April 08, 1991 12:00 PM

Freud probably would have traded celebrity patients Gustav Mahler and Princess Marie Bonaparte for the chance to have a go at Bebe Neuwirth, the actress who plays Cheers’s Lilith Sternin-Crane, the brittle, sexually smoldering psychiatrist who is Frasier Crane’s wife. Such defense mechanisms she exhibits! The simplest question meets with resistance. “I won’t give my age,” she says (early 30s is a safe guess). Try to get her to talk about her childhood, and she tells defiant lies. “I was an orphan in Spain,” she announces. “I grew up with Gypsies.” When you do get a nibble of her life story, well, it’s this: “When I was a little girl, I wanted to be Morticia Addams [of the ’60s mock-horror sitcom The Addams Family].” Mmmhmmmm. “But I had bangs. I couldn’t part my hair in the middle like she did.” Then, a startling revelation of disgust. “And Mrs. Munster—what a cheap imitation!”

A complicated case. So terse, tense and intense, despite a good deal of positive reinforcement. After all, she’s part of the most popular series on TV today, which NBC recently renewed for next season (its 10th) after reportedly agreeing to shell out a record $2.8 million per episode to its producer, Paramount Television. Last year, Neuwirth even won an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. And she had a nice part as Andie MacDowell’s artsy, lusty friend, Lauren, in the movie Green Card. (In fact, dressed in jeans, black sleeveless T-shirt and boots, Neuwirth is a lot closer to Lauren than to Lilith.) But success hasn’t loosened her lips. “Bebe’s certainly very reticent,” says Kelsey Grammer, her husband on Cheers. Her husband in real life, theater director Paul Dorman, mid-30s, says Neuwirth is “shy when she meets people. She comes across as unapproachable.”

Approach gingerly enough, and you’ll learn that Neuwirth grew up very comfortably in Princeton, N.J., with one brother, Peter (now an actuary), a mathematician father, Lee, and an artist mother, Sydney. She was, she admits, a problem child. “I got arrested for smoking marijuana when I was 13,” she says. “But I wasn’t extremely wild. I was a bum in school; I didn’t do any work. I drove my parents crazy.” Her dad agrees that raising her was occasionally difficult. “It didn’t come to clinical ulcers,” he says, “but it was close. She’s always been very independent, very fierce, very determined. She sang ‘Yankee Doodle’ in grade school with such purpose!” Her mother remembers her as a willful little ballerina: “She was doing a very graceful bourrée step. All of a sudden, she ended with a jazz flourish.”

Neuwirth is especially intense about her bourrées and jazz flourishes. “I’ve always treated ballet and dance with the utmost reverence,” she says. She was mesmerized by The Nutcracker at age 4, started lessons a year after that and still practices daily. It seems appropriate, then, that the aspiring star made a grand jeté to New York City when she was only 17 and soon landed on Broadway in A Chorus Line. She went on to win a Tony for her portrayal of a tough-tootsie dancer in the 1986 revival of Sweet Charity.

Sweetness was not a prerequisite for playing Cheers’s unsmiling Lilith, who first appeared on the show in 1984 as a bad date for Frasier. She has since loosened up enough to marry him and have a baby, Frederick, to whom she once crooned “Sonny Boy.” Neuwirth, at first reluctant to do television, is fully conscious of Lilith’s strange appeal. “But I hate it when people classify her as a yuppie,” she adds. “That has nothing to do with her. She’s a scientist, but she does have feelings.”

Neuwirth says she admired the show for its “funny, easy atmosphere” and refuses to discuss her costar Grammer’s very public problems with substance abuse. “I’m not his wife,” she says, “I play his wife.” And she at first resists talking about her significant other. But then she makes an intriguing confession. “Sometimes,” she says, “we wind up wearing very similar clothes.” Hmmmm. “It’s a little gross. It’s too cute.”

She and Dorman live with their cat, Frankie, in a two-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles (for now, no plans for children). They met in New York City in 1982, when he was a bartender at O’Neal’s restaurant and she was performing there in a cabaret revue. Dorman’s initial impression, he says, was that “she seemed like she had a wall up.” By 1984, when they wed in Princeton, the wall was reduced to rubble. Now, he says, “she’s loving and giving, and she doesn’t throw things when I tease her.”

It also took Neuwirth a while to relax around Gérard Depardieu, her formidable French costar in Green Card. “I would look into his eyes and think: He hates me,” she says. Gradually, though, her insecurities melted away. “I got to practice my French with him every day. That was exciting,” she says. “Speaking anything with Gérard is exciting.” But that’s nothing compared with dancing with Warren Beatty—which she’ll get to do in the upcoming Bugsy, about Las Vegas mobster Bugsy Siegel. “Wow,” she sighs happily.

Ah, yes, we seem to be making progress! But some tensions, made evident during Green Card, remain to be resolved. “The makeup woman had a Chihuahua,” Neuwirth remembers. “It liked other people, but it growled when I came up to it. So I pet it just to piss it off.” Your call, Dr. Freud.

—Tom Gliatto, John Griffiths in Los Angeles

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