David Hyde Pierce On When We Rise, Frasier’s Legacy, and Coming Out

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Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture

You can divide David Hyde Pierce’s professional career so far into three acts. The first began when he moved to New York after graduating from Yale in 1981. He was a young, working theater actor until he got his big TV break — one brief season of Norman Lear’s The Powers That Be — before an even bigger one: Frasier, which began the second and most popular leg of his career. Most people know him as the slightly repressed, aesthetically high-minded, lovesick and lovable Dr. Niles Crane, a character he played with aplomb for well over a decade, accumulating 11 consecutive Emmy nominations and four wins. But with the accolades and attention came scrutiny about his personal life, and questions about his sexuality that he shied away from. It wasn’t until 2007, when he had returned to theater for the third stage of his career, that he publicly talked about his husband Brian Hargrove, whom he had been with since 1983.

I met Pierce on the Upper West Side at Cafe Luxembourg for dinner after he had finished up rehearsals for Hello, Dolly!, the Broadway musical he’s starring in with Bette Midler. He was sporting an impressively thick mustache for the show, which was the envy of our waiter. It’s one of his favorite restaurants, a place he’s been going to with his husband since the restaurant opened in 1983. “Once a year, Brian and I used to pool all our money and come to this place, because it was the greatest treat in the world,” Pierce said. “And now it’s one of our regular hangouts, because it’s been here virtually unchanged.”

Pierce is also currently on television in a role that hearkens back to the early years of his life as an actor living in New York. He plays the father of activist Cleve Jones in Dustin Lance Black’s massive ABC mini-series about the gay-rights movement, When We Rise. Over a hamburger and shared plate of fries (he insisted), we had a long conversation about the show, Frasier’s legacy, and his process of coming out as an actor in Hollywood.

You’re currently in the TV mini-series When We Rise, where you play the father of the noted gay rights activist Cleve Jones. He has a hard time accepting his son when he comes out. What attracted you to that role?
It was the chance to play Cleve’s dad. I think he really is a hero, Cleve, and when they talked about me for the project, he said, “Oh, he should play my dad.” I think there were similarities, but also ironically he said his dad always liked my character on Frasier. So that was just an extra bonus. And I like the opportunity in a piece that’s clearly about gay rights to play someone who didn’t understand that. I think that’s important because there’s a lot of those people. And, you know, how much it means as a gay person to see some representation of being gay in the culture. It’s equally important for a parent who maybe isn’t tolerant to see themselves represented in a hopefully three-dimensional way. Our story line is such a small part of this gigantic epic, but there is an arc to the story line that was true for Cleve and his dad, where his dad went from total unacceptance to great love and support. Because when it came down to it and his son’s life was at risk, that was more important to his dad. I think that was fantastic.

Do you mind if I ask what coming out was like for you?
Well, I don’t mind if you ask, it’s just, like, which time? Because it hasn’t stopped.

Did you have a conversation with your parents?
I never had that conversation with my parents. I had no idea I was gay, even through high school, because there weren’t really enough role models or cultural images for me to recognize what that even meant. And so ultimately, what happened with my mom and dad was I met my now-husband, Brian [Hargrove], without ever having a conversation with them where I sat them down and said, “Mom and Dad, I’m gay,” a conversation that I thought would be painful for them. I brought home the guy I was in love with. And they met him and loved him and embraced him, and he was a member of the family instantly. Brian and I met in ’82 and got together in March of ’83. Back when we met in ’82, Brian was an actor, I was an actor. We had the same agent and we would meet at auditions. But because of the politics at the time, he had a pretend girlfriend. So I had no idea he was gay. For the first several months we got to know each other, we were just friends. I just liked spending time with him. I loved spending time with him. It never occurred to me that anything more was possible. And then eventually we figured out that it was, and that was great, but I always wonder if part of the reason our relationship has lasted so long is because it started with a bond of friendship.

You moved to New York after Yale, in 1981, and lived through the beginning of the AIDS crisis. I can only imagine those were harrowing times.
It was, it was. We lost friends and we lost colleagues, and the arts community was devastated. We lived through all of that. I remember I was doing a show not too long ago and a young gay guy was my driver. And he asked me, “Tell me about the AIDS crisis. I don’t really know anything about it.” The benefit performance of The Normal Heart, was on at that time. I said, “I’m not going to tell you about it. I’m going to get you and your partner tickets to see this show.” Because there’s no better way to show viscerally what was happening, what the crisis was and what the politics were, and all the conflict, and how nobody knew what the right thing to do was. Even in the gay community, nobody knew. It was like being at war. It was an intense bonding experience for our community. I think many people would agree that it would have been nice to have a different reason to bond, but it did have that effect, which was life or death. And we had to stand up for ourselves, because no one else was standing up for us.

So do you think that there’s a pedagogical importance for something like When We Rise for younger generations?
Yes, absolutely. There’s so much that kids just don’t know, and blissfully so. There’s such a diversity of opinion in the gay community about where we are. There are people who say, “Oh, come on, none of these things are issues anymore. Everyone’s fine, people are out, and no one cares.” And then there are kids who get thrown out of their house still for being gay. And also the way the political landscape has changed recently and who has the upper hand and who gets to tell the story. That’s why a piece like this, like you say, pedagogically is a great work.

