Monday, November 12, 2001

NEW YORK — You would be hard-pressed to name two more different heroes than Marshal Matt Dillon, the Wild West lawman of “Gunsmoke,” and Seattle’s snooty shrink, Dr. Frasier Crane.
Even so, Kelsey Grammar, beginning his ninth year in the “Frasier” title role after nine years as the same character on “Cheers,” has his sights set on Marshal Dillon. James Arness played Dillon for a record 20 seasons. That’s a record Mr. Grammar aims to match playing Frasier.
“Who knows? We might do more,” he says. “But we’re counting on the next three seasons.”
So is NBC, which counts “Frasier” among its few sitcom hits.
Of course, Mr. Grammar, 46, hasn’t stuck with Frasier Crane purely as an endurance contest.
Nor, presumably, is he hanging on just for the money (although he already has set a record as the highest-salaried actor in TV history, reportedly pulling down $1.6 million per week).
No, as “Frasier” marks its 200th episode tomorrow (9 p.m., Channel 4), the bottom line is this: Mr. Grammar says he still has fun being Frasier.
“I have never been visited by the fear that he’s stale,” Mr. Grammar says. “Through him, I get to bring to light a lot of things I think about, myself.”
Frasier and Mr. Grammar: It seems they share an asymptotic journey as fellow travelers whose paths grow ever closer, yet never quite merge.
Or is the merger a done deal?
“By now, Frasier lives in my subconscious,” Mr. Grammar says. “We discover life on kind of the same terms.”
Like Kelsey Grammar the actor making people laugh, Frasier Crane prospers as a phone-in therapist dispensing advice to his radio audience.
Not only well-versed in psychobabble, Frasier also is charming, urbane, witty and intelligent quite a contrast to the bumbling heroes of most sitcoms.
Funny though he is, Frasier becomes laughable not so much from his own failings as from his lofty standards for an imperfect world that regularly fails him.
“What’s the one thing better than an exquisite meal?” Frasier once posed to his like-minded psychotherapist brother before furnishing the obvious answer: “An exquisite meal with one tiny flaw we can pick at all evening.”
As a feverishly cultivated man for whom order and self-knowledge are everything especially since he has neither Frasier insists on the finer things in life, and loves to obsess about everything else.
Sure, you laugh at him. But you also admire him. Here’s a guy whose taste is unerring, even when exercised in la-di-da ways.
On one episode, Frasier was overjoyed that an upcoming soiree would “give me a chance to debut my Limoges coffee set. Six unique cups, each representing a different wife of Henry VIII.”
Let him enjoy his Limoges coffee set. In the 1994 book “In Defense of Elitism,” William A. Henry III lamented that “a brand of anti-intellectual populism is running amok.”
If that’s true, you can’t blame Frasier for taking refuge in dutiful refinement.
“He’s not a complacent character,” says Mr. Grammar, who applauds Frasier’s resolve: What’s so wrong with gravitating toward the finer things?
But those who don’t know any better are always ready to pounce. That’s how Mr. Grammar interprets what befell him when, 18 months ago, he returned to the stage to do Shakespeare.
“They were all over me,” he says of the disapproving critics. “How dare I come back to New York and play Macbeth, of all things. One guy said I was fat.” Mr. Grammar shrugs.
“I may have limited my choices by the success I’ve enjoyed as Frasier,” he concedes. “But I have little cause for complaint. I have had an extraordinary career already. I will still insist on playing other roles, and enjoy them and probably suffer huge amounts of criticism.”

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