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Frasier seemed to emerge fully formed from its Emmy-winning first episode, as well-made as one of the titular psychiatrist's tailored suits. But creating a modern classic took years. First pitched as a show about a disabled New York publisher and his Latino nurse, Frasier struggled with behind-the-scenes issues even after its early success.
Guest stars would "freak out" at lead actor Kelsey Grammer’s bizarre working methods, and his alcoholism forced the crew to stage a dramatic intervention. Meanwhile, another eccentric cast member insisted on his costars wearing sardine oil behind their ears.
This week brings the news that Grammer is returning for Frasier reboot, set in a new city but hopefully with the original cast - minus John Mahoney, who sadly died in 2018. Updates of beloved TV invariably shows are greeted by howls of despair, but not this one. Frasier Crane has been sorely missed.
From its uncompromisingly high-brow references, to its quirky approach to rehearsals – the cast held "therapy sessions" for their characters – Frasier was unlike anything else on television. It had to be; it had the toughest act on TV to follow.
When Cheers ended its 11-year-run in 1993, much of America was in mourning. The barroom sitcom, hailed by author Kurt Vonnegut as television’s one true comic masterpiece, had become a fixture in many people’s lives, with more than 80 million tuning in to its final episode.
A few hoped to see Ted Danson’s barman Sam return in a new series, but there was one thing nobody wanted – more of Dr Frasier Crane, a character only introduced in the third season. In a 1993 poll asking fans which Cheers star deserved their own spin-off, just 2 per cent chose the barfly shrink.
But Dr Crane (well, Kelsey Grammer) had been planning his next move for years. In 1989, the actor cut a deal with three of the show’s former producers, who had left to create the moderately successful "Cheers in an airport" spin-off Wings – David Lee, David Angell and Peter Casey.
They agreed that, whenever Cheers ended, they would work with Grammer on a new series. They weren't yet sure what it would be, but there was one thing they knew for certain: it definitely wouldn't be about Frasier Crane.
"We frankly feared that anything we created for Frasier would pale in comparison to Cheers," Casey recalled in 2006. "Kelsey wasn’t particularly interested in continuing the character of Frasier either, so we came up with a new concept. Kelsey would play this very high-brow, eccentric multi-millionaire publisher (think Malcom Forbes) in New York who was paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident. He would run his publishing empire from his bed in his fabulous Manhattan penthouse. His live-in nurse would be a very street smart, dedicated Hispanic woman (we pictured Rosie Perez) who would be a thorn in his side, but bring out the humanity in him."
There was a problem: "Kelsey liked it, Paramount hated it." According to Casey, the studio was desperate to capitalise on Cheers's popularity, pleading with Grammer to revisit his best-known role. After he buckled, the writers reluctantly followed suit.
Their initial premise for the spin-off was to set the show entirely in a radio station, until David Lee came up with the idea of introducing an elderly, ailing parent for Frasier, inspired by his own experience of caring for his father after a stroke. Agnell and Casey helped to flesh the character who would become Marty, suggesting he should be a retired cop (as both their own fathers had been).
John Mahoney was their first choice for Marty, thanks to his impressive guest spot as an advertising jingle writer in an episode of Cheers co-written by Casey – although that cameo almost never happened.
As Casey would later explain in a blog post, they had originally cast a distinguished theatre actor in the role. "I will not reveal his name because he was a dear man, a good friend, no longer with us, and I don’t want him to be remembered for this," Casey wrote. "All week this actor was a little nervous, even though he had done a lot of live theatre, and was even a regular on a popular multi-camera sitcom in the Seventies.
"Flash forward to show day. Dress rehearsal at 3:00, filming at 7:00. The dress rehearsal went well. Everyone was happy. This actor then got in his car, drove off the lot, AND NEVER RETURNED... how utterly terrified must that poor man have been to do something like that knowing full well he would never get another TV acting gig again."
Panicked, the producers were forced to cancel filming his scenes and draft in an emergency replacement – Mahoney. If it hadn't been for that bout of stage-fright, we might have seen a different Marty Crane.
The Frasier team were keen on Mahoney from the outset, but the actor some wooing. He insisted (in a very Marty-ish move) that they fly out to Chicago to discuss the role over dinner at an eatery called Shaw’s Crab House. It was only with the seafood supper in place that he agreed to look at a script.
The studio gave gave an instant thumbs-up to Mahoney, and were similarly enthusiastic about casting David Hyde Pierce (then best known for the political sitcom The Powers That Be) as Frasier's aesthete brother Niles – a character thought up Sheila Guthrie, an assistant casting director.
