A Test of Grammer - by Ian Faulconbridge
He may be able to recognise some of his own neuroses in his most famous character’s fusty mannerisms, but off-screen Kelsey Grammer’s life has been one of near-constant turmoil, heartache and rebellion. And yet, in accepting his faults, opening himself up to faith and looking beyond the next work project, you sense the 62-year-old is emerging out the other side a better man, as Sorted discovers.
When Kelsey Grammer’s uptight psychiatrist character from hit bar-based sitcom Cheers was chosen as the star of a spin-off from the successful original series, even he was a little surprised. But the runaway ratings of the subsequent Frasier – in which Grammer played the eponymous former bit-part now made front and centre – vindicated the choice to give the egotistical intellectual his own show.
And with several Emmy Awards safely stowed away in the bedside table as a result of his portrayal of Dr Frasier Crane, Grammer’s career post-Frasier has definitively been built off the back of this overeducated and meticulous character.
“I like to think that I am so gifted an actor than I can say Frasier is nothing like me at all, but alas, that is not entirely true,” he begins, with typical, semi-sarcasm\. “We do share a love for opera and fine food, although there are very few operas that I outright love. But our essences are the same because both personalities spring from like desires. My desire to do the world some good is shared by Frasier.
“We also share my insecurities,” he adds, “although Frasier is much more open about showing his. I suffer silently alone. We laugh at ourselves with equal jollity and I think we are equally fond of ourselves.”
In spite of Grammer having made his name in two of America’s most cherished situational comedies, off-screen the star’s life has incorporated little of the jovial nature of his famous television creation. In fact, Grammer’s personal life has been blighted by family tragedies. In 1968, his father, Frank was shot and killed outside his own home; then seven years later, younger sister, Karen was abducted from her work before being also being murdered. It was the elder Grammer brother who was required to confirm the identity of her body.
Not only that, but the actor’s two half-brothers also died in tragic circumstances. Stephen and Billy Grammer were scuba diving in 1980, and when Stephen surfaced he found that Billy was nowhere to be seen. Going back underwater to see if he could find his missing brother, Stephen died during an improper ascent, without ever finding out what happened to his brother.
“I don’t know if I ever thought the family was cursed, but I cursed God for a while,” Grammer admits. “I had a great sense of faith, and I did feel betrayed. After my sister died, I felt totally abandoned. I hated being alive, indulged in a great depression and a kind of aggressive approach to the streets at night. I was sort of looking for trouble.”
Grammer’s off-screen problems continued. After descending into alcohol addiction which, somewhat fittingly given the show’s title and setting, continued throughout his appearances on both Cheers and his eponymous sequel, things came to a head when the star drunkenly crashed his car near his California home. It was an event which the philosophical star says “had to happen”. But, as with so many of the more hopeful stories of ended addiction that emanate from the world of entertainment, this near-death experience proved a welcome turning point in Grammer’s fortunes, even if the decision to seek help wasn’t an easy one to make.
“I got to a place where I was out of control,” he nods. “Every day I was asking God to help me stop drinking, and well, he did. In a very rough way. I was driven to alcohol by feelings of self-loathing and worthlessness. When I was going through a bottle of vodka a day, it became too much, and I finally checked in to the Betty Ford clinic in 1996. I was drinking in the morning and praying to God that somehow I’d stop. I wasn’t drinking on the set, but I would certainly show up loose. I poured myself into work a few times, but I just couldn’t cut it.
“I have always loved chaos, but now I look for it in less self-destructing forms. I’ve kicked the habit of looking for drama in my personal life. Being able to accept the remarkable nature of my life is new to me.”
Though Grammer’s relationship with his beliefs has, at times, been pushed to breaking point, there is a sense that in reality his faith was never as close to truly faltering as it may have appeared. Having credited his relationship with God as an anchor throughout the many calamities to have befallen him during his life and career, the actor is sceptical that there are any out there who have not at one time or another turned to a higher power in similar moments of crisis.
“I don’t actually think there’s anyone out there who doesn’t believe in something,” he explains. “I mean, it’s surely not possible to be a full-on atheist, or whatever the term is. And by that, I mean, as humans who have intelligence, and a consciousness, we all know we came from somewhere... and one day, we’ll depart, possibly for the same place, and then who knows?”
