The Tempest Toss’d Craft of Kelsey Grammer

“Shipwreck” was the metaphor I wanted for the title of this post on Kelsey Grammer (1955). Like the Sea Venture and the characters in The Tempest he hung fire on American Islands (born in the V.I., spent part of his youth in the Caribbean). And he has both suffered and caused many a misfortune. But the metaphor won’t do without qualification. For “shipwreck” implies fatality, yet Grammer, like the storied castaways, survived, rebuilt, embarked again, and sails to this day still.

Grammer is second generation showfolk, born on St. Thomas to a musician father who ran a coffee house and bar, and a mother who’d been been a musician and singer. The couple broke up when he was two years old, and Grammer was raised in New Jersey and then Florida by his mother and maternal grandparents. His father and grandfather died within a year of each other when he was 11 and 12, the first and second of numerous such blows he was to receive. The father had been targeted and shot dead by a mentally ill man. Fortunately, Grammer was able to escape into dramatics as a teenager at his Florida prep school, which led him to Julliard, where his classmates included Robin Williams, Mandy Patinkin and Christine Baranski. When he was a student there, his younger sister (and only full sibling) was abducted, raped and murdered by three men in Colorado Springs. (No joke, I wonder if one of the investigators was Joe Kenda?). Grammer, only 20 years old at the time, was called in to identify the body. Despondent over the loss, he left Julliard before graduating in 1976.

Fortunately, he stayed in the game. He want on to acquire a serious grounding in the theatre, with a three year internship at the Old Globe in San Diego and then a hitch at the Guthrie. And then, you guessed it, his next tragedy: in 1980 his two half-brothers died in a scuba diving accident off Florida. For the third time, theatre became his refuge. He was cast as Lennox in a 1981 production of MacBeth, getting to step into the lead for a stretch during the run. (His return to Broadway as the title character in 2000 was not as fortuitous). In 1982 he was cast as Cassio in a production of Othello at the Winter Garden, starring James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer. The same year, he was in the American premier of David Hare’s Plenty at the Public. In 1983 he was the original Playwrights Horizons production of Sunday in the Park With George and understudied in the original production of David Rabe’s Hurlyburly. After this initial spurt, Grammer got snatched up by television, but it’s plain as day that he’d had a highly auspicious beginning in the theatre, and his career success could have taken very different paths. As he sits in Fort Knox counting his money, I’m sure he has no regrets, but he could easily have spent the past 40 years strictly in the theatre, or making meatier films than the ones he ended up appearing in.

In 1984, at the suggestion of Patinkin, Grammer was cast in the role of Harvard educated Boston psychiatrist Frasier Crane on Cheers, a recurring role that was introduced as a love interest for Shelley Long’s Diane Chambers. His performance was such a smash that he remained with the show until its final sign-off in 1993. Grammer’s broadly played, lock-jawed blueblood character has lots in common with earlier ones played on television by the likes of Jim Backus and Louie Nye (in fact the character was initially named Frasier Nye, in homage to the latter), but was deepened and made more potent by Grammer’s training and his life experiences at prep school and amongst the yachting set. There is sly satire in his characterization but also fallibility, allowing the audience to love a privileged character they might ordinarily hate. Frasier is more clueless than arrogant; it makes him vulnerable and forgivable. In 1989, Grammer also began playing the recurring role of Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons; he has appeared on 18 episodes to date.

Around the time he joined the cast of Cheers, Grammer separated from his wife, dance teacher Doreen Alderman, whom he’d married two years earlier. It was during the second half of his Cheers run that Grammer surprised everyone by becoming tabloid fodder with some VERY un-Frasier like behavior. It started in 1988, when he was arrested for drunk driving and cocaine possession, earning a 30 day stretch in the jug. In 1990, another cocaine charge resulted in 3 years probation, a fine, and 300 hours community service. In 1991 he had two years added to the sentence for breaking probation with more coke possession. Alderman divorced him during this period. In 1992 he had a child out of wedlock with hair and make-up stylist Barrie Buckner. Later that year, he married former exotic dancer Leigh-Anne Csuhany. Though she was pregnant at the time, Grammer divorced her a year later, claiming she was abusive and had fired a gun at him. She then tried to commit suicide with wine and pills, resulting in a miscarriage.

