The four-time Emmy winner talks about his latest projects, including directing the L.A. production of the Tony-winning Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.
Actor-director David Hyde Pierce
Tavis: David Hyde Pierce has played dozens of characters, received accolades for every one of them. But despite all of his achievements, for many of us he will always be Dr. Niles Crane in the hit series “Frasier.” I assume you’re okay with that.
David Hyde Pierce: I’m okay with that, yeah.
Tavis: Okay. He’s won four Emmys for that role, was nominated 11 times, which means that every season the sitcom was on, he was nominated. Since the series has ended, he has returned to the theater, winning a Tony award for best actor in a musical, “Curtains,” and last year he costarred in the Tony-winning play “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” I just love saying that –
Pierce: It’s a hard one, yeah.
Tavis: – “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”
Pierce: Oh, my.
Tavis: Say it with me: “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”
Pierce: “And Sonia and Masha and Spike,” which turned Chekov inside-out and spun him around. Now he’s directing that play here in L.A. Let’s take a look at a scene from “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” (Laughter)
[Clip from theatrical performance of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”]
Tavis: So you and Christopher Durang go way back.
Tavis: How far back?
Pierce: We go back 30 years. He gave me my first job when I came to New York out of college. He wrote a play called “Beyond Therapy,” and they cast me as a small of the waiter. I didn’t even have a middle name then, that’s how young I was. (Laughter)
It was great. It was all these – John Lithgow was in it, and Dianne Wiest, amazing cast. So funny, opened, audiences loved it, got a crappy review in “The New York Times,” closed in two weeks, and we were done. That was my introduction to the world of theater. (Laughter) It was like, oh, good.
Tavis: So you’ve never been afraid of rejection since then.
Pierce: No, really, because I had such a good time, really, and I learned so much from those guys. I thought wow, if this is what it’s like when it fails, then what must it be like when it’s successful?
Tavis: Yeah, well, you’ve had both now.
Tavis: Whole lot more of the latter.
Pierce: Well, up and down.
Tavis: So I want to talk about Chekov here in just a second, but what do you make of having been in this play and now directing this play?
Pierce: Yeah, well, it’s weird. What happened was our director – because this is essentially the production we did on Broadway, and our director had some scheduling issues and couldn’t direct it.
I started directing over the last few years, and he and Chris knew that I obviously know the play and love the play, so they asked me to take over. It’s been great. Half the cast is from the original production, half the cast is new.
They’re all amazing, so for me it’s been a lot about sort of shepherding the new folks and the old folks, and keeping the old folks interested and letting the new folks be creative.
Tavis: Why the directing thing for you over the past few years?
Pierce: It came about – people have said to me for a long time that I should direct; mainly people who didn’t like my acting. (Laughter) But I never wanted to, because I like acting.
I like getting the laughs and being out there and all that. Then actually my partner, Brian, had written a musical, and they were going to do it and they had a big director, actually Casey Nicholaw, who was going to direct it, and then he got this gig, “The Book of Mormon,” and he went off and did that.
Tavis: Pretty big deal.
Pierce: Yeah, it worked out for him. (Laughter) But it was a piece I knew because I’d been to a lot of readings of it and I really liked it, and I thought, well, I would direct this.
So I mentioned it to the producers and they said yeah, and we ended up doing it and it was a big hit. We’re hopefully going to bring it to Broadway, so.
Tavis: Good stuff, good stuff. All right, so Chekov.
Tavis: I’ll let you explain the connection here, but what makes Chekov – I think most of us regard him as the best, but what makes him so malleable, so interpretable?
Pierce: The thing about Chekov for people – a lot of people don’t know Chekov, but he’s one of the great playwrights, Russian playwright of the turn of the last century, and he’s famous because he’s written these plays that are comedies, and they’re famous for being almost unwatchable.
There are so many bad productions of Chekov, because he’s really hard to do. Because it’s not slapstick, it’s not drama; it’s kind of like real life. There’s a great quote about “The Cherry Orchard,” someone had said about his play “The Cherry Orchard:” “Nothing happens except one world ends and another begins.”
So there’s all this incredible history and dramatic mileage in Chekov’s plays, and Chris Durang, who’s very familiar with Chekov, has always loved him and been intrigued by the sort of darkness and Russian depression and everything that goes on in them.
