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NOT TOO LONG AGO, TAMMI BAaliszewski was performing an impromptu ankle analysis on her fiancé Frasier star Kelsey Grammer. "When Kelsey holds things in, his ankles swell up," she explained. "The pressure manifests itself in a physical way. I have to rub his feet and say, 'Okay honey, what's going on?' "

Grammer, 39, chuckled. "If I don't keep everything opened up," he says, "that's where it goes."

At the time, Grammer's ankles were firm and smooth, with perhaps just a hint of optimism—the ankles, in fact, of a very happy man. And why not? His NBC sitcom Frasier is a critical and mainstream hit, making him perhaps the only star in the hugely popular Cheers ensemble who shines brighter now than then. In September the five-times-nominated actor finally won his first Emmy. And after years of well-documented drug and marital problems, he is, he says, sober and, equally important, in love—big time. To Grammer, she is nothing short of a heavenly lagniappe. "It's like a cosmic game show," he says of his relationship with Baliszewski, 28, "and God is saying, 'Tell Kelsey what he's won!' "

Two weeks after his ankle exam, Grammer's joints may still be fine. But it wouldn't be surprising if they'd ballooned a bit. Last week the National Enquirer reported that the father and stepmother of an unnamed teenager were claiming that Grammer had seduced the girl last year, when she was 15. The parents, the story said, planned a multimillion-dollar lawsuit charging him with having sex with a minor and inflicting mental distress. The allegations were "categorically denied" by Grammer. "It is an unfortunate but sad truth," he said, "that the price one must pay for fame is having to defend one's reputation against malicious lies."

Although the accusation has been repeated in the press, the specific facts of the matter remain few. The parents and the girl—whose names have never been made public—have refused to be interviewed by reporters. No lawsuit has been filed, and no legal charges made. A source who knows Grammer says that the actor met the girl, once, and that the two were never alone. Nick Bissell, a prosecutor in New Jersey's Somerset County, says he was contacted by the family's lawyer in October 1993 but that he took no action because there was no evidence. The parents had heard the story not from their daughter but from her friend. One other loose end in the story: Grammer's friends say his lawyer Leon Bennett received a call from the girl herself several weeks ago and that she said her parents were pressuring her into making false allegations for financial gain. Bennett reportedly then took a deposition from the girl in which she denied ever being involved with Grammer.

How are the actor and his fiancée coping with the situation? "We're both taking everything one day at a time, like we always do," says Baliszewski. "We know the truth. I couldn't believe that people would do something like this to hurt someone, but Kelsey isn't being brought down by this." On the set he is "pretty even-keeled," says producer and friend Peter Casey. "It's not like he's joking about it, but he's certainly not morose. The way he's handling this now is a perfect example of how he's decided to take control of his life. The man is a rock, a survivor."

The events of the past year do indeed suggest that one of show business's most battered personalities finally has acquired a measure of peace. Grammer's family history is truly remarkable, and tragic: in 1968, when Grammer was 13, his father, a bar owner on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas, was shot and killed at home by an intruder. Grammer's 18-year-old sister Karen was raped and murdered in Colorado Springs in 1975. Two half brothers died during a scuba accident five years later.

Perhaps understandably, Grammer's personal life came to resemble an ongoing train wreck: pileups included addictions to alcohol and drugs, and arrests, in the late '80s, for cocaine possession and drunk driving. A first marriage, to Doreen Alderman, the mother of Spencer, ended in divorce in 1990. Grammer had a second daughter, Greer, now 2, by Barrie Buckner, a makeup artist, before marrying Leigh-Anne Csuhany in 1992. That marriage broke up last year.

Given those catastrophic credits on his résumé, "Kelsey needed a good, stable relationship," says Casey. Enter Tammi—"a wonderful, grounding influence," he says of the trim, sunny former model and bit actress who now is a partner in a company called Lifespan, which uses blood tests to diagnose food allergies and recommend proper diet. Baliszewski, from Hutchinson, Kans., is the oldest of three daughters of Donald Baliszewski, an Air Force officer, and Judy Butler, a former computer operator. Her sister Tonda, a Las Vegas real estate agent, describes her as "an air popper, with all these kernels of energy."

"I don't deserve as much credit as I get for his turnaround," says Baliszewski, who notes that Kelsey himself realized he was in serious trouble. "I just feel he'd hit rock bottom and his choice in a woman would have been healthy whether it was me or not. His old ways didn't work, and he was going to die if he continued them."

They met at a Manhattan Beach, Calif., restaurant-bar, Harry O's, days after he had split with Csuhany. Grammer was there with buddies intent on cheering him up. Baliszewski, out with friends after a spirituality seminar, recognized that familiar face. "I'd read about how things weren't going well for him," she says, "but he seemed happy and bubbly."