Like Mahoney, Hyde Pierce had reservations. He felt he had little in common with the character – Mahoney, a wine connoisseur and opera buff, was closer to a real-life Niles – and was afraid of being typecast. Before Frasier's premiere, he begged the Screen Actors Guild (without success) to let him be billed simply as David Pierce.
"David Hyde Pierce sounds so snooty," he explained. "Why don't we just call me Sir David Hyde Pierce and drive a stake through the heart of any chance I have to escape being forever stereotyped as this character?"
Pierce also worried that Niles would be too similar to Frasier, just another psychiatrist, without any unique traits of his own. But when the pilot's director James Burrows suggested he wipe down a chair before sitting on it, Niles as we know him – the obsessive, fastidious germophobe – suddenly clicked into place. "It was a whole facet of the character that just popped out of that one piece of business," Hyde Pierce later said.
Casting Frasier's radio producer Roz Doyle and Marty's physiotherapist Daphne Moon was more difficult. Essex-born actress Jane Leeves was the producers' first choice, but Grammer was set against having a British Daphne (preferring the original idea of a Hispanic nurse), and claimed having a live-in helper with an English accent would make Frasier too similar to Seventies sitcom Nanny and the Professor. After much pleading, he begrudgingly agreed to read a scene with Leeves, on the condition that the two of them were left in the room together.
"He went in, closed the door, and we were left in the outer office sweating," Casey later recalled. "About one minute later the door flew open, Kelsey strode past us saying, 'She’s in,' and left."
For Roz, it came down to a choice between two actresses: Peri Gilpin and Lisa Kudrow. Kudrow was actually given the part, but failed to click with Grammer in rehearsals (the writers felt she wasn't intimidating enough), and so called in their back-up choice. It worked out well for Gilpin, but also for Kudrow, who found fame just months later as Phoebe in NBC's Friends.
Frasier wasn't just set in Seattle – it created Seattle, presenting the city as a cultured utopia of faultless coffee and refined conversation. No real-life apartment has a view quite like the one seem from Frasier's window (it was taken from a clifftop in Kerry Park), but it helped to give Seattle an allure that saw a boom in the local housing market, and slowly changed its character.
"Locals scoffed when Dr. Frasier Crane brought his condo-dwelling, wine-sipping, opera-going ways to an imaginary version of Jet City... As usual, Hollywood had gotten it wrong," the Seattle Times' TV critic wrote in 2004, boggling at his town's transformation.
"11 years later, a metropolis of increasingly urban and urbane preoccupations inhabits the spot where Jet City once stood... Seattle – once known for Pearl Jam and Nirvana – now has the highest per-capita opera attendance of any city in the nation."
How different things would have been if it was set the writers' first choice of locale: Denver, Colorado. They wanted to set the show far away from Boston, to discourage NBC from packing it with cameos from other Cheers characters popping in on their way to the local bar. Denver seemed a safe distance away.
In 1992, however, Colorado voted for an amendment aimed at blocking all LGBT+ civil rights laws. It was blocked by the state's supreme court in 1994, but for two crucial years while Frasier was in development, Colorado was making national headlines for all the wrong reasons. The state suddenly seemed a poor fit for Frasier's open-minded ideals, so the good doctor packed his bags and headed west.
Grammer could be challenging to work with, from his mild foibles (he "likes to refrigerate the soundstage", according to one guest-star, believing a chilly room is better for comedy) to his more serious issues, as a recovering alcoholic with a history of substance abuse.
In 1994, Grammer crashed his car after drink-driving and had to be pulled out of its wreckage. He was uninjured, but the crew halted production for a month, and sent the star to rehab at the Betty Ford Centre. According to head writer Christopher Lloyd, even when Grammer's drinking was at its heaviest it never affected his performance. "I could put on a tape from the week before he went into Betty Ford and a tape from the week after he got out, and you wouldn't be able to tell which was which," Lloyd has said.
Even after he was sober, his eccentric approach to work continued to cause dismay and bemusement among his colleagues. Grammer uses a unique acting system he claims to have invented in the Seventies, called "requisite disrespect". In simple terms, this means skipping rehearsals and refusing to learn his lines until the last moment.
"You have to care about it so much that you finally get to a place where you don't care at all," Grammer explained in a 1997 interview with US Weekly.
"It's insanity, but it works for him," David Hyde Pierce told the magazine. "We have a last final run-through in the makeup room from 6:30 to 7 before we do a 7 o'clock show, and he's not even close on a lot of the lines."
