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'Frasier' leaving the building

By Andy Walton
Kelsey Grammer played psychologist Dr. Frasier Crane for 20 years.
Kelsey Grammer
Entertainment (general)

(CNN) -- When "Frasier" takes a bow on May 13, Kelsey Grammer will walk away from a character he has played for 20 years -- nine seasons as part of the ensemble on "Cheers" and 11 more as the lead of his own show.

Grammer's character, Dr. Frasier Crane, was introduced as the stuffed-shirt fiancÚ of the prim barmaid Diane on NBC's long-running "Cheers."

When that series ended in 1993, the network spun off "Frasier." NBC, which had long owned Thursday night ratings with shows like "Seinfeld," "Cheers," and "The Cosby Show," scheduled "Frasier" to expand its success into Tuesday night.

"'Frasier' was in kind of a class of its own," says Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "It was sort of this drawing-room kind of comedy. If there had been sitcoms in 18th century French court, then it would have probably have been 'Frasier.'"

"It was arguably, at its prime, one of the best-written sitcoms on the air, and probably one of the best-written sitcoms ever," Thompson said. "The only sitcom in TV history where you could expect a joke about [19th century philosopher Arthur] Schopenhauer to appear."

"Frasier" shone on award nights, winning 31 Emmys in all and five consecutive best comedy Emmys -- a record on both counts.

The series began with Frasier back in his ancestral home, Seattle, as a radio advice host. The audience meets Frasier's similarly fussy brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce), also a psychiatrist, and his radio producer and foil, Roz (Peri Gilpin).

Frasier's father Martin (John Mahoney), a cop with working-class sensibilities who is forced to retire after he is injured in the line of duty, moves in with Frasier. Also moving in is Martin's sometimes flighty, sometimes psychic, always English physical therapist Daphne (Jane Leeves). His father's dog, Eddie, (a Jack Russell terrier) rounds out the group.

Niles is immediately smitten with Daphne, but he doesn't dare tell her. One of the most anticipated episodes in the series came at the end of the seventh season, when the pair, Niles recently remarried and Daphne fleeing the altar, ran off in a motor home.

After the NBC announced the show's cancellation, Grammer told TV Guide in February that he would be willing to return for another year, but faced with lagging ratings, the network brass decided otherwise.

The final show finished shooting on March 24, and although he wouldn't promise happy endings for everyone, Grammer said the ending leaves the characters "hopeful and optimistic."

There are several plot lines to resolve in or before the finale; Niles and Daphne are expecting their first child, Martin has a new love interest in Ronnie ("Just Shoot Me's" Wendie Malick), and Niles' never-seen ex-wife, Maris, is on trial for her life.

Frasier's ex-wife, Lilith, will not appear in the finale, Grammer said; she appeared in an earlier episode, and she and Frasier parted as close friends.

When asked where "Frasier" fans can go for something like it when the last episode airs, Grammer said, "Well, we're on in syndication," only half-jokingly.

"I'm not sure sophisticated comedy has a place on television any more," Grammer said. "I'd like to think it still does ... But I'm not sure the networks are interested, I'm not sure anybody else is interested in sophisticated comedy any more."

The characters Niles and Daphne flirted with romance for years before they finally married.

Thomson takes issue with Grammer's claim, though. "The very existence of 'Frasier' and the very enormous success of 'Frasier' shows that Kelsey Grammer's wrong, that there is a place for it. That character, Frasier, has lasted longer than virtually any other character on American television."

Frasier's 20 seasons on two shows matches the record number of seasons James Arness played Marshall Matt Dillon, but Arness appeared in far more episodes.

"I think it simply means that it's hard to do that kind of thing well, so that everybody likes it, not only people who are getting the obscure jokes and references to things you might have taken in your graduate course in comparative literature," Thomson said.

"Frasier" will end with a one-hour retrospective and an hour-long episode May 13.

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