Rhea Perlman’s Guest Spot on ‘It’s Always Sunny…’ Proves Once More That She’s An All-Time TV Great

She might be best known for playing Carla Tortelli on ‘Cheers,’ but it’s hardly her only televised accomplishment
Rhea Perlman’s Guest Spot on ‘It’s Always Sunny…’ Proves Once More That She’s An All-Time TV Great

The Gang from Paddy’s Pub in It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia have been ruining lives, including their own, for 15 seasons and counting. So the only surprise in a title like the one on this week’s episode — “The Gang Gets Cursed” — is that this isn’t something they’ve already had to deal with. 

But who has cursed which Gang member and why? It’s definitely not Charlie (Charlie Day), because he’s the only one who puts any stock into superstitions and thus hasn’t engaged in any risky behaviors in that respect. It’s a different story for his colleagues, though. Is Dennis (Glenn Howerton) being haunted by his late wife, Maureen, for failing to honor her final wish by burying her in a pet cemetery? Has Mac (Rob McElhenney) finally pushed Rickety Cricket (David Hornsby) too far and become the victim of Cricket’s dark Latin incantation? Did Frank doom them by killing a sea bird that wandered into the bar one afternoon? Or maybe the way we should assume Dee got wrecked after tangling with the wrong neighbor is that said neighbor is played by one of the greatest comic actors of our era: Rhea Perlman. 

If the only thing Perlman had ever done as an actor was to play Carla Tortelli in Cheers, it would be enough to cement her as a comic legend. But because that role was so acclaimed (by both critics and peers, earning her four Emmys for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy), one might not credit her for all the range she’s shown us in TV comedy alone. Most viewers probably first got to know her in Taxi. Starting with the Season Two premiere, she played Zena, a servicer who refills the vending machine at the Sunshine Cab Company and is drawn to the crude and obnoxious Louie (Danny DeVito). 

Though Louie elaborately brags about their sexcapades at the depot, Zena confides in Alex (Judd Hirsch) that Louie won’t so much as hold her hand, and she can’t figure out why. Louie eventually confides in Alex that he was brought up to think that “there are nice girls and girls you have fun with” and that the two must not get mixed up; Zena lets Louie know nice girls like to fool around too, and lets anyone who first saw Perlman in Cheers know that she could also play a character who’s not only sweet and considerate but is so nice that it’s intimidating.

In more recent years, Perlman has been appearing on TV in different shades of active senior. For example, there was her recurring role on The Mindy Project as Annette Castellano, mother to Chris Messina’s Danny. First introduced right after Danny starts dating Mindy (Mindy Kaling), Annette has disapproved of all Danny’s partners, which is why he hasn’t told her about his newest one. Either way, Mindy is determined to win Annette over, whether Danny likes it or not. 

When Danny gifts Annette a new stove for her birthday, which she heatedly refuses because it’s too expensive and she loves the old, unsafe one she currently has (“The gas helps me sleep!”), Mindy breaks her own rule and takes Danny’s side. A huge fight ensues, with Annette refusing Danny’s financial help and spitefully going back to work as a hotel housekeeper so that she won’t be a burden on him anymore. Mindy finds her mid-shift with a dislocated hip and they have it out, with Annette backing down and agreeing she should be more appreciative of Danny. Mindy’s intrusiveness and meddling don’t always work out for her, but they do in this case — perhaps because the common ground she and Annette share is that they’re both, to use Danny’s term, “difficult.” Perlman would appear in 17 episodes over the show’s run, generally getting the better of Mindy; as played by Perlman, it’s hard not to take her side in any matter — yes, even when Mindy catches her shoplifting.

Perlman also plays a small but winning role in the first half of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s two-part Season Four premiere. Peralta (Andy Samberg) and Holt (Andre Braugher) have been relocated to Coral Gables, Florida, because their investigation into mob boss Jimmy Figgis (Eric Roberts) has put them in danger. While Peralta has been slow to settle into his new identity as “Larry,” “Greg” née Holt has found community in a neighborhood walking group made up of three retirement-age ladies and him. Perlman plays queen bee Estelle, who wishes her son had Greg’s ambition and loves hearing of his late wife, a “strong, female woman.”

