By Karl J. Paloucek
It’s one of life’s fascinating conundrums: People desire power, yet power corrupts. The stories of those caught in this vice have played out time and again throughout the centuries, and if their cautionary tales aren’t more relevant today than ever before, it sure feels like they are. This month a new morality play begins to unfold with the premiere of Starz’s Boss (Friday, Oct. 21 at 10pm ET/PT), starring Kelsey Grammer.
We visited the set of the series here in Chicago, where Boss takes place, to see the inner workings of this intense drama and to talk to its principal players including Grammer, who, as Tom Kane, is at the core of the story. Kane sits as mayor atop an entrenched political machine — not unlike that of the real Chicago, though the series creators insist that no actual party affiliation will be cited or implied. As with anyone who succeeds in grasping the reins of power, Kane has reached the peak of his immediate power structure, and the struggle to stay there is underway. But fending off would-be assailants and contenders, from political opponents — and allies — as well as the media and that ugliest of political realities, public disapproval, is no mean feat. And the tactics required to keep them all at bay have taken their toll on Kane’s personal integrity.
It’s easy to think that Boss and its subject matter might be ripped from the headlines. Chicago has had a busy year, with six-term Mayor Richard M. Daley finally stepping down and making room for controversial successor Rahm Emanuel — not to mention the drama of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s retrial and conviction on corruption charges. But as we sit in Grammer’s trailer, his two dachshunds violently scrapping with each other all the while, the actor suggests that the city’s ongoing real-life troubles are just part of the scenery for the show. “I would say it’s ripped from the pages of Shakespeare, honestly, more than anything else,” he says. “And if that doesn’t sound sexy to people, well, they’ve just got to see it. … The conceit is that Chicago is a kingdom. And it is risen out of the plains, almost in a Romantic sense. And in a visual sense it is that. In the middle of the plains is this extraordinary kingdom that is, in our world, a fiefdom, basically. And this guy’s trying to hang on to it.”
The name Kane immediately conjures up Citizen Kane, of course — an appropriate reference that mirrors his own character’s moral degeneration. “He’s a dark, wonderful, @#$%ed-up guy to play,” Grammer chuckles. “He’s just fantastic.”
Though Grammer is far and away best known for his comedic work, he has a background in classical theater and has had more than his share of dark experiences in his lifetime. And playing Kane gives him the opportunity to work with some of that emotional material in a new context, when appropriate. “The landscape of the character is laid out by the text,” he qualifies. “I don’t think I have to make that about me. [But] if anything that happens to be connected to me personally comes along for the ride, then I always look at that as a benefit, as a bonus.” At the end of the day, for Grammer, it’s still about the story. “Honestly, for all the darkness in my life — and it’s been highly publicized, even some of the current stuff — it’s not why I work. It’s not why I’m there. I like to tell stories. I like to tell good stories. And I love this story.”
Despite the intense shooting schedule in Chicago, Grammer is spending most of his downtime jetting between home in New York — where he lives with new bride Kayte — and his kids in Los Angeles. But he has managed to reconnect with some familiar ties to the city he oversees as Kane. “I just went and saw John Mahoney’s play,” he says, referring to the Tony-winning Frasier costar’s recent stint in Northlight Theatre’s The Outgoing Tide. “I’m going to try to have dinner with John before I leave.”
Grammer still connects with his old TV family — these days, even when he’s just at home with Kayte. Not many actors will admit to watching their own work, except to evaluate and self-criticize, but Grammer is justifiably proud of the quality of Frasier and says that the passage of time is one of the keys to being able to revisit it. “It’s so much after the fact, but also, I produced the show as well for so many years — I had to watch it to keep notes. So to get past all of that is terrific. It was a terrific show, and we still get a good giggle when we sit and say, ‘What the hell? Put it on!’”
Other than spending time with Frasier, Grammer and his wife are getting caught up on other shows, as well. “She’s in love with Reba,” he says. “Kayte’s British — some of these shows are kind of new to her. But she just loves Reba. She does an impression of her that’s priceless. So that’s what our life is, right now.”
If ceding the remote to one’s wife is an abdication of power, it’s about as far from the complicated life of Tom Kane as one can get. And for that, it looks as if Grammer couldn’t be more delighted.
Photo: ©MMXI Lions Gate Television Inc. All Rights Reserved. Credit: Chuck Hodes