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Niles (David Hyde Pierce) receives a message from Maris
In our recent oral history of the “The Ski Lodge,” Frasier’s classic Season 5 bedroom farce, there was one great joke we didn’t address: As the episode begins, Niles (David Hyde Pierce) informs everyone that his current divorce lawyer is no match for Maris’s team: “When we were courting, I sent Maris a Valentine that said, ‘You’re the girl my heart adores, everything I have is yours.’ Now they’re calling it a prenup.”
As Frasier fans know, the role of Maris was never cast. That wasn’t what co-creators David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee originally intended. “When David, Peter, and I were writing the pilot, we thought, ‘Let’s pull a fast one on the audience and make them think that we’re going to do a thing like Norm’s wife, Vera, in Cheers, where he talk about her but you never see her. Let’s do that for a few episodes, and then surprise — we’re actually going to see her, so we weren’t ripping off that Cheers thing after all,’” Lee tells Yahoo TV.
In the series premiere, the Crane Brothers discuss whether Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) likes his sister-in-law. “I like her from a distance, you know, the way you like the sun,” Frasier tells Niles. “Maris is like the sun. Except without the warmth.”
Valerie Mahaffey (Hyde Pierce’s pick), Eleanor Bron (Jane Leeves’ pick)
Hyde Pierce allowed himself to imagine who could Maris: “I had done a show with Valerie Mahaffey [the short-lived NBC comedy The Powers That Be], and she is a wonderful, beautiful, terrific actress who in many ways, physically, might have been right,” he says. Co-star Jane Leeves, meanwhile, always pictured the British actress Eleanor Bron (Women in Love) in her mind. “There was something so wrong about her,” she says. “But hilarious.”
So why didn’t producers follow through? “Two or three episodes in, she was already so bizarre, she was uncastable,” Lee says. “So we just went, ‘Well, we’re never going to see her.’ Although we did see the shadow of her behind a shower curtain once.”
That’s from an episode earlier in Season 5, “Voyage of the Damned,” in which Frasier and Martin (John Mahoney), in an effort to save Niles’ marriage, both invite Maris to surprise him by joining them on a cruise. She comes, wearing a black dress and veil, we’re told (“The woman has virtually no pigmentation, three minutes in the sun, she’d sear like an ahi tuna!” Frasier says). When Maris sees another woman coming on to Niles, she makes her presence known — by tipping more than one waiter to deliver a drink to him and throw it in his face.
Frasier wants to plead Niles’ innocence, and Roz (Peri Gilpin) agrees to tag along because she’s never seen Maris’s face (“Well, I haven’t seen her most recent one, so this will be a new experience for both of us,” Frasier says). They sneak in to Maris’s room, as does Martin, and all three wind up hiding in her bathroom, afraid she’s brought company back to her cabin.
Roz: Oh, I don’t see her. Maybe she went back out. Oh wait, I see her coat on a hat rack.
Frasier: Look closer. Is the hat rack moving?
Roz: Oh my god!
“Nobody you could have cast would have been as interesting as the person the audience had envisioned,” Frasier writer/producer Joe Keenan says. “Suddenly she went from being just this excessively thin, chic, rich women, to being somebody who routinely defies the laws of physics. You would do jokes about her running off through the snow and leaving no footprints, or going on a wine trip and getting into a vat of grapes and not being able to break any. Some characters just have to be off-screen. The more you talk about them, the more impossible they become to cast.”
In the end, that was fine with Hyde Pierce: “The more we found out about Maris… I don’t think anyone would actually want to work with the person who would be right for that character.”
All 11 seasons of Frasier are now streaming on Netflix and Hulu. Repeats air daily from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. on Hallmark Channel.