Here's a detailed character guide to the series' biggest barflies, including Sam, Rebecca, Cliff, Norm, and the rest of the gang
Sam Malone would have loved having women in the locker room. Or, Lord knows, he would have tried. Had a woman sportswriter ventured into his Boston locker room during Mayday Malone’s Red Sox days, Sammy would have behaved himself — but, if you will pardon the imagery, just barely. He would have worn his towel. He would have draped it like wet wash on a clothesline. And then he would have promised the sportswriter the most personal interview of her life, one that would take the curl right out of her spiral notebook.
Sam can’t help himself. He’s a sexaholic.
Over the course of a 200-show Cheers career, ballplayer-turned-bartender Sam Malone, the pitcher who can’t stop pouring, has extended his consecutive hitting-on streak. He has batted close to 1.000, too. He’s been passed around the bar like a bowl of Beer Nuts. He’s been horizontal with Diane Chambers and Rebecca Howe, both of whom were smarter than Sam but dizzier than Dean. True, he has not been with Carla Tortelli or Dr. Lilith Sternin-Crane, but only because he selflessly warded off their advances. No third-base coach, not even Ernie Pantusso, ever asked Sammy to make such a sacrifice. Still, women think of him as charmingly harmless.
How does Sam Malone get away with it, even after all these years? Maybe it’s the hair. (Hard to imagine a Red Sox cap fitting over that haystack.) Or maybe it’s the fame.
Or maybe it’s just Ted Danson, an actor who makes Sam Malone affable and – laughable. When a pregnant Carla dreads the idea of having twins, Sam reminds her that the greatest night of his life was the night he had twins. Leave it to Sam to come up with a quadruple entendre. What gets Danson a slapstick laugh would get others just plain slapped. Somehow it isn’t vulgar coming from him. It isn’t a dirty Danson; it’s merely a naughty one.
And a nutty one. Of all the players a sportswriter is likely to come across, Sam Malone remains the most valuable. He belongs in somebody’s Hall of Fame. Here’s what should be engraved on his plaque at Cooperstown: Sam Malone, 200 Shows, 200 Saves. Now there’s a great pitcher for you — one who can deliver a hit.
First we had to overcome all that stranger anxiety. Who was this interloper, this tough cookie, this?woman who sashayed into a place where nobody knew her name? Rebecca Howe’s appearance three years ago threatened to disrupt life at our little Back Bay clubhouse. Would she fit in? Would she learn the Cheers family rules (”Watch Out 4 Gurls!”)? Could she successfully maneuver around the sacred Landmarks — the beer kegs! the pool table! — where Diane, before her departure, had once flounced and postured so cutely?
Yup, she could — but only by not being cute. And, bless her, Rebecca is about as cute as a Harvard MBA sipping designer water. With her Veronica Lake hairdo and Lauren Bacall gaze, this gurl is a little bit hard-boiled, a little bit neurotic, and a lot more likable than we bargained for. If Diane was perky, Rebecca is anti-perk. If Diane was ditzy, Rebecca is counter-ditz. Dense, yes — she couldn’t read a romantic clue if it was handed to her on one of Carla’s little round trays. But definitely smart, definitely a match for Sam Malone.
Cheers executives say Rebecca spritzes the air with a sexual tension closer to what they first had in mind, a sort of Hepburn-Tracy sparring. But Rebecca’s no Hepburn (who would have pulverized Sam). Her appeal is that she thinks she’s as tough as nails, while we know she’s about as sturdy as Styrofoam. Then there’s her tenacious dignity. First she’s demoted to barmaid. Then she’s done to by Robin Colcord, a calculating, would-be Master of the Universe whom she has the exquisitely self-destructive misfortune to choose as worthy of her. Then her beloved gets indicted and sent off to Club Fed.
And through it all Rebecca tosses her hair gamely and dresses for success. How can we help but wish her well? She’s a secret mess just learning that professional achievement is not much comfort on a cold Boston night. She’s the confused Working Woman of the ’90s, who has asserted herself into a corner and needs just one tender but macho, patient but commanding, powerful but vulnerable man to calm her down and warm her up. Maybe a bartender will do.
