to me . . .’ He laughs out loud, and continues eating a disgusting turkey burger and pickle the security man has brought him. He is always grazing, on set and off. Popcorn, crisps, more turkey burgers. And rarely anything healthy, although a close friend of his told me that he is a great cook.
‘I cook much simpler stuff now. It used to be the stuffed-game hen thing with the croutons and the stuffed liver and all that. It’s lightened up a lot. Now, it’s a quick, easy meal. But I still eat meat.’ What a relief. But he can’t eat soy. ‘Soy gives me the runs,’ he declares proudly, like a child who has learned how to appal his mother. Thanks for the information. He’s now provoked into carrying on. Big smile. ‘In case we ever go to a restaurant, never serve me soy. If I eat a bowl of Eta Mome . . .’ What? ‘The steamed soya beans you get in a Japanese restaurant. You can time it. Twenty minutes later, everything in me evacuates. I’ll eat ’em. I love ’em. But I’m doubled over in pain.’
Why is it that everything he says gives clues to the man? So speaks someone who spent his life before sobering up ‘figuring out how to solve the problem of the day, but more time inventing the problem … I’m trying to put this accurately … For instance, I just didn’t do my taxes for two years. I don’t know if it was conscious or not. I was thriving on turmoil. I just made choices that would promote turmoil.’
He doesn’t attend the AA meetings much any more – or, probably, restaurants that serve Eta Mome. Now he just has a number of friends who are ‘of my same ilk’. He laughs at his own circumlocution. When he did go to AA, it was to one of those ‘super-Anonymous groups’ for drunk celebs, which, with characteristic politeness and respect, he calls ‘more private meetings with a group of your peers’. So he’s talked to them, and he knows that the kind of stories the papers and the Internet publish will always dog him. Only the week before Christmas, his celebrity-profile page on the Internet was headlined ‘Grammer’s Porn Problem’, which amounted to little more than an ex-girlfriend hawking a video of the two of them ‘voluntarily engaging in sexual and intimate relations’. It seemed rather rude to ask him for details. However, he did volunteer that ‘the video is, frankly, pretty funny, and I was actually quite flattered. I didn’t think people would be that interested. I never really thought of myself as a sex star.’ It’s brave-face time, and who can blame him? He is rumoured to have paid the woman $1 million, which sounds a lot until you find out that, according to a well-placed studio source, it’s not much more than his pay cheque for two or three episodes of Frasier. He will say only that the tape ‘was generated by possible greed and desperation on somebody’s part…’, adding ‘of course, I can’t speak for them, can I? If they want to be hurtful, I guess it’s up to them.’
Until now, he says, most of the women in his life have specialised in being hurtful. But now he’s married, for the third time, and sober, for the first. Talking about his wife, Camille, whom he met before his spell in the Betty Ford, in what he calls ‘one of my good periods’, he is clearly entranced. She attends script-readings with him, bright and blonde, but not cheesecake, despite the fact that the papers always refer to her as an ‘ex-Playboy model’.
But, unlike the other women in his life, she doesn’t hit him, or scream at him or abuse him. Everyone you ask says she is ‘great for him’. And they all say it with the relief of good friends who, for the sake of friendship, have for years put up with all the bad lovers and the fights. Grammer says of her, rather sweetly, ‘Now, I am actually capable of accepting fondness, whereas before I couldn’t be intimate because I didn’t trust anybody. My propensity for alcohol was pretty much about my desire to escape who I am. Now, I am very comfortable with who I am. Now, I am very comfortably Kelsey, and I am free to explore my creativity.’
All through the days of addiction, he sustained an extraordinarily high quality of work on Cheers and then Frasier. ‘I am just the kind of person who can stay up for three days and still show up for work.’ Since 1975, when he left the Juillard School in New York – also the theatrical nursery of his contemporaries Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve – Grammer had been working reasonably consistently and to increasingly good reception as an actor in the San Diego Shakespeare Festival, in Othello on Broadway, and in rep.