Grammer’s staunch espousal of Christian beliefs and the positive effect of religion may seem surprising given the hardships that have unfairly affected his family in particular. But his status as an outspoken champion of Christian Conservatives also marks him out among the majority of his colleagues and contemporaries. A long-time Republican member – who has in the past equivocated traditionally right-wing views on taxes and local government with a softer stance on social issues – Grammer has consistently shunned the expected Hollywood opinion. In 2016, he endorsed former Presidential candidate Ben Carson and, later, if some reports are to be believed, eventual winner, Donald Trump.
“I don’t know if I endorsed him, but I think Conservative views can be rather taboo in this industry,” says Grammer of his political persuasions. “An industry of tolerance, no less. These are my views, and I’ve always been a rebel. It’s been in my nature to rebel and I’ve never been able to share anyone else’s view because they told me to. It’s a tricky stand to take and I’m more than aware of the conceptions that come with it.”
There’s even been talk that Grammer may one day look to a position in the White House himself. But for now, the star is content with sobriety, and the challenges of being a seven-time father… some of which are, he admits, new to him despite his eldest child, Spencer, being born in 1983. His youngest, meanwhile, arrived in 2016, by virtue of his fourth marriage, to former flight attendant Kayte Walsh.
“It’s like night and day,” says Grammer of caring for his multi-aged brood. “The big difference is I’m far more available now as a parent then I was to the older ones. Do I regret that? At the time, I didn’t have a choice, I had to devote most of my time to my career which was starting out in the initial stages.
“Now, it’s entirely different … my work isn’t my main focus anymore, I’ve carved that out and can now enjoy the liberty to pick and choose where and when I work.”
And for the fourth time in his life, Grammer is not alone in facing the various trials that befall all of us, famous or otherwise. Though his current spouse may not have the showbiz heritage that former flames possessed there’s much to suggest that the star is head over heels for the latest Mrs Grammer. And like many, he credits a solid relationship with helping him turn his attentions to the future, rather than his particularly difficult past.
“I don’t think we’re such a courageous couple. I just think that when you fall in love with someone, you take care of them. That’s what you swear to do. She is a constant source of help. For the first time in my life, I really have a partner able to care for me and about me at the same time. My wife is not only beautiful, but she is the most wonderful, delightful, caring creature I have ever met in my life. All the other women I’ve known are nothing in comparison.”
There’s surely no need for Grammer to prove himself in front of the camera, either. The star has amassed Emmys and Golden Globes for his work on Frasier and, later, as the voice of the villainous Sideshow Bob in The Simpsons. He’s even dipped his toe into the world of blockbuster franchise, starring as Hank McCoy, aka Beast, in Bryan Singer’s big budget X-Men series. In more recent years, he has lent his Juilliard-trained baritone to animations and live-actions alike.
This journey from personal grief to worldwide success – by way of an effete psychiatrist – must be regarded as one of the industry’s most bizarre, tragic and at times uplifting, stories. Indeed, Grammer himself seems to credit the turmoil and tribulations of his life off-screen, and the varied achievements that ran parallel on it, with a stronger need for understanding the complexities of life as discussed in religion.
“I just think it’s really naïve and, actually, impossible, to comprehend this life as just a fluke,” he concludes. “That’s disingenuous. It’s impossible. I get completely that people don’t want to subscribe to a certain way of thinking or certain theory, but not believing in God is very different to not believing, full-stop. And I don’t think there are people who just switch off and refuse to contemplate, because that’s what we’re talking about here, contemplation.
“We got here through reproduction, but we weren’t put on this earth at that point – it’s all very deep, but religion in the truest sense of love and security is a wonderful, wonderful thing.”
As for what the future holds, Grammer is sure to be no less of the rebel when it comes to much of what is expected from a member of the entertainment establishment. But the star hopes that his acceptance of things, and the manner in which he has overcome his struggles in order to grow in both self-contentedness and personal faith, will help others who may be experiencing the same kinds of issues. There’s even been a spot of soul-searching on the therapist’s couch for the man best known for playing TV’s most famously bombastic shrink.
“I hope my example has given people courage to live through the lives that they’ve chosen, because at least they’re not as messed up as I am,” he chuckles. “I’m exploring new territory from day to day now, therapy and all that. I’m standing up for myself, which I didn’t know how to do before.
“If you don’t reach beyond where you’re comfortable, you will not grow. So that’s my mission. To grow, to change, to become the best human I’ve been given the equipment to become.”