Kelsey Grammer: The darker side of TV's favourite shrink

Where do sitcom actors go when their series die? Kelsey Grammer hasn't had to answer that question for 20 years, which places him among the truly blessed of the acting profession. His record-breaking run as the dry-humoured psychiatrist Dr Frasier Winslow Crane has served him so well, elevating a once obscure jobbing actor into the grand poobah of the small screen, the highest paid actor on US television bar none, that the question has become almost irrelevant in his case. The end of
Frasier, whose final episode has just aired in the United States, frees him up to do whatever he wants, even nothing at all.

Where do sitcom actors go when their series die? Kelsey Grammer hasn't had to answer that question for 20 years, which places him among the truly blessed of the acting profession. His record-breaking run as the dry-humoured psychiatrist Dr Frasier Winslow Crane has served him so well, elevating a once obscure jobbing actor into the grand poobah of the small screen, the highest paid actor on US television bar none, that the question has become almost irrelevant in his case. The end of Frasier, whose final episode has just aired in the United States, frees him up to do whatever he wants, even nothing at all.

It's a story that fills other television actors, even the rich, successful ones, with both envy and admiration. Back in 1984, Grammer sidled on to the hit Boston bar show Cheers in a bit part everyone expected to disappear after a few episodes. But Dr Crane, with his broken marriage and his life leading precisely nowhere except to his favourite nightly perch at the bar, was a hit with audiences and producers alike. Soon he was as much of a fixture as Norm, Cliff, Sam, Carla and the rest of the gang. And when Cheers ended its marathon 11-year run in 1993, it was Frasier whom the writers and producers chose to bless with his very own spin-off series.

The rest is known to anyone who has idled with a TV remote any time in the past 10 years. Frasier smartened up his act, moved back home to his family and launched a whole new career for himself as a radio personality, dispensing the same cutting advice over the airwaves he had previously reserved for patients within the confines of his consulting studio. He traded the East Coast for the West, Boston for Seattle, the brahmin stuffiness of Beantown for the up-and-coming, free-wheeling capital of Microsoft, lattes and grunge.

Instead of sparring with his fellow grouches at the bar, he had a new cast of characters to contend with: notably his neurotic, uptight, snobbish brother Niles, their curmudgeonly dad Martin, and a succession of women who would attract the off-kilter romantic attentions of one - sometimes more than one - of them at any given moment.

Much of the success of Frasier, which, like Cheers, lasted 11 seasons, must be attributed to the on-screen chemistry binding Grammer to his co-star David Hyde Pierce as Niles. Their barbs have reliably provided the show's funniest one-liners; both actors developed an instinctive understanding for the maddening similarities and subtle divergences between their characters.

But Grammer also deserves praise in his own right for keeping his character fresh and unpredictable over what has been an extraordinarily long haul. (The only other television part to last as long was Marshal Dillon on Gunsmoke, played by James Arness from 1955 to 1975.) Frasier has always been a slick confection, its writing competent and well oiled but hardly radical or surprising. Despite its reputation in the States as a highbrow show, because of the long words and fancy cultural references, it has, for the most part, acted as a kind of televisual comfort food, engaging but perfectly bland. To the extent the show has had an edge - a hint of something darker, more brooding, more psychologically twisted - it has largely been down to Grammer, whose sunny demeanour belies an unmistakable hint of demons lurking beneath.

That dark edge is drawn directly from his life, whose setbacks and bereavements have been so colossal and so frequent that if anyone tried to work them up into a television series or a movie script, the story would fail because no audience could be expected to believe them. Grammer's parents split up when he was two, forcing him to leave the Virgin Islands, where he was born, and accompany his mother to a succession of homes in Florida and New Jersey. When he was 12, the father he had barely got to know was killed in a random shooting. A year later, the grandfather who had raised him dropped dead without warning.

When Grammer was 20, his sister was abducted outside a Red Lobster restaurant in Colorado, raped and stabbed to death. A few years later, his two half-brothers drowned in a scuba diving accident off their native island of St Thomas.

Nobody could reasonably be expected to withstand such an onslaught of appalling luck, and Grammer has spent much of his adult life either flirting with or seeking to resist the lure of alcohol and drugs. In 1988, he was arrested for drunk driving and cocaine possession, then arrested again two years later and sentenced to 30 days in jail for violating the terms of his parole. In 1996 he smashed his Viper sports car to pieces, again under the influence of alcohol, causing him to check in to the Betty Ford clinic to dry out for a couple of weeks before returning to work.

Bad luck and bereavement have continued to pursue him, even as he has enjoyed his public success. In 1993, as he was divorcing his second wife, Leigh-Anne Csuhany, she attempted suicide with pills and wine, only to miscarry their baby instead. On 11 September 2001, David Angell, the co-creator of both Cheers and Frasier and the man most directly responsible for shepherding Grammer's success, perished on one of the two hijacked aircraft flown into the World Trade Center.