The whole thing about sexuality and coming out is so much about, well, who you want to have sex with. Which always seemed to me like the least interesting conversation you could have. But I just realized, thinking of the series, it’s why it’s such a diverse community. Because that’s just one thing. That’s one organizing principle, but the panoply of people who happen to have that one trait is as diverse as any other group in America.

Where do you think we’re at now?
I can only really talk about where I am right now, which is completely confused. We got married. We were Los Angeles residents, so in the window in 2008 when it became legal, we got married. And then the election happened, and in California the people voted against us and we weren’t married. And then they defeated Proposition 8 and we were married again. And then other states started to pop up getting married. And then New York was embarrassed because it was so far down the list, but then New York passed same-sex marriage. And then the country did, and it was almost unimaginable that we had gotten to that. And then, on the heels of that, this incredible wave of the whole transgender world blossomed. Now, suddenly, “Okay, enough of that” is the cultural feeling. And I understand how we who live in the cities don’t understand what’s going on in the rest of the country. I get that. But even here in the city, the feeling of, “Okay, you’ve had your time. Now we’re not really interested in that anymore and we actually just assume that you shut the fuck up.” I didn’t know that could happen so quickly, so that’s why I’m confused.

Frasier was a big part of your life. Especially because it was a broadcast show, you were doing 22 straight episodes. How do you reflect back on that time?
It was bliss. That’s the word I would use. It was 11 years, we had the best time, we had the best writers. We were a good cast, but it has to be good writing to all these years later see it and have it not be dated. It’s funny, it feels like a more significant part of my life to you, because it is the most public part of my life. And it’s a very important part of my life, but in terms of my performing career, it’s about a third of my life. I spent about 12 years in New York doing theater and I did about 11 years on Frasier and it’s been ten years, at least, that I’ve been back in New York doing theater. So there’s no question that in terms of public persona, Frasier was the highest level, and it’s a time I cherish, but it is in the context of a larger arc of working on amazing projects with amazing people.

Reading some of your old interviews back in the 90s, I got the sense that the very public glare of being on a hit TV show was uncomfortable for you.
Completely uncomfortable. It was something I had never encountered in 12, 13 years in the business as an actor in New York in the theater. It’s not something I’d ever been interested in or sought out. I was on a show before I did Frasier, and I got a call at seven in the morning at home in Los Angeles from the tabloid, The Globe. The conversation started with the reporter saying, “I’m sorry to call you so early, but your mom said this was the best time to get you at home.” And I thought, how did you find my mother? And who the fuck is this? Somehow, they found my family and she thought it was the Boston Globe. This was before I was on Frasier on a show that got canceled. But that was my first introduction to the invasion of privacy that happens when you have that kind of celebrity. There were photographers hiding in trees taking pictures of me walking my dog with my dad and stuff like that. I don’t like that. I certainly didn’t grow up in a culture where that was part of being an actor. So that was hard. Or it was unexpected.

Michael Musto wrote an article back in 2007 about the glass closet of actors who were semi-out. They weren’t in the closet necessarily, but they hadn’t made a public declaration, and he mentions you.
Yeah, see, this always drove me crazy. Not that in particular, but just the parsing of what you had to say and when. I don’t like to be told what to do. I’m okay with the director telling me what to do because that’s their job. But I bridle at that. And I will readily admit that I probably should’ve been more vocally public sooner than I was, but the thing that kept me from doing that was I just got pissed off at the idea that there was only one way to do things. Even when we started this conversation, you said, “What was it like to come out to your parents?” And I thought, I didn’t come out to my parents. I didn’t accept or embrace that trope, and say, “Oh, this is a thing one must do.” Instead, I introduced them to the guy I love and he ended up being part of the family and cooking the food for my grandmother’s funeral and being as he continues to be. I’m not saying that was right or wrong, but there is an absoluteness of saying, “I am coming out.” And here we all are, all these years later saying, “You know, there’s this whole panoply of who people are, and maybe we shouldn’t force them to say ‘I’m this’ or ‘I’m that.’” Maybe it’s okay. That’s what happened with me. But as soon as I start to hear, “Oh the people who did this, but they didn’t do that,” oh come on. I was probably a few years behind the times. I certainly wasn’t a pioneer. I wasn’t like, god bless her, Ellen DeGeneres. Or Rosie O’Donnell. Part of that was my upbringing. Part of it was the desire of an actor to not be pigeonholed.

I believed that living your life without hiding was the political statement. Maybe when we talk about the diversity of the community, I think it’s possible that everyone doesn’t have to do everything the same way. We seem more accepting of that now than we did, but we’re at a different point in the struggle than we were then. I wasn’t a hero of that struggle.

