Being a well-known TV star can be a real challenge. If you’re known for playing a particular character that people identify you with, you can sometimes get stuck in similar roles for most of you career; in a word: typecasting. This oftentimes horrific stigma can cause an actor’s career to be defined by one character and not based on their work as a professional actor with range and abilities not yet seen by viewers.
Most of us are familiar with this phenomenon. Some of the best examples come from classic TV shows. While some actors embraced the idea of being known for a particular role, other reviled it. One of the best cases comes from the same series: The Munsters. The Munsters became a curse for series star Fred Gwynne who played Herman Munster and a blessing to some extent for Al Lewis.
After the series was cancelled, Gwynne found it difficult to find steady work because casting directors always saw him as Herman. It’s one reason why – after being paid a hefty sum – he would return to the roles in a series of films.
Al Lewis, on the other hand, embraced his identity as Grandpa Munster. The persona from the 60s series never appeared to be a hindrance to his life after, in fact in helped him be identifiable to those who followed his efforts as a Green Party activist and candidate.
The casts of Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, Who’s the Boss?, Family Matters, Full House, Married with Children, Seinfeld, Friends and others held some if not all of their actors captive in the grip of this typecasting curse post-series. While it is true that many of these actors have managed to overcome their identity with the roles that made them household names, many still struggle to not be identified as such.
So what is the answer? How does an actor or actress twist their way out of this vicious cycle and move forward with their career? One of the best examples is Bryan Cranston. Known to many as Hal, the dad from Malcolm in the Middle, Cranston more than likely was offered similar roles following the finale of the Fox sitcom.
Instead of taking the comedy route, Cranston turned to drama and now plays Walter White on the smash hit series Breaking Bad. Three Emmys later, I think you can say it was a good choice. It worked because it was different; it took him out of the familiar world of comedy that audiences knew him for and elevated his skills as an actor to a higher level. While he may always be linked to Hal, he is no longer trapped in his shadow.
Kelsey Grammer – my favorite male TV actor of all time – has come up against this issue on many occasions. For twenty years, Grammer played Dr. Frasier Crane on both Cheers, Frasier, and one episode of Wings, making him one of two actors who have played the same character for two decades on a live-action series (the other is James Arness from Gunsmoke).
People loved Frasier Crane and still do. But after twenty seasons of being known as the “lovably pompous” psychiatrist I can only imagine how hard it was for Grammer to get audiences to see him in a different light and as a different character altogether. His two attempts after Frasier – Back to You and Hank – sadly did not allow him to move forward; instead it was “Frasier in a newsroom” and “Frasier moves back to his country hometown.”
So when I heard that Grammer was taking a turn toward a dramatic series, Boss, I was 100% for it. This is what he needs in order to escape the persona of Dr. Frasier Crane. A series that isn’t a multi-camera sitcom, that isn’t a comedy at all, and defines him as more than a one-character actor. If it worked for Bryan Cranston who played a far quirkier character than Frasier, perhaps this is just what Grammer needs to reinvigorate his career and his fans.
And does it work? You bet it does! Boss tells the tale of Chicago Mayor Tom Kane, a man who recently was given a pretty grim medical diagnosis that could have dire implications to his political future if the truth were to surface.
Kelsey Grammer is intense, mesmerizing, and gives a performance that is nothing short of brilliant. It’s the perfect, if not ideal, role for Grammer to play; a politician with power, charisma, and an underlying darkness that makes him more than just an empty suit delivering speeches. Grammer commands our attention as Kane, and his presence on screen is electrifying and palpable.
Connie Nielsen (Gladiator, Law & Order: SVU) plays Kane’s wife, Meredith. She’s a great compliment to Grammer’s character; her performance is much more subtle and calculating, while Grammer’s is a simmering cauldron of potential violence.
It’s no great secret that politics is a dirty, vile, and corrupt game of glad-handing, backstabbing usually played by narcissists, thieves, and liars. While there are elements of these concepts present here, there’s a human story being explored that grounds Kane and the other characters and makes them more than just mere political pawns and talking heads.
What could have been a by-the-numbers political drama instead delivers a thought-provoking morality tale about far people will go to get what they need no matter the potential consequences. Boss pulls no punches; it shows the moral and immoral sides of its characters in a way that makes the viewer wonder what they would do given a similar situation. Could the average man or woman survive in the cutthroat world of politics? Watch the show before you answer.
Like any great drama, there are a lot of overarching narratives interwoven throughout that are all interconnected with the primary storyline involving Kane’s current role as Mayor and the discovery of his degenerative medical condition. Still, it is Grammer’s performance at the center of all the political chaos that makes the show click, spark, and shine.
Viewers looking for Dr. Frasier Crane should stick to re-runs of Cheers and Frasier. Even though both Frasier and Kane share similar qualities (ego, pomposity, one-upmanship), Boss doesn’t play these for laughs. Instead we see the darker side of these human flaws, their impact on Kane’s political and personal life a powerful reminder of the clichéd phrase: “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
I’m excited to see what twists and turns lie in store for Mayor Tom Kane and the other people who populate the world of Boss. Grammer’s performance is a genuine treat to watch, a tour de force that will definitely garner him his next Emmy nod and I would love to see him go toe-to-toe with Bryan Cranston next year. I highly recommend you check out Boss.
Boss premieres October 21 at 10pm E/T only on Starz.
Who’s the next sitcom actor who needs to take on a dramatic role? Leave a comment and let us know!