As the psychiatrist sibling of radio shrink Frasier Crane on the smash Cheers spinoff Frasier, David Hyde Pierce won four Emmy Awards for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy during the series’ eleven-season run. While the actor retired the erudite, fussy Niles a few years ago, the characterization seems to keep popping up in unusual ways.
Consider a new film Pierce stars in called The Perfect Host, which recently opened in theaters and debuts on DVD and Blu-ray on August 23. In this diabolically entertaining indie thriller, the 52-year old actor plays Warwick Wilson, an erudite, fussy bachelor who lives in a stylish Los Angeles apartment. When John Taylor (Clayne Crawford), a scuzzy criminal who just pulled off a bank robbery, invades his home, Warwick is the kind of guy that’s concerned about the crook’s bloody foot—because it’s making a stain on his carpeting. But by film’s end, the character of Wilson proves less Niles and more nasty, as the film reveals his unsettling hobby and other surprises.
“I wouldn’t call him Niles, but part of the appeal of the role is that the way the movie starts out, he’s cut from the same cloth as Niles,” explains Pierce from New York. “He’s sophisticated, he has good taste, he’s having a dinner party and serving wine to his guests.
“For me, as an actor, I can take him on a journey. It works for the film because just like his character in the movie, they see me and relax. Audiences say ‘we get this,’ and it’s more surprising when the twists come that they don’t expect.”
The Perfect Host was shot in an incredible seventeen days, and Pierce took the role partly because it was done on the cheap, and partly because it tapped into something he remembered when he was a kid, growing up in Saratoga Springs, New York.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve always been looking for something different,” says Pierce. “People always said I should play a serial killer. Growing up I loved classic horror movies, Dracula and Frankenstein and the Hammer movies. There’s a flavor of that in this film—I’m talking more about the feel of the film. The gothic quality definitely appealed to me.”
What got Pierce interested in playing the role for first-time writer-director Nick Tomnay?
“I saw the director’s short called The Host, which this is based on,” relates Pierce. “I loved his writing and his style. It’s funny and noirish. We met over a few lunches, and I really like him and his approach to the film and the general way to approach the character.”
Most of The Perfect Host was shot two blocks from Pierce’s actual home in Los Angeles.
“I went home some days for lunch, although we had great craft services,” he says.
As for the frantic schedule of the indie world, Pierce says he prefers it to the luxury afforded big Hollywood productions, “The issue to me is, most big films, they wouldn’t cast me in a role I’d be interested in. Big films tend not be interested in the writing. I like that there is less money and not as much wasted time (with smaller films).”
Pierce, who attended Yale, really had no serious interest in acting until he was in college. “I used to act all the time, but I just didn’t know I was doing it,” says Pierce, who at one time had aspirations to be a concert pianist. “I would do the junior high musical, and even when I went to college, I would theatrical stuff for fun. At the end of freshman year, I had a part in a senior project and the head of the theater department said ‘You were really good,’ and that was the turning point for me. I had three lines in a play and it made me change my focus. I felt like I was home. That led me to New York.”
Once in New York, Pierce studied acting and worked odd jobs (selling ties, security guard) before being cast in an off-Broadway production of Hamlet and, on Broadway, in the original run of Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy.
After a stint in the short-lived sitcom The Powers That Be, he snagged the role of Niles, partly because he looks like Frasier star Kelsey Grammer. In the interim, he’s made time to appear in such features as former Yale classmate Jodie Foster’s directorial debut Little Man Tate, Nixon, Wolf, Sleepless in Seattle and Down with Love, as well as the cult comedy Wet Hot American Summer.
But Pierce says he will likely stick to small indie films for now—when he has time. Actually, he’s intent on concentrating on his first love, the theater.
In the past, Pierce appeared in the original production of Monty Python’s Spamalot, won a Tony for his role as musical theater enthusiast Detective Cioffi in Curtains, and recently was featured in the critically acclaimed (but short-lived) production of La Bete on Broadway.
Pierce, who appeared as a presenter on the recent Tony Awards, thinks Broadway has had a superior run of late. “Just look at the shows featured at the Tonys, and you could tell it’s been a great season.”
When asked if too many productions on The Great White Way—like Catch Me if You Can and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert—are based on movies, Pierce says he understands the trend. “Plays on Broadway are expensive to mount, so I understand the practice from the producers’ point of view,” he says.
Meanwhile, the actor will be making the transition to directing soon. “For years, people told me I should try to direct, but I had no interest,” says Pierce.
What did finally interest him in directing is a musical-comedy called It Shoulda Been You, slated to open in October at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Fingers crossed, it will hopefully head to Broadway.
Tyne Daly, Harriet Harris (Broadway’s South Pacific), Joe Grifasi, Michael Tucker and Debra Monk head the cast in the show, focusing on the wacky antics and secrets revealed during a wedding celebration for a Jewish bride and Catholic groom. Brian Hargrove, Pierce’s longtime companion and writer-producer on the TV series Caroline in the City and Titus, penned the lyrics and book while Barbara Anselmo composed the music.
“It has original songs and an original script, although we were thinking of telling people it’s based on a movie so they’ll come,” jokes Pierce.