11 Revelations from the Live ‘Cheers’ Reunion with Ted Danson, George Wendt and John Ratzenberger
In the 30 years since Cheers aired its series finale, the show became a massive syndication hit; spun off Frasier, another juggernaut soon to launch a sequel series; and found a whole new audience who’ve watched it on streaming platforms. By now, a lot of the lore around the show is well-known — ratings loser to Emmy mega-winner in its first season, Fred Dryer and William Devane were in contention to play Sam when he was going to be an ex-football player, etc. — but when a show airs 271 episodes, there are still going to be some stories viewers have never heard.
Yesterday, the ATX TV Festival (on now until June 4th) assembled several key Cheers personnel for a reunion panel: co-creators James Burrows, Glen Charles and Les Charles; and stars Ted Danson (Sam), John Ratzenberger (Cliff) and George Wendt (Norm); with Variety TV editor Michael Schneider moderating.
Here are the funniest, most touching and surprising stories you missed…
Ronald from ‘Jury Duty’ Has a Posse
Before the panel proper, several stars in town for their own panels performed in a table read of the pilot script, including Cassidy Freeman (The Righteous Gemstones) as Diane, Harold Perrineau (From) as Norm and Christina Vidal (Primo) as Carla. At the end, when each performer was introduced, by far the biggest applause break was for Ronald Gladden, the unwitting star of Jury Duty, who played a tertiary character named, what else, Ron. (Did we sing along to the theme song and scream “NORM” for Perrineau’s entrance? Of course we did.)
The Creators Didn’t Stray Too Far from Reality in Their Concept
Glen and Les Charles had previously written on Taxi. When they had the opportunity to make a show of their own, they knew they wanted it to revolve around another workplace, but felt that Taxi’s set was “a bit on the dingy side,” according to Les; their next show should be “more upbeat” and “where you want to be.” Joking “none of us had been in a bar before,” Glen said they researched by visiting a bar in Los Angeles in the middle of a weekday afternoon and found a group of apparent regulars arguing over “what was the best canned soup”: “This thing about the sweatiest movie (a debate in the pilot): there wasn’t much fiction to it.”
Ted Danson Credits Shelley Long for His Casting
As noted above, several actors were considered for Sam, and were each paired with the one woman who would have played their romantic sparring partner, Diane. Danson wasn’t as well-known as Devane, but Burrows says he and his co-creators didn’t have to “go to the mat” for Danson once he’d shown what he and Long could do together. Danson doesn’t think he’d be where he is if not for her half of their chemistry.
John Ratzenberger Made His Own Luck
Originally, Ratzenberger auditioned to play Norm; though the creators had Wendt in mind when they conceived the character (they’d also always intended to cast Rhea Perlman as Carla, having known her for many years), he was already attached to another pilot, so they needed to see possible backups. As Ratzenberger tells it, he didn’t take acting classes and never learned how to audition. So as he left, knowing he was definitely not going to be playing Norm, he asked the creators whether they had “a bar know-it-all.” Glen didn’t know about this archetype, so Ratzenberger described the “one horse’s patootie in every bar that’s the font of all knowledge,” and riffed a little bit of a character based on a childhood friend’s bossy cop dad. Two days later, Ratzenberger was cast as Cliff, becoming the only actor on the show to have created his own character.
Danson Isn’t Closing the Door on Another Multicam
Burrows, who started in theater, said he always thought of Tuesdays, when they taped, as “opening night, and everyone agreed on the thrill of shooting in front of a live audience, and how the actors feed on the energy from the crowd. In more recent years, Michael Schneider noted, Danson has been starring in single-cam sitcoms. Danson mused that multicams “might be a young man’s game,” but added, “If one came along that was amazingly written, I might change my tune.” Maybe Larry David should write him one!
Woody Harrelson Is an Octuple Threat
When Nicholas Colasanto suddenly died in 1985, a character had to be created to replace him. The sweet and goofy all-American Midwesterner the creators conceived was already named Woody before Harrelson read for him. Once he got the role, his older co-stars decided they would try to show off by schooling him at basketball, only for him to wreck them all. Danson claims his arm has never been right again since they arm-wrestled. Ratzenberger had been the set leg wrestling champion until Harrelson came along. And it wasn’t just sports: Harrelson beat everyone at chess, poker, foosball and extremely noxious farts. The famously vegetarian Harrelson, according to Danson, had a habit of pulling Danson aside to try to have a serious conversation with the colleague for whom he had so much respect. In fact, Harrelson just wanted a pretext for Danson to stand close to him, so that Harrelson could hold his gaze, “like a killer,” while his fart wafted up to Danson’s nose.
Kirstie Alley Received One of the Weirdest Gifts Ever
After Long left the show, Alley came in to play Rebecca Howe, the bar’s new manager and Sam’s new object of desire. (Recognizing the changing of the guard, Alley showed up for her first table read in a Diane-like blonde wig, which is when her co-stars knew she would vibe with the cast.) At dinner before her first episode taping, the old guard stars realized they hadn’t bought her a good-luck gift, so Wendt and Ratzenberger rushed out to drive along Melrose and try to find something. Trashy Lingerie was, wisely, rejected, but when they came upon a Big 5 Sporting Goods store, Ratzenberger wondered, “Do we buy her a shotgun?” Wendt laughed, but he also pulled in, which is how Alley was welcomed into the fold with a shotgun, and a card that read, “You’ll have to shoot your way out.” (Danson also had kind words for the late Alley, getting choked up when her name first came up and remarking that no one played “a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown” better than she.)
The End of ‘Cheers’ Was the Start of a Legendary Love Story
After Burrows and the Charleses joked that no one was more heartbroken about the show’s ending than their agent, Bob Broder (who appears in the finale as the would-be patron to whom Sam says, “We’re closed”), Danson admitted that his desire to leave the show was the reason it ended: “Sorry, it was me.” But, he added, his life was “a hot mess” at the time, and that if he hadn’t pulled himself together, he wouldn’t be married to Mary Steenburgen now.
No One Seems That Sorry About Their Shambolic ‘Tonight Show’ Appearance
Schneider eventually touched upon what came after the show’s three-part series finale: a live episode of The Tonight Show, taped at the actual Cheers bar in Boston. Danson explained that they’d been parked there to do press starting at around 2 in the afternoon, and were all seeing each other for the first time since they’d filmed the finale months earlier. Between the emotion of their reunion and the nearly half a day they’d spent sitting in a bar, they’d all had a few by the time Jay Leno’s cameras rolled. “It was like interviewing monkeys,” said Ratzenberger.
Maybe. But it was also a TV moment people who saw it still remember to this day.
What They Were Actually Drinking Sounds Very Bad
Burrows, understandably, didn’t want the actors to drink real beer on set, so they were stuck with a non-alcoholic “near beer” called Kingsbury Brew. It came in cans, but they wanted it to come from a tap, so PAs would empty cans into a soda dispenser — hours before taping started, so that it was warm. And since it didn’t have the right fizz, crew would also put a little salt in it. “Warm, Flat & Salty” was proposed as a merch offshoot, but for some reason never took off.
The Creators Know They Made Something Special
Burrows said his daughters were too young to have watched Cheers while it was in production, but now when he visits them, their children always want to watch the show. “I cry all the time,” he said, “seeing their reaction.” Expressing his pride at having made it with Glen and Les Charles, Burrows added, “I will always cherish it. This will always be my fifth child.” Wryly joking that will-they-won’t-they romances “seem to be required” on sitcoms now — “I guess we have that to answer for” — Les said he loves the show, and his memories of making it.
Glen put it most simply: “We loved writing it. It wasn’t work.”