TV newcomer is sibling star on 'Frasier'


He's snooty, he's silly, he's downright hilariously uptight. He can steal the spotlight from co-star Kelsey Grammer with a single smug aside.

He's David Hyde Pierce, the oh-so-funny TV novice who plays Frasier Crane's oh-so-proper psychiatrist brother Niles on NBC's hit, "Frasier."

In his Niles persona, Mr. Pierce, 34, is all prissy mannerisms and fastidious delivery. Off-camera, relaxing on the "Frasier" set in chinos, classic Nikes and paisley shirt, Mr. Pierce is both similar and different. Serious but unpretentious, he's taken aback by his sudden TV stardom, which comes after 10 years of more-work-less-glory in regional and Broadway theater and a brief supporting stint on last year's failed Norman Lear series "The Powers That Be" on NBC.

"I'm still pretty mystified by all this," says Mr. Pierce, kicking back in his dressing room. "I had no idea Niles would be such a huge hit when I started. I honestly think all the attention will pass, because I'm just the new kid on the block right now. Next year I'll be thinking, 'Why isn't anyone interviewing me?' "

If he's a bit wary of his newfound personal celebrity, Mr. Pierce seems totally comfortable with Niles, a role created just for him.

After "Powers That Be" bit the dust, "Wings" casting director Sheila Guthrie showed Mr. Pierce's mug shot to David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee, who were developing "Frasier." They were wowed by Mr. Pierce's striking resemblance to Kelsey Grammer and blown away by his edgy performance as suicidal mumbler Theodore on "Powers That Be."

Mr. Pierce's days of mumbling are over. In a recent quintessential scene, he used the world's most fastidious diction to tell Frasier about watching the steamy Sharon Stone flick "Basic Instinct" on videotape with his uptight wife, Maris:

"I don't mind telling you we pushed our beds together that night," Pierce/Niles says. A pause as Mr. Pierce executes a socko prudish mouth-purse-and-pinky-crook. "And that was no mean feat." Pointed look. "Her room, as you know, is across the hall."

What's even funnier is the way Niles and Frasier mirror-image each other like identical twins. There they are, two fussy sky-highbrow Ivy League shrinks with thinning hair, doing a mincing verbal duet of brotherly love.

"What Kelsey and I try to bring out is moments when the brothers can be genuinely affectionate, so it's not just that brittle, intellectual sibling rivalry type of banter," Mr.

Pierce says. "The writers have already given Niles lines that make him extreme, so I try to strike a balance and make him a real human being."

But sometimes the siblings' banter gets so WASPishly waspish that it recalls the kvetching of Oscar and Felix (Tony Randall and Jack Klugman) on ABC's 1970s series "The Odd Couple." And sometimes, Niles and Frasier's relationship looks like a send-up of a stereotypical gay couple.

"That's a loony idea," Mr. Pierce says with typical frankness. "What people are responding to, which Kelsey and I both work to bring out into our characters, is that Niles and Frasier know each other very, very well, that they are in some ways cut from the same cloth.

"And I think what people recognize in them is the family situation. When you're dealing with your own family, you're dealing with people that you love very much, but [that] doesn't mean you can even carry on a simple conversation without getting furious at each other. That's also what viewers respond to in our [Niles and Frasier's] relationship with Dad [John Mahoney]."

If you talk to Mr. Pierce for long, you notice he mentions Mr. Grammer a lot. You sense a kind of quiet admiration for the former "Cheers" guy, who's nominally the bigger star.

Mr. Pierce first met Mr. Grammer in 1982, when they were doing different plays at the same venue, the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven.

"I thought we looked a lot alike even then," Mr. Pierce says. "Later, when I was doing plays in New York, I'd hear people say 'That guy from "Cheers" was really good.' "

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