Thirty years ago tonight, an ensemble comedy set in a Boston bar debuted on NBC. Cheers didn't exactly set the Nielsens on fire at first, but luckily the network gave the show a chance to find its audience. Thanks to consistently great scripts (Kurt Vonnegut Jr. stated in a 1991 interview "I would rather have written Cheers than anything I've written") and a quirky set of characters, the Bull and Finch Pub (the setting for the series) has joined Paul Revere's House and the Old North Church as must-see attractions for tourists. To celebrate the show's 30th anniversary, here is a peek behind the scenes of the place where everybody knows your name.
1. Sam Malone was almost a football player
The final two actors in contention for the role of ex-jock-turned-bar-owner Sam Malone were Fred Dryer and Ted Danson. The show’s original concept called for Sam to be a retired football player, and Dryer seemed perfect since he had spent 13 years as a defensive end in the NFL. But while Fred was new to acting, Ted had accumulated a handful of TV and film roles in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When Danson won the role, the back story was changed to make the character a former relief pitcher to better match Danson’s physique. Ted later revealed that he’d spent two weeks attending a bartending school in Burbank to prepare for his audition, only to find that (like most bartenders) most of his mixology was performed below sight level of the bar, out of camera range.
Dryer appeared on a few Cheers episodes as TV sportsman Dave Richards. In real life, Dryer tried his hand at sportscasting after leaving the NFL, but decided he wasn’t cut out for it. Although he missed out with Cheers, Fred embarked on his own long-running TV series a couple years later: Hunter.
2. The Secret Behind the Crack in the Bar
Designed by Richard Sylbert, the Cheers set was loosely based on Boston’s Bull and Finch bar. Look closely and you’ll notice a “seam” down the center of the bar; it was built on a hinge so that the right half could swing out, allowing the wall to slide open to reveal Sam’s office. Designers installed lights underneath the bar so that Nick “Coach” Colasanto (who had difficulty memorizing lines) could read the script pages taped to the counter. It took 30 to 40 extras to fill up the pub set as “customers”; any less and the bar looked too empty.
3. How Cliff Clavin Lobbied for his Job
John Ratzenberger originally auditioned for the role of barfly Norm Peterson. When he lost that role to George Wendt, Ratzenberger asked the producers if they had written a “resident know-it-all” into their show. All bars have one, he pointed out. Thanks to his persistence, the character of mail carrier Cliff Clavin became a regular Cheers patron. Likewise, psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane was brought in at the beginning of Season 3 as a plot device to further the relationship between Sam and Diane. While he wasn’t intended to become a permanent cast member, Kelsey Grammer had a knack for making even the most mundane dialog funny. The audience loved him, so it wasn’t long before Frasier became a regular on the show.
4. The Secret of Norm’s Brew
Although the Cheers bar was fully functional (and many NBC after-hours parties were held on the set), the suds served to George Wendt weren’t exactly a tasty microbrew. In fact, it was “near beer,” with an alcohol content of 3.2 percent, and a pinch of salt added so that the mug kept a foamy head under the hot studio lights.
5. Loose Lips Get You Killed by a Zamboni
Jay Thomas was the morning DJ at LA’s KPWR-Power 106 when he auditioned for (and won) the role of hockey star Eddie LeBec. He was brought back for several episodes in order to give Carla a story arc, and Eddie and Carla eventually wed on the show. Eddie might have made it to the series finale had Jay Thomas not taken a call on the air one morning asking him “What’s it like working on Cheers?” Thomas made several unflattering remarks about Rhea Perlman and having to kiss her… and Rhea happened to be listening to his show. Not surprisingly, a few weeks later Eddie LeBec was killed in a bizarre Zamboni accident.