He decided finally to do his own version of it, and Chris is a unique talent. There’s no one with his mind, which is probably a good thing. He’s just kind of insane, but he also has a real insight into what’s going on in the culture, what’s going on in the world.
Here’s this sort of mish-mosh comedy, very funny piece, but there’s an undertow in it of kind of real connection about what’s happening to people, what’s happening to families, how we’re all feeling disconnected.
In the midst of all this laughter, he really taps into something that touches people, which is exactly what Chekov did back in –
Tavis: The technology bit is pretty outstanding.
Pierce: Yes. Yeah, well, the character of Vanya has quite an astounding sort of explosion near the end of the play, and it’s a lot about where we are now, technologically, and how all these advancement have disconnected us from one another.
He goes back to the ’50s, when he was a kid, and talks about all the great things that were cultural icons in the ’50s. As he sorts through them and explores them, he realizes well, a lot of them were actually not that good.
It’s not that they were great works of art; it’s that we all shared them. So that gets explored, that loss of connection.
Tavis: For those who know Chekov’s work, when they come see this, will they recognize Chekov?
Pierce: Yes. There are a lot of references – you don’t have to know Chekov to enjoy it, but there are a lot of very specific allusions and references and the characters are not identical to but sort of a mash-up of Chekov’s characters.
Tavis: I want to run through the characters and get you to say a word about each.
Pierce: So Vanya is – it’s a brother and two sisters, and Vanya and Sonia have stayed home. They’re in their late fifties, early sixties, and one of the reasons they stayed home was their mom and dad got Alzheimer’s, and they ended up, between the two of them, spending about 15 years taking care of them.
So they’ve sort of evolved into these just homebodies who sit and gripe with each other and have a kind of okay but slightly hopeless life. Their sister Masha, played by Christine Ebersol, is a movie star.
She went out and she made, like, action movies, and she became a big deal, and she’s always gallivanting around, and she’s never there. In the play, she comes back, and she comes back with Spike, who is her boy toy, and that’s when things start to get disrupted, and the comfort of the home and sudden change starts to hit the family.
There’s also two other characters. There’s Cassandra, who is the housekeeper in the house, who is also psychic, and suddenly bursts into strange Greek choruses of, like, psychic predictions, like housekeepers do.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Pierce: And then there’s Nina, the girl from next door, who’s this sweet young thing who is in love with Chekov’s plays. Nina is actually a very famous character from “The Seagull,” who is a young aspiring actress, and she’s a young aspiring actress. She brings a kind of wonderful innocence and spirituality into the whole mix.
Tavis: It is impossible for me, at least, given the number of times you’ve been on this program and principally, I think, the last time you may have been on. It’s impossible for me to hear you reference Alzheimer’s regarding the play and not make the connection to your own life.
Tavis: What’s that old adage, life imitates art, and sometimes art imitates life? Why do you keep coming back to this issue of Alzheimer’s in your real life and on the stage?
Pierce: Well I’ve been involved in the fight against Alzheimer’s for a long time. I lost my grandfather to Alzheimer’s and my dad to Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.
In fact, I spent – until I came here today I was on a six-hour conference call. I’m on a federal advisory council, because the president and the Congress, back when they all did things together, actually put together this national Alzheimer’s plan.
So that’s a forward-going movement. We just actually, the Congress – again, the Congress unanimously approved $122 million funding for research and care for Alzheimer’s, and given the climate – and the president approved it too – that’s a big deal.
So I’m very involved in that, but the fact that Alzheimer’s appears in the play is in some ways a coincidence. It has nothing to do with my being involved. But it is a reflection, I think, of the prevalence of the disease.
Chris knew friends who were in the situation of taking care of parents with dementia. Also to an audience now, that’s no longer sort of a weird, odd thing. It’s life. So for better and for worse, it’s part of our common experience now.
Tavis: If you celebrate it, given that you’re much closer than I am, if you celebrate the $122 million, then I will celebrate it. But it does raise a question for me as to whether or not that is a drop.
They may have agreed on it, but what’s that say about – where are we at in funding for this, though?
