Thursday, December 07, 2006

More FRASIER

Why didn’t anybody warn me it’s cold in New York in December?

This is part two of Peter Casey’s three part account of how he and his partners created one of television’s classic sitcoms, FRASIER

*********

Niles wasn’t in the initial concept for the show. He came about through one of the greatest strokes of luck in tv history. Our assistant casting director at the time, Sheila Guthrie, came into our office one day with and 8x10 headshot of David Hyde Pierce and said, “Have you guys thought of Frasier having a brother because this actor really looks like he could be related to Kelsey.” We said we hadn’t thought of that (because we had just done a show, WINGS, about brothers), but was David any good as an actor? She said he was wonderful and left us some tapes of a failed series DHP had been a regular on called THE POWERS THAT BE. We watched the tapes and were blown away so we began creating the character who became Niles. After we had a good outline of the character we arranged to meet David at our offices. We pitched him the character and the series concept (what we had at the time) and asked if he was interested. He said he was so we had the studio set about making a deal with him.

Shortly thereafter, we felt we had a good enough concept to pitch to NBC so a meeting was set up with Warren Littlefield who was president of the network at that time. We went to his office in Burbank. In the meeting were the three of us and John Pike and John Symes representing Paramount Studios, and Warren, Perry Simon, and Jamie Tarses representing NBC. This was immediately encouraging to us because quite often the network will populate these pitch meetings with lots of lower level executives who tend to clog up the room and they frankly never laugh at anything unless the boss does. This was actually a small, influential group for us to pitch to. For years we had told NBC we would never do a family comedy situated in a living room. It wasn’t our style. We were more into the “gang” workplace comedy style of a CHEERS, or TAXI, so when David Lee started the meeting by saying, “You’re not going to believe this, but from the guys who said they’d never do a family comedy…” Perry Simon literally fell off the couch onto the floor. Funny reaction, the ice was broken. We proceeded with our pitch and something amazing happened. The network people never interrupted us. Usually they are constantly butting in with questions or their own suggestions to make it better, but they just listened to us. It was the best pitch I’ve ever been a part of. Each time we’d introduce a new character, we’d reference it with an actor we used as a template. So when we pitched Niles, we said think of David Hyde Pierce. That’s when something else amazing happened. At the mention of DHP’s name, Warren said, “We love him. If you can get him, he’s pre-approved.” This was huge. It meant we didn’t have to go through the tedious process of reading dozens of actors for the part, then bring a couple of them to the network to read for their approval. If the network rejected them, we would read dozens more. With this, if a deal could be struck with DHP, he was in. When we pitched the character of Martin, we said to picture John Mahoney. Warren said if we could get John, he was also pre-approved. Awesome. Martin’s home care worker was based on the therapist from our other idea for Kelsey, so we said to picture Rosie Perez. Warren asked if we ever pictured her as English because NBC loved Jane Leeves. If we went that way, Jane would be pre-approved. Whoa. That’s darn near the whole cast without having to jump through the network casting hoops. The only character we were vague about was Roz because quite frankly we didn’t have a handle on her yet.

When we finished the pitch, there was silence in the room for about a minute as Warren, Perry and Jamie let it sink in. Then they looked at each other and nodded and Warren said, “Go do it”. Incredible. Not a single network note. No changes. They loved it.

About halfway through writing the pilot script, Kerry McCluggage, the new President of Paramount Television, told us that he had spoken with John Mahoney regarding playing Frasier’s father. Kerry had a relationship with John dating back to Kerry’s days at Universal Studios where John had done a dramatic series called “The Human Factor.” John said he would like to meet with us and discuss FRASIER. We said that was great and could Kerry set up a meeting. He told us he had, but there was a catch. John wasn’t coming to meet us. We were going to meet John and that meant the three of us were flying to Chicago because that’s where John lived. The plan was we’d fly in the morning, arrive in the afternoon, have dinner with John, then return to LA the next morning. We were on a roll with the script so we weren’t thrilled about having to break our momentum. On the other hand, dinner in Chicago with John Mahoney sounded pretty cool so we went. It was late January or early February, cold, with snow on the ground, but what did we care? Paramount put us up at The Four Seasons and had provided us with a car and driver. We met John and Kerry at a restaurant called Shaw’s Crab House. Being a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, John was quite a local celebrity, so restaurant patrons were constantly stopping by the table or waving across the room. John was absolutely charming with everyone. Over dinner we pitched John the series concept, went into the character of Martin and his relationship with Frasier, and outlined the plot of the pilot episode. John was definitely interested, but he wouldn’t commit until he had read the pilot. Fair enough. We returned to LA the next morning and resumed writing with renewed enthusiasm picturing John Mahoney as Martin Crane.

