With “Cheers” reaching its 30th anniversary since the series finale — and with a revival of its popular spinoff, “Frasier,” expected later this year — it was time for the ATX Television Festival to do what it does best: host a reunion. Stars Ted Danson, George Wendt, and John Ratzenberger sat down with co-creators James Burrows, Len, and Glen Charles for an hourlong discussion about the impact of NBC’s landmark series.
Danson, every bit as thoughtful and tender as his “Cheers” character Sam Malone was single-minded and unrefined, made sure to honor who wasn’t in attendance, as well as those who made the trip to Austin, TX for Friday night’s panel. Initially, he credited co-star Shelley Long for getting him the career-making role in the first place.
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“I don’t think we’ve seen a character like that since Lucille Ball,” he said of Long’s ebullient lead, Diane Chambers. “She just really nailed it. And I do believe I got ‘Cheers’ because I worked well with Shelley. Shelley was just a knockout.”
Danson said that during his audition, the producers told him, “‘Don’t take another job without talking to us first.’ And I said, ‘So you’re saying I got the part?’ ‘No, no. Just check with us first.’ So I walked out the door and looked down the hallway and there was every other actor in Los Angeles coming in to audition — so thank you, Shelley.”
Soon after, Danson was asked about his second co-star, Kirstie Alley, who passed away in December 2022 at the age of 71. Visibly choked up, he took a moment to collect himself and said, “I’m sorry. She’s not here. It’s so strange.”
“She came in like a ball of fire,” he continued. “We were doing the table read and some of us had met her, but others hadn’t, and she was a little late — but it was because she put on a Shelley Long blonde wig. So I was like, ‘OK, you’ll do great.'”
Wendt said that on Alley’s first night shooting “Cheers,” the cast realized they forgot to get her a welcome present. So Wendt and Ratzenberger drove into L.A. looking for a last-minute idea.
“John and I were tasked with getting a gift for Kirstie,” Wendt said. “We’re literally driving down Melrose in Hollywood […] and we go past Big 5 Sporting Goods. And John goes, ‘George, you want to buy her a shotgun?'”
The crowd starting laughing, and Wendt said, “Like you, I laughed for about five minutes. Then I immediately pulled into the Big 5 parking lot and we bought her a freaking shotgun. […] It goes without saying that John and I were never tasked with getting a gift again.”
“I think I wrote on the card, ‘You’re going to have to shoot your way out,'” Ratzenberger said.
“She could play a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown better than anyone I’d ever seen,” Danson said.
Not everyone absent from the cast and creators’ reunion was treated with the same reverence. While those present had nothing but kind words for Rhea Perlman, Nicholas Colasanto, and Bebe Neuwirth, Danson was quick to tell tales about his fellow barman, Woody Harrelson.
“Woody’s not here, so we can rag on him,” Danson said. “Woody was a vegetarian, which meant he had horrible gas. He would come up to me sometimes during rehearsal and say, ‘Hey, I need your advice. I respect you so much.’ And he’d look me right in the eye, waiting for his fart to reach my nose. He was like a killer — he wanted to see my eyes go out.”
“Come on, jump on Woody,” Danson said.
And they did.
“[One night] we had catered Chinese food, and Woody found out after about 20 minutes that he was eating pork,” Wendt said. “And he decided to go purge. So I told him, ‘Out of solidarity, I will purge with you.’ And Ted said, ‘I’ll purge, too.’ There were only three stalls in the Stage 25 men’s room, and I’ll tell you this: You don’t want to laugh while puking.”
Earlier, everyone discussed how Harrelson was cast on “Cheers,” after the tragic death of Nicholas “Coach” Colasanto.
“We were looking for a strong American boy with a Midwest background who comes to the big city and works at the bar,” Glen Charles said about the casting search for Woody Boyd. “We almost signed this gentleman, and our casting director came in and said, ‘I know you like this guy, but I want you to see somebody.’ And in walks Woody [Harrelson]. […] He was not right on the money, but he was so interesting. Ted, after [Harrelson] left, said, ‘I know you think you got your guy, but there’s something I really like about this guy.'”
Wendt said he met Harrelson the night before the audition. At the time, all he knew was they were looking for an actor to play a bartender named Woody.
“I saw him at Gelson’s, my neighborhood supermarket,” Wendt said. “I was in the produce section or something, and these two young men were pointing at me and pushing each other and laughing. I was sort of used to it, since it was year three [of ‘Cheers’ being on the air]. Finally, one of them came over and said, ‘My friend said I should say hello to you because I’m auditioning for the role of the bartender tomorrow.’ And I go, ‘Oh, that’s great. Good luck with that. What’s your name?’ And he says, ‘Woody.’ And I say, ‘No, not the character name. What’s your name?’ And he says, ‘Woody.’ […] All I said was, ‘I think I might be seeing you tomorrow.'”
“We were all, like, 37 when Woody, at age 25 joined us, and it was like, ‘OK, let’s kick his ass,'” Danson said. “So we took him to the basketball court, because we fancied ourselves pretty good basketball players — he killed us. ‘All right, let’s arm wrestle.’ But — seriously — I still have a bad elbow. […] Then we decided clearly we don’t have the physical edge. We’ll play chess… and he killed us!”
Prior to the panel — held at a near-capacity ACL Live auditorium — the event kicked off with a live reading of the “Cheers” pilot featuring new actors in each part. David Walton (NBC’s “About a Boy”) starred as Sam, while Cassidy Freeman (“The Righteous Gemstones”) played Diane and Harold Perrineau (“Lost”) sat in as Norm. Local musician Robert Ellis then performed on the piano and led into conversation with a lively rendition of the theme song.
“Cheers” is available to stream on Paramount+.
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