Ladies and Gentlemen, Your Next Republican President

Photo: Jake Chessum

Kelsey Grammer is a flaming Republican. He’s out, he’s loud, and he’s proud. He attended George W. Bush’s inauguration in 2001, and he once joked while guest-hosting The Late Show With David Letterman, “I’ve recently come out of the closet. I’m a Republican in Hollywood.” In 2007, he donated money to Rudy Giuliani and later stumped for John McCain and remains casually friendly with them both. Yet Grammer’s “secret” can still rankle his fans. “I was talking to a gal I know, a massage therapist,” he says. “She said, ‘I heard something that’s upsetting me. Are you a Republican?’ I said, ‘Well, yes. I am.’ She said, ‘How can you?’ ”

Grammer is not only Republican; he’s pro-liberty (“The greatest treasure in all of America is the individual”), anti-stimulus (“I’m not sure that it stimulated anything”), pro-choice (“but I don’t advocate for abortion”), unmoved by health-care reform (“If it takes six weeks to get a license plate, imagine what they’ll do with an MRI”), and agnostic on Sarah Palin. “I don’t like that so many women are willing to beat up on an attractive woman. That said, she wasn’t ready. Obviously. In twenty years, she could be a formidable force.”

We’re having lunch in a corner booth at Ben’s deli in midtown. It’s me, Grammer, and Grammer’s personal assistant, who’s keeping an eye on the time. Grammer’s explaining to me why he’s a bootstraps conservative. “Take Captain John Smith. When the [Jamestown] colony was settled, during that first winter, you had all these settlers who weren’t accustomed to doing things for themselves. They were used to being elitists. So John Smith said to the settlers, ‘You guys are going to have to start planting food. And you’re going to have to do things to survive. And if you don’t, you don’t eat.’ ”

As we talk, his assistant scans the menu and picks out a lunch for him. She suggests the Hungarian goulash and stuffed cabbage and holds out the menu. He glances at it and declares cheerily, “Yeah, let’s have it. That sounds great. What the hell!” The waitress, who’s been circling our table like a planet orbiting the sun, soars in to take Grammer’s order, then spirits off to the kitchen. My order is not taken. I have Diet Coke for lunch. But I blame myself. I would not have survived long in John Smith’s Jamestown colony.

Grammer concludes: “I’m a real small-government guy, that’s where I live. I come from a fundamental place that you help the people who can’t help themselves. But there are precious few who can’t. And that’s it.”

If his positions sound like a stump speech, it’s not by accident. He’d like to run for the U.S. Senate one day in California, as a Republican. For now, though, he’s got other places to be. He needs to finish lunch and get back to rehearsal by 2 p.m. He’s about to star in a revival of the musical La Cage aux Folles, as one-half of arguably the gayest couple ever to alight on a Broadway stage.

It’s absurd to point out that Grammer is best known for playing Dr. Frasier Crane, first on Cheers, then on Frasier, a role for which he won four Emmys, two Golden Globes, and pretty much every other trophy you can win for being funny on TV. And you might have trouble picturing Frasier—the Chardonnay-swilling, tweed-wearing, no-doubt-arugula-favoring psychiatrist—as a willing wingman to John McCain, let alone his potential heir.

It’s not hard at all, ironically, to picture Frasier as one-half of a gay couple. The relationship between Frasier and his brother, Niles (played by David Hyde Pierce, a gay actor), had the crackle of a romantic entanglement as imagined by Noël Coward. “We always called it the Recessive Gay Gene on the Frasier show,” Grammer says. “We were very open about it. So yes, my rendition of a straight guy is probably a lot more minty than, you know, a stevedore’s.”

Grammer has roots as a song-and-dance man—or, at least, a song man. (“I’m not much of a dancer. I have notoriously challenged feet.”) One of his last jobs before Frasier Crane was in Sunday in the Park With George in 1984.

Grammer had taken a long, strange road to the New York stage; as he writes in his autobiography, So Far … , his life has been haunted by tragedy. He was born in the Virgin Islands, and his parents split when he was 2. His estranged father, a former bandleader turned magazine publisher, was shot to death when Grammer was 13. By 17, Grammer was a long-haired surfer hooked on acting: He moved to New York in 1973 to go to Juilliard on a full scholarship, where he was classmates with Robin Williams, Mandy Patinkin, and Christopher Reeve, but got kicked out in his second year. The next year, when he was 20, his younger sister, Karen, was raped and murdered in Colorado. When Grammer was 25, his two younger half-brothers, fraternal twins, both died in a scuba accident.