According to Peri Gilpin, "The poor guest stars [would] always completely freak out" at Grammer's methods, while even writer-director David Lee has said "in the early days [it] used to terrify me".
"But he thinks it makes it more real," Lee added, defending the odd technique. "You do get the feeling the words are just occurring to him as he says them."
Usually, Grammer would only attend a single read-through of the script, then just one rehearsal on set before filming. But he couldn't be accused of not taking it seriously. Grammer brought such intensity to his scenes that he often break down in tears during the read-through, and even in recording.
"Kelsey is extremely emotional, usually till the day before we tape it, and even while it's taping he might have to do it a couple of times: he gets very teary," Mahoney told The Telegraph in 1998.
There was a reason why his tears were so close to the surface. Grammer's father was murdered when he was just 12 years old, his sister was murdered when he was 20, and his two half brothers drowned five years later. The TV show gave him a new family, with Mahoney becoming a kind of surrogate father to him, allowing Grammer to deal with his suppressed trauma. "There's just a sort of huge hole in my life that I'm now discovering is a hole as a result of having this relationship with John," he said in 1998.
Grammer's strong feelings on set were matched only be his strong appetite. An LA Times reporter, visiting the set, noted that while other actors were digging into their characters, Grammer was "digging into fresh supplies of sushi, mustard, nachos and onion dip from craft services".
He would start off every morning with burger patties and pickles ("There were several years when I couldn't even look at that," Hyde Pierce has admitted), then reportedly steady his nerves with a burrito or a bucket of chicken wings before filming.
In a 1994 interview with the Washington Post, Grammer barely stopped chewing long enough to speak. "It's pretty disgusting watching him eat," his queasy interviewer wrote. "Grammer likes his Bloody Marys made with sake, his french fries slathered in Grey Poupon and his hamburger dipped in great green globs of guacamole." Appropriately enough, it is Grammer's voice singing the show's foodie theme-tune, Tossed Salads and Scrambled Eggs, over the closing credits of every episode.
Grammer may have played the title role, but the show's runaway star was a dog called Moose. Playing Marty's beloved Eddie, the mutt with the thousand-yard stare, Moose received more fan-mail than any other cast member. In 1993, he even became the cover star for an issue of Entertainment Weekly, which revealed that his stand-in for rehearsals was also “his live-in girlfriend, Folie, known by the cast as Mrs Moose".
Despite his loveable on-screen persona, Moose was often aloof towards his human costars; he wouldn't give them a friendly lick unless they had smeared sardine oil behind their ears (or, on one particularly desperate occasion, liver pate).
Nonetheless, one cast member respected his acting chops. "He’s a method actor," Jane Reeves gushed to Entertainment Weekly. "I had one scene where I had to scold him and tell him to get off the couch. And for the whole week he was distant and cold. I couldn’t understand it. Later I figured out he was using that anger for the scene. I really respect that.”
Moose had more success than Grammer in parlaying his TV fame into Hollywood success. The human actor's first major leading film role was in 1996's expensive critical flop Down Periscope. Meanwhile, Moose starred alongside his son (and occasional Frasier stunt-double) Enzo in My Dog Skip, which made a much larger profit on its small budget, and met with warm reviews.
Moose appeared in 192 episodes of Frasier, before retiring in the eighth season due to poor health, and handing the baton to Enzo. Moose passed away in 2006.
Around 33.7 million US viewers tuned in to the final episode in 2004, in which Frasier caught a plane to Chicago, to be reuinited with his girlfriend Charlotte. (Chicago is thought to be the setting of the new reboot.) Bidding farewell to Marty in his Seattle apartment, he began to recite a few lines from Lord Tennyson's poem Ulysses ("To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield"), before a seamless cut showed him finishing the poem in a radio broadcast.
His final on-air farewell felt as if it was directed towards us, rather than to Dr Crane's fictional audience: "For 11 years you've heard me say, I'm listening. Well, you were listening, too. And for that I am eternally grateful. Goodnight, Seattle."
It was a touching moment, but any long-term fans would have had a lump in their throat a few scenes earlier, as a workman carried away Marty's hideous but comfortable armchair. Specially made by the props department using offcuts of Seventies fabric, the chair had remained in the centre of the apartment set since the very first episode. The chair – which Frasier initially loathed, but later learnt to love – came to represent his relationship with his father; awkwardly mismatched at first, but later treasured. As a clever Easter egg, the removals man was played by Cleto Augusto – the same actor who had dropped it off at Frasier's flat 11 years earlier.