Cover Story

Beyond therapy

A session on the 'Frasier' set finds Kelsey Grammer with a serious case of manic-expressive syndrome

It's vintage Kelsey Grammer. Blindfolded as Dr. Frasier Crane, he raises a glass of red. He sniffs. Sips. Ponders. Showing off his wine-tasting skills, Frasier's pompous psychiatrist is supposed to say: Big, good balance, perhaps a bit baked. Essence of truffles, long finish. Chambertin '76. But this is a rehearsal, and Grammer hasn't yet learned the line. So in his inimitable, Shakespearean baritone, he ad-libs: ''Big...full-bodied...nice t -- -...I'd do her!''

The camera crew laughs — perhaps more in accord with costar David Hyde Pierce's slightly shocked deadpan than Grammer's roguish smirk. Where Frasier takes great pains to strike the right impression at all times, the unfettered Grammer, 40, clearly doesn't give a Chambertin. Between scenes, he strolls confidently about L.A.'s Paramount Stage No. 25 like the big man on campus, rambunctious, jesting, goading. He confers with a propman (''That's the Wassily — that is a cool chair''), debates rock music with a cameraman (''The end of the '70s sucked. There were some okay groups...Foreigner...''). He's in especially high spirits on this October morning; later in the day he and his fiancee, ex-model Tammi Baliszewski, 31, are flying to Martha's Vineyard for the wedding of former Cheers mate Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen. But when a delay drags on, Grammer exhorts, with some annoyance, ''Let's go! Daddy's got a suburban to catch!''

As Jane Leeves, who plays loopy live-in caretaker Daphne Moon, describes him, Grammer is ''a big ol' curly bear.'' Well, he may be soft and furry — but he's got claws. If he tends to conceal them, it's because he appreciates his position as the head of TV's smartest sitcom — and the people who have helped put him there. ''Let's say you're doing Hamlet,'' Grammer says. ''If the guy playin' Hamlet is a twit, his energy will filter down to everybody else. If he's not polite or creative or gifted, people will start doggin' the show. They'll think, 'Screw it.' They don't put out their best effort.''

So what tone does Grammer strive to set? He sums it up in one word, ''Fun'' — then adds pointedly, ''competent fun.'' The Frasier staff's competence has placed the third-season NBC series at No. 9, standing tall against ABC's Home Improvement and besting that middlebrow ratings monster by earning five Emmys in September — including wins for outstanding comedy series and lead actor in a comedy (Grammer) and supporting actor (Pierce, who plays Frasier's fastidious brother, Niles). After the ceremonies, the star rewarded his cast and crew with gold Emmy statuette charms.

Frasier's benevolent dictator says he learned how to lead a TV ensemble from Danson, during Frasier's nine years as the brainiest barfly on Cheers. ''Ted was certainly very good at it,'' Grammer says. ''He wanted to have fun with it. He was a wonderful example, which I followed fairly well — and added a dash extra. I'm a little bit more vocal, a little more with my fingers in all the pots.''

The imposing, 6-foot-2 actor stirs those pots most vigorously during rehearsals. (And licks his fingers: Over the course of one morning he scarfs down french fries, popcorn, and Haagen-Dazs ice cream.) Gathered in a circle with the cast, writers, and producers during a run-through of this week's episode, Grammer starts by saying ''I have one problem.'' In the opening scene, Peri Gilpin's acerbic radio producer, Roz Doyle, mocks Frasier's zeal to join a society of wine connoisseurs, but, Grammer points out, ''Frasier has always been making fun of Niles and the wine club. This change seems rather abrupt.'' The writers furrow their brows and offer to work on it over the weekend. ''Other than that,'' Grammer adds slyly, ''I think it's...serviceable.''

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