Pierce: Here’s what we need: two billion.
Tavis: That’s what I thought, see?
Tavis: That’s why I said I’m glad you’re celebrating it –
Pierce: No, you’re, and –
Tavis: – but it sounds to me like it was a drop in the bucket.
Pierce: It is a drop in the bucket. At least there’s a bucket and they put a drop in it. But it’s also really serious, because there’s people who get Alzheimer’s very young, in their forties and fifties, but the vast majority of people get it as they get into their sixties and beyond.
The baby boomers are all turning into their sixties and seventies, and not just in this country, but worldwide, the numbers of people with it, the numbers of family members taking care of those people, the cost to the healthcare system, it would make me laugh if it was funny that people are so concerned about Obamacare and what’s going to happen.
It’s like, it’s not going to matter. Given the cost just of Alzheimer’s and dementia, we’re all going to be in serious trouble if we don’t step up and fund research to cure it or treat it.
Tavis: Because I know these issues matter to you and you raised it a moment ago, I’m going to swing this way and I’ll swing back.
Pierce: All right. I’ll wait here.
Tavis: Okay. (Laughter) I love that comedic timing, man, you still got it. You still got it. So let me swing this way. You made a comment that wasn’t lost on me or the viewer, I suspect; the notion of back when Congress used to, and the White House, those players in Washington used to work together.
What do you make of the state of affairs in Washington these days?
Pierce: Well, I think fortunately the world’s going to end probably in a year or two, so it really doesn’t matter.
Tavis: Okay. (Laughter)
Pierce: But I think it’s a reaction – what is it? It’s – I always think extremism is basically a reaction out of fear. What we seem to be experiencing is polar extremism that keeps people from coming together.
But the good news is I also feel like people in Congress and in the country, obviously, are so sick of it now that – and we’ve all kind of experienced what a waste of time that is.
Which has allowed people to start to creep back together. So I guess I’m an optimist about that, but I feel like we’ll see what happens the next few years.
Tavis: Yeah, you’re more optimistic than I am at the moment.
Pierce: Well, you know.
Tavis: I hope you’re right about that. I’m certainly not optimistic given that this is a midterm year.
Tavis: I just don’t see much getting done, because people are –
Pierce: Well, I think this will be really fascinating, because the question will be does this sort of extremism win out, and do people fall into those camps and try to appease the Tea Party or try to appease whoever the far left.
Or do they try to play the middle and say well, that obviously didn’t work and I think America knows that, so let’s see if we can’t just be adults and come together. That might be a good political strategy if I were running for something.
Tavis: Would you ever consider that?
Pierce: Rather die.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) You’d rather die?
Tavis: Is it that bad?
Pierce: It’s that bad, yes.
Tavis: You think elected office is just that bad?
Pierce: That’s slow death, I think, yeah. At least the way it’s being played now. Not always. You know what, let me say something about that too, because it’s so easy to criticize the federal government.
But as I said, I just got off this long conference call, and this Alzheimer’s advisory council is made up of people like me who are not in the federal government, with people in the federal government from every branch of government. That’s how seriously they’re taking this fight against Alzheimer’s.
It’s the National Institutes of Health and Veterans Affairs and Indian Affairs – everything. They are working so hard, and they have accomplished so much. We can talk about well, the funding isn’t there, but that’s not them.
The people in the trenches really care and are really doing the work to push this ahead, and I really have to give them credit for that.
Tavis: What to your mind – you may have already answered this, David – but to your mind, what’s driving the focus? Is it just the realization of what these numbers are going to mean a few years from now?
Pierce: I think so, and I think it’s just the sad reality that we all know someone now. Whatever it was, 15 years ago when I started being involved in the cause and we were trying to get people to pay attention and saying look, the numbers are going to go up, the numbers are going to go up.
It’s just one of those things. It’s human nature that an immediate crisis, bird flu, gets money like that (snapping fingers) because people are going to die. This is a – in terms of the statistics and the numbers of people who will die and the suffering and the cost, this is way beyond that.
But it’s slow and steady, and so it’s been a long time coming. But now virtually everyone in America has someone in their family, they know someone; they see it on the TV.