He noticed her too. "I thought she looked a little sad and pretty," he says. "I sensed a little bit of something tragic in her, so I was drawn to her." He was reluctant to make the first approach, he recalls, "but then a funny little voice came to me. It said something that George Wendt says all the time: 'You don't have a hair on your ass if you don't go up and talk to that girl.' " Grammer obeyed his inner Wendt and made the first move.

"He was very humble and shy and kept apologizing for bothering me," Baliszewski says. "I fell in love with him immediately because of that."

Grammer called the next morning and asked her to join a group of his pals for a barbecue that night at his four-bedroom, Spanish-style home in the San Fernando Valley, a 45-minute drive from Baliszewski's condo in Marina del Rey. They had a great time, Baliszewski recalls. She hoped that would translate into romance. No such luck. "I was thinking he was my destiny," she says. "But then I didn't hear from him for three months. I was devastated."

The fact is, he was terrified. "I ran away," he says simply. "I knew I really, really cared for her. And I knew I wasn't prepared for this relationship and I had to do some work on my own before I could approach her."

How to get closer became the intense focus of his weekly therapy sessions for the subsequent three months. Finally he called Baliszewski that September and asked her to the fall-premiere party for Frasier. More dates followed. Then, during a vacation in Puerto Vallerta late last year, "we were looking at this gorgeous, moonlit view," says Baliszewski, "and I was wearing an off-white dress, and he said, 'You look like the bride of my heart.' I started crying, and he apologized, asking if he'd scared me. I said, 'Scared me? Are you kidding?' "

The actual proposal came in a limo during a shopping trip last February, with Grammer scrunching down on one knee in the backseat. Then, before a Tuesday night Frasier taping, he called her down from the audience and proposed again, this time offering her a two-carat diamond engagement ring. Her answer—both times—was yes.

And it's still yes, despite the current controversy.

"I guess you could say this just brings us closer together," says Baliszewski. "Sometimes he says he feels bad that I have to be a part of it." But, she adds, she accepts the unhappy truth that there will be "ups and downs living with a celebrity"—or, if the celebrity is Kelsey Grammer, mountains and valleys.

Grammer works especially hard to maintain a steady calm on the Frasier set. As he sees it, "I'm the helmsman of this show. I have to be the rock." But no one seems to be in danger of being crushed, says Jane Leeves, who plays physical therapist Daphne. "You never realize that he's the head of the show," she says. Instead, "you want to protect him." There was the day she arrived late for a scene, and he jokingly called out to her, "Where are you, you old sow?" He later took her aside and, clearly pained that he might have caused pain, anxiously apologized.

Psychologically it has become vital to Grammer not to let his sitcom clan, which includes John Mahoney as his father and David Hyde Pierce as his brother, ever become dysfunctional. "I actually have the opportunity to act out relationships I've never had in life," says Grammer.

Back in real life, it is already settled that the wedding will be at St. Monica Roman Catholic church—in Santa Monica—where Baliszewski attends mass. When she began bringing her fiancé with her, says St. Monica's pastor, the Rev. Ken Deasy, "I recognized him because he was sitting in the front pew, which most Catholics never do, and because his voice was so loud when he sang." Deasy, who has become a close friend of Baliszewski and Grammer's, will be delighted to unite the two. "There's a definite camaraderie there," he says, "a magic."

There is, nonetheless, an obstacle to setting an actual nuptial date. For the couple to be wed in the church, says Deasy, Grammer's previous two marriages must be annulled, a time-consuming process at best. "I wouldn't say I'm religious," says Baliszewski, "but I do have a relationship with God, and a good spiritual foundation." She admits, though, that she returned to the church following a period that she refers to as "lonely and scary," during which, as a fledgling model, she submitted naked shots to Playboy, hoping to pose for a pictorial. Once she got together with Grammer, the tabloids were keenly interested in exploring this aspect of Baliszewski's life. She confessed all to Grammer.

"She's lived," he says, with a shrug. "That makes her a whole human being."

Until now, the couple agree their biggest problem has been how to find time for each other, what with his acting, singing and producing. Often the best they can manage is four days a week. Then they're happy enough to stay at home. They shoot pool and play with his four dogs, all from the pound (he also bought her a chow pup as an engagement gift). And, says Grammer, "we debate and disagree. Some of our discussions are religion oriented. Some are health oriented. We have great respect for each other's individuality."

Tonda, for one, is confident the couple will survive. "This relationship will go the duration," she says firmly. "No way either of them is going to walk away."

Grammer seems ready for whatever comes next, in any area of his life. He doesn't assume things will be easy. "I think that's part of the deal," he says. "Life is supposed to get tough." He's "looking forward to 40" and to having children with Tammi: "It will be exciting, I think." He is sure, however, about the one thing he doesn't want. "I certainly don't want a dull life," he says. "I haven't had one up to this point."

His ankles, though, had better be ready.

TOM GLIATTO
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles and NANCY MATSUMOTO in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Craig Tomashoff,
  • Nancy Matsumoto.