Amazingly, on top of all this turmoil, the producers of Cheers gambled on a spinoff, entitled Frasier (1993-2004). At the time, I would have bet money that the show would quickly fold, not because Grammer wasn’t hilarious in the role, but because we’d already lived with it for eight years. And also the premise, to me, anyway, sounded lame. Not only are there an absurdly high number of sitcoms set at radio stations, there’s even a good proportion of shows about talk radio psychiatrists! A disproportionately high number, given the number of people in the real world who actually do that for a job. You can probably count them on both hands. (You probably don’t believe me about the number of shows with this premise, and that’s undoubtedly because most of them sank without a ripple after a single season. I’ll tally them up sometime when I don’t have anything better to do). At any rate, contrary to probably everybody’s expectation, Frasier became one of the most successful spin-offs in television history, earned Grammer several Emmys and a record-high salary, making him enormously wealthy. The success of the show (as with most hits) lies with the chemistry of the cast, especially David Hyde-Pierce as Frasier’s equally affected younger brother, Niles, and the incredible John Mahoney as their 180 degree opposite father, a gruff retired cop with a bum leg, adding a bit of Odd Couple style culture clash to fuel tension and plots (Cheers had had that as well). I am in awe of Mahoney, whom I’d watched in film and television for years without knowing that he was a gay guy from England — light years away from his Frasier character. Another English cast member was Jane Leeves as Mahoney’s physical therapist Daphne, who was from Manchester. And Peri Gilpin played Roz, Frasier’s exasperated boss. It was a very solid set-up for a classic sit-com — it kind of had echoes of the classics from every decade that had gone before. Audiences loved it. It ran until 2004, 11 years.

This despite the fact that Grammer’s personal problems continued throughout this period. In 1995 he was accused of sleeping with a babysitter, who was a minor. A grand jury chose not to take it to trial. In 1996 he had a drunk driving accident and went to rehab for 30 days. In 1997 he married model and dancer Camille Donatacci, who later became one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. In 1998 he sued a media organization for the return of a sex tape that been snuck out of his home. In 2001, there was more sadness in his life when David Angell, one of the writers on Cheers and a co-creator and producer on Frasier was killed on 9/11 (he and his wife were in one of the planes that struck the World Trade Center). The final episode in the series was dedicated to them.

In the post-Frasier period, Grammer continued working and his personal life seemed to simmer down somewhat. In 2004 he was Scrooge in a musical version of A Christmas Carol. He played Beast in the X Men movies. His production company Grammnet went on to produce numerous other TV shows including Medium (2005-2011) starring Patricia Arquette; The Game (2006-2009) and Boss (2011-12) starring Grammer as a ruthless Chicago mayor. He returned to Broadway in La Cage Aux Folles (2010-11) and Finding Neverland (2015-16). More recently he was in West End revivals of Man of La Mancha (2019) and The Boyfriend (2020). In 2011 he divorced Donatacci and married flight attendant Kayte Walsh. Walsh had miscarried a child while he was still married to Donatacci, and Donatacci threatened to released some of their old sex tapes.

On top of it all, Grammer remains one of Hollywood’s most prominent Republicans and he even committed the unforgivable act of supporting Donald Trump, not just in the past, but as recently as 2019. Sure, sure, he’s a rich white guy who doesn’t want to pay taxes, I get that part, though I don’t forgive it. But looked at in the broader scheme of his life? This is clearly a person who is most comfortable in a world of dark, dark chaos, the kind of guy, ironically, in deep need of a psychiatrist. “Beast”, indeed! Fortunately, his work exists as a partial redemption.