For the viewer who knows Holt, the most winning aspect of his cover identity as “Greg” is his penchant for gossip, but not even we can be as charmed by it as Estelle is. One can then draw a straight line from Estelle to Perlman’s role as Janice in Not Dead Yet earlier this year. The ABC sitcom revolves around Nell (Gina Rodriguez), an obituary writer who is visited by her subject’s ghosts, who stay long enough to teach her life lessons and then depart once she’s filed her piece on them. Estelle might think she’s an athletic walker, but Janice, in life, spent 43 years as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service and never took a day off. Ostensibly her reason for visiting Nell is to teach her about apologies, but arguably the more powerful message she imparts is the value of Bed Bath & Beyond coupons. We didn’t know what we had when we had them.

Another recurring role for Perlman in the 21st century is Old World spinster. I first saw her perform in this category in the third season of Mom: Marjorie (Mimi Kennedy) is getting married to her boyfriend Victor (Jonny Coyne), and when Christy (Anna Faris) offers to throw Marjorie a bachelorette party, Victor asks Marjorie to invite his sister Anya (Perlman). Marjorie fears she’ll be a killjoy and seems to be right when Anya’s festive party look is head-to-toe black, including a kerchief tied under her chin. She’s also disturbed by a game of Marjorie trivia that touches on events in her life before entering recovery — when she was unhoused, when she was incarcerated, the number of Hells Angels she had sex with at Altamont. Anya decides to boycott the wedding, and while no one would probably miss her judgy energy at the event, Christy and Bonnie (Allison Janney) visit Anya at home to convince her otherwise. When their arguments don’t move the needle, they land on a solution that Bill W. probably wouldn’t endorse.

Perlman’s Sunny role is in this vein as well. Dee (Kaitlin Olson) is playing video games when her neighbor (Perlman) stops by with homemade brownies, and a request that Dee keep the noise down. Dee has something for her, too: a trophy engraved “C–t of the Year.” “You are a nasty woman,” says Dee’s neighbor, “and bad things are going to happen to you one day — I guarantee it.” “Drop dead,” sneers Dee, before waking up the next day with the right side of her face drooping with Bell’s palsy. (The guys are less upset that Dee verbally assaulted her neighbor — they sling that word at old ladies all the time — than that Dee gave away a trophy they bestowed upon her. “She earned it!” says Mac.) 

This neighbor isn’t as Old World as Anya, though her “guarantee” carries the tone of a fairy-tale curse even without an accent; we believe she has the ability to disfigure Dee before a black cat — or its unquiet spirit — crosses Dee and Dennis’ path. Amazingly, despite her having been married to Sunny star/producer DeVito for over 40 years, this is Perlman’s first time guesting on the show (maybe their two separations delayed it). 

But much as I admire and celebrate Perlman’s versatility, her greatest role is the one she played the longest (not only on Cheers but also Frasier, The Simpsons and St. Elsewhere): barmaid, single mother, style icon and insult comic Carla.

Carla is one of the most important sitcom characters ever, and while I would never try to identify her most important episodes, “It’s Lonely on the Top” is in the conversation. Subbing for Woody as bartender, Carla agrees to make just one pitcher of her legendary cocktail, I Know My Redeemer Liveth. The next day, with the bar in a shambles and everyone hungover, Carla tells Sam (Ted Danson) she thinks she hooked up with one of the regulars, but she’s not sure which. After a series of subtle fact-finding interviews, she is horrified to determine that her partner was Paul (Paul Willson). Once Sam convinces Paul not to brag about it to the guys, and Paul lets Sam know he has no interest in trying to pursue a relationship (“Paulie don’t need no clinging vines”), Sam comforts Carla.

In less than four minutes, Perlman must bring Carla from despair to euphoria to serenity to joy. The moment is memorable for making the open secret about Danson’s actual “hair replacement system” Cheers canon, but this is just another day at work for Perlman. Carla brought together a multi-dimensional character and a performer who could not just embody all her facets but make it look easy. We’ve been lucky to have Rhea Perlman’s work on TV for nearly half a century; may we never take her for granted.

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