Cheers appeared on the horizon in 1984, while he was in a production of Sondheim’s Sunday In The Park With George, with Mandy Patinkin in New York. Patinkin had lunch with a casting director from Paramount, who happened to be on the look-out for a ‘funny leading-man type’. And, in the kind of coincidence that you think happens only in the movies, Patinkin recommended Grammer. The producers on Cheers wanted a new character to interpose between the sexually-rampant bar-tending Sam and his prissy, nose-upturned girlfriend-cum-waitress-with-absurd-literary-pretensions, Diane. They were confident that it would work because she would be easily attracted to an upmarket psychiatrist, and the competition would drive Sam wild. Frasier Crane’s calling card to the bar in Boston was a combination of snobbery and jealousy.
Grammer has called his role in Cheers ‘hit-and-run comedy’. ‘My obligation to the show was to get in and out as quickly as I could with a joke.’ For the character of Frasier to grow into a new series of his own, Grammer had to change that. He has described the transition as needing ‘to become the glue of a show. In Frasier, the action takes place around me, I’m sort of the canvas, whereas before I was one of the bright spots of colour.’
And that is a risky business. Spin-offs have had a notoriously unsuccessful history. It’s just like the music business, where there are very few Robbie Williams and hundreds of Howard Donalds. Who? Precisely. With sitcoms, it’s the same. But the laziness and greed of producers who have their hands on what they think is a marketable commodity clogs up the arteries of American TV.
After M*A*S*H, Benson, The Tortellis and hundreds that were even more forgettable, they tried The George Wendt Show – starring the wife-pecked, fat, beer-guzzling but somehow likeable Norm from the end of the bar in Cheers. Even Ted Danson, the main star of Cheers, realised the risk. When Danson’s movie career went into free-fall after a couple of misfires, he returned to TV, but refused to take the risk with the Sam character. His first attempt at something new failed. The second, Becker, premieres this Christmas. Danson is caught because no one seems to be prepared to accept him as anything but Sam, yet he doesn’t want to get further trapped. Becker is a doctor. And Danson is cautious about whether it will work: ‘Right now, I’m a 12-step actor,’ he says. ‘I’m taking one day at a time.’
It’s different for Grammer. He may have had to go that route in his personal life but, professionally, he was, as ever, surefooted and confident. He says, ‘The only place I ever had some sanity was my profession. In my life, I may make the wrong choices, but on stage I can walk up and say this is a good choice and this is a bad one.’ And Frasier was a brilliant one. It flew right from the start, winning five Emmys at the beginning of its second year. And for good reason.
The comparisons that spring to mind are with the Seventies shows Maud and Lou Grant. The character of Maud started life as Archie Bunker’s liberal cousin, who occasionally showed up in All In The Family (the American cousin to Till Death Us Do Part). She was created by the twinning of the comic geniuses of writer Norman Lear and the basso profundo queen of the long pause, Bea Arthur. And the Mary Tyler Moor Show gave birth to Lou Grant, who was, well, he was Ed Asner. Shining integrity from actor and character alike (Lou was a hard-bitten but socially concerned desk editor at the fictitious LA Tribune) carved out Grant an almost permanent place in the good, liberal heart of America, until the advertisers couldn’t cope with Asner’s vocal support for Nicaragua and outspoken opposition to Ronald Reagan, and pulled the plug.
But the three shows all share one thing: it was not just that their stars could act, but that they had real emotional weight. In Grammer, Frasier has got not just a serious comic talent, but, more than that, an actor of real range. David Hyde-Pierce, who plays his brother Niles, put his finger on it when he told me, ‘The hallmark of his style is that he can go from the sincerest, pure emotion to the broadest, physical comedy in a split second, and make both things equally believable.’
Frasier the character is a complex confection, and Frasier the sitcom is an incredibly fine balancing act. They both pivot on Grammer’s talent. He makes the character real and knits together a very fine ensemble of actors. He is, according to Hyde-Pierce, a ‘very generous actor. He has no problem with any of us taking the spotlight.’ And, if you watch carefully, it is surprising how self-effacing he is in the show, how often you find you are concentrating on Niles or Daphne, how often the star sets up laughs for the others.
