Life in a Boston bar.
273 episodes of 25 minute duration. A Charles Burrows Charles Production. Paramount Television 1982-1993.
One of the most top rated shows in the history of US situation comedy and a massive hit on both sides of the Atlantic, 'Cheers' is an excellent example of what faith in a concept and the people behind it can accomplish.
Virtually ignored in its first season, the reasons for its eventual success are simple: Unlike many comedies, 'Cheers' never talked down to its audience; it assumed people were intelligent enough to understand the humour. And in a first for a US series, the romance of the show's leading characters became a major plotline, (would womanising Sam settle down with the uppity Diane?) leading to similar cliffhanger relationships on other series. And in another break with series tradition, it spawned a spin-off that was at least the equal of its parent show in quality.
'Cheers' was the brainchild of brothers Glenn and Les Charles, and famed director James Burrows. All three had decided to leave the ABC comedy 'Taxi' and produce their own show. After rejecting several ideas, the team came up with using a Boston bar as the setting for the comedy. (Burrows' father, the playwright Abe Burrows, was a writer for the classic US radio series "Duffy's Tavern," which was also set in a bar.) NBC Chairman Grant Tinker and his head of entertainment, Brandon Tartikoff ordered 13 episodes of Cheers because the Charles brothers' pilot script was so good.
A long casting process began for the major roles. William Devane and Fred Dryer were among the finalists for the part of Sam Malone, the skirt chasing recovering alcoholic and former pitcher with the Boston Red Sox who owned Cheers. But it was character actor Ted Danson who won the role, even though according to Tartikoff "one vocal high-ranking NBC executive thought he was all wrong...not enough of a leading man." The role of snobbish English Literature graduate Diane Chambers went to Shelley Long (Julia Duffy was also considered, but Tartikoff called Long "one of the beautiful AND funny people"; she was also the producer's choice because she and Danson worked well together.) In the pilot, Diane is jilted by her fiancé, and stranded in Boston; she takes a job at Cheers as a waitress.
The supporting cast consisted of razor-sharp tongued and promiscuous Carla (Rhea Pearlman, the wife of actor-producer Danny DeVito), a waitress with an attitude; the dense but lovable barman Ernie 'Coach' Pantusso (Nicholas Colasanto); accountant and frequent customer Norm Petersen (played by George Wendt, who always entered to the chorus of 'NORM!' from the bar's other patrons); and know-it-all mailman and "mama's boy" Cliff Clavin (actor John Ratzenberger initially auditioned for the role of Norm, but knowing he was not going to get the part, Ratzenberger successfully talked the producers into adding a barfly character who always seemed to have the answer to every trivia question.)
'Cheers' made its debut on September 30th, 1982. Despite critical raves, the show's pilot episode was the lowest-rated programme for that week. Normally, a performance like that would have meant instant cancellation. But 'Cheers' was lucky to find a home at NBC, which was in third place behind CBS and ABC at the time and lacking hit shows. Plus, Tinker and Tartikoff not only believed in the show, they were more willing to allow high quality but low-rated programmes (such as 'Hill Street Blues' and 'St. Elsewhere') time to build an audience. And that patience was sorely tried: 'Cheers' continued to rank at or near the bottom of the ratings through the fall and winter. Despite complaints from NBC affiliates, the network ordered a full season's worth of episodes. Slowly, viewers began finding 'Cheers'; the ratings began to perk up in the spring, and the show even landed in the top-20 during the summer rerun period.
Helping to build interest in 'Cheers' was the relationship between Sam and Diane; each could not stand the other at first, but there was an unspoken attraction. By the end of the first season, Sam and Diane finally locked lips; the second-season premiere had the two consummating their relationship--but it continued to be a love-hate affair, as their different backgrounds and personalities caused Sam and Diane to clash more than once.
In Season Three, Diane left Sam to run off with the equally neurotic and pompous psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer). The two went to Europe to get married, but Diane jilted Frasier at the altar and returned to Boston and Cheers. (Frasier also returned to Boston; he was supposed to have been written off after the short-lived affair but the producers felt Grammer was a gifted comic. Grammer wrote in his autobiography "So Far, So Good" that Shelley Long tried to have him removed from the show, with no success.) Eventually, Frasier became a regular at the bar, marrying the "ice queen" and equally pompous Dr. Lilith Sternin. The two had a son, Frederick, before divorcing.
