On May 20, 1993, we said farewell to the Boston bar locals who had warmed our hearts for nearly a decade. After 275 episodes in 11 seasons, we were beyond the point of knowing everybody’s name. We fell in love with the characters and knew what each one would say in pretty much every situation. Now we know just how impactful Cheers was, but the show almost didn’t make it through Season One.
Like many of TV’s greatest success stories, Cheers wasn’t an instant hit. It premiered on September 30, 1982, to miserable ratings: 77th place out of 100 shows just that week. But thanks to Brandon Tartikoff, the president of NBC’s entertainment division, the show was saved. And, as we all know, it not only remained on our screens but entered our hearts and minds for years.
It was 1981, and brothers Glen and Les Charles were enjoying the success of their show Taxi. After writing a sitcom about a bunch of cab drivers in Manhattan, the Charles brothers started collaborating with their favorite director, James Burrows. The goal was to devise another workplace comedy.
The second goal was to create a more inviting setting. A year later, viewers were invited to visit a basement bar in Boston and be privy to small talk and smart talk of a group of local patrons. The bar, as well as the show itself, was called Cheers. The idea was nice and all, but it flopped. Big time.
“There were times when I thought we couldn’t possibly survive,” said Glen Charles. “But the reviews were great, and the audience we did have seemed to love the show.” The show was helped by the fact that NBC was in a desperate state in the early 1980s. With no hit shows, NBC figured it should hang onto the one show that was getting good ink.
By the time NBC started airing The Cosby Show, hordes of viewers had started tuning in on Thursday nights. Those viewers discovered Cheers on the way, and so the series shot upward in the ratings. The pub stayed open, so to speak, for 11 years, becoming the longest-running comedy ever on NBC.
By 1993, the show had closed its doors because of one of its stars. To the dismay of many, Ted Danson called it quits. By then, the show was ranked in ninth place, and it was the eighth straight year coming in among the top-10 programs on TV. In fact, it was the No. 1 show during its 1990-91 season.
After 26 Emmy Awards and a record 111 nominations, the show’s finale marked the end of an era. In addition to the 90-minute closing episode, there was also an entire Tonight Show broadcast from the Bull and Finch. Apparently, that last send-off included a very drunk cast and crew. Thousands of fans gathered outside the pub to watch the finale on two Jumbotrons.
After the episode had aired, the drinks started flowing. “The show ended at eleven,” show writer Ken Levine wrote. “The next half-hour was an emotional tsunami. Everyone was hugging and crying and doing a lot of drinking. We were all completely wrecked.” Then the cast had to appear, in that state, on The Tonight Show.
The cast was in no condition to face anyone, let alone 40 million people. When they hit the stage of the live show, “They were so drunk, they needed designated walkers,” Levine wrote. In the end, they made it out alive, but the hangover, both physical and metaphorical, was one for the history books. Luckily for those involved, the show went into syndication and made everyone very, very rich.
The success of Cheers translated into a lot of money, of course. The show took in over half a billion dollars in syndication revenues. Danson, who chose to leave the show, was making $450,000 per episode. At the time, he was the highest-paid star in television. Cheers itself was designated the highest-priced show in television a number of times.
30-second commercials went for as much as $300,000 a pop. During the finale, commercials shattered the record for a TV series, reaching $650,000 for 30 seconds, a figure that had only been associated with the Super Bowl. But even though the show was raking in the dough, the set stayed remarkably consistent.
Even when the days were being counted down, the performers weren’t overwhelmed. There was a very businesslike atmosphere on the set beginning in March 1993 when the last episodes were being shot. No tears, no hugging. But behind the scenes, the cast admitted that they were simply accustomed to closing shop each spring.
They confessed that the real impact was surely going to kick in during August when they would realize there was no set to return to. Some cast members, like Danson, were also in the movie business and had other projects to focus on, but the comedy movie scripts he received “never measured up,” he said. “The best four episodes of Cheers, for any season, were a much funnier two hours of a comedy than any movie written that year. It was remarkable. The show became the gold standard for comedy writing.”
The writers never shied away from so-called “taboo topics,” like alcoholism or homosexuality. And if they tackled those issues, they did so with a healthy dose of humor. An episode from the first season, called The Boys in the Bar, in which one of Sam’s former teammates announces that he’s gay, earned the episode writers, Ken Levine and David Isaacs, a GLAAD Media Award.
The show’s creators tried to deliver pure comedy that was sophisticated yet not pretentious. “I remember the guy who did promotions for NBC coming to us and saying, ‘I don’t know how to promote a show that makes Schopenhauer jokes,'” writer Glen Charles said.
Glen and Les Charles kept their offices on the Paramount lot across from the set throughout the series, but for the last few years, most of the load fell on director James Burrows’ shoulders. Burrows, whose father was Broadway writer and director Abe Burrows, was described by the cast and crew as indispensable.