Frasier’s whole life, which is a frantic exercise in self-control, is governed by the dictatorship of his good intentions. His anger, so funny because it is so heartfelt, not vindictive and impotent, constantly threatens to boil over. He ranges from a broad, sarcastic drawl to a pent-up, breathy staccato as he fights an endless but unsuccessful campaign to repel hoi polloi and vulgarity from life, and to do the right thing. He is correct rather than snobbish. He is merely the kind of man who knows what a ramekin is.
The balance with his father Martin, played by John Mahoney, is crucial. The old man is there to prick the pretensions. When Frasier says that a chef can do things with eels you couldn’t believe, he’s talking food – his ex-cop father remembers an arrest he once made. His bluntness is wonderfully grounding. As Frasier agonises over telling a gangster’s moll to marry her mobster boyfriend, Martin simply says, ‘I’ve heard your show. One more piece of half-assed advice isn’t going to kill you.’ The two actors have developed a strong father-and-son bond between the characters – while rehearsing one spat for the Christmas episode, the pair dissolved into laughter, and Grammer slapped Mahoney on the back and said, ‘We do bicker well.’ The thing about Martin is that he reminds you where the brothers came from, and that grounds their priggishness and makes you realise that, underneath it, they are likeable.
If you live in Des Moines, Iowa, or Nuneaton, Warwickshire, you have to know neither good wine nor expensive shrinks to get the jokes, because the decoration of the comedy comes from the interplay between class and aspiration, between airy pretension and feet on the ground, between the two brothers, Frasier and Niles, and their fther and Daphne, his health worker.
Whichever side of that divide you’re on, you’ll laugh. But what takes it beyond that and makes it great viewing is the real vulnerability and tenderness that Grammer brings to the role. ‘Frasier is an everyman. He has the quality of being a bit pompous, but you know he’s never really judgmental. He agonises about everything. He wants to be sure he’s doing the right thing. This is a good man, trying to do his best with what he’s got … He’s an extraordinary guy.’
In so far as actors draw on their own lives, Grammer says (in another grand mini-speech in response to being asked how alike he and Frasier are), ‘Frasier does spring from my imagination, and there’s nothing more acutely my own than that.’ But his ability to deliver on that imagination may come from what has happened in his life. It’s a peculiarly tragic tale.
His parents split up when he was three. For years, he harboured the heroic illusion that his father had to leave ‘for some romantic calling. But after therapy for a few years, I just began to realise that it was abandonment. He left because I, and my sister, didn’t mean anything to him.’ And then, when he was just 13, this father, whom he had seen for barely a month since he’d left, was murdered. A year later, his grandfather, Gordon, was, unbeknownst to the young boy, dying of cancer ‘and probably alcoholism’. All Grammer knew was that – and he understates this movingly – ‘he became less patient with me in the last couple of years of his life. And that may have begun the idea that there was something wrong with me. He was the most important man in my life, and he was pretty much getting annoyed with everything I did.’
Then, at 20, the biggest blow of all landed. His younger sister, who was working in Colorado, away from the family home, was abducted, raped and murdered. ‘That’s where it all starts, doesn’t it, I suppose,’ he says. ‘It sounds so hopelessly cliched to blame it all on the folks but . . .’ He trails away. It’s a lightning emotional change. It may be that his alcoholism comes from his family. It may be a disease. He prefers to think of it as the latter.
‘If you have an affliction, it’s a much easier thing to handle. Because, normally, I’m just delighted to take the blame for everything. I have carried the weight of the world on my shoulders for as long as I can remember, and if something wasn’t my fault, I found a way of making it so.’
But whether his drinking was inherited, a disease, or just a way of life he chose, the loss he has experienced has touched his soul. ‘I have a great fear of abandonment. Everyone I have ever loved has left me.’ That shows in the urgency of his comedy.
