What was really in Norm’s beer mug? 5 things we learned at ‘Cheers’ reunion in Austin

The stars of beloved sitcom “Cheers” could rest easy on Friday. Everybody at ACL Live knew their names.

To mark 30 years since the finale of the long-running NBC show, ATX TV Festival invited series stars Ted Danson, George Wendt and John Ratzenberger to reunite and swap stories with their old drinking buddies, co-creators James Burrows and Les and Glen Charles.

We’d say they spilled the tea, but perhaps it’s more accurate to say they spilled the beer. Regardless, the “Cheers” reunion was full of behind-the-scenes morsels, two singalongs to the iconic theme song and intimate details about Woody Harrelson’s bodily functions.

Wanna feel old? Read the pilot for ‘Cheers.’

As is often the case with ATX TV Festival (it’s built into the bones), nostalgia reigned. “I’m old!” someone in our row muttered when reminded that “Cheers” premiered more than 40 years ago.

That person probably kept checking for gray hairs as the evening kicked off with a reading of the script from the show’s pilot. “Give Me a Ring Sometime” first aired on Sept. 30, 1982. Rhea Perlman’s Carla Tortelli is supposed to be in her 20s, according to the stage directions. And the very first scene for bar owner Sam Malone (Danson) mentions that someone born in 1944 would be 38.

The fest tapped talent like David Walton (“New Girl”), Cassidy Freeman (“The Righteous Gemstones”) and Harold Perrineau (“Oz”) to read roles like Sam, Diane Chambers and Norm Peterson, respectively. The players proved the material still holds up. A line like, “You’re a magnificent pagan beast” still has a ring to it. The laughter only sounded nervous for one line: when Diane’s erstwhile fiancé calls her a “beautiful, delicious child.”

Ted Danson says fans of ‘Cheers’ are getting younger.

Variety TV editor Michael Schneider introduced the cast and creators. “I think you all know what to do,” Schneider said, and the audience let out a massive cry of “Norm!” as Wendt came out last.

They kicked off by reflecting on the enduring appeal of “Cheers,” which is now bingeable on more than one streaming platform.

“To see new people watching, it’s just flattering beyond belief,” Burrows said. Les Charles said it’s especially remarkable considering the show’s rating “started in the dumper.” In fact, Burrows likes to say they were rated “70th out of 69 shows” when “Cheers” debuted.

Danson has always found it fun when devotees of the show come up at airports, he said. Now, “the fans are getting younger and younger,” he added.

Ratzenberger said people ask him for little-known facts all the time, a specialty of his character, the know-it-all postal worker Cliff Clavin.

And yes, Wendt said people are awed when they realize he’s walked into a bar.

The cast of ‘Cheers’ could have looked a lot different.

The creators, who worked together on the hit show “Taxi,” knew they wanted their next project to be a workplace comedy, Glen Charles said. Once they landed on setting it in a bar, Les Charles said, they went out for a little research and overheard a group having a long discussion about the best kind of canned soup. Thus was born the bar banter of “Cheers.”

Other actors were in the running for Sam and Diane, including Fred Dryer and Julia Duffy. But Danson and Shelley Long’s chemistry left no question in anyone’s mind that they were the right actors, Les Charles said.

Ratzenberger first read for the part of Norm, he said, “but I just wasn’t good looking enough.” Les Charles said that they built the part of Cliff around Ratzenberger.

On playing Norm, Wendt said, “I had to look like a guy who wanted another beer. That, I can do!” Originally, his character only appeared in the final scene of the pilot, with only one line: “Beer.” But when his schedule freed up, the creators made Norm a regular character.

John Ratzenberger, Ted Danson and George Wendt attend the ATX TV Festival, Friday, June 3, 2023.
John Ratzenberger, Ted Danson and George Wendt attend the ATX TV Festival, Friday, June 3, 2023.

New co-stars got weird welcomes to ‘Cheers.’

Glen Charles said that they were already developing the character named Woody, a young bartender introduced in Season 4, and had almost signed an actor for the part when Texan Woody Harrelson came to audition. Danson saw something in Harrelson and lobbied for him to get the role.

The Woody-on-Woody turn seemed written in the stars, or at least written in the produce section. Wendt recalled that the night before Harrelson’s audition, he met the younger actor at the Gelson’s grocery store in his neighborhood.

The old guard tried to humble the young gun, Danson said. They challenged him to a series of contests — basketball, chess, arm wrestling — all of which Harrelson won.

Danson appeared to get a little emotional when bringing up co-star Kirstie Alley. “She’s not here,” he said. Alley, who played Sam’s foil Rebecca Howe starting in Season 6, died in December.

“She played a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown better than anybody,” he said.

Wendt and Ratzenberger told the story of how they were tasked with getting Alley a welcome present. After driving around town, they passed a sporting goods store and landed on buying her a shotgun.

“George wrote on the card, ‘You’re going to have to shoot your way out,’” Ratzenberger said.

Actor George Wendt talks about his role as "Norm Peterson" during a panel discussion reuniting the cast of "Cheers" at the ATX TV Festival, Friday, June 2, 2023.
Actor George Wendt talks about his role as "Norm Peterson" during a panel discussion reuniting the cast of "Cheers" at the ATX TV Festival, Friday, June 2, 2023.

The cast saved the juiciest bits for last.

Danson, on deciding to call it quits from “Cheers”: “My life was a hot mess.” And if he hadn’t hung up Sam’s bar towel, he said he never would have met wife, actress Mary Steenburgen.

Danson took advantage of Harrelson’s absence from the reunion to spill some very, let’s say, organic stories about his co-star. Apparently, Harrelson’s vegetarian diet left him with horrible gas. He would trick Danson into getting up close and then pass wind until Danson’s eyes watered.

Harrelson’s dietary habits led to an even more disgusting moment on set — can you believe it? Once after a Chinese food meal, Harrelson realized he’d inadvertently eaten pork. He decided that he needed to purge the offending food from his system, and Danson and Wendt volunteered to join him in a little projectile solidarity.

You don’t want to laugh while puking, according to the stars.

And what about all that beer? Wendt said their mugs on set were actually filled with Kingsbury-brand “near beer,” since the showrunners didn’t want the cast getting sloshed. It only came in cans, he said, so the crew would pour the beverage into the set’s taps before filming, leaving it warm.

As if that weren’t gross enough, it obviously looked flat after sitting around, so a pinch of salt was added to the glasses.

Kinda makes you wonder why Norm kept coming back.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: 'Cheers' cast reunion: Danson, Wendt and Ratzenberger relive old times