Looking back, it's easy to see how Frasier and Friends became TV icons. Television has no more valuable commodity than buzz, unless it is a time slot between two popular series. Friends and Frasier, which arrived a season apart and are departing a week apart, were born with both.

In the spring of 1994, The New York Times decided to track the development of a new series, from pitch meeting, through casting, then the nail-biting wait for a pickup, to finally being assigned a time period. The proposed show the Times settled upon was known by several titles during its development: Six of One, These Friends of Mine, then just Friends. It came from Marta Kauffman, David Crane and Kevin Bright, the people responsible for the popular HBO series Dream On.

The Times series, which ran from early March through late May, created an awareness of Friends other series hopefuls didn't have. When the pilot lived up to network hopes, it was awarded the time period every new comedy coveted, the 8:30 Thursday hammock between Mad About You and Seinfeld.

Frasier, which debuted a year earlier, had built-in recognition as a spinoff of Cheers, although it wasn't the show many expected. Warren Littlefield, then president of NBC Entertainment, said his heart stopped when Ted Danson called to tell him, "I can't be Sam Malone anymore." Cheers was what Friends would become, the cornerstone of NBC's dominant Thursday lineup. As Cheers wound down, speculation centered on Norm and Cliff, played by George Wendt and John Ratzenberger, as the characters most likely to continue on their own.

The Cheers creative team of Glen Charles, Les Charles and James Burrows surprised Littlefield when they vetoed Norm and Cliff. Their choice was Dr. Frasier Crane because of what they felt was Kelsey Grammer's brilliant comedic timing. "This is the guy to bet the farm on," they told the network's top programmer.

"I would have been crazy not to listen to them," Littlefield said. He not only listened, he bet the cushy real estate between Seinfeld and ER, more valuable than any farm. If he hadn't paid heed, NBC would have missed out on a series that would win Emmys in its first five seasons, a feat not achieved before or since.

This is not to say he didn't subsequently have reasons to question his sanity. "I would call every day and they were coming up with all kinds of crazy ideas. One had Frasier doing a show from a sick bed." Finally they piqued his interest with a proposal for a family comedy. "I said, `Great, we haven't had one of those since Cosby,'" Littlefield recalls. But the family show they had in mind didn't have a father, mother and precocious kids. It was an extended adult family: Frasier, his hobbled father (John Mahoney) and his fussbudget brother, another psychiatrist (David Hyde Pierce).

Surrogate family

The concept for Friends never deviated from the vision of its creators. Fortunately, it was exactly the type of series Littlefield had been seeking, a comedy involving young people in a big city coming together to share living expenses. This meant they also would share signal events in a memorable period of their lives, not with parents and siblings, but with new, surrogate family members.

Bringing the concept to life was another matter. "We developed a terrible bunch of scripts," Littlefield says. Then Kauffman, Crane and Bright walked in with Friends. "They so knew who their characters were," he recalls.

They also so didn't share his vision of a series that would represent Generation X and explore a new kind of tribal bonding. "Honestly, all we were trying to do was make a show we would enjoy watching," Kauffman said.

"We had to make the argument that it was not a show for one generation," Crane added. "It was for everybody." As pop psychologists prattled on over the years about the cultural impact of Friends, Crane said, the producers would laugh and say to each other, "It's only a TV show."

Indeed, the show failed to spawn any catchphrases, which is fine with the producers, Crane said. About the only cultural trend it ignited was mass imitation of Jennifer Aniston's hair style, "The Rachel."

There are no secrets in Hollywood; word got out about the favored project at NBC. "Immediately, the show had heat," Littlefield said. "We were getting calls from every agent in town. `How do I get my client in this show?'"

A true ensemble

The six who would become icons all had some familiarity to TV viewers but there was nothing resembling star power.

Courteney Cox had the highest profile as Michael J. Fox's girlfriend on Family Ties, Jim Carrey's love interest in Ace Ventura, and the fan plucked from the audience in the video for Bruce Springsteen's Dancing in the Dark.

Aniston had played Ferris Bueller's sister in a short-lived episodic knockoff of the hit movie. David Schwimmer had been a fringe character on The Wonder Years and NYPD Blue. Matthew Perry had been a secondary player in Sydney, a failed series starring Valerie Bertinelli.

Lisa Kudrow had a recurring role on Mad About You as a ditsy waitress named Ursula, who would live on as the sister of her Friends character Phoebe. Kudrow had been the first choice to play Roz on Frasier but this quickly was recognized as a bad fit. (She was replaced by Peri Gilpin.)