NEW YORK—It goes without saying, Kelsey Grammer had a spectacular run as pompous but goodhearted Dr. Frasier Crane, scoring critical and popular success in a sitcom role whose duration is matched in TV annals only by James Arness as Marshall Matt Dillon on "Gunsmoke" a generation earlier.
But radio shrink Frasier, along with Grammer's many other roles in a four-decade career (including Macbeth and a repressed gay dad in the Broadway musical "La Cage aux Folles") are merely a prelude to Tom Kane, the fiercely charismatic and flawed mayor of Chicago he embodies on the Starz drama, "Boss."
As Kane, Grammer has retired Frasier's arch, prissy style with no trace left behind. He has transformed himself into a figure of dominance, defiance and endangerment -- Kane's long reign is imperiled by a degenerative brain disease that looms as a more formidable threat than any political foe.
It's a positively Shakespearean premise, says Grammer, who drew inspiration for it from the tragedy "King Lear," whose hero he calls a "launching pad" for Kane.
"Here's a power guy, now failing, who wants to preserve his legacy," Grammer says. "But how is he going to dispose of his kingdom and leave his mark on it?"
Grammer must play this character on several levels. As Kane confronts his impending frailty and doom, he must continue to pose as an indomitable force -- and as an upright leader, even though behind the scenes he operates with means-justify-the-ends ruthlessness.
"He will have a nuanced descent into what will finally be his demise," says Grammer, making clear neither Kane nor the audience can expect a happy reprieve. "To me, the show is about the fight on the way down."
Fans of "Boss" are guaranteed the fight will go on for at least a second season: The series was renewed by Starz even before its first season began. And Grammer is confident of many more: "Maybe six seasons. Five, for sure."
"Boss," which airs its fourth episode Friday at 10 p.m. EST, also stars Martin Donovan, Connie Nielsen, Kathleen Robertson, Hannah Ware, Troy Garity and Jeff Hephner.
It is filmed on location in Chicago, which lends it extra authenticity. And though the first season of eight episodes -- shot from April through July -- skirted the city's defining frigid winter, Grammer says production will start earlier next season: "We're going to go for the snow to get some added harshness," he says with gusto.
Grammer developed the series with its creator, Farhad Safinia ("Apocalypto"), with whom he is an executive producer -- a title, he jokes during a recent interview, that mostly entitles him to say, "Why don't we quit now? It's getting a little late."
When asked if it's been hard for a sitcom star to shift gears to his first dramatic series, Grammer glowingly declares Tom Kane "the easiet thing I've ever done." Then, as a ready point of contrast, he points to the character of Frasier, "which was artifice, high artifice, and a calculated, much more cunning kind of performance. You had to always maintain your third eye, and know what's working for the audience.
"Playing Tom Kane, I don't think of any of that stuff. I just think about who is he, how does he feel in this moment, and how would that make me feel. That's it.
"Frasier became a second skin because I played him so long," Grammer goes on. "But Tom Kane went on easier. He just seemed to fit. I just show up for work and try to be that guy who is going through a lot more than most people ever go through at one time, and it's a great ride to take. He's the kind of a person that we'd all imagine it would be fun to be: His obvious pleasure in what he does is fun to play."
Never fear, Kane revels in the rough-and-tumble gamesmanship of his job.
How he charms his constituents! He stokes civic pride among them with a self-serving challenge to name another city that takes better care of its citizens.
Meanwhile, he is a dirty trickster manipulating the governor's race with his own hand-picked candidate pitted against the encrusted incumbent. And with relish he pursues his mission to expand Chicago O'Hare International Airport, running roughshod over the many opponents of this huge, disruptive project.
But Kane is faltering. At a meeting on Friday's episode, he denies the request of a political favor-seeker -- at least, that's how Kane (and the viewer) experience the scene. But a bit later, he plays back video of the exchange, which he covertly recorded on his laptop -- and to his horror, he sees himself actually granting, not rejecting, the man's request. How long can he cover up his growing infirmity?
Now 56, Grammer for two decades played a character who lived a happy life and whose problems were mostly of his own making and fixable, albeit fated to be comically repeated week after week.
The crises faced by Kane are instead high drama, and, in their intensity, echo the past turmoil in Grammer's life -- including the rape and murder of his younger sister; the deaths of his twin half-brothers in a scuba-diving accident; his past substance abuse; a continuing messy custody battle for his two children with "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" star Camille Grammer, whom he divorced shortly before marrying Kayte Walsh, wife no. 4, in February.
Asked if he summons his own personal pain to portray a haunted character like Kane, Grammer replies, "It just comes along for the ride. I don't ever try to force the size of the character into the size of my life. I think it diminishes the character.
"But the luxury of having life experiences like I've had -- though `luxury' is a funny word for it -- is that the other stuff will come bubbling up. Things that are a part of my own life, and my own recollections of it, come through. It lives in me, so it lives in the character."
And it helps clinch his status as a boss.
Starz network is owned by Starz, LLC.