That’s the thing that’s fueling it. People are seeing what this is, people are going through their own burden of taking care of a parent or a grandparent or even seeing – so many people, people in their fifties, people in their sixties, getting diagnosed with this disease.
Oh, this is the other thing that’s helping. Because we’ve been able to diagnose earlier and more effectively, people in a much earlier stage of the disease are able to speak out and speak about it.
There’s nothing more powerful than someone who has the disease who can be articulate and go in front of Congress or go to local government and say man, this is what’s happening, and it’s going to be you.
It’s one thing when you see the images we’ve all seen of the elderly people in the home, and that’s sad they get forgetful. It’s another when you see someone who looks exactly like you or me and they say, “I’ve got it. I don’t know how long I’ve got. I don’t know how long I’ll know my kids.”
Tavis: Before I move on – there’s so much to talk to you about every time you come by, and I’m glad you’re here again.
Tavis: Before I move on, though, what did you learn not about your father but about yourself going through that with your father? What’d you learn about yourself?
Pierce: Well I certainly learned about my family, that when times get tough, they came together. When my grandfather had Alzheimer’s, it was back in the late ’80s.
We didn’t know what it was. He wasn’t diagnosed until after he had died and had an autopsy. My grandmother – this is very typical and still happens. My grandmother was very private and she didn’t let anybody know what was going on. It wasn’t till very late in the disease that we really saw the things that we thought were just quirks or kind of him getting forgetful were serious.
Having had that experience, then when my dad got dementia, his started as a result of it’s called vascular dementia, which means he had had heart surgery and had some complications and strokes.
Essentially, dementia is death of brain cells, so that’s how that started. We kind of recognized what he was going through, so we were a little bit better equipped to deal with it.
We took turns, after my mom passed away, we took turns staying with Dad. Dad went to live with my brother for a while. He then went to a fantastic assisted living place where he had lots of people to be around and be social with.
Then at the end the dementia started increasing, which is I think probably where the Alzheimer’s crept in. He got the flu and he died, and we were glad, because we knew – he still knew us when he died, unlike my grandfather, so that was that process.
Tavis: So your dad, I would assume, then, got to see some of the best of your work on “Frasier.”
Pierce: Yeah. Yes.
Tavis: Yeah. Since you were here last – I can’t believe this – 20 years?
Pierce: I know. I know.
Tavis: There was a cover – I know there’s a picture on the cover of this magazine that came out last year, when you guys were –
Pierce: Oh yeah.
Tavis: “Entertainment Weekly,” I think it is.
Pierce: Yeah, it was.
Tavis: They’ll put it on the screen. There it is. There’s the picture, yeah.
Tavis: Great photo.
Tavis: What do you make of that? Twenty years ago.
Pierce: That’s a lot of years and a whole lot of hair. (Laughter) But yeah, it’s amazing. But you know, man, it’s on so much, and so many people come up to me and say, “Thank you. Thanks for all the laughs.”
I was here at the hotel, I guess I was on my way to rehearsal, and it was the night of the Grammys. This very beautiful woman in a lovely black outfit was going down in the elevator, and I said, “Oh, are you going to the Grammys?”
She turned to me and said, “Yes.” (Gasps) She said, “I watched your show all the time I was pregnant, and it got me through. Now, whenever my daughter hears the theme song, she gets calm.” (Laughter) So I thought you never know what effect you’re going to have on people.
Tavis: I teased you about this starting this conversation, but I guess you are okay. If this is the role that you’re going to be known for, it’s not a bad one to be known for.
Pierce: Well here’s the cool thing. One of the reasons I went into the theater right after “Frasier,” aside from the fact that that’s where I came from, was also I knew that television was either going to be more of the same, because I was known as Niles, or I would try to do something else and not be accepted as it, because you cannot fight an image like that over a long period of time on TV.
So you go into the theater and you can kind of do anything, because it’s a whole different framework, and also I love the theater. So I’ve been able to do that. The legacy of that show and also just my memories of the people I worked with – I’m going to have dinner with some of the gang tonight.
Tavis: Oh, cool.
Pierce: It’s just that’s a great – I have nothing but love for that whole time.
Tavis: The story of how you got that role, though, because for those who have been long-time fans, when Frasier was on “Cheers,” he didn’t have a brother.