It took us another week to finish the script, so two weeks total. I have to say it was one of the easiest scripts I’ve ever written. Everything seemed to flow naturally. This gave us a very good feeling about the project, but of course you never know how others are going to react to it. We sent it over to the Paramount executive offices and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Kerry McCluggage immediately FedEx’d it to John Mahoney. The next day we received an enthusiastic “yes” from John. Months later in LA, John told me he’d read through a two foot stack of pilots before the FRASIER script arrived and our script was so superior that it was the only project he wanted to do. So we had the main male roles cast and we felt great about them. Now it was time to cast our female leads.

As I said earlier, Warren Littlefield had endorsed Jane Leeves for the part of the home care worker. While we were writing the script we still hadn’t made up our minds whether she should be Hispanic or English. We didn’t make that decision until we literally reached the point in the script where Frasier hears the doorbell ring and goes to answer it. At that point there was no more stalling. Our first instinct was to try English so that’s what we did. Daphne turned out to be quite a quirky fun character and we really enjoyed writing her in the pilot. When Kelsey read the script he wasn’t as enthused and was evasive about his reasons. We had Jane come in and read for us and she was fantastic. We loved her immediately and called Kelsey to see if he could come over and read with her. He was kind of grumpy about the whole idea and he arrived at our offices in a bit of a dark mood. We pulled him aside and asked what the problem was and after some hemming and hawing he said that he worried that having an English housekeeper with Frasier would look like the old sitcom “Nanny and the Professor” which he was not a fan of. We felt the Frasier/Daphne relationship was nothing like that and pleaded with him to read with Jane. Finally, he begrudgingly agreed, but said it would be just the two of them in the room. David, David and I would have to wait outside. He went in, closed the door, and we were left in the outer office sweating. About one minute later the door flew open, Kelsey strode past us saying, “She’s in,” and left. We talked to him later and he told us his worries about “Nanny and the Professor” dissolved immediately when they started reading together and that Jane was really funny. Yahoo! We had almost our whole cast and hadn’t been required to take a single network casting meeting. That was going to end in a big way when we tried to cast the character of Roz.

*******

Tomorrow, the concluding chapter of Peter Casey’s look back at the creation of FRASIER.

29 comments:

Diane said...

As someone not in the business, it's really fun for me to read about how this show I really enjoyed came together - thanks!

farrell said...

wow. this is great stuff.

Mike Barer said...

I understand that Roz was named after a Producer of Wings who had recently passed away. I heard that Kelsey was dead set against the Dog (rip Eddie), but the network brass wanted him in to give the show a warm fuzzy look.

Anonymous said...

it's not too late to spin off the dog, is it?
we could move him to the Netherlands so the network won't pester us.

maven said...

Peter: Really enjoying your story of the creation of this great series. It must have been awesome seeing everything fall into place. Can't wait for the next installment.

Eric said...

This is fantastic. Thanks for this.

Mr. Hollywood said...

I've known Sheila Guthrie for many years and she is one of the sharpest women in casting in the business! So glad to hear how instrumental she was in making the show the phenomenal success it was by bringing DHP to the producers and the network!
Casting people don't get the credit they deserve!

Mike Barer said...

It makes me wonder how many failed shows would have been hits if they had that one special character.

blogwriter said...

this is an excellent read, can't wait for tomorrow

TV Minion said...

Thank you for these posts!

island_earth said...

If Kelsey Grammer was so against the Nanny and the Professor concept, how did Daphne get that early-on psychic stuff that eventually faded and disappeared? I'm happy it went away, but I distinctly remember her being a bit fey way, way, back at the beginning...

That aside, this is a great story, and thanks for writing it.

