How 'Cheers' Replaced Coach: James Burrows Looks Back, 30 Years Later

(Herb Ball/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

The sudden loss of a cast member has derailed plenty of TV shows over the years. (We're still mourning the untimely death of Phil Hartman, and what that meant for NewsRadio.) Thirty years ago this week, Cheers faced that same dilemma when co-star Nicholas Colasanto passed away from a heart attack at the age of 61.

For three seasons, Colasanto played sweet, simple-minded baseball coach-turned-bartender Ernie "Coach" Pantusso on the NBC sitcom, and his death left a sizable void in the show's ensemble cast. But Cheers didn't miss a beat, bringing in Woody Harrelson the following season to play farm-boy barkeep Woody Boyd in one of the smoothest TV cast transitions we can remember.

To honor Colasanto's legacy, and to dive deeper into the Coach-to-Woody transition, Yahoo TV spoke with legendary director James Burrows, who directed 237 episodes of Cheers and executive produced the show along with creators Glen and Les Charles.

Related: The Inside Story Behind the 'Cheers' Theme Song

Before Cheers, Colasanto was known more as a TV director than an actor, and certainly not as a comedian; his most prominent role was playing a dead-serious mob boss in Martin Scorsese's 1980 film Raging Bull. But Burrows says they liked the fact that Colasanto wasn't known for making you laugh.

"We always like to cast people who you don't think are funny, and then they become funny, because it makes them even funnier," Burrows tells us. "If you have a stand-up comedian on your show, you know he's funny. With Nick… when he said something funny, the element of surprise was in there, and it made it even more enriching."

Colasanto was added to the cast for the show's September 1982 debut, and quickly settled into his role as the on-set dad for the rest of the Cheers gang. "He was definitely the oldest in the cast," Burrows remembers. "He was probably older than me, and I was the ancient one. He was a father figure."

CHEERS -- Pictured: (l-r) Nicholas Colasanto as Ernie 'Coach' Pantusso, Rhea Perlman as Carla Tortelli, Ted Danson as Sam Malone, Shelley Long as Diane Chambers (Photo by Herb Ball/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

But health problems began to take their toll on the veteran actor; a severe case of heart disease led to noticeable weight loss. Burrows says the producers realized Colasanto had a heart problem, but "we didn't know how dire it was. Nick had trouble remembering lines. I'm sure it had a lot to do with the blood getting to the head. But we always compensated for it, because he was such an integral part of the show."

Compensating for it sometimes meant a bit of showbiz trickery, Burrows remembers; Colasanto would write down his lines in places only the actors could see. "If you look at some of the back walls that aren't visible to the audience, you can see Nick's lines written there. And they're all over the bar. So he did that. And then if that got too difficult, we'd shorten it. We made the lines easier."

Things took a bad turn, though, midway through Season 3; Colasanto was hospitalized with water in his lungs after the holiday break, and his doctors recommended that he not return to work. His last full episode on the show was "Cheerio, Cheers," filmed in November 1984. (He later appeared in the cold open of the Season 3 finale, but that was also filmed before his hospitalization.)

CHEERS -- Coach in Love: Part 2 Episode 7 -- Air Date 11/15/1984 -- Pictured: (l-r) Nicholas Colasanto as Ernie 'Coach' Pantusso, Ted Danson as Sam Malone (Photo by NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Burrows doesn't remember the show having to rewrite any scripts to accommodate Colasanto's absence, but "it was hard, because… his voice was very important to the rest of the cast and to the show. So we had to deal with the fact that he wasn't around." To fill the void, Cheers employed the old TV gimmick of having a character read letters from a vacationing Coach, Burrows remembers: "You know, where somebody would read what he was saying, so that you could keep Coach alive."

Colasanto passed away in his L.A. home on February 12, 1985; that night's scheduled Cheers taping was canceled. Les Charles told the Los Angeles Times at the time, "After we found out, we got the entire cast together and made the announcement. Everyone was heartbroken."

Related: 'Cheers' 30th Anniversary: What You Never Knew About the Show

The actor's death came near the end of the Season 3 taping schedule, so Burrows and the Charles brothers had a whole summer to figure out how to adjust to his absence. First of all, Burrows says, they had no desire to just find another older actor to play a Coach-like role: "You didn't want to replace Coach. You didn't want to do the same character."

(Paramount TV/Everett Collection)

So they aimed younger, in an effort to mesh better with a certain hit sitcom airing before Cheers on Thursday nights. "Our lead-in was Family Ties," Burrows remembers, "and Michael [J.] Fox was really hot. So we thought we could go younger, too, and appeal to the younger crowd."

In walked a 24-year-old Woody Harrelson, freshly graduated from college in (yes) Hanover, Indiana. What did Harrelson do to impress the producers? "He blew his nose as he walked in. Literally," Burrows recalls. "We wanted a reed-thin, small farm boy, and Woody's not that. He's more of a strapping guy. But when he read with [Cheers star] Ted [Danson], you could not resist that." 

The Season 4 premiere introduced the character of Woody Boyd, a naïve Indiana hick who came to Boston to meet his "pen pal" Coach. (They exchanged pens, not letters.) After learning his friend had died a couple months earlier — the circumstances of Coach's death were never explained on-screen — Woody took Coach's place behind the bar at Cheers… and changed the dynamic on set immediately, Burrows says.

"I'm telling you, once Woody came, the water-pistol fights, the foosball games… the testosterone on the set just went berserk. You know, when you had Woody, he'd jump over the bar. And that was a chance for Teddy to try to jump over the bar. So he brought a youthful enthusiasm, which was infectious. Not to take anything away from Nicky, but it was just a totally different attitude that the cast had."

CHEERS -- Someday My Prince Will Come Episode 3 -- Air Date 10/17/1985 -- Pictured: (l-r) Shelley Long as Diane Chambers, Woody Harrelson as Woody Boyd (Photo by Kim Gottlieb-Walker/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Ratings continued to climb, and Harrelson remained a key part of the Cheers cast for eight seasons. Looking back now, it's remarkable how seamless that transition from Coach to Woody was. Burrows is quick to credit one person for that: "I attribute a lot of it to Ted Danson, and his personality and his acting ability… It reminds me a lot of Judd Hirsch at the center of Taxi, who dealt with all the zanies. And Sam Malone dealt with all the zanies."

Danson's steadying influence also helped the show through another choppy transition a couple years later: replacing Shelley Long with Kirstie Alley as Sam's romantic foil. "I mean, putting Woody in the show was great, but putting Kirstie in the show was even better," Burrows remembers. "You replace Sam and Diane, which was a relationship that now has become in the vernacular of television. And to be able to replace Shelley, who was monumental in the role, is a tribute to Teddy, and a tribute to the writing on the show."

Cheers finally closed up shop in 1993 after eleven seasons, but the cast and crew never forgot Colasanto; in fact, the show tipped its cap to him in the series finale. The actor kept a portrait of Geronimo in his dressing room; after his death, the portrait hung on the back wall of the Cheers set. In the last moments of the finale, Sam walks up to the bar's back wall and straightens the Geronimo portrait. A beautiful, silent nod to a beloved cast member — replaced, yes, but irreplaceable.