Frasier's Benny Hill girl becomes Britain's best-paid actress in £20m deal

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The Independent Online

The former Benny Hill showgirl Jane Leeves is to be paid nearly £20m to continue her role as Daphne Moon in the American hit comedy Frasier.

The engineer's daughter from East Grinstead, West Sussex, is believed to have signed a three-series deal raising her earnings from £45,000 per episode to more than £250,000.

Leeves, aged 40, made a humble entrance into showbiz as a Hill's Angel on The Benny Hill Show but will now be the highest paid British actress in America. Before getting her big break with Frasier, she had been confined to minor roles in British TV series, appearing with Morecambe and Wise and landing a part as an extra singing 'Every Sperm is Sacred' in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. She even took a job as a dancer on the QE2.

However, aged 21, Leeves she gambled everything on a one-way transatlantic ticket to Hollywood. She sold her furniture and turned up in America with £750 and her suitcase, determined not to return home until she had made it.

For 18 months she worked in a factory, as a babysitter and as a souvenir sales girl to fund acting classes. After several minor roles, she was eventually spotted by Jerry Seinfeld when she had a small part in his sitcom as a virgin who seduced John F Kennedy. He persuaded the creator of Frasier, David Angell, to change their female lead from a Puerto Rican to an English woman.

She was cast as Daphne Moon, the show's daffy Mancunian physiotherapist, who cares for Frasier's crusty father, Martin, and is the object of his brother Niles's desire.

Frasier was an instant hit, winning 16 Emmys in its first five years. Leeves received her first Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series in 2000.

David Hyde Pierce, who plays Niles and earns £700,000 an episode, introduced her to her real-life husband, Marshall Coben, a senior executive of Paramount, which makes the show. They married in 1996 and she became pregnant with her daughter, Isabella.

Her lucrative role has already bought her a house in Malibu and a house in Los Angeles. She only works on Frasier for six months a year, allowing her time for other TV appearances and to run her own production company, Bristol Cities, which has recently won the rights to who The Vicar of Dibley in America.

Her film roles include Music of the Heart, opposite Meryl Streep, Don't Go Breaking My Heart, and the voice of the Ladybug in the animated film James and the Giant Peach.

She appeared on series including Murder, She Wrote, My Two Dads, Blossom, and Who's the Boss?; but her most celebrated role outside Frasier will remain her brief appearance on The Benny Hill Show during the 1970s. She remembered how she got the role when she was 18: "It was bizarre, as I had to go to his house, which had been furnished for him by the TV Times – and it showed. I had to go through a number of sketches with this lonely, unhappy man. Having said that, he was encouraging and told me I had talent."

Kelsey Grammer, the main star of Frasier, became the highest paid comedy actor in TV history last year when he won a two-year deal worth £1m per episode. John Mahoney, who plays Frasier's father, Martin, also earns about £700,000 an episode.

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