The Frasier Conspiracy: Was TV’s Longest-Running Character a Success Out of Spite to Shelley Long?

It’s a bit surprising that as we approach the end of 2013 we’re getting some juicy controversy surrounding the beloved ’80s sitcom Cheers, but the Internet works in mysterious ways, doesn’t it? On Monday, Cracked ran a listicle about major TV characters that were only supposed to be bit parts, and included Dr. Frasier Crane, the longest-running character in TV history, who debuted on the third season of Cheers and stayed on the air for an impressive 20 years. Cracked claims, by way of actor Kelsey Grammer’s autobiography, that he was only supposed to be on three episodes, but when the producers of Cheers recognized that lead actress Shelley Long hated him, they kept him around just to spite her. But that’s a bald-faced lie, claims former Cheers writer Ken Levine, who has taken to his blog to dispute this conspiracy. 

Frasier Crane was introduced in 1984, at the beginning of Season 3. Co-workers and lovers Sam Malone and Diane Chambers had, by that point, broken under the pressure of the immense sexual tension that coated the wood paneling of the Boston pub, and their relationship had taken a turn for the worse. Diane has fled Boston for a stay at a sanitarium (where she meets Frasier), and upon her return to Cheers she learns that Sam has had a relapse and is drinking again. Frasier is introduced as Diane’s “friend,” and she implores him to counsel Sam and help him through his alcoholism. In the second episode, it’s revealed that Diane and Frasier are dating, and suddenly the Sam-and-Diane dynamic has a new obstacle: Frasier was intended to be Sam’s rival, a haughty, pretentious academic who, like Diane, is at odds intellectually with the other regulars at the bar.

After a brief story arc in the beginning of the third season, Frasier’s character was absent from the show for a few episodes. Adding to the tension between Sam and Diane, however, he continues to pop up in the bar, serving as a sort of male version of Diane. Eventually, the two are engaged, although it’s clear Diane is ambivalent about the marriage; she calls Sam from her destination wedding in Italy, and he flies to Europe to stop it. The fourth season begins with the reveal that Diane left Frasier at the altar, and the three characters are all back in Boston, miserable — Frasier has lost his job, and Diane is serving rice in a convent. (Luckily, Woody Harrelson joins the show to bring a little relief to the dramatics.)

Frasier doesn’t become a main cast member until the fifth season, but he continues as a series regular throughout Season 4. His presence serves as an annoyance particularly to Diane, although his elitism (and insufferable insecurities following his breakup with her) don’t necessarily win him friends among the other regulars. But his character serves as a perfect antagonist to the working-class patrons at Cheers, and Grammer’s perfect delivery makes it clear why the producers thought he brought something special to what was intended to be a short-lived character.

Of course, in his autobiography, So Far…, published in November 1995, Grammer doesn’t give his own performance the credit that the producers did; he claims that Shelley Long hated him, and that her increasingly difficult behavior on the set, which annoyed the writers and producers, is what instigated the expansion of Frasier’s character. (It should be noted, of course, that Grammer’s famous substance abuse troubles became public in 1988 — during the show’s sixth and seventh seasons — when he was arrested for drunk driving and cocaine possession, and his behavior on set also infuriated his castmates and the crew.) To play devil’s advocate, perhaps this was conjecture; maybe it was Grammer’s way of denying to himself the extent to which his own personal problems affected his colleagues.

In any event, Cheers writer Ken Levine responded to those allegations this morning on his blog, prompted not by Grammer’s book itself, but by the Cracked listicle that aggregated its two-decade-old bit of gossip:

So with all due respect to Kelsey Grammer, whom I love and have worked with since his first day at CHEERS till his last day on FRASIER – let me categorically say that this is just not true. Not remotely true.

I don’t know where he got his misinformation. I suspect it was hearsay, but I can tell you unequivocally that it is wrong.

And in the process he does a disservice not only to Shelley but to himself.

Quite simply, he was retained because he was terrific and once everyone saw the dynamics between his character and the others in the bar it was clear that Frasier Crane was a keeper. For Kelsey to suggest anything other is not to give himself enough credit. He earned the promotion.

Levine goes on to admit that Shelley Long could indeed be difficult, but gives her the benefit of the doubt, suggesting that she had the difficult task of making Diane both lovable and annoying. He also praises Grammer on a personal level:

I should also mention that Kelsey was nothing but gracious, professional, prepared, and kind (as he remained throughout both CHEERS and FRASIER) on the set. It’s not like he was disruptive or unreliable in any way or gave anyone any cause to want to show him the door.

Levine also points to Shelley Long’s two appearances on Frasier as proof that the animosity between Long and Grammer didn’t actually exist. Her first appearance was as a visual gag — she’s on camera for about 30 seconds, and her walk-on was a surprise to even NBC, out of fear that the network would promote her cameo and ruin the joke. Her second guest appearance on Frasier happened after Grammer published his book. “[T]his one more substantial,” Levine points out, “and she agreed to do it. So they couldn’t hate each other that much.”

That’s a good point, but it’s also worth noting that her second appearance on Frasier took place in 1996 — nine years after she left Cheers to pursue film roles, which, despite some minor successes, did not prove to be a great career move. (Her major post-Cheers successes include Outrageous Fortune, Troop Beverly Hills, and The Brady Bunch Movie; her post-Cheers career also included a lot of guest appearances on TV shows, and a handful of TV movies). So while Levine claims the first cameo on Frasier was basically “a favor to Kelsey,” it seems like it wouldn’t have hurt her career, either. Considering her reputation on Cheers for being “difficult,” and the negative portrait Grammer painted of her in his book, her second appearance on Frasier could be seen as an attempt to attract both goodwill and new acting opportunities.

Of course, this is all to be taken with a grain of salt, as Levine makes clear in his response to the Cracked piece. “One downside to the internet is that people can write anything and it potentially can get spread around the world as fact,” he writes. “I’m happy to be able to set the record straight (not that I’m any more believable than anyone else on the internet). But I’m right about this one.”