Burrows was hands down the person to thank the most for the show’s longevity. After all, he directed over 230 of the 275 episodes. A matter of weeks before the last call for Cheers, the Charles brothers sat in their offices and thought about what they had just created. “I think there’s clearly a Cheers 1 and a Cheers 2,” Glen Charles said.
Cheers 1 was “the Shelley Long era,” according to Glen Charles. It was the period when the romance between Sam and Diane Chambers was both the hottest and funniest relationship on TV. Cheers 2 moved toward a more reasonable mix involving all the characters. Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca became Sam’s friend instead of a target of his lust.
“Maybe there was even a Cheers 3,” said Les Charles. The way he saw it, the last six years were three years of character comedy and three of “screwball comedy.” There was actually the 12th season in the works. Paramount Studios had already signed a deal with NBC for one more season. But Danson was the deciding factor, and he was done.
Danson was going through a rocky stretch in his personal life. His marriage had ended, and there was talk of a relationship with Whoopi Goldberg all over the media. “This is a kind of regulated life,” he stated. “I need the lack of safety this show gives me. I need to be shook up a little bit.” The show’s creators talked about possibly continuing without their leading man, but that, as we know, went nowhere.
When Danson announced that he was going to be leaving the series after the 1992-1993 season, producers thought about having Woody Harrelson take over. But Harrelson wasn’t interested in doing the show without Danson. And so, that was that.
Speaking of Harrelson, he actually helped the show overcome the death of a beloved character…
Harrelson joined Cheers after the death of the actor who played Coach. His presence and youthful enthusiasm revitalized the cast. It didn’t take long for him to win over audiences. In 1985, the writing-producing team found themselves in a major predicament.
Nicholas Colasanto, the man who played bartender Ernie “Coach” Pantusso, died of a heart attack at the age of 61. The event could potentially have derailed the show – which hadn’t fully hit its stride yet. But, in the end, Cheers managed to not only overcome the loss but eventually thrive. And it was largely thanks to Woody Harrelson coming in as Coach’s replacement.
Ken Levine told The Hollywood Reporter that the idea was to replace Coach with someone who could serve a similar purpose. “When Nick died, they wanted the new character to be similar because of the role Coach played,” he explained. “Having such a ‘dumb’ character from too many head concussions in baseball allows you to get exposition out.”
“When you explained things to Coach, you were really explaining it to the audience.” There was another reason to bring in a younger character: it would leverage the prime demographic who was tuning in to watch the show Family Ties with Michael J. Fox. Coincidentally, the name Woody for the new character was decided long before Harrelson came into the picture.
Harrelson’s audition went so well that he landed the gig immediately. He was already going in a good direction in his career, and although he had heard that the role was already filled and they were just doing a few more auditions to see who else was out there, Harrelson felt as though he had nothing to lose.
He walked into the writers’ room as he blew his nose – an unfiltered moment that the show’s creators loved. “This guy walks in wearing basketball shorts, a T-shirt and unlaced high-tops. He looked like he could be trouble if you crossed him,” producer Peter Casey recalled. He then did something that nobody else did…
During the reading, when Sam told him that Coach had died, Harrelson started crying. It was apparent to everyone in the room that the man could really act. He won them over, and the writers had their Woody, but the actor still needed to win over the cast who were still mourning the loss of their fatherly friend and fellow cast member.
Danson explained that Woody became like a brother to him. Woody Boyd, the country bumpkin in the big city, became a beloved character. He won an Emmy in 1989 and proved to be an invaluable anchor when the cast went through another disruption: the arrival of Kirstie Alley in Season Six as Rebecca Howe.
And now for some random facts…
After the writers decided that the series would be set in a pub instead of a hotel, Glen and Les Charles decided the location should be in New England. “Boston was chosen partially because only five short-lived television shows claimed the city and the East Coast pubs were real neighborhood hangouts,” Dennis A. Bjorklund wrote in his book titled Toasting Cheers.
As the show became more and more popular, word spread that the Beacon Hill tavern was the “real” Cheers (even though only the outside shots were filmed there). And so, the neighborhood hangout turned into a tourist attraction. Then, a second location, called Cheers, opened in Faneuil Hall in 2001 with a replica of the bar. A year later, the Bull & Finch officially changed their name to Cheers.
In the show’s earliest manifestation, Sam Malone was an ex-football player (at first). It only makes sense considering that former NFL defensive Fred Dryer (who would go on to star in Hunter) was a top choice to play the role of Sam. Ultimately, the chemistry between Ted Danson and Shelley Long was what led to them being cast.
Once casting was final, the creators changed football to baseball, based on Danson’s body type. Here’s another fun fact about Danson: he spent two weeks attending a bartending school. It was part of his training to play Sam.
