By 1984, Grammer was an unknown stage actor and the producers of Cheers were looking to cast a new role. They’d originally envisioned John Lithgow as the psychiatrist boyfriend for Diane, but Lithgow was too busy. Patinkin passed Grammer’s name to a casting director, and Frasier Crane was born. Grammer was only 29, which seems weird in hindsight, given that Frasier seems perpetually 45.
That guest spot, of course, became a series regular, became a spinoff, became a career. When Grammer ended Frasier, in 2004, he’d tied the record for the longest time playing one character on prime-time TV (twenty years), previously held by James Arness as Marshal Dillon on Gunsmoke. (“Apparently, he’s not thrilled with it. That’s what I have heard,” Grammer has said.) Since then, he’s produced TV (Girlfriends for the CW and the Patricia Arquette vehicle Medium), tackled Shakespeare (Macbeth on Broadway), and looked for the right springboard back into your living room. He’s still looking. Last year, his sitcom Hank, about a fallen New York tycoon who moves to his wife’s hometown, was canceled after five episodes. One critic called it “bad in so many ways it’s hardly worth going into detail on them all.”
Grammer offers his own blunt postmortem: “It wasn’t funny enough.” The problem, he figures, is that “we eviscerated the characters. There’s an overriding concern these days to make sure that everybody’s likable. The prevailing note you get tends to be ‘Oh, that sounds so mean.’ Well, life’s hard. Comedy is generated a lot of the time out of negative, mean, tragic elements. We have lost our courage a little bit in television. Hopefully, it will come back.” Right now, he doesn’t know when, or if, he’ll come back. “Whether or not I’ll be in any more television, I’m not so sure. Certainly the great shows, there aren’t many of those.”
Last fall, after an avalanche of withering Hank reviews, Grammer called the president of Warner Bros. and said, “You know, maybe we should just put a bullet in this thing.” An hour later, he got the e-mail saying that Barry Weissler, a theatrical producer, wanted to know if he’d be interested in starring in La Cage aux Folles. Grammer reacted as he reacts to many things in his life. “I said, ‘Yeah. Why not? What the hell!’ ”
La Cage aux Folles started as a 1973 French play, which became a 1978 French film; then a 1983 Broadway musical (with music by Jerry Herman and book by Harvey Fierstein); a 1996 American film (The Birdcage); and a 2009 revival, first in London and now, opening April 18, in New York. La Cage tells the story of a middle-aged gay nightclub owner and his lover, a drag queen, who try to deceive the ultraconservative parents of their son’s fiancée by posing as husband and wife. In real life, temperamentally, Grammer probably falls closest to the ultraconservative parents. Onstage, though, he’ll play Georges (if you’ve seen The Birdcage, that’s the Robin Williams part) opposite British actor Douglas Hodge, who’s been brought over from the London production to continue as Albin (the Nathan Lane part). After the summer, Grammer hopes to take over the part of the wife-in-drag.
This combination of a (staunchly conservative) actor and a (flamboyantly gay) role might cause, for some observers, a certain mental dissonance. But La Cage, Grammer explains, is a universal tale. “It’s a great story about any couple. They all have the same dynamic: a heterosexual relationship, a homosexual relationship, a man-with-dogs relationship. There are universal events that take place: the differences, the angers, the insecurities, the histrionics. You would call it, I guess, a male-female dynamic. This just happens to be two boys.” I ask him about La Cage’s relevance today, given the Proposition 8 fight in California. He says, “Oh, right. Of course. You know I wasn’t even thinking of that. Isn’t it funny?” On the subject of gay marriage in general, he adds, “Why is the government involved at all? If two men marry or two women marry, fine, go ahead—it’s not my issue. But when governments get involved, it just becomes more confusing.”
Grammer himself has been married three times, including a second marriage to a former stripper that lasted only nine months. Describing that relationship in So Far … , Grammer wrote, “She’d spit in my face. Slap me. Punch me. Kick me. Break glasses over my head … It was hell. It was a nightmare.” During this marriage, he also fathered a daughter (his second) by a different woman, a longtime friend. As he once said of his past to Sean Hannity on Fox News, “Everything’s been brought up. That’s one of the things I’m actually free from. There is nothing left in my closet.” Which is good, because it’s proved to be a deep closet. He’s a former cocaine addict, with arrests for possession and drunk driving. His current wife, Camille Donatacci, was a Playboy model. In 1994, he was accused of statutory rape by the parents of a 15-year-old babysitter and was later exonerated. He also has a sex tape: In 1998, he sued the Internet Entertainment Group, claiming it had possession of a stolen tape. (The company denied it and the suit was dropped.) Grammer told Maxim: “You throw the tape in the back of a dark closet until your old girlfriend remembers it’s there because you’re famous now and she’s not. But if you’re not prepared to do the time, don’t do the crime.”