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.