Cheers for “Cheers”

For our post on Cheers (1982-1993) we choose the birthday of the late Nicholas Colasanto (1924-1985), and we’ll make him a peg to hang the piece on as well.

Cheers is one of my favorite shows of all time, but one thing that’s got to stick in the craw of Boston locals is that not a single character seems like they’re from the Hub. The only two authentic New Englanders in the cast were John Ratzenberger (from Bridgeport, CT) as Cliff, and Colasanto (from Providence, R.I.) as Coach. Ratzenberger compensates by doing the only Boston accent on the show (a comically exaggerated one), but Colasanto wins in the end by being geographically closest. Providence, an hour south, has always seemed like a satellite of Boston, as Charon is to Pluto, as the moon is to the earth. There is a relationship, even if Colasanto himself is not even from Boston. The third most “authentic” in the cast btw is Rhea Perlman, whose Brooklyn accent substitutes for a Boston one, and I’m sure most people outside the Northeast scarcely notice the difference.

To beat a dead horse; the show also presents another sort of “Bostonian”, academics and bluebloods associated with Harvard: Shelley Long as Diane Chambers, Kelsey Grammer as the lock-jawed Frasier Crane, and Bebe Neuwirth as Lillith. All three of them are comic geniuses; none of them from Boston. ‘As for the rest of the cast: George Wendt reeks of Chicago just as strongly as Norm reeks of beer, and Woody Harrelson and Kirstie Alley are also undisguised midwesterners and Ted Danson is from California (which is fine, plenty of guys who play for the Red Sox aren’t from Boston).

OBVIOUSLY, “realism” would be a stupid way to measure this hilarious, touching, brilliantly written and performed show. It’s just interesting to note. And it’s certainly preferable to a lot of actors doing poor Boston accents (I refer you to A Perfect Storm). And to return to the jumping-off-point, we bring it up to point out that Colasanto was the closest thing to a real Bostonian.

In my native Rhode Island, Colasanto’s presence in the cast filled us with hometown pride, and much amusement at a kind of character we recognized from our own lives. Colasanto had an interesting career. Trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, he’d worked as an actor in film and television since the late ’50s, notably in the movies Fat City (1972), Hitchcock’s Family Plot (1976) and Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). He’d also amassed many credits as a television director, on such shows as Columbo, Hawaii Five-0, Bonanza and Ironside. On some shows, like Run for Your Life (1965-67) starring Ben Gazzara, he performed both chores. By the early ’80s, health problems were forcing him to consider retirement. But Coach was such a perfect part and the character was built into the machine in such a way that it wouldn’t be too strenuous. Coach seldom drove the plot, usually just chimed in with funny asides and malapropisms from time to time. Even so, the job probably hastened his death. He was only on the show three seasons before a heart attack took him at the relatively young age of 61. (Think about it — he looked ten or 20 years older than that. Drinking and smoking contributed to his early death).

At any rate when the show premiered in 1982 my high school friends and I were slavish devotees. For context, we’d gone through years of the drought I describe in this post. Co-creators Glen and Les Charles had come from the MTM shows and Taxi, another ensemble-based show which kept in mind that the primary mission was to be funny. (The third co-creator, James Burrows, also had a long list of sitcom credits).

Cheers was an odd show, set in another universe, where not only was Boston not-Boston, but a bar was not a bar. People drink endless amounts and are not inebriated. There are seldom fights or aggressive harassment of women. It’s almost like a consortium of bar owners lobbied to sanitize the show so that drinking establishments would never be shown in a bad light. One major element missing is slutty bartenders, male and female, flirting for tips, and encouraging already drunken people to do shots, or whatever. The closest to this is Kristie Alley’s character but only because she looks the part; her character is a corporate bar manager who has unhappy affairs with businessmen. So it’s like a warm and fuzzy pub of the imagination, matching the irresistible theme song.

My favorite cast member is Shelley Long, whom I think is an absolute genius, and I really miss her on screens big and small. Oh, she continues to take roles from time to time, but Diane was a great comic creation, full of shading and nuance and pathos and observation and just enough exaggeration to make it sing. But I’ll not gainsay the later success of Danson, Grammer and Harrelson, and some of the others. They all deserve their popularity — casts this good almost never come along. I was always impressed by the unlikely success of Coach’s replacement character on the show, Woody. Think about it. Coach was a much-beloved character. The deck was stacked against whoever came in. But the writers took the same comic idea, that the guy was dumb, and simply flipped the other details: instead of being old, he was young, instead of being urban and ethnic, he was a cracker from a farm. And it worked like a charm and put Woody Harrelson on the map.

Alright, gotta sign off now — closing time.