Roddy McCorley said...

Holy crap! Who even remembers Nanny and the Professor?????

JP said...

Thanks for this - I *loved* frasier. Two questions:

- Firstly frasier's apartment set - who came up with the idea of having a view of seattle? It works great not just in the we're not in boston any more toto scene setting sense but also socially - so frasier can show off his status, and also drove a number of plot lines.

- Secondly, the agent Bebe has the same name as the actress who plays lilith - is there a connection there?

Thanks

Poodle Head said...

who remembers 'Nanny and the Professor'?
well, I know Phoebe Figalilly is a Silly Name so that must count for something.

Anonymous said...

What is this magic thing about Nanny - is it love, or is it magic?

Miles said...

Great story. Love it

Seymour said...

"Who even remembers Nanny & the Professor?"

Well, aside obviously from Kelsey, there's Juliette Mills fans, and we are many. Also, Sweet Dick Whittington, the LA Radio Legend did a guest spot on one episode, which is reason enough to remember it.

But what that anecdote really told us about was Kelsey's willingness to pre-judge someone on the basis of an irrelevance and cultural snobbism, until forced to look at the reality of, in this case, Jane Leeves, and learn that pre-juding is a mistake. Sounds like, once again, Kelsey had more in common with Frasier Crane than just the face and voice.

These guest posts are fascinating, not that we don't love Ken's usual posts, as Ken learns the cold way why I have sense enough to spend my winters in California.

Anonymous said...

JP

The set - to my understanding - was designed by Roy Christopher.

Isn't that right Ken?

If so, do I win a prize?

Anyway Roy is a great, and talented man who also does the Oscar sets

Mark Bennett

Anonymous said...

I mean Peter.

Mark

Ash said...

This is superb stuff and looking forward to tomorrow. I really can't imagine any other Roz than Roz so it should be interesting (I was always a little bit enamoured of Roz!) And now I'm off to watch Frasier DVDs just because I'm in the mood!

Geoff said...

Ha! I remember watching "The Powers that Be" with my family, and when David Hyde-Pierce appeared we all said, "Holy crap! Is that Frasier's brother or something?"

No lie.

Angela said...

A big round of applause for Sheila for coming up with the idea of David Hyde Pierce as Frasier's brother, Niles! Niles is my favorite character -- can not imagine Frasier without him!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, my wife and I watch Frasier every day now on CBC and we are awed at its quality. I don't know how we missed the original run- I guess having two young children at that time had something to do with it- but what a superb cast and what excellent writing. Every episode is a gem.

One question I'd love to ask: what genius came up with the idea of the witty black and white titles which precede each segment?

DanteHicks said...

Did John Mahoney's guest starring role on Cheers as a jingle salesman ever become a cause for concern?

Anonymous said...

Oh how I miss Frasier!! Thanks for the insight into the Niles casting. My favorite thing about the show was that Niles and Frasier were so much alike, playing off Martin's character as the opposite. Any other show would have given Frasier a brother that was not like him at all.

Anonymous said...

Can anyone please, please tell me what's with the gay pinup guy hanging on the wall behind Martin in "Breaking the Ice"? It's in the ice house and the guy has on unzipped jeans and is wearing what looks like a lei.
Bizarre.
Is it as simple as a cast and crew member was pulling a prank?

Anonymous said...

Hi!
I like your story.
But you'd better take a look here to find a really DIFFERENT dating site.
Looks amazing, agree? :-)
You can also find my pics and more about me on my page www.livedatesearch.com/jessica
Read more about me or drop me a message from there.
Chao!
Jessica

Watch America's Next Top Model said...

your blog is very nice and very helpful for me.

Bruce Tritton said...

Frasier is one of my two all time favourite shows. The other is Black Adder.

As a newbie screenwriter you can imagine how awestruck I was to find an actual writer of Frasier who has a blog. Like finding gold.

At the risk of sounding melodramatic Ken, I hope you realise how much more your show did than just entertain people. It got me through a very dark time in my life where the only thing I had to look forward to each day was Frasier. It truly kept me going. So my most sincere thanks for that!

Now I am going to sit back and enjoy hours and hours reading your blog.

Thanks again :)