No wonder the tabloids have enjoyed making hay with Grammer - even as they declare he is the nicest guy in the world. If it wasn't his romantic life that attracted them (liaisons with a dancer, a stripper, a make-up artist and a fashion model, two divorces, and three children born to different mothers), it was a succession of lurid side-shows and instances of what might be interpreted as celebrity petulance: Grammer admitting in court papers that he was the source of a notorious Tommy Lee-Pamela Anderson sex video, but alleging that it was stolen from him and never intended for public airing; Grammer suing his former talent agency for overcharging, and a estate agent who failed to tell him that the summer house he had rented in the Hamptons was next door to a building site; Grammer insisting on being transported by helicopter from his Malibu home to the Frasier set because the traffic was simply intolerable.

Grammer's saving grace throughout has been his absolute candour about the screw-ups and his driving determination not to let his demons get the better of him. As he joked when delivering the commencement address at the University of Massachusetts three years ago: "I am recognisable to many of you, if not for the fact that I've been on television throughout most of your lives, then for the fact that I've been in trouble throughout most of mine."

A few months later, Grammer told an audience at the Banff Television Festival in Canada how self-loathing had driven him to the "abyss of drug abuse and alcohol abuse". He acknowledged a problem dealing with intimacy, explaining that he always felt more comfortable in front of an audience than with a confidant or lover. "I have learned to love the 'kiss of eyes'," he said.

Acting, in fact, was his release from the time of his grandfather's death onwards. In high school he fell in love with Shakespeare, acted in a school production of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, and won admission to New York's prestigious Julliard School. To save money, he spent months at a time sleeping in Central Park, working as a hotel lackey and a builder in his spare time.

But his sister's death threw him off badly, and he was expelled from Julliard after two years for "lack of focus". He first trod the boards professionally at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, then returned to New York where he started picking up work in off-Broadway productions. He did Shakespeare opposite Christopher Plummer, whom he found "loathsome", then landed a regular part on the daytime TV soap Another World.

Cheers put him on the map, but made him neither rich - chalk that up to his tortuous divorces - nor, quite, a household name. Even after Frasier hit its stride, he never allowed himself to forget that he was still an ordinary actor grateful for the work and his next pay cheque. "You don't get into this business hoping to become famous or rich. You just get into it hoping to work," he has said recently.

Even after the 2001 contract negotiation which made him the highest paid performer in television history - roughly $1.6m per half-hour episode - he could not shake that primal hunger felt by so many actors. "The truth be told, if NBC called me tomorrow and said, we can't live without you - we have to extend the show for another year," he said, "I'd probably say, great, thank God, I could use another little piece of change."

Success with Frasier has certainly not made him immune to professional disaster in other venues. Four years ago, the curse of Macbeth worked its mysterious poison on Grammer, who flopped miserably on Broadway in the title role - the show closed after just 13 performances - and lost his entire $1.5m personal investment in the venture, directed by the Royal Shakespeare Company's Terry Hands. John Simon, the critic for New York magazine, wrote that Grammer "was not awful, merely unpoetic, untragic, uninteresting".

One senses that Grammer will continue to push his acting career in the post- Frasier era, if only as a matter of honour. His mostly forgettable list of extracurricular credits is graced with a few high points, notably his voice cameos in The Simpsons (as Sideshow Bob) and in Toy Story 2 (as the resentful, controlling Stinky Pete the Prospector). Later this year, film audiences will see him in something called The Good Humor Man, which he is also producing.

And then? There have been rumours of a possible Frasier spin-off, focusing on Niles and his wife Daphne, but no word as yet from the network honchos, and no indication if Grammer would even be involved. Grammer, a moderate Republican, has also floated the possibility of a political career - a run for the Senate from California, perhaps. A twice-divorced ex-addict with a criminal record would certainly make a refreshing change from the usual crop of freshly scrubbed conservatives preaching morality and family values. Just as long as Grammer isn't counting on surviving that particular game for another 20 years.

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born: 21 February 1955 in St Thomas, Virgin Islands. Father, a bar owner, died when he was a boy. Raised in New Jersey, then Florida by his mother and his grandfather.

Family: Married to Doreen Alderman (1982-1990, one daughter), Leigh-Anne Csuhany (1992-1993), and Camille Donatucci (1997-present, one daughter). Had a third daughter by make-up artist Barrie Buckner (1992).

Career: Trained at the Julliard School in New York. Appeared in San Diego and on and off Broadway in New York before landing the part of Frasier Crane on Cheers (1984-1993). Star of spin-off series Frasier. The part has won him three Emmys and a Golden Globe.

He says...: "I think it's your duty to overcome what you inherit in life. It's the David Copperfield line: 'Am I going to be master of my fate, or its victim?' I'm not gonna be its victim, though. I've felt victimised -- a lot."

They say...: "Grammer has parlayed a four-episode guest spot into almost certainly the most lucrative acting job in sitcom history." New York Times

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