Season Three was notable for two other developments: After two years of so-so (or worse) ratings, 'Cheers' finally broke through with viewers. 'The Cosby Show' now led off NBC's Thursday line-up, eventually becoming the top-rated series on television. Cosby's strength powered the entire NBC Thursday schedule to higher ratings; 'Cheers' landed in the top-20 that season and by the fall of 1985, became a top-ten staple.
Sadly, Nicholas Colasanto was unable to enjoy the show's success; he died in early 1985 after a long illness and the Coach character passed away as well. To replace him, the producers turned to little-known Woody Harrelson, who was cast in the role as hick and thick bartender Woody Boyd, a young farm boy from Hanover, Indiana. He came to Boston to meet his pen pal Coach, but ended up replacing him behind the bar and became part of the Cheers family, eventually marrying the extremely wealthy and equally dizzy Kelly Gaines (Jackie Swanson).
It was no secret that behind the scenes Shelley Long was considered difficult to work with. But her comic gifts were beyond reproach. So it was a shock to everyone when Long decided not to renew her contract when it expired in 1987. (In her final episode as a regular, Sam and Diane finally reached the altar--but Diane changed her mind at the last minute, telling Sam she needed six months to write her novel. Sam wasn't fooled; he knew she would not return.)
After a long search, both NBC and the producers chose Kirstie Alley to play Rebecca Howe, who becomes the new manager of 'Cheers' after Sam sells the bar to a major corporation and embarks on an around-the-world cruise to get Diane out of his mind. When the new season began in the fall of 1987, Sam returns to the bar for a job, and finds the no-nonsense but romance-challenged Rebecca running the show. The Sam-Rebecca relationship added new spark to the show, as Alley proved to be a top-notch comic actress. Viewers noticed too; by 1990, 'Cheers' became America's top-rated television series for the first time ever. And by this time 'Cheers' had been elevated to cult status among its now-legions of fans. It was still in the top ten when the producers began to make noises about ending the series. But it was star Ted Danson--along with the remaining cast members--who decided the 1992-93 season would be the show's last.
The final 90-minute episode (which aired in the US on May 20th, 1993) had Diane returning to Boston, and after a series of mishaps, she and Sam get ready to marry--again. Not surprisingly, both decide not to take the plunge, and Sam and the rest of the gang ponder their futures in the closing moments of what NBC's overwrought publicists called "the television event of a lifetime!". (It was a nice episode, but no earth-shaker.) Still, according to Nielsen Media Research, the finale was watched by more than 40 million viewers in America alone; a respectable number considering the cable/satellite/video landscape. But the final 'Cheers' episode had a lower rating--or a percentage of homes tuning in--than the 1983 finale of 'M*A*S*H'; the 1980 "Who Shot J.R." episode of 'Dallas'; and the final episode of 'The Fugitive' in 1967.
'Cheers' spawned two direct spin-offs. The first was 'The Tortellis', which aired between January and May 1987. It starred Dan Hedaya as Nick Tortelli, Carla's ex-husband, who along with his new wife Loretta (played by Jean Kasem, the wife of radio announcer Casey Kasem) live in Las Vegas with Nick's son Anthony and his new wife Annie. It wasn't a very good show, but the second spin-off would prove much better.
'Frasier' began in the fall of 1993; just months after Cheers ended its run. By moving Kelsey Grammer's Frasier Crane from Boston to his hometown of Seattle as a call-in radio psychiatrist, Frasier proved to be a winner--the near equal of Cheers in both popularity and quality. (And just about every original member of the 'Cheers' cast--except for Kirstie Alley--has made a guest appearance on 'Frasier'; an April 2002 episode had Frasier returning to Boston and catching up with Carla, Norm and Cliff, who was retiring from the Postal Service.)
Fans can still visit 'Cheers'--either the original bar that the show was based on (the "Bull And Finch Pub" at 84 Beacon Street in Boston; for more information, log onto www.cheersboston.com) or the various Cheers bars now operating in a number of airports in the United States and New Zealand or London's Regent Street. (The taverns are a joint operation of Paramount Television and Host International.) One problem: Two robots in each of the theme bars--named "Bob" and "Hank"--were too similar to the characters Cliff and Norm. At least George Wendt and John Ratzenberger thought so; they sued for damages. After eight years in court, a settlement was reached in 2001. The terms were never made public.
'Cheers' was a rare show indeed--not only very funny, but literate and a great place to spend time with some good friends -even if they didn't know our names.
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