When Frasier signed off in 2004, the NBC sitcom ended its 11-season run with the most Emmy Awards for a sitcom ever; indeed, the show’s 37 trophies is a record that stands today. But on the eve of the show’s premiere on Sept. 16, 1993, the Cheers spinoff was considered anything but a surefire hit.
Of all the characters to come by Sam Malone’s bar, Kelsey Grammer’s Dr. Frasier Crane was an anomaly. Hardly the typical blue-collar salt-of-the-earth type that made up most of the patronage, Frasier was a great fit with the regulars because of how much he stuck out. Pompous and insecure but ultimately kindhearted, the psychiatrist and former fiancé of Diane Chambers was a great peanut in the gallery.
The idea of making Crane the centerpiece of a new series had to be carefully considered, according to legendary television director James Burrows, in a conversation with Yahoo Entertainment. From 1980 to 2005, Burrows was nominated every year (minus 1997, the slacker) for an Emmy for helming many of American television’s most beloved comedies, including Taxi, Cheers, Friends, and Will & Grace. His direction for the pilot episode for Frasier earned him an Emmy in 1994.
Could Frasier Crane really be a leading man?
“The only concern everybody had — you’re taking a buffoonish character on Cheers and making him a leading man, and then hiring David Hyde Pierce to play the buffoonish character,” Burrows says of Frasier. “So there was some concern whether Kels [Kelsey Grammer] could go into that. But after the first show, you knew he could. You knew he could play that center. He had the emotional [through line]. Frasier in Cheers didn’t really have that much of an emotional line all the time. In [Frasier], he has an emotional line. And he’s the windows into the show … Kels was a skilled enough actor to make that happen.”
There was the real-world context that made Burrows nervous about Grammer’s ability to pull it off. In the summer before Frasier aired, the actor found himself in the tabloids once again after he filed for an annulment with his third wife, Leigh-Anne Csuhany. Grammer claimed Csuhany, who was 23 and pregnant with their child, had violently attacked him throughout their marriage. Prior to this, Grammer had been in headlines for his arrests involving drunken driving, cocaine possession, and probation violations.
According to Burrows, he never had any concerns that Grammer wouldn’t be fit for the job. “Kels had personal issues when he was on Cheers too, and he always performed, he always got there,” Burrows notes. “The shows were great, his performance was great. I never worried about that.”
Having to remove Lisa Kudrow from the show
It’s hard to imagine anyone playing Roz Doyle other than Peri Gilpin, but for a brief period a pre-Friends Lisa Kudrow was tapped for the role of Frasier’s tough-as-nails producer. Burrows tells us that letting Kudrow go was “a difficult conversation. But it was the right thing to do.”
“The part was not in Lisa’s wheelhouse,” Burrows says. “What Lisa does, she does great. It’s the storyline of that show, [Roz] has to turn Frasier. She has to be strong. Lisa plays that airhead, stuff like that. We all didn’t feel like that was the right moment for her. Casting is a crazy thing. Had she not been let go, she would not be Phoebe. … Stuff like that happens all the time.”
How John Mahoney caught the eye of Frasier producers
Gilpin caught the eye of Cheers writers and eventual Frasier show creators David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee when she guest-starred in an episode in Cheers’s final season. The same can be said of the man who would be cast as patriarch Martin Crane: John Mahoney.
“We had a Cheers episode [“Do Not Forsake Me, O’ My Postman”] where Rebecca, Kirstie Alley, wants to hire a guy to write a jingle for the bar,” Burrows says. “So we had a B-story where he hires this guy, and he plays a jingle on the piano. It’s not very good, and so he’s let go.
“We had a dress rehearsal and the actor playing the part was great. When we went to do the show, he had driven off the lot — he was too scared. So we had to scrub that subplot. We only shot half of a show in front of the audience. We liked the subplot, so we had to go back.
“I had seen House of Blue Leaves in Los Angeles, and John Mahoney was in it playing the lead. He played the piano. So I said, ‘Let’s look at John Mahoney, he’s a wonderful actor.’ We offered the part to John … Angell, Casey, and Lee saw him and that’s how they knew to hire him to play Martin. Fortuitous.
“It turns out, [John] didn’t play the piano. I had to turn the piano a little bit upstage so you couldn’t see that.”
Watch: Legendary TV director James Burrows discusses his work on Taxi, Cheers, Friends, and more:
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