Both John Ratzenberger and George Wendt auditioned for the same role in the series’ pilot. The part was for a minor character named George, who had one line: “Beer!” Once Wendt was cast, the character’s name was changed to Norm Peterson. But Ratzenberger didn’t want to give up so easily.
“As I was leaving the office after the audition, I turned around and asked them, ‘Do you have a bar know-it-all?’” Ratzenberger recalled. None of the show’s creators were from New England. “They were all Hollywood-centered. And I said, ‘Well, every local bar in New England has got a know-it-all—someone who pretends to have the knowledge of all mankind between his ears and is not shy about sharing it.’” And so, Cliff Clavin was born.
In 2012, Les Charles told GQ that the Norm Peterson character was actually based on a real person. Charles used to work at a bar after college, “and we had a guy who came in every night. He wasn’t named Norm, but he was always going to have just one beer.” He would say, “Maybe I’ll just have one more.” Charles said that they had to help him out of the bar every night.
The guy’s wife would call, and he would always say, “Tell her I’m not here.” Norm’s never-seen-on-screen wife Vera was voiced by George Wendt’s real-life wife, Bernadette Birkett. In fact, she made one appearance on the show — Cliff’s love interest in Season Three.
After starring in All That Jazz, Blow Out, and The World According to Garp, John Lithgow was not so keen on small screen gigs. He recalled that he simply said, “No” to the role of Frasier Crane. “It was like swatting away a fly… I just wasn’t going to do a series.” Enter Kelsey Grammer. Grammer made his Cheers debut in 1984, during the third season’s premiere.
Crane was intended to be a short-lived character, but his popularity with audiences made him a regular. Four months after Cheers ended, the spin-off Frasier made its debut. And it was on the redesigned Cheers stage, no less. Frasier also ran for 11 seasons over two decades, a record-breaking run for an American comedy actor.
Throughout Frasier’s 11 seasons, Kirstie Alley was the only Cheers actor who never made an appearance on the spinoff. Who knows… maybe it was because of the psychiatric profession conflicts with Scientology. According to Grammer, Alley once said that she would never do a show about a psychiatrist.
Speaking of characters on Fraser, one was magically resurrected for the spin-off. On Cheers, when Frasier talked about his family, he said that his father (also a psychiatrist) had passed away. But on Frasier, his ex-cop father, played by John Mahoney, became a main character. Mahoney made a one-time appearance in Cheers’ 11th season. He played a fast-talking jingle writer named Sy Flembeck.
The bar on the set was indeed fully functional, but that doesn’t mean that the cast spent the whole shoot throwing back cold ones. It seems as though Norm had it the worst. As the bar’s best customer, he’s rarely seen without a glass of ale in his hand. But what he was drinking was “near beer,” which is a weakened strain of ale combined with salt to keep a perfect amount of head on the glass at all times.
Wendt, unfortunately, had to drink the near beer on more than one occasion. On the topic of drinking, Cheers actually helped promote the concept of having a designated driver. It was important to the creators that no drunken person ever drove him or herself home. The show frequently referred to designated drivers. The Harvard Alcohol Project was a part of spreading this message.
Funnily enough, viewers at home often complained about the volume of the laugh track. But there wasn’t a laugh track. In 1983, the show had a quick disclaimer that was read by one of the regular cast members, and it was added to the beginning of every episode. “Cheers was filmed before a live studio audience.”
It was in direct response to viewers’ complaints about the “laugh track” being too loud. Speaking of deceiving the audience, here’s another fun fact: Sam and Diane did get married at the end of Season Five. Since Cheers was filmed in a live studio, the producers had to sometimes trick the audience, so that plot developments weren’t leaked. To make sure Shelley Long’s departure from the series was kept a secret, the audience saw Sam and Diane married at the end of Season Five. The real ending, in which Diane left for six months to finish her book, was filmed on a closed set.
Ted Danson’s role as Sam “Mayday” Malone, an ex-baseball player turned bartender, was a breakout role for the actor. Everyone wanted to tune in to see the fiery banter between Malone and his co-stars. Danson was already on the big screen during the show’s run. He starred in Three Men and a Baby in 1987 and Getting Even with Dad in 1994.
After Cheers, he starred in Becker (between 1998 and 2004), Damages (2007 to 2010), Bored to Death (2009 to 2011), CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2011 to 2015), and The Good Place (2016 to 2018). He also played himself on Curb Your Enthusiasm for a long time (between 2000 and 2017). After his divorce from Coates in 1992 and a highly-publicized but short-lived fling with Whoopi Goldberg, he married Mary Steenburgen in 1995. They have two daughters together.
