He was the most lovable TV father figure since Mary Tyler Moore’s Lou Grant. As Cheers‘ dim-witted Coach — a former major-league catcher-turned-bartender who was always two thoughts behind every conversation (the result, Coach once explained, of taking one too many pitches ”in the old melon”), Nicholas Colasanto played dumb with a warmth and dignity that few other actors could match. And when Colasanto, 61, died on Feb. 12, 1985, toward the end of Cheers‘ third season, America’s favorite bar was left without its most beloved character.
Oddly enough, Cheers was Colasanto’s first attempt at comedy. A bookkeeper from Rhode Island in 1951, he was about to accept an oil-company job in Saudi Arabia when he caught Henry Fonda’s performance in Broadway’s Mister Roberts. ”At age 28, I chucked everything and [applied to] the American Academy of Dramatic Arts,” he said. Rejected, he joined a small theater company in Phoenix, returning to Broadway in 1956 to appear opposite Ben Gazzara in A Hatful of Rain.
Colasanto won critical acclaim on the stage, including a 1962 Obie nomination, but jobs remained scarce. In 1965, he accepted an invitation from Gazzara (and money for a plane ticket to L.A.) to direct an episode of Gazzara’s NBC series Run for Your Life. Colasanto went on to direct more than 100 episodes of such dramas as Bonanza, Hawaii Five-O, and The Streets of San Francisco.
While acting in only a handful of forgettable TV movies during the ’70s, he began drinking heavily. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and returned to acting in 1980’s Raging Bull, playing fight-fixer mafioso Tommy Como. Two years later, he beat out Sid Caesar for the role of Coach. Nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Emmy three years in a row (he never won), Colasanto was back on track until a recurring & heart illness began to take its toll. During Cheers‘ third year, he missed five tapings. After a two-week hospitalization, Colasanto visited the set and told the cast he hoped to return for the season finale. Four days later, he died of a heart attack in his L.A. home.
It took Cheers producers until the following fall to acknowledge the death in the script. The first episode of the new season began with a tribute to Colasanto and introduced Woody (Woody Harrelson), an Indiana farm boy who had been taking correspondence bartending courses from Coach.
The new barkeep clicked, but the old one was never forgotten. Colasanto was like a father, says James Burrows, director of Cheers and now of NBC’s Frasier, ”on stage and off. He was the older, more experienced one of all of us. Nick was Coach.”