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Grammer takes onclassic role of Scrooge

‘A Christmas Carol’ movie adds music
/ Source: The Associated Press

Kelsey Grammer had to practice scowling in front of a mirror to appear convincing as Ebenezer Scrooge.

“I’m so prone to just opening up my face — I have a very open, available face and Scrooge is so closed off,” says the actor best known as Dr. Frasier Crane in the NBC comedy classics “Cheers” and “Frasier.”

Sitting in his office on the Paramount lot, where for two decades he played the neurotically needy psychiatrist, Grammer briefly illustrates the mean, scrunched visage required for Scrooge, Charles Dickens’ famous miser in “A Christmas Carol.”

Then he immediately snaps back to himself, laughing, eyes wide, head thrown slightly back in his natural effusive manner.

It was Grammer’s wife, Camille, who told him to keep his face “constricted.” He knew he had to follow her advice to avoid his “own sense of compassion bleeding through” prematurely before Scrooge becomes a nicer person.

“What I enjoyed most about Kelsey was the relish with which he attacks his work,” says Arthur Allan Seidelman, who directed this musical version of the seasonal classic airing 9 p.m. EST Sunday on NBC.

The two-hour movie is based on the Madison Square Garden stage production, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens.

Also showcasing their musical talents are other TV stars: Jason Alexander (of “Seinfeld” and now “Listen Up”) is Scrooge’s business partner, Marley, one of several ghosts who pay a visit to the miser on Christmas Eve; Jane Krakowski (from “Ally McBeal”) floats in as the luminous Ghost of Christmas Past; Jesse L. Martin (Detective Green on “Law & Order)” is the highly theatrical Ghost of Christmas Present; Jennifer Love Hewitt (“Party of Five”) plays Scrooge’s lost love, Emily.

Additionally, Geraldine Chaplin is the foreboding Ghost of Christmas Future, who leads Scrooge to his own grave — at which no one mourns.

Classic taleWhen first approached about the project some four years ago, Grammer was lukewarm about tackling the classic part played by so many others on stage and screen since Dickens penned his self-described “ghostly little book” in 1843.

But with his 20-year stint as Frasier Crane coming to a close earlier this year, he reconsidered.

Grammer says his favorite version of the Scrooge tale is the highly comedic 1962 cartoon “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” starring the nearsighted bumbler voiced by Jim Backus.

Seidelman’s favorite is the 1951 British film version starring Alastair Sim. More recently, George C. Scott played Scrooge in a 1984 TV movie and Patrick Stewart took a turn in 1999.

Both star and director believe the newest adaptation reveals the good heart that still beats within the cold curmudgeon, even at his flintiest moments.

“You really get under the skin, you really see the hurt and the pain and the horrible circumstances of his earlier life that caused his heart to close,” says Seidelman.

“I don’t know if Dickens would herald the story as his greatest achievement, but it turned out to be,” says Grammer. “It’s the most simply human story that he wrote. It’s about the power of love.”

Grammer, 49, says his own natural tendency as “a vocal guy” keeps his singing voice fresh. An early voice teacher had hopes he might become an opera singer, but Grammer felt otherwise.

“I thought I don’t quite have all the notes that those guys have. I don’t have the discipline and it’s so specifically focused that I thought to myself, ‘I am always going to be a better actor than I am a singer.”’

He was in a workshop production of the musical “Sunday in the Park with George” when he read for the guest role of Crane in “Cheers.”

“It was a fairly utility role to break apart Sam and Diane, but I thought I could breathe some life into it. I got a couple of extra laughs that they weren’t expecting. I think writers in television delight when they have a gift of an actor’s imagination on top of their own. They go, ‘My goodness that’s something I hadn’t thought of.”’