Photo: Jake Chessum

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.”

Also, he believes in psychics. He recently launched, along with his psychic friend Ron Bard, an Internet community for people interested in all things paranormal called the Channel Channel. “It always seemed to me that there was an energy that was easily accessed, that wasn’t evident in the five senses,” he says. “Maybe it was intuition. Maybe it was faith. I’ve had some mind-bending events. I don’t discuss them much because there are other people involved and I want to respect their privacy. But voices, moments, presences, personalities that are from thousands of years ago are still available through this psychic energy.”

The Channel Channel is part of an online network that includes Kelsey Live, his personal website and an experiment in “branded social media.” Kelsey Live is positioned as a kind of mini-Facebook, where Grammer fans can gather. (Each profile page, along with Name, Gender, and Birthday, lists “Favorite Kelsey Show.” Frasier is a popular choice.) “They organized this Valentine’s Day karaoke sing on it,” says Grammer. “One hundred and fifty people posted little karaoke videos for their loved ones, or just for the rest of the people to see. I was actually moved by it.”

Did he post a Valentine’s video?

“No, I did not. They all asked me to. I said, ‘I’ll just watch this year.’ ”

It’s mid-March, so at this point Kelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodge have only been a couple for two weeks. But I figure it’s not too early to ask Hodge, a boyish 49-year-old with a crown of curly brown hair, how Grammer rates, kissing-wise.

“He’s one of the best I’ve ever had,” says Hodge. “It’s like kissing John Wayne.”

After a recent rehearsal, the pair has retired to Iguana, a midtown Mexican restaurant and Grammer’s usual post-rehearsal refuge. Since they both arrived in New York—Hodge from London, Grammer from L.A.—Hodge has been out seeing Broadway shows nearly every night: The Scottsboro Boys, A Behanding in Spokane, Hair. Grammer mostly sticks to his hotel.

By day, they’re busy falling in love. So far, it’s going well. A woman with the show told Grammer, “Just once I’d like a man to look at me the way you look at him.”

I ask Hodge (who is straight) and Grammer (also straight) whether there’s anything problematic, artistically or otherwise, in playing a gay couple. “Most people just say to me, ‘You are gay,’ ” says Hodge. “And I say, ‘I’m not.’ And they say, ‘No, you are.’ [Sir Ian] McKellen said that to me. He came over and sat on my lap.”

“McKellen said that to you?” says Grammer. “I think he said the same thing to me. And I was playing Beast in X-Men.”

“What I think the play is really about is making a family,” Hodge says.

“In a sense, these two characters end up reflecting a far more traditional picture of Mom and Dad than most of us ever had,” says Grammer. “It’s almost Walton-esque.” He describes a moment in the show when Georges and Albin are out together and Albin is passing as a woman, which frees them to interact publicly in ways they can’t as two men. “And Georges suddenly realizes, Oh my God, for the first time in his life—” Grammer pauses.

He is welling up.

“For the first time,” he continues, eyes teary, “he can stand up and dance. With his wife. It’s really romantic.”

“I’m not a Method actor,” he says later. “I think all you can do is wade into the waters and, if it’s working, all the love you’ve ever felt in your life, all the tragedy you’ve ever felt, all the things personally that you’ve endured, they will be there. We have this thing—this creative imagination or whatever you want to call it—that lifts us to a supernatural connection with emotion.” He looks around the table. “Does that make any sense? A little too weird? A little too wacky?”

Hodge recoils in mock horror. “I’m English. Calm down! Did you just say ‘supernatural’?”

“You’re right. I’ve got to shut up,” Grammer says.

I mention to Grammer that he should invite his friend Giuliani to the show, particularly given the former mayor’s own history with drag.

“Oh, he’ll come see it,” Grammer says. Then he suggests that the mayor’s drag act, along with his complicated marital history, came back to haunt him during his presidential run.

But wait, Kelsey Grammer: You have a complicated marital history. And you’re about to perform in drag. Will that prevent you from being president?

“Oh, no—I’m a new generation,” he says.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Your Next Republican President