When the trailer for the The Expendables 3 was released last December, the credits played like someone whipping through a Rolodex of beefy leading men: Stallone, Snipes, Schwarzenegger, Gibson etc. But one name stood oddly out-of-place among all that past-their-prime action-hero talent: Grammer.
Yes, Kelsey Grammer – the actor forever identified with pompous gasbag sitcom psychiatrist Frasier Crane – in an Expendables movie. It was weird. For years the nearest thing Grammer had to a zippy action-hero one-liner was, “Sherry, Niles?”
“Down Periscope is as close as I got to action-movie territory,” Grammer says with a laugh over the phone from Los Angeles, referring to his critically abhorred 1996 naval spoof. “I think I was swinging around on cables at one point.”
Yet after 20 years of one-to-one association with Frasier – Grammer refers to the character as “that other guy,” as if even whispering the name might reawaken some hoary typecasting evil – the actor has stepped out of that long shadow. He’s drawn critical praise for his turn as a scowling Chicago mayor on the cable drama Boss, and he popped up regularly this summer as the voice of the Tin Man in the digitally animated Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return, as the primary non-shapeshifting-automobile villain in Transformers: Age Of Extinction, and as co-star of a new FX sitcom called Partners.
He’s also taken to Twitter, indulging unmistakably Frasier-esque pedantry by offering pro bono grammar lessons under the hashtag #KelseyGrammerGrammar. (He’s quick to clarify that he doesn’t pay much attention to the account, which is managed by a team of savvy social media types.)
Given Grammer’s recent ubiquity, it’s surprising that he wasn’t hired to voice humanoid rat sensei Splinter in the new Ninja Turtles movie – that cherry gig fell to Tony Shalhoub.
“This has always been something I thought I could and should do,” says Grammer of his Expendables turn. “I heard that this role was available, I made a call, and we worked it out.”
Grammer plays Bonaparte, a pipe-smoking liaison to Sylvester Stallone’s freelance mercenary squad. He’s basically a black-ops talent scout, ferrying Stallone around as he adds new recruits to his assortment of tough guys. With his matted, salt-and-pepper beard, utilitarian cargo vest and Tilley hat, Bonaparte cuts a grizzled, almost Hemingway-ish profile.
It may seem like an odd bit of casting, but Grammer feels right at home in a cast of leathery musclemen and registered Republicans.
A prominent Hollywood right-winger, Grammer has come out swinging for George W. Bush, John McCain and (most improbably) 2012 Republican primary hopeful Michele Bachmann.
“I come from a long line of pioneers and ranchers,” Grammer says of his political pedigree. “Horse thieves, as my granddad used to say. That’s my style. It’s served me in terms of my thinking. I’m a traditional, machismo kind of guy, I guess. I mean, I’m sensitive and all that. But I like men. And I like women. And I like the way all that plays out.”
This sense of traditionalism, of nostalgia for America’s past of rock-jawed toughness, defines The Expendables. It’s a franchise that seems to unfold in the rear-view mirror of Hollywood action cinema, desperate to pretend that its cast of has-beens hasn’t been supplanted by CGI-augmented spider-men and plucky hobbits. It’s American conservative fantasy camp: a film that feels beamed in from some comic-book elseworld where nothing has changed since the Reagan administration.
While Grammer at one time chalked up his Emmy snub for Boss to a left-wing Hollywood conspiracy, he’s hesitant to draw the same conclusions now. “Look, Boss was on Starz,” he says. “Nobody watched it. Great work is passed over all the time. I would never bemoan the fact that I might have lost a job here and there because of my politics.”
Grammer seems, understandably, a little wary of getting dragged into the public pillorying that has dogged other out-of-the-closet Hollywood conservatives, such as his Expendables 3 co-star Mel Gibson or, more recently, actor Gary Oldman – who took flak from the Anti-Defamation League following a Playboy interview that regrettably lapsed into “the Jews run Hollywood” territory. Grammer says he hasn’t read the Oldman piece, but he’s nonetheless aware of the ensuing scandal. Grammer’s no stranger to scandal himself: He’s endured personal tragedy, drug abuse, failed marriages, allegations of recreational cross-dressing and widely circulated YouTube videos of him falling off a stage.
“I think it’s always good to talk about political stuff,” says Grammer. “If you’re calling stuff out for what it is, then that’s fine. If people are alarmed about it, it probably just means its true.”
Certainly, Grammer couldn’t have found a more accommodating, less politically correct franchise to embed himself in. Expendables characters exhibit no concern for the niceties of foreign policy – they’re driven by a belief in the nobility of their mission – or the red tape of war tribunals. This is a film where a Good Guy howls “I am The Hague!” before unloading into a Bad Guy.
And it’s the kind of film Grammer wants to do more of. “I was very pleased with how this one turned out,” he says. “I had a lot of fun doing this. I’d like to do it again. I’d like to see Bonaparte get back in the game, maybe get a bit more action.”
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