Shelley Long played uptight waitress Diane Chambers, who was also Sam’s on-again-off-again love interest. But she left the show in 1987, opting to do movies like Troop Beverly Hills. She then returned for Cheers’ season finale and made some cameos on Frasier. After Cheers, she landed the role of Carol Brady in The Brady Bunch Movie from 1995 as well as A Very Brady Sequel in 1996.
Long has worked consistently in one-off TV roles like Murphy Brown (1995 to 1996), Diagnosis Murder (1998), 8 Simple Rules (2003), Retired at 35 (2011) and Modern Family as DeDe Pritchett (2009 to 2018). She married an investment advisor named Bruce Tyson in 1981, and they divorced in 2004. They have one daughter together.
During his time on Cheers, Harrelson also appeared in movies like Wildcats (1986), L.A. Story (1991), and White Men Can’t Jump (1992). He landed lead movie roles, too, in Indecent Proposal (1993) and Natural Born Killers (1994). He earned his first Oscar nomination in 1996 for his role in The People vs. Larry Flynt.
Other notable films he worked on are The Thin Red Line (1998), Anger Management (2003), No Country for Old Men (2007), The Glass Castle (2017), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, and Missouri (2017). A vegan, Harrelson has been an outspoken advocate for the environment and for the legalization of marijuana. After being married to Nancy Simon from 1985 to 1986, he married Laura Louie in 2008. The couple lives in Maui, Hawaii.
You could count on waitress Carla Tortelli for her opinion or a wisecrack in every situation at Cheers. Carla was a fan favorite throughout the series. After Cheers, Rhea Perlman starred in the TV series Pearl (from 1996 to 1997) and appeared on the big screen in Matilda in 1996.
She returned to TV with former co-stars Kirstie Alley in Kirstie (2013 to 2014), Danson in Becker (2001) and Kelsey Grammer in Frasier (2002). Perlman also played a part in Hung (2009 to 2010), Getting On (2015) and The Mindy Project (2014 to 2017). She was married to Danny DeVito from 1982 to 2012 when they announced a three-month separation. But apparently, they reconciled. They have three children together.
Five-time Emmy-winner Kelsey Grammer will always be associated with the stuffy psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane. He has played other sitcom roles, however, in Wings (1992), Just Shoot Me! (1998), and, of course, as the voice of Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons (from 1990 to 2017). The Juilliard School-trained performer made his Broadway debut in the 2010 musical La Cage Aux Folles, which earned him a Tony Award nomination.
A father of seven children, Grammer divorced his first wife, Doreen Alderman, in 1990 after eight years of marriage. He then married dancer Leigh-Anne Csuhany in 1992, only to divorce her in 1993. In 1997, he married another dancer named Camille Donatacci. They divorced in 2011. That same year, Grammer married his fourth wife, British flight attendant Kayte Walsh.
Replacing Shelley Long, Kirstie Alley played Rebecca Howe, the independent business manager Sam Malone tried to seduce. After Cheers, Alley won an Emmy for her role in David’s Mother (1994). She also starred in Veronica’s Closet (1997 to 2000) and Kirstie (2013 to 2014). After a highly-publicized battle with her weight, she appeared in an unscripted comedy series called Fat Actress (2005).
That same year, she published the book How to Lose Your Ass and Regain Your Life. As you probably remember, she’s been an on-again-off-again spokesperson for Jenny Craig. You likely also know that she’s an outspoken Scientologist. Alley was married to Parker Stevenson from 1983 to 1997. The two have two adopted children together.
Mail carrier and untrustworthy fact-teller Cliff Clavin was a fan favorite thanks to his trivia as well as his postal worker uniform. Ratzenberger’s distinctive voice landed him the roles in many Pixar animated films, including Hamm, the pig in the Toy Story franchise. He was also the voice of Mack the truck in the Cars movies.
He competed on Dancing with the Stars in 2007. An environmental activist, Ratzenberger, was the owner of Eco-Pak, a company that produced eco-friendly packaging. Ratzenberger married Georgia Stiny in 1984, and the couple have two kids together. After getting divorced from Stiny in 2004, he married Julie Blichfeldt in 2012.
Barfly Norm Peterson was Cliff’s wisecracking best friend who will be forever be greeted with shouts of “Norm!” whenever he walks into a bar. Wendt earned six Emmy nominations for his role on Cheers. In 1995, he starred in the short-lived The George Wendt Show. Nearly as famous as Norm was Bob Swerski, the Chicago Superfan character he played on Saturday Night Live (1991 to 2003).
Wendt had guest appearances on Sabrina, The Teenage Witch (2001 to 2002), George Lopez (2004), and a recurring role on Clipped (2015). He has also been on Broadway as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray (2007) and as Santa in the musical comedy Elf (2010). Wendt married Bernadette Birkett back in 1978, and they have three kids together.