Pierce: No, that’s right.
Tavis: So I’ll let you tell the story of how he wound up with a brother.
Pierce: Well, they called me in. They were putting together the show. What had happened was one of the casting directors, they’d seen me in a play on Broadway.
One of the casting directors said, you know, if you’re ever going to have a brother for Frasier, this guy looks a lot like Kelsey. I especially – if you ever see shots of Kelsey in his early days on soaps and me in my early days on “Frasier,” we really do look a lot alike.
Now, strangely, he looks younger. I don’t know what happened. (Laughter) But so they decided, they brought me in to meet with the three creators of the show, and they said, “Well, so we’re thinking of having a brother, and all we know is that Frasier is a Freudian, so Niles will be a Jungian, and Frasier went to Harvard, so Niles went to Yale. That’s all we know.”
I said, “Well, okay.” I went home and called my agent and said, “Well it seemed to go well,” and she said, “Well it must have gone well; they’ve offered you the part.”
That was it. It was like, it was like a rehash of when I went to New York straight out of college and walked in, and my first audition I got “Beyond Therapy,” and I was on Broadway. It closed, but it was like (snapping fingers) that.
Tavis: Yeah, this lasted a little bit longer than two weeks.
Pierce: This did better than two weeks. (Laughter) I remember early, like halfway through the first season or three-quarters of the way through I said to Kelsey, “Now does this mean I’ll never have to work again?”
He said, “No, this means I’ll never have to work again.” (Laughter) That’s when I learned the difference between producing and acting.
Tavis: But were you ever concerned – this question will sound silly, given all that you’ve done since then – but when that show was in its heyday – and again, it’s on everywhere, somewhere, all day long.
But when the show was in production in first run, were you ever concerned, ever, that this might typecast me for the rest of my life? Or you were like you know what, this is great work, I love it, and it was never even a thought for you?
Pierce: I didn’t think about it as a problem with the show or the role, but I did think about it – any time I would do something in between seasons, I would only do stuff that wasn’t like Niles, mainly because no one was writing better than the writers on “Frasier.”
So why would I do a watered-down version of that? Also, I wanted to be able to get away from it. But I didn’t think about it for the future except, as I say, I did decide to get out of town and go back into the theater, where you have more flexibility.
What I could do is I could use the celebrity from the show to get lead roles on Broadway, because that has a certain cache for producers. But then “Spamalot” was my first show, it was a musical, and “Spamalot” was great because it was a comedy, so people were used to seeing me do comedy.
But it was completely different, and doing lots of sketches and playing different characters. So just in that one show I was really able to break away from what I’d been doing all those years and move into a different world.
Tavis: So this run, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike -”
Pierce: Can I just tell you no one gets the title right. I am so proud of you for just working on that.
Tavis: I’ve been practicing for two weeks.
Pierce: Well, you have to. Yeah.
Tavis: I still just screwed it up initially, but I caught myself.
Pierce: That’s all right, that’s all right.
Tavis: This will be here for a little while, for a few weeks, in L.A.
Pierce: Yeah, through March 9th.
Pierce: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: What happens next for you?
Pierce: I’m going to go, I’m actually going to do a little bit of teaching, which I’ve never done. I’ve been asked to go to various places. There’s a great retreat in Wisconsin, which Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontaine were these great, great, great American actors, and they built some sort of mansion in the middle of Wisconsin.
They’ve restored the place, and every summer they have sort of a master class, where they bring actors from around the country. So I’m going to go and pretend I know something and tell that to people.
Then I’m hoping to direct the musical I was talking about. Then in the fall, the plan is to take “Vanya” to London, the original production, and I’ll go back to acting in it. So that’s what I’ve got so far.
Tavis: Wow. That works for me. Works for me. So you’ll want to see that if you can get a ticket, and I’m sure at this point maybe you still can, before this thing actually opens and becomes the hottest thing in town.
It’s being directed by one David Hyde Pierce. I will see you on the 10th row one of these nights.
Pierce: Good, good, thanks, Tavis.
Tavis: Nice to see you.
Pierce: So good to see you again, man.
Tavis: Good to see you. Come back any time.
Pierce: Thanks for doing this.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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