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'Frasier' star survived with friends' help

Dr. Frasier Crane will be signing off the air. And what about its leading man, Kelsey Grammer? Despite the laughter he helped generate for more than a decade, the actor had many difficult issues to overcome -- with some help from his friends.
Frasier Finale Party
Actor Kelsey GrammerFrazer Harrison / Getty Images
/ Source: Dateline NBC

For 11 years, "Frasier" has set the standard. With 31 Emmys, it's the most honored television comedy of all time. But now the renowned radio psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane will be signing off the air. And what about its leading man, Kelsey Grammer? Despite the laughter he helped generate for more than a decade, the actor had many difficult issues to overcome -- with some help from his friends.

Tragedy plus time equals comedy

Kelsey Grammer: “Creativity, basically, is the result of people that have suffered and are trying to figure out why or why it's important. And the more you suffer, the harder you strive to express that.”

Of all his golden achievements, from Emmys to a star on the Walk of Fame, his greatest may be that he has been able to pull laughter from the trenches of sorrow.

Grammer: “My energy was focused on trying to create something out of that and I think that's kind of a testament to the human spirit.”

Just as the mask of comedy delineates the man who for 20 years has amused millions, so does the mask of tragedy that he inherited as a boy. Children of divorce, Kelsey and his little sister lived with their mother and grandparents. When his grandfather, Gordon Cranmer, suddenly died at 63, 12-year-old Kelsey lost the beacon in his life. It was the first of three scorching losses.

Katie Couric: “Gordon pretty much raised you?”

Grammer: “Yeah. Yeah, it was Gordon that, you know, put the foundation of what it was to be a man. And also, he taught me to have courage to trust my imagination.

What captured the imagination of a grieving kid, coming of age in the late 60s, was the turbulence of another time...

Grammer: “I started reading Shakespeare. It was the first assignment of the play Julius Caesar in my seventh grade class. That started me thinking. That got me going. That really twigged my brain. Up until then, I was more into math. I was going to go to Naval Academy actually.

Instead, the Bard recruited him for the stage. Kelsey says it was the anguish of Brutus, Caesar's best friend and reluctant assassin, that resonated in junior high.

Grammer: “The character of Brutus, you know, was a stoic that basically said that no matter what happens to you in life, you are in charge of your feelings. That appealed to me, I was going through a lot of pain and I felt really alone. And I thought you know, when as Cassius actually says, ‘The fault is not in the stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings.’ That caught my ear as well.”

Couric: “A pretty sophisticated fare for a seventh grader by the by.”

Grammer: “You know what, I was always kind of a loner, so I had a lot of time to think.” [laughter]

But murder in art, even as compelling as Shakespeare wrote it, could not fully prepare Kelsey for its magnitude in life. It was the cause of death for not just one, but two people in his immediate family. The first was his father, inexplicably shot and killed in the Virgin Islands, where he lived. It was shocking news, yet remote to a 13-year-old in Florida who had met his dad only once. Twenty-five years later, the tragedy sunk in.

Grammer: “When I was 38, it suddenly occurred to me what a young man he was when he died, how much there was ahead of him. I'm sorry I didn't know him. But I'm just sorry that that person didn't have a chance to finish his life.”

His younger sister had even less of a chance. The sharp reality of her death immediately hit home.

Couric: “Your sister's murder was devastating.”

Grammer: “Yeah, that was the big one. Yeah. That was the one that broke faith for me.”

Dramatic acts of nature, especially thunder storms, mesmerized Kelsey and his little sister when they were young. So it made perfect sense when, after high school, Karen migrated to the place that inspired "America the Beautiful." But Colorado Springs was hardly "crowned by brotherhood" on a summer night in 1975, when Karen Grammer was murdered. She was only 18.

Couric: “What happened, Kelsey.”

Grammer: “She came across three young men that were robbing the Red Lobster where she was working. And she confronted them. They abducted her, raped and -- and killed her when she tried to get away from them.”

Couric: “I would think that kind of loss would be next to impossible to reconcile, and I would feel so enraged. I don't know what I would do with myself.”

Grammer: “Well, there's a lot of anger I had for -- especially for the first couple of years. I couldn't let go of that.”

If Brutus fell on his sword to kill the pain, Kelsey, then 20, gutted himself, too, although more slowly. As he honed his craft in plays, soap operas, and finally, at age 29, in prime time, he plunged the blade deeper. With explosive marriages, cocaine addiction, drunk driving, jail time, probation, for a time, he appeared hell-bent on living life fast and furious.

Grammer: “Because it's fleeting and it's bound to disappear. So as long as it's going to go, may as well go full throttle.”

That metaphor "full throttle" proved eerily prophetic, when two years later, in 1996, Kelsey flipped his sports car. He sustained only minor injuries, though his pride was badly bruised. The fault, he readily admitted, was "not in the stars," but in himself. His need for alcohol had spun out of control. But it didn't seem to affect his performance.

Kelsey says he never drank at work and publicly the show had not suffered. In fact it thrived, boasting more than a dozen Emmys by the end of its third season.

Despite the sitcom's success, Kelsey's TV family couldn't help but see that he was struggling with personal demons.

John Mahoney: “Whatever problems Kelsey went through, he only hurt himself. He never treated us with anything less than respect and dignity and we never had any problems. You couldn't even dislike him because he's never done anything to you. You just have to watch as he's destroying himself.”