There is a great contradiction in Grammer’s life between his polite and conventional manner and the emotional brawling and addictive excesses of his bad-boy days. When we talk politics, he talks of his respect for the Constitution and the President, his love for ‘the dream of what America is’, ‘what rallies him to the flag’, and other things that we regard as sentimental, patriotic, American clap-trap but they take very seriously. On Clinton, he speaks about the problem that ‘our Constitution does not provide for a slap on the wrist. The foundation of our legal system is that someone is sworn in and tells the truth. And the idea of compromising that is a little weird.’ But then, the fact that he has spent time in prison doesn’t escape him. ‘I’ve been on both sides of the law in my life. I guess on the human and spiritual level we must forgive the man.’
This contrast has, in a strange way, sustained his career on television. As he says, ‘There’s a certain romantic quality to being a Hollywood bad boy. I grew up loving Errol Flynn and John Barrymore, the big drinkers, the guys who were the good bar-room brawlers. Being known as that is, on some level, a good thing. And it seems so inconsistent with the character I was playing. If I was playing some devilish-doer on some show, and lived that way off-screen, it wouldn’t be as much of a surprise. So, it may have actually extended my career.’ Now he’s not a bad-boy any more, he acknowledges that his profile has probably diminished: ‘Kelsey’s not such an interesting story any more.’ But being a hellraiser was a certain kind of man to be. ‘Oh sure. It’s very masculine, romantic, tortured. These are all words men like to hear about themselves.’
Frasier will run for another three seasons, he says. He still feels he can develop the character. Recently, they did nine shows where Frasier was out of work, having been sacked from the radio station, KACL, as a result of a typical grand gesture. ‘You should do what you want,’ he says to the staion manager. So the boss does, and turns the station all-salsa. Frasier loses everyone their jobs. The show took an odd turn, but he and Hyde-Pierce disagree about it. Grammer says, ‘It made it a little harder to laugh at Frasier when he’s not a winner somewhere.’ Hyde-Pierce, on the other hand, says, ‘It was not a mistake to have him leave the station. When he went back, it felt like a wrong had been made right. Something had felt like there was sand in your shorts, and it is great to discover that people are so invested in the character that there is that level of irritation. It was a wonderful side trip for Frasier to take.’ The show is now number three in the States, behind ER and Friends, having been moved to the Thursday slot vacated by Seinfeld. There is some sniping in the TV mags that it’s not as good as its predecessor, but Grammer defends it – well, he would, wouldn’t he? -and there are few programmes that can trade punch-for-punch jokes about an ’86 Amontillado and the Superbowl, and mix pure physical panic with such tenderness.
Grammer has few plans for the future, except in his marriage. When asked about the much-rumoured possibility that he and Hyde-Pierce and John Mahoney will do Yasmina Reza’s play ART, on Broadway, and then in London, he says, ‘It turns out I can’t do ART.’ Can’t? Well, won’t, actually. ‘This is the second year of our marriage, and there is just stuff we want to do together. The return I get from my marriage is just a lot more rewarding.’
The only project for the future about which he talks with unbounded enthusiasm is the possibility of doing a film of Macbeth. ‘It all hinges on the performance of Lady Macbeth. She’s pretty much a borderline personality, incredibly driven and insecure. She’s the only person who can look at Macbeth, the strongest and most heroic person in his nation at that time, and tell him he has no dick. And not get killed for it.’
Didn’t he marry women like this? And do I need to ask what attracts him to the man Macbeth? ‘He would do pretty much anything in the world for her because, on some level, when she tells him he’s worthless, he believes it. And, in the end, he does what is wrong for the sake of proving to his wife that he is still desirable. He embraces his choice with heroic vitality.’ I knew I didn’t need to ask. Wait for the movie: Macbeth – The Kelsey Grammer Story, Part I.
And now he’s living the sequel. He’s still a barn-stormer, but a sober one. The last time I see him, in a big gesture, he waves goodbye from the set. For some reason, I give him a silly salute. It’s the kind of thing you might do to a much older brother, a really Big Guy, a very conventional bad boy.
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