I’ve really always wanted to get killed in a movie. And of course people have always told me I’d make a really great psycho-killerGod knows why. David Hyde Pierce DAVID HYDE PIERCE’S Niles Crane is such a beloved character on the NBC megahit Frasier that it’s a wonder co-star Kelsey Grammer’s ego can stand it. Almost more so than his sitcom sib Frasier, Niles seems to have a life of his own. There’s something intensely real about the endearingly pompous psychiatrist, something that chimes such strong bells that many viewers start laughing when the reedy-looking actor merely appears on-screen. The slightest twitch of Niles’ thin eyebrow or curl of his haughty lip can bring down the house. The show’s diverse audience, which finds the mixture of literary jokes and sight gags irresistible, seems to take special delight in Frasier’s priggish kid brother.
Pierce appears to have found a gold mine in Niles Crane, excelling, as he does, in bringing Niles’ brittle wit, fussy demeanor, and ardent but unconsummated passion for Daphne (Jane Leeves) into sharp and hilarious focus. If it is tempting to think that he was born to play the role, one can understand whya look back on Pierce’s career reveals a track record of modest, but consistently acclaimed and intense, performances leading up to his signature role.
David Pierce was born April 3, 1959, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., the youngest of his insurance agent father and homemaker mother’s four children. Dramatic from the get-go, as a child he used to practice “dying” by throwing himself repeatedly down the staircase of his parents’ home. He entered Yale University with the intention of earning a degree in music, but soon switched to English and theater arts, graduating in 1981 to the usual spate of acting classes in New York City, working variously to pay the bills as a security guard, church organist, and perhaps most a propos of all, a tie salesman at Bloomingdale’s.
After earning a promising Broadway debut in a 1982 run of Beyond Therapy, Pierce relocated to Minneapolis, where he worked as an ensemble player at the prestigious Guthrie Theater from 1983 to 1985. Back in New York the next year, he played Laertes in a New York Shakespeare Festival production of Hamlet, starring Kevin Kline. Pierce next joined a touring production of The Cherry Orchard that wended its way through the Soviet Union and Japan into 1989, after which he returned to the bright lights of Broadway to appear as a gay pediatrician opposite Christine Lahti in a well-reviewed six-month-long run of Wendy Wasserstein’s award-winning play The Heidi Chronicles.
As distinguished as his stage career grew and as illustrious as his small-screen efforts would ultimately prove, Pierce’s big-screen career got off to a modest start and has remained that way. He made his feature-film bow in a minute part as an ill-fated trucker in James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), and, from that inauspicious introduction, went on to log a handful of smallish roles in the 1988 films Bright Lights, Big City, Rocket Gibraltar, Crossing Delancey, and Vampire’s Kiss. He graduated to more substantial, if still solely supporting, assignments as Jeff Bridges’ agent in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991); Dianne Wiest’s assistant in Jodie Foster’s directorial bow Little Man Tate (also 1991); and Jack Nicholson’s underling in Wolf (1994). Roles as Meg Ryan’s brother in Sleepless in Seattle and as the obstetrician who delivers Morticia’s baby in Addams Family Values (both 1993) afforded him an exercise in the lighter side of cinema.
1992 witnessed Pierce’s first television showcase, in the form of his regular role on Norman Lear’s short-lived but acclaimed political sitcom The Powers That Be. The next year Fate reached out and tapped the stage vet; his noble brow, sharp cheekbones and chin, and deep-set eyesin short, his striking physical resemblance to Kelsey Grammer, portrayer of effete and erudite psychiatrist Frasier Craneclinched for him a part in the Cheers spin-off Frasier. Originally Frasier was an only child, but the talented Pierce and his aforementioned uncanny physical similarities to star Grammer were a sure hit waiting to happen, so the producers invented persnickety, snobbish younger brother Dr. Niles Crane, and the rest, as they say, is television history.
His casting in Frasier wasn’t the last time his looks would win Pierce a major acting role. His pale, bony face and air of distracted and anxious intelligence led to a casting as presidential advisor John Dean in Nixon, Oliver Stone’s fierce 1995 biopic about the beleaguered former president. Of the experience, Pierce told Movieline magazine, “I used to think, ‘I want to be in an Oliver Stone movie, but I’m not sure I want to work with Oliver Stone.’ I liked working with him, but he’s no bed of roses. He has his opinions, and if you want to challenge him, you better be prepared.”
Pierce’s acting career has been positively studded with awards. His consistently hilarious, irrepressible appearances as Niles earned him an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 1994-95, and the Screen Actors Guild awarded him with its Outstanding Male Actor in a Comedy Series award in 1995. Two years later, he won an American Comedy Award for Funniest Supporting Male Performer in a Television Series, and, on a more serious note, garnered a CableAce Award for Best Guest Actor in a Dramatic Special or Series for his work in The Outer Limits.
A self-effacing, slightly nervy, yet always engaging personality when not playing a role, Pierce has also hosted numerous television awards shows and specials, has appeared in TV commercials, and has done an impressive amount of voice-over work for films and television, including lending his distinctive diction to Disney’s animated feature A Bug’s Life. Apart from his weekly appearances on Frasier, Pierce has roles in the forthcoming features Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human, a mock documentary exploring romantic relationships that also stars Carmen Electra and Mackenzie Astin; and Isn’t She Great, an autobiographical account of Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief Michael Korda’s encounters with best-selling Valley of the Dolls novelist Jacqueline Susann that stars Bette Midler and Nathan Lane.
Conspicuously single in a town where being single leads to speculation about sexual orientation quicker than you can say “Jodie Foster,” Pierce lives happily in West Hollywood with his two Wheaton Terriers, Emma and Mabel, and purportedly shares his life with Caroline in the City producer Brian Hargrove.
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