Cliff & Norm
John Ratzenberger and George Wendt
There have been lots of passionate pairings on Cheers over the years — Sam and Diane, Diane and Frasier, Carla and Eddie — but the show’s longest-running relationship has been the barroom bond between Cliff C. Clavin and Norm Peterson. The windbag postman and the party-size accountant make up TV’s most compatible couple since Ralph Kramden bang-zoomed Ed Norton.
Norm is the mild-mannered, brew-chugging philosopher who wears his beer- bloated girth like a boozy badge of courage. Virtually every show opens with his entrance — ”ITALIC “Nooorrrrmmm”]!”— and a barrage from his arsenal of deadpan one-liners. ”What’s shaking, Norm?” ”All four cheeks and a couple of chins,” he answers. ”What’s up, Norm?” ”My nipples. It’s freezing.” ”How’s life, Norm?” ”Ask somebody who’s got one.”
Cliff is the girl-shy know-it-all obsessed with the accumulation of useless misinformation. On the animal kingdom: ”Due to the shape of the North American elk’s esophagus, even if it could speak, it could not pronounce the word ‘lasagna.”’ On the history of warfare: ”The roots of physical aggression found in the male species are in the DNA molecule itself. In fact, the very letters DNA are an acronym for Dames are Not Aggressors.”
Together, Norm and Cliff form a crucial pillar of Cheers‘ dramatic infrastructure. Commenting on the action from their bar stools, recapping story lines, providing their own inimitable insights into each week’s plot twists, they act as a sort of sitcom equivalent of the ancient Greek chorus. Without them, the show wouldn’t be the same.
Once or twice a season, these two reliable supports move center stage for an episode of their own — like when Norm lost his job, or when Cliff had to move out of his mom’s house — but mostly they remain in the background, quietly sipping their beers, keeping each other company. Sometimes, if you listen carefully, you can catch them in a private moment:
”In all the years you’ve known me, why didn’t you ever tell me I was a blowhard?” Cliff once asked Norm.
”I kept trying to squeeze it in,” Norm said.
”Thanks, Norm. I know that must have been hard to say…”
”You’re ugly, too.”
Watch an episode of Cheers from the post-Shelley Long era, and you’ll occasionally hear a wisecrack about the long-departed Diane Chambers — a poison- tipped barb about how her flightiness almost drove Sam over the edge, or how her insanity nearly unmanned Frasier, or how her (f)rigidity and Sam’s attempts to undermine it caused Carla unending agony. Even in her absence, Diane serves a comic purpose; she’s the exorcised demon whose very name can still shiver the bar’s timbers.
When Diane wandered into Cheers in the show’s first segment, she was a / research assistant whose eventual jilting by her professor forced her to slum as a cocktail waitress. She viewed herself as a delicate aesthete on an anthropological expedition to discover the customs of the lowborn, and she eagerly bestowed her wisdom. (”Please, Carla,” she once said with memorable sincerity, ”benefit from my depth.”) But Diane’s social studies went wrong the moment she fell for Sam — a primal twist that brought out the beast in her, and the best in Long. With her body aching for Sam while her finer sensibilities looked on in horrified disbelief, Diane became involved in TV’s sexiest on- off-on-off-on-off relationship; their first clinch remains one of the hottest moments in tube history. Sam v. Diane was also a true battle of equals. Diane went through a breakup, a breakdown, a retreat to a convent, and a rebound relationship with her shrink, but she never lost her brains, pride, or principles (though she occasionally misplaced all three).
Cheers hasn’t been the same since Long’s departure; the laughs are still there, but the chemistry has changed. Five seasons were enough for Sam and Diane’s cat-and-mouse sideshow, but it’s worth noting that three characters were needed to fill the void Diane left: Frasier keeps her pompous, easily deflated intellectual side alive; Lilith has inherited the sexual-tigress- within-the-humorless-priss jokes; and Rebecca provides Sam with a sparring partner. As for Diane, she survives in the form of unanswered questions: What ever happened to that novel she went off to write? Did she marry her ex- professor Sumner Sloan? Does she still think about Sam? Two or three years from now — or whenever Cheers airs its final episode — wouldn’t it be great to find out?
When Nicholas Colasanto, who played Cheers‘ Coach, died in 1985, the producers took a chance. The safe thing would have been to replace the amiable-dope character with someone completely different. Instead, they tried something fairly daring: They replaced Coach’s old dumