IRISH INDEPENDENT – November 12, 2005
Few lives are as dramatic or traumatic or just plain strange as Kelsey Grammer’s. From the violent murder of his father and his sister, to his own drug addiction and vicious physical and mental abuse at the hands of a string of ex-lovers, the star of Frasier could well do with some therapy from his alter ego. And yet there remains a childlike innocence and genuine kindness about Grammer. Ginny Dougary went snorkelling with him
DR FRASIER Crane hands me a towel, pats the sand between us on a glorious beach in yes! Hawaii, and says in that familiar sonorous boom: “Shall we begin?”
“Oh, hello. I’m Daphne. Daphne Moon,” I say, adopting my best cod-Mancunian accent. “Frasier Crane. Won’t you come in?”
I am introduced to Frasier’s father, Martin, and Eddie the dog. Soon it is time for the psychic routine. Frasier is describing my duties around the house, when … “Wait a minute, I’m getting something on you. You’re a florist.”
“No, I’m a psychiatrist.”
“Well,” I sigh, “it comes and goes. Usually it’s … strongest … during my time of the month … ”
Oh God, I’ve committed the cardinal sin of unscripted laughter. Frasier, ever the professional, presses on.
“Well, I think we’ve learned everything we need to know about you. And a dash extra.” Owlish look. That does it, I’m off again. What a bummer. Now I’ll never be able to leave the day job for Hollywood. Or, more particularly, for that cameo appearance in my favourite programme, which might lead to an occasional walk-on role that’s not asking for much is it? so I could spend my days hanging out with Niles and Fraze and Roz and Bulldog, making witty apercus over the double-skinny lattes. I mean, Simon, Daphne’s gruesome kid brother, is soohhh not right. Now what if her long-forgotten older sister were to show up, instead, and maybe she could be a psychiatrist, too? That, of course, might be a shrink too far. Or perhaps she could be a nanny and look after Roz’s child? Well, there’s a promising new plot line … Sorry, where was I?
You see, that’s the secret of Frasier’s success. Not only is it brilliantly written (and it has got better and riskier, for the most part, since that first episode) but once hooked, you are drawn into its world because of that rare alchemy between the players and their roles.
So although you knew that it wasn’t your actual Dr Frasier Crane sprawled out in the beach chair beside me, but the actor who plays him, Kelsey Grammer, I wonder whether most Frasier fans wouldn’t be more tickled by the idea of it being the character rather than the man behind him. (The very thought of Frasier snorkelling, for instance, is intrinsically funny.)
If we are guilty of the tendency to conflate life and art, so too is the actor. During the days we spend together in Maui, one of Hawaii’s most beautiful islands, where Kelsey and his wife, Camille, have just built a new holiday home, I am struck by how much more easily we engage when we talk about this or that character from the show, and how likely or not it would be for them to take a certain line on something. As if it were real.
The only times Grammer tears up to use his American parlance are not when he’s talking about Karen, his beloved, murdered younger sister, or his murdered father, or his half-brothers eaten by a shark, or his terrible childhood, or the wives who battered him and broke glasses over his head, or his cocaine and alcohol addictions, or his spell in prison, or his court case involving a teenage babysitter … but when he recalls a particularly emotional scene from Frasier. Which happens on no fewer than three occasions. But if you’d had a life like his, I found myself thinking, you, too, might find it more comforting to believe in the reality of a television show.
We first meet in Manhattan, backstage in The Music Box theatre, where he had just completed a gruelling couple of hours playing Macbeth. Gruelling, principally, because the production had been universally trashed by the New York critics. A couple of nights after our encounter, the play closes, a mere week or so after it had opened on Broadway.
Grammer started out in the theatre, after training at Juillard, on a repertoire devoted almost exclusively to classics, so it was particularly tough on him that Frasier’s unprecedented crop of awards coupled with its popularity meant that he couldn’t be taken seriously in a Shakespearean role.
The production, in truth, was hopelessly mismatched to a Broadway audience. It was uncompromising in its austerity; with no interval, the stage plunged into darkness throughout, the actors all in black contributing to the claustrophobic gloom. It is possible that it would have gone down better in an Off-Off-Broadway theatre; certainly Grammer would have been less vulnerable to hostile comments about his overweening ambition.
There is nothing in the least bit overweening about the actor I meet backstage. He seems sanguine about the appalling reviews, although obviously pleased when I tell him that I enjoyed his performance. I say that I was particularly struck by the visceral punch of witnessing Macbeth, the great warrior, unmanned by the force of his wife, and he walks over to give me a bear hug. We arrange to discuss the play further over coffee at his hotel the next morning.
The first thing you notice about Grammer, as he appears in the foyer, is that he doesn’t have the heft of Frasier. Even allowing for television’s tendency to exaggerate people’s weight, I did not expect the actor to be quite so slim and well-toned. Neither did I expect him to be dressed like an American golfer, in fawn slacks, a short-sleeved check shirt and sporty shoes. Frasier, of course, wouldn’t be seen dead in casual leisure (“leeeesure”) wear. And there were other little things which jarred: the way he walked into the restaurant before me, then ordered a black coffee for himself (sans caramel or cinnamon) without asking what I might like. It seems mean to flag these slight oversights, particularly since Grammer was so incredibly generous both as a host and interviewee in Hawaii, but they were the first outward signs that the actor was a very different creature from his fastidious creation.
We next meet, a month later, in the summer house in Maui. Grammer comes to the door wearing shorts, a Lacoste-type shirt and a baseball cap. He looks honey-brown and relaxed. Camille is upstairs taking a nap. I am taken on a brisk tour, and clock the large open spaces including a movie room, a gym, a courtyard with a giant tub, a sheltered area where the couple work on their all-over tans, and the landscaped garden with its infinity pool and infinite views of the horizon.
Then it’s into the golf buggy and down to the golf clubhouse where we are to conduct the interview, away from the distractions of home.
DESPITE the setbacks he has had the lovers who have betrayed him, the one-night-stands who have sold their stories to the papers, the family members who have attempted blackmail, and the rest the actor has the quality of an innocent. It is not that he is naive, exactly, more that he has this childlike enthusiasm for life. Yet, and this is awkward to express, one cannot escape the feeling that what makes Grammer such a refreshing change from so many stars his accessibility, his lack of pomp and circumstance, the pleasure he derives from pleasing others also enables one to catch a glimpse of what it was about him that laid him open to being so roundly abused.
The details of this abuse are listed in his unghosted autobiography, So Far … , which was published five years ago, when he was apparently through the darkness and into the light, with his then fiancée Tammi Alexander. In it, he recalls marrying Leigh-Anne Csuhany, a stripper he had met in a bar, right after the first beating, “just as soon as my black eye was gone”. He was attracted to her because she was strong, sexy, independent, outspoken, unafraid of anything and, most importantly, because she had no respect for or need of him. She repaid him by telling him that he was “so f**king” ugly”, that he was “so f**king stupid”, that his “acting sucks”, that he was “a piece of s**t”, that he made her sick.
Then: “She’d spit in my face. Slap me. Punch me. Kick me. Break glasses over my head. Break windows. Tear up pictures of my loved ones. Threaten to kill me, kill herself. Cut my balls off. Chop me up. Put a bullet in my head.”
Grammer filed for divorce, nine months later, just as Frasier was being launched. Csuhany tried to kill herself in a Malibu motel, swallowing five bottles of Tylenol pills. She survived, but their baby she was carrying did not. How on earth do you cope with such an extreme personal disaster when your professional life is taking off?
“It was very difficult,” Grammer says. “I thought I was going slowly insane. That my mind might explode. I don’t know if you’ve ever had that feeling, but it felt like I had a spike in my brain.”
I wonder whether that lack of self-esteem, which he has spent so many hours in therapy to overcome, may account for Grammer’s partiality for women who have made their living, in one way or another, by stripping off for men. I ask him, directly, if he is aware of that pattern? (Which, it hardly needs saying, is a somewhat tricky question.)
“Hmmmm,” he murmurs non-committally. Well, I wonder why that is? Have you never been attracted to women who are bright and classy and intellectually your equal, as well as being beautiful and sexy? “Certainly, they would appeal to me,” he says. “I’ve just never met them. It’s pretty rare that I would meet such people.”
Then he completely changes tack. “Maybe where you’re a little bit off-base is the assumption that a person who may have taken their clothes off for a magazine is not an intelligent, informed, compassionate human being,” he says.
“That might be an unfortunate presumption. Ahh. I’ve been with women for several months, even a year or so, that were educated who seemed to think that was more important than … being human.”
And, by the way, he says, his wife never posed nude for a girly magazine. “This is very important, because if anything was written like that, my wife would be very hurt. Deeply, deeply hurt.”
He goes on to explain rapidly, with a measure of sadness and distaste how Camille came to be filmed topless. He says she was a dancer on an MTV show, who had moved to New York in the hope of becoming an actress. Finally, she gets offered a part, only when she turns up for the shoot she’s told that it’s her breasts which are to play the major role in the movie … Oh, and, by the way, baby, if you don’t do it, you won’t get paid.
“Other than that,” Grammer says, “she hasn’t done anything I think she should be ashamed of. She has a beautiful body. She is a lovely woman. She’s also probably the most intelligent girl I’ve ever known. And she’s certainly an intellectual challenge to me.”
At some level, he seems to have forgiven Leigh-Anne, partly because she obviously had her own emotional problems, but principally because she has not sought to capitalise on their brief marriage.
Tammi, in contrast, according to Grammer, has been making a tidy sum selling titbits of their time together some real, some fabricated or exaggerated ever since their break-up. The more he talks about her, the more incensed he becomes. It is quite unnerving to witness the transformation; his easy-going mild manners replaced by a cold fury.
What about all those lovey-dovey articles you appeared in, you and Tammi at home in LA with your family of animals, proposing to her on the set of Frasier, and all the stuff you wrote in your book about how she was quite the nicest, most wholesome girl you’d ever met … ?
“Well, it was just my way ah I supported that because that’s what she needed to be in the relationship,” he says. “But she was a horrible, horrible human being.” As for her blabbing to the press including her most recent revelation that Kelsey was wearing Tammi’s knickers (a la Beckham) when he met the President “I’m disgusted with her,” he says. “I’m absolutely devastated. I find her to be one of the most reprehensible human beings that ever lived.”
Grammer finally called the engagement off when Tammi announced that she was intending to pose naked for a centrefold. “I mean, Camille wants to be a rocket scientist. She wants to be a person of substance who contributes to the world. This person just wants to be … a piece of ass! And I thought, ‘What are you … nuts?”‘
Before we move on to different terrain, we talk a little about politics (he’s conservative) and I ask Grammer what his view is on the death penalty. The question is out before I recollect that he has more than one reason to take a personal position on the issue.
“I have mixed … but that’s, of course, because my family has been murdered. I am still, however, reluctant to advocate the death penalty even though … ” he falters.
Karen Grammer was raped and stabbed to death in 1975 by three teenage boys outside the Colorado Springs restaurant where she worked in the kitchen. She was 18, two years younger than her brother and very much the kid sister. When she got into scrapes it was Kelsey who would bail her out. One doesn’t have to be a shrink to see why he would blame himself for not being there to protect her.
SO WOULD you like to see those men put to death? “Absolutely,” he says, “and I would like to pull the switch. And I’d be fine with it.” Have you ever thought about it? “I think about it almost constantly.” Would you prefer something more visceral? “I’d prefer to do it with my own hands. A gun wouldn’t be good enough. Eviscerate them. Cut them up. Yeah. That’s what they did to my sister, so … ”
All the while he is saying this, he is grinning. Which is odd until I realise that what I’m seeing isn’t a grin at all, but a terrible rictus of grief.
Is it true that they did it for kicks? “I guess. I can never get inside their minds, really. But she was the sixth or seventh person they’d murdered that night.”
It is extraordinary that all these tragedies have happened to one person, I say. I mean, no wonder there was a descent into “my cocaine and booze hell”!
“Hey,” a great release of laughter. “No, let’s not begrudge the man a drink! Please.” He says that the other deaths in his family were nothing like so deeply felt as the loss of his sister. “My father? Well, I did feel the growing impact of his death as I approached his age.”
Grammer’s parents met at a music school in New York, where his father, Allen, fell for Sally Cranmer who was training to be a singer. After leaving college and the army, Allen Grammer started a dance band with his girlfriend as the chanteuse. The couple moved to St Thomas on a kind of Dice Man whim. Allen opened a bar, played in a band, taught music to the islanders’ children and later went on, one reads with a certain measure of interest, to present his own radio show.
His wife, meanwhile, spent her days on her own with a three-month-old baby in a rat-infested home, and her nights listening to knife fights in the bar. When the marriage failed, she fled back to her family home in New Jersey where she gave birth to her baby daughter. Grammer’s father was murdered, when he was not yet in his 40s, in 1968; the killer surrounded Allen’s home with a circle of flames and then shot him.
The details of the rest of Grammer’s childhood help to provide the answer to that earlier question which had troubled him: “How did I get to the place where I felt that bad about myself?” His grandmother conjures an image of Bette Davis in one of her more terrifying roles: abandoned by her parents as a child, brought up by her aunts as an outcast, punishing her newly extended family for her own bitter legacy.
“She needed help. She needed attention,” Grammer recalls flatly. “My mum was going out to work selling men’s clothes, and I would go to school and then, from the age of about 12, I’d take care of things in the house. I’d make tea for Karen and me, and mix a drink for my grandmother, and then I’d make dinner.”
It is not a huge leap to see how a boy who was brought up in a matriarchal home to believe his role was to serve might grow into a man who was attracted to women who dominated him in whatever way they chose. He tells me that he was beaten not only by Leigh-Anne but also by his first wife, Doreen. When I ask him whether he is capable of violence himself, he says, yes, but that he has never inflicted it on women. “No, no. I’ve sat on them,” he laughs as though this is hysterically funny. “I’ve held them down. You know, asked them to stop hitting me.”
It is significant, he thinks, that his therapist for the past seven years is female, since so many of his problems stem from the difficulties he has had with women. “She’s really extraordinary but she’s also ahhhh,” a big pause, “probably the first relationship I’ve had where the person didn’t lie to me. The first person who stuck by what she said. Did what she said she would do. And that’s been an experience which is new to me.”
The Frasier shows that make his eyes well up are all to do with family loyalty, where one of the characters demonstrates the depth of his love for a sibling or parent. And it’s usually, I notice, Frasier who heals the rifts or cements the ties. He recalls a couple of episodes, his voice wavering.
I tell him that my personal favourite was the one where it emerges that it was the Crane boys’ late, saintly mother, rather than their father, as they had believed, who had had an affair with an old friend of the family. The man had just died, and Martin and his sons are looking at their old photo albums, and somehow inadvertently the truth comes out, and we see that the burnished innocence of the snaps told a lie. Oh no, you’re off again, I say. “I know. I know, that was a big one for me.” Gulp. “Because Frasier was dealing with the fact that Lillith had cheated on him, and then oooooohhhh he and Martin saw that they’d both had this experience in common.”
With all this talk of Frasier’s family, one wonders what Grammer’s relations are like, these days, with his own family: that is, what is left of it, namely his mother. He tells me that she comes to see the show every week: “She’s a fixture of appreciation. And she loved Macbeth.”
He says that she was not affectionate to him when he was growing up, but they are close now.
“She’s kind of quiet and she endures. Losing a child is probably one of the worst things that can happen to a human being, and I’ve always respected her for just surviving that.”
There’s a lot to respect in her son, too. Grammer’s been sober as they say for four years now, ever since he’s been with Camille, but he’s not about to trot out pious warnings about the perils of his former lifestyle. He used to do the odd “bump” (line of coke) when he was on Cheers, but mostly the cast would restrict their partying to after the show, and he says he had a ball. Eventually, however, he didn’t know how to have fun unless he was loaded and wired. “What started out as a small dull ache became more of a raging persistent agony, and the addiction was the only thing that tempered it.”
In the final months before he went into rehab for the second time, in 1996, he was snorting and drinking on his own, and that was no fun at all. “I hate talking about being sober,” he says ruefully, “because it’s so stoopid. But sobriety is a better trip for me. Now. I wouldn’t have liked it before. I was happily f**ked-up before.”
He has described his short spell in prison, for a drink-driving conviction, as a relief. Because you got beaten up less than at home? “Yeah, right!” he wheezes good-humouredly. “At least I wasn’t a punching-bag. Hohoho. That’s very funny.”
ON OUR last day together, Grammer took me snorkelling at his favourite beach. Flinging off his tennis shoes, he drew my attention to his buckled feet which are responsible for Frasier’s famous duck walk and said, “So there they are. Horrible, aren’t they?” And I thought, gosh, is there nothing you wouldn’t wish to conceal? And, indeed, during our long interview, the only subject he would not be drawn on was that messy business with the 15-year-old babysitter. (He was accused of having sex with the girl some years ago and although it didn’t lead to criminal charges, one can appreciate that it is not something he wishes to pick over.)
I was left with the impression that Grammer has, perhaps for the first time in his life, reached some sort of equilibrium. He plainly adores his wife and one hopes that this time he has found a woman who won’t let him down. Who does what she says, and says what she means.
Despite his fortitude, there was one comment he made which I found disturbing. Perhaps because it taps into the viewers’ strange relationship with television, where the line between what is real and what is not is increasingly losing its edge.
When he was talking about the negative reception of Macbeth, Grammer admitted that what alarmed him was the thought that, “‘Gosh! Is Frasier all I’m ever going to be allowed to do again?’ You know, that fear exists.” Which goes beyond mere typecasting. For what could be more existentially panicky than being trapped in a character whom you have played so successfully for so many years that your own personality has been somehow subsumed by your fictional self?
WE repair to the house to watch the sunset spread, like a beautiful bruise, across the skies. Camille comes out to join us by the pool. She’s a tiny-boned, pretty young woman, with an arresting brown-eyed gaze. When she’s not being animated, clapping her hands and beckoning Kelsey to watch the dog show on the TV (they are both animal nuts), she has a still, watchful quality about her.
He tells me that his wife is known by his friends as Camille The Real Deal: “She’s so brave. She’s taken so much flak, you know, for having the bad judgment to marry Kelsey Grammer, and she became the subject of a lot of tabloid nonsense. And she’s just a dear, sweet girl.”
She has certainly been brave enough to come out publicly about her Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which was diagnosed three years ago. Even her husband was momentarily shocked when she announced it on the Howard Stern show. But now he goes into rather more detail than I feel I need about its explosiveness, and the public embarrassment, and the way it makes people afraid to go out, including Camille since the couple are united in their campaign on the issue.
GRAMMER already has two daughters one from his first wife, the other by an estranged friend but he’s hoping to have more children with Camille. She has retired to the movie room with her parents, warm, friendly Italian-Americans, who are staying with the couple. Wrapped up in a blanket, her blonde hair tucked in at the nape, Camille looks almost childlike herself. Grammer glances her way, and his face softens.
“You see, my whole life I’ve been chasing the dream of having a family,” he says. “A mum and a dad, and a daughter and a son, living at home and coming home from work. And, granted, life as an actor is never going to be what you might call normal or stable I mean, dad disappears for three months to do a film but it is better to be a nuclear family. I never had that. And I want it. And so I’m gonna do my best to get it.”
12 Nov 2005 Administrator