JANE!” Peri Gilpin’s trademark foghorn voice drawls from her dressing room on the set of the NBC sitcom Frasier. “Come meet Ellise!”
Jane Leeves, who plays Daphne on the show, pops in and says hello. “This is Ellise,” says Peri, “my new friend from Dallas.”
Never mind that we have just met. We’ve already bonded in the time-honored way of Dallas women everywhere—by talking makeup and hair.
“I hate her,” Jane says of Peri. “She’s got boobs and I don’t.”
“Yeah, but Jane’s got a skinny ass,” Peri says. “Bitch,” she adds, laughing, as Jane slips back out.
She walks to a shelf lined with tiny bottles of Evian, grabs two, and hands me one.
“What’s that blender doing on your shelf, anyway?”
“That’s for those liquid meals,” she says. “Those metabolic drinks, you know?”
“I thought blenders were just for margaritas,” I say.
“They should be,” she says with her throaty laugh. “Do you mind if I smoke?”
The exchange has the feel of a scene from Frasier, which is probably no surprise to anyone who knows Peri Gilpin. At 35, after three years on the wildly successful sitcom, the good old Dallas girl has risen from near obscurity to certified TV stardom in large part by playing herself—her genuine, sassy, down-to-earth, funny self. And she is part of an extraordinary ensemble of actors who seem equally at home in their roles. Now starting its fourth season, Frasier is one of the highest-rated and most honored series of all time, having won nine Emmys, including three for best comedy. It stars Kelsey Grammer as Dr. Frasier Crane, the pompous psychiatrist from Cheers who has returned to his hometown of Seattle to work with people on the air instead of on the couch. Peri plays the street-smart, irreverent Roz Doyle, the terminally single radio producer whose main purpose, she says, is “to bug Frasier.” Rounding out the cast are Frasier’s pretentious brother, Niles, played by David Hyde Pierce; his crotchety, retired-cop father, Martin, played by John Mahoney; and the wacky, sometimes psychic caregiver, Daphne, played by Leeves.
Frasier has wowed both audiences and critics, who have called it one of the smartest shows on television. In December 1994 David Kronke of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “While Hollywood struggled to create one solid comedy film, Frasier, week in and week out, crafted episodes filled with clever characterizations and plotting.” The actors deliver deadpan lines to one another with a drollness that’s closer to British comedy than anything else on this side of the water. David Lee, the show’s executive producer, admits that he designed it to be an “anti-sitcom sitcom, with zippy laugh lines, a plot point, and then it’s on to the next one.”
“Most sitcoms you can see right through,” says Peri. But Frasier’s writers “don’t use the old adage that the average American has the attention span of an eight-year-old, or whatever,” she says. “They go, ‘We’re going to play to people that have our attention span.’ Sometimes the jokes lob over my head, but that’s wonderful. It’s like a puzzle.”
Peri comes by her talent naturally. She was born three days after her mother, Sandra, finished taking final exams her sophomore year at Baylor University, where she was studying drama. At the time, Sandra was married to Jim O’Brien, who was studying to be a Baptist minister. In 1965, after the birth of Patti, they divorced, and Sandra and her two girls were on their own.
Sandra took a job as a third-grade teacher in Spring Branch, near her parents’ home outside Houston. Three years later, while moonlighting as a model and an actress and pressed for time, she dashed into Foley’s on Christmas Eve to buy gifts for her girls and ran into an old friend from junior high school, Wes Gilpin. They were married three months later, and the two families merged—Mark and April, Wes’s children from a previous marriage, joining Peri and Patti. Wes took a textbook-sales job at Prentice Hall in Dallas, and Sandra returned to her first love, acting. She signed up with the Kim Dawson agency and began doing commercials. When Peri was six, the Gilpins bought their dream home, a two-story white house in Forest Hills near White Rock Lake, where they still live.
One spring afternoon in 1969, Sandra, Wes, and Peri were walking along Turtle Creek near the Dallas Theater Center. Peri, then eight, saw a children’s class performing outside. “I saw someone dressed up as a cigarette machine, and I said, ‘I can do that,’ and I joined the class right then,” says Peri. From that moment on, she was hooked. “Peri did everything she could to be around the theater,” remembers Sandra. She studied Greek and Roman theater at the Dallas Theater Center and created plays with the group in the spring of each year. One year Peri starred as Charlie Brown, the next as Susan B. Anthony. And she was always funny. “I still picture her with her head thrown back, just laughing,” says Sandra.
By this time, the rest of Peri’s siblings were acting too. But while Patti, Mark, and April would take time off every now and then, Peri was focused from the start. “Peri was the one taking the bus to theater school, ushering, and building renderings of sets with toothpicks,” remembers Patti. Peri attended Long Junior High School and Skyline High School and continued to take drama classes at the Dallas Children’s Theater until she was eighteen.
Upon graduation, she enrolled at the University of Texas as a drama major. But her time in Austin was abruptly cut short when she was kicked out of the drama department’s acting program at the end of her sophomore year, along with nearly two hundred other students. “They said that I wasn’t devoted enough,” Peri says, “and that I wasn’t the product they wanted to produce from the University of Texas drama department. I was more determined than ever after that.” Her mother says that getting kicked out of UT was