David Hyde Pierce at the Guthrie Theater: From Chekhov to “Frasier”

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I’ve got a secret: I love Frasier. Insanely. Over-the-top. Hence my embarrassingly enthusiastic response to the opportunity to cover David Hyde Pierce’s appearance at the Guthrie Theater on March 13 as part of the Guthrie’s In Conversation with Joe Dowling series.

But apparently I’m not alone. Hundreds of people turned out, nearly filling all the seats around the Wurtele Thrust stage—currently set for The Winter’s Tale. The faux-Grecian columns with their gold doors served as an oddly perfect backdrop for an informal chat between the renowned Twin Cities dramaturg and the actor behind one of TV’s most lovable neurotics.

In person, Pierce, 51, is frank and charming, with subtle and self-deprecating humor (including a gracious response to the audience member who enjoyed his acting back when he had “more hair and less name”). He also has a deep understanding of the role of art in culture. As part of the Guthrie company from 1983 to 1986, he found an unexpected liberation in the authoritarian directing style of Lucian Pintilie, who decided to take some creative license with Chekhov’s The Seagull. Pierce put absolute trust in his director and learned that “you can take a classic play and just ruin it,” a statement that earned a laugh from the crowd.

This liberated approach to classic theater led Pierce to a transformative experience when he toured the former USSR. There, he learned that “every word is precious.” Words take on different hues of meaning in different contexts: “Are you free tonight?” meant something entirely different in the USSR. And it taught him total creative fearlessness—to hold nothing back and not worry about what other people think. “Why be normal if it prevents you from being extraordinary?” he asked.

Artistic open-mindedness ultimately led him to the last place one might expect to find a classically-trained actor: Hollywood. His first experience in television—a short-lived show called The Powers That Be—soured him on sitcoms and he swore he’d never do another one. But some writers contacted him about a little pilot they were putting together—a spin-off of Cheers, they said—and he was intrigued. Thus, Frasier was born.

Pierce’s original impression was that the pilot script was terrible, his character too similar to that of Frasier. But the cast had great chemistry, and filming before a live audience made stage dynamics easier for Pierce to navigate. The result: a standing ovation. By the second season Frasier was in the Must-See TV lineup. The show was an instant hit.

Part of the show’s success came from real-life issues. The writers decided that Martin Crane, Frasier and Niles’s father, should live with Frasier because one of the writers was going through a similar experience. They figured many Baby Boomers knew what it was like to be recently divorced, their newfound freedom suddenly curtailed by taking in aging parents. Pierce found this sincerity at some times meaningful, and at other times, cloying. But fortunately, he said, the writers and actors usually resolved these issues through their great respect for, and trust in, one another. This trust ultimately led to the development of strong and well-understood characters

Character development is an important component of any long-running TV series. Great writers know how to use it to their advantage in plotting, and the audience trusts it’s in good hands and goes along for the ride. So on Frasier, when, for example, Niles is in a room and Daphne enters, there’s instant conflict, setting the plot in motion.

Speaking of that particular conflict…fellow Frasier fans are probably asking by now, “So, what about Niles and Daphne?” For those who don’t know, Niles had a mad infatuation with Martin Crane’s physical therapist Daphne Moon from the first episode on—despite being married at the time to the never-seen Maris, whom he eventually divorced. During the separation and divorce, his infatuation blossomed into a deep love, which he finally confessed to her…on the eve of Daphne’s wedding to Donnie Douglas. Mayhem ensued, and of course Niles and Daphne ended up married. Pierce said that ultimately, the decision to bring Niles and Daphne together was about being true to the characters. If the love went unrequited forever, he said, “it would make her an idiot and him ridiculous.”

But all good things must come to an end—and at the beginning of the 11th season, the producers informed the writers and cast that they were ending the series. They did so deliberately, however, said Pierce, in order to end the story on their own terms—which is the only way to complete a genuine labor of love.

Those who missed the Frasier boat the first time around can still catch the show at 4:00 and 4:30 p.m. weekdays on Channel 45. For a 90s spin-off of an 80s sitcom, you might be surprised by how enjoyable—and rare—good television writing and acting can be.