Physician, heal thyself

The car crash in September, 1996 compelled Kelsey's colleagues to act. They reached out to the Betty Ford Center for advice and then summoned the courage to go to his home.

David Lee: “It was very late at night, it was almost midnight -- I still have a vivid image of ringing the gate and Kelsey coming to the door in his bathrobe, and saying 'go away, go away, I don't want you here.’ And at the same time, opening the door.”

He had been in trouble before, but Kelsey recognized this time was different.

Grammer: “Throughout my whole life, the one thing I had never lost was hope. And for about three weeks, I had lost hope.”

John Mahoney: “It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life because basically, it's kicking a dead horse. It's going to somebody's house whom you love, who's down, and just beating him down even further for his own good. And it was -- it was horrifying.

Nervous about confronting their friend, the cast rehearsed what to say with therapists trained in interventions.

Peri Gilpin: “We were taught not to say anything shaming or embarrassing, just to sort of state the facts. Try to keep our emotions back and be honest.”

Couric: “Were you scared?”

Gilpin: “Yeah, it was terrifying, only because we didn't know what we would be met at the door with.”

Lee: “The scary thing was we didn't know if it would work and we really wanted it to. And that was terrifying. That we thought we could go through all of this and have him say, sorry. Nah.”

Gilpin: “But I saw a man who was ready to make a big change in his life.”

Informally raised a Christian Scientist, Kelsey says he turned his back on God after his sister's murder. Decades later, his drinking brought him to his knees.

Grammer: “I found myself praying a lot, which I hadn't done in a long time.”

Whether the intervention was divine or not, it worked. To the enormous relief of his colleagues, he agreed to get help. 

Grammer: “’The readiness is all,’” you know it comes from “Hamlet.” It's just a matter of you know, "There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow." And at that time I was ready to go and their being here was simply that I knew I had the support to do it.”

Frasier shut down production so Kelsey could check into the Betty Ford Center for a month. There, he began to recover from the kind of torment that poisoned Hamlet centuries ago -- the need to avenge a murder. Then, 21 years after his sister's death, Kelsey stopped twisting the dagger in his own heart.

Couric: “In addition to ending the cycle of addiction, you also learned to love yourself because for a long time you really were self-loathing and tortured weren't you?”

Grammer: “My biggest disappointment was me. But it was mostly because I couldn't save my sister. That's what happened. I couldn't save her. And as it turned out, I couldn't save anyone else. And it became a mounting frustration. And they helped me discover that I wasn't going to be much good to anybody unless I could figure out how to save me.”

Couric: “Do you have times when you're feeling bad about yourself or about a situation and you feel like, 'Gee, I just need to have a drink?'”

Grammer: “Oh sure, it happens all the time.”

Couric: “How do you handle that?”

Grammer: “What you finally cling to is the idea that living life in its natural color is more interesting than to try to fog it up.”

"Life in its natural color" -- the words of W.H. Auden, the modern poet who has inspired Kelsey in his adult years.

Grammer: “His point of view about things was so interesting because we all suffer. We really do. So that's not important about it. What's important is that you get on with it.”

And get on with it, he did. Two years into his sobriety, a former drinking buddy – Ted Danson -- presented Kelsey with his third Emmy for Best Actor in a Comedy. In his acceptance speech, he alluded to those uninvited guests who showed up one night.

Kelsey Grammer at 1998 Emmys: “To a very special, small group of people who came to me a while back in a very dark time of my life and told me that there was a way out. I wanted to thank them. I love you, and thank you.”

Stagger onward, rejoicing

It has been eight years since Kelsey wrestled himself out of the underworld. He says renewed faith and the compassion of his third wife, Camille, have kept him anchored to the shore. They met just a few months before he went into rehab.

Couric: “Kelsey says it was you and Betty Ford. That was quite a little threesome.”

Grammer: “Yeah quite a little gang!”

Couric: “But it was your love and support that Kelsey credits to helping him change his ways of thinking.”

Camille Grammer: “I think through love I found the confidence and power to hang in there and actually want to help somebody.”

Their life, in many ways, is a midsummer night's dream -- to borrow yet again from Shakespeare. They own luxurious homes in four states, like the one in Hawaii that made a splash in Architectural Digest, as did Camille on “Frasier.”

With the help of a surrogate, the Grammers are expecting their second child, a son, in September. They hope his arrival is not as dramatic as the entrance of Mason Olivia, their two-and-a-half year-old daughter.

Grammer: “Right around five o'clock, out came Mason -- with the cord around her neck, blue. And that was a little disturbing because she almost didn't make it. And that first breath she took was like ‘wow,’ so she's the little light of our lives now.

Couric: “You seem like you're in a really good place. I hate that expression, but…”

Grammer: “Oh I'm in a great place. Yeah, I know what you mean. It sort of minimizes it actually. I'm in a great place. My life is firing in a way it never has before. I've been given the gift of a new family. This is all new to me. And I was talking to Camille just the other day about walking around with Mason, and holding her in my arms, and she called out ‘dinner's ready!’"

Couric: “It was domestic bliss.”

Grammer: “It was all those things I idealized about and romanticized about -- what my family could be, and never was. But now it is.”