Kelsey Grammer is talking, of all things, about dismembered ears. Never mind whose ears they were; it’s what Grammer’s latest TV iteration does with them that counts. With cool confidence, the mighty mayor of Chicago he plays on his new TV series, Boss, shoves the pair down his garbage disposal and then casually mentions to his wife that they need a plumber.
Ruthless and twisted? Sure. But this is the kind of role the comedy giant has coveted for a decade. The scene, which comes early in the new Starz show (premiering Oct. 21 at 10 p.m.), leaves no room for conjecture about who his character, Mayor Tom Kane, is as a human being or a leader. He also stomps around with rage, shouts at his enemies, and is impenetrable to his underlings. As a man who has overcome formidable personal demons himself, Grammer says he is careful not to let Kane (seen below with his wife, played by Connie Nielsen) bleed into his psyche.
“I’m not one of those guys that draws on his personal experiences to fill a character,” Grammer says during a recent interview at Casa del Mar in Santa Monica, Calif. “I kind of just let my imagination grasp what it would feel like and then try to play it. I do worry, though, sometimes, like when I played Macbeth [on Broadway], because he’s so dark that it can affect your personal life.”
Just in case, before Grammer filmed the pivotal kitchen scene in the first episode, he stopped and “prayed a little bit.” After admitting that, he bursts out laughing and adds, “Of course, it’s always a little fun, too.”
As you might expect, the man who played Frasier Crane for 20 years enjoys a good laugh, and his is full and robust. But Grammer possesses a profundity that departs widely from his TV-sitcom persona and is in step with a human being who has faced several life-changing traumas. By the time he turned 25, Grammer had lost his estranged father to murder; his younger sister to rape and murder; and his two half-brothers to an accidental drowning. Turbulence followed him well into adulthood and middle age, even as he hit career gold with Cheers and its spinoff Frasier. Grammer, now a recovering cocaine addict and alcoholic, was arrested twice in the ’80s and ’90s for possession and drunken driving. At 56, he’s been married four times and has four children.
“Usually what f--ks up somebody or messes them up is enough for them,” Grammer says. “Everybody’s got their things that shape them, shift them, or turn them one way or another. And I had plenty of mine.”
In 2008 a heart attack shook his personal and professional worlds. The combination of the stress of a failed TV show (Fox’s comedy Back to You) and marital problems had taxed his system, he says. As he recovered, Grammer assessed the rest of his life, which led to the revelation that he no longer wanted to be married to his third wife, Camille Grammer, the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star and mother of his two young children. Their divorce and subsequent custody fight has kept the Grammer family in the tabloids for more than a year, as Camille learned of Grammer’s wishes and new relationship while filming her Bravo TV show.
“I realized that for the years we were together, it was functioning, it worked, but there was something missing. I realized it was not going to change after my heart attack,” says Grammer, who married Kayte Walsh last year, a couple of weeks after his divorce was final. “I stayed another two years, but I realized at that point that it wasn’t the last story I wanted to tell with my life. It just took me some courage to finally get the gumption up enough to make a move and change things.”
A sense of honesty also attracted Grammer to his new role. In playing the power-addicted Chicago mayor who learns he is dying from a degenerative brain disease, Grammer says he had to shut off all self-awareness. The opening scene of the series focuses entirely on Mayor Kane as he receives the devastating news from a doctor who monotonously runs down the litany of symptoms. Designed by creator and executive producer Farhad Safinia to erase all traces of Frasier Crane from the minds of viewers, the scene elicits a stirring performance by Grammer.
“It’s the first time I’m not really concerned about how I look when I do it,” Grammer says. “I hate it when actors start talking about their emotions and their equipment like we know the answers to all the world’s problems. This is just my job, and this job asked that I not watch myself. I never borrow from my personal life to perform. What happens if everything is good and things are firing on all the right cylinders, my personal life will just come along for the ride ... But if you can’t separate yourself from your character, then you’re probably crazy.”
This, from the man who readily admits that Frasier Crane is not completely gone.
“I’m still that way around the house,” he says, laughing. “There are times when my delivery to the dogs reminds me of Frasier.” He looks down at the floor, imagining he’s speaking to his pups: “‘Oh, really? Did we have to do that today?’ I’m still him.”