Something I loved about watching you on Frasier was the way you moved, and held this restraint in your body. Is that physicality where you begin when you build a character?
Good question. I think that what interests me is the contrast between what we are and what we want. The character on Frasier is that tension between someone who is restrained but has this intense desire, and in that case, he’s in love with a woman. I guess that’s where that physicality came from. I’m a big believer in musical comedy in the sense that music and comedy are interlinked. I think it was true for Kelsey [Grammer], I know it was true for me. That we’re both in some sense musicians. It’s not just about the delivery of a line, it’s also about how a body moves in space or illustrates a point or expresses a need or whatever those things are that I think are almost musical. I think of Fantasia, where there’s some weird graphic that’s depicting the music that’s being played. The same thing happens when you’re playing a character. It’s a language of stillness and motion.

Did you think Niles was a good therapist?
Yes.

Because we never really saw him work.
No. There are very few scenes of either of them in therapy, but we all agreed from the get-go that these guys were good at their jobs. Otherwise, it sort of undermines their integrity and who they were. I think Frasier on the air always gave good advice unless he was compromised by his own emotional state at the time.

Was it a relief when Niles and Daphne finally got together?
It was a situation where it was a character who was in love with this girl and they supposedly didn’t know and we all just felt like, if we go any longer with them not acknowledging their feelings for each other, they just look like idiots. So the writers came to us, which was a very respectful thing to do, and said, “This is what we’re thinking of doing to bring you guys together. Do you have any suggestions?” And we didn’t because they had come up with a really wonderful way of bringing the characters together. The hard thing was unrequited love is so much fun to watch that once we got together, it was hard to think, Well, now who are they? What do we do with them? Because the whole thing was that sexual tension. It made it harder. It had become the big focus of the show. Once they got together, the focus of the show had to go elsewhere.

People to this day come up to me and say, “My family was going through the hardest times. My dad was in the hospital dying. That was the thing where we could all get together and laugh.” And it happens again and again and again. I’m sure it happens with other shows too. But there’s something with that show … David Angell, who was one of the three creators of the show, he and his wife died in the first plane to hit the [World] Trade Towers. My understanding is, he was always very careful that the humor on Frasier was never cruel because it’s the easiest place to go for a laugh. It’s a very smart, funny show. It’s not like it’s pablum. But they never went there. I think that’s why people were able to continue to enjoy it, laugh at it, but also people in extreme circumstances, know it’s a place they can safely go.

Were there challenges or difficulties of doing the show for that long?
No. I mean, yes, things happened. Kels had a very complicated life. But the real answer is no. That also goes back to the writers because that’s the fiendish thing about doing a show like that. Twenty-two episodes, to sustain that quality of writing for 11 years. They were the ones that were under the gun. But the fact that they were able to do that meant we were riding on a cushion of creativity. It never got to a point where it just became a job. The other thing I’d say about the show is, the creators saw the writing on the wall in terms of the network and thinking, “I don’t know how much longer we have,” so they decided to end it.

That’s smart.
Yes, to take creative control and say, “Next year is going to be our last year.” That way we can shape the last year. And it’s the same experience I’ve had doing shows on Broadway. A year and a half is about the longest I’ve done a show. And in so many cases I ended up leaving the show, or the show closed, when I still wished we could do more. And that’s really great. To never have something so precious feel like a chore. Or worse, to feel indifferent about it. That’s important to me. I think it’s maybe why I also didn’t stay in television. Because I didn’t want to just stay in television after having had such a special experience.

A lot of shows like X-Files, Full House, and Will and Grace are being revived. Would you do a reboot of Frasier?
No. And I don’t think they would want one. The great thing about something like Will and Grace is the essence of Will and Grace was it was of the moment and it so dealt with the fabric of what was going on at the time. We need that now. It’s a fantastic time for something like that.

What do you remember from your last show?
Our last show, when we did the bows before the audience, as we did every show, they surprised us and they brought out Moose, who is the original dog, Eddie. He was no longer working on the show, but the dog always got the first bow, and they let Moose come out. We’d seen him recently, but he was snow-white. Barely had spots, he was so old. His fur turned white. He was round like a sausage. And he came waddling out. He was, as dogs are, the encapsulation of all the time that had passed. We all aged, things happen, but there in that little guy was all of our time together, in this fat little ancient dog. Canine metaphor.

I realized that precariousness is actually the nature of the world. I’m in a musical now; I know it will end. I know it will end in a year or whenever. That’s what it is to be an actor. But that’s what life is. Sometimes we are able to delude ourselves into thinking that anything is safe or secure or dependable. And there is a great freedom and calm in recognizing that you never know. Our dog died on Friday. We didn’t know that was coming. It doesn’t change the value of the time we had. It’s just emblematic, especially when you get to — I’m almost 60 — so I’ve lived enough and I’ve lost enough, going back to the days of the AIDS crisis and before. There’s a great understanding that comes with age, of how loss and change isn’t the exception, it’s the rule, it’s the deal. So much of our culture is spent hiding from that fact. It doesn’t make it less painful to go through change or loss, but you’re able to let it permeate you. What we are doing as a society is that process of letting go of the armor. Not everyone can do it all at the same time. But it is a thing that allows us to experience life as it really is and not as we pretend it might be.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

When We Rise Is a Flawed But Still Vital Mini-series
David Hyde Pierce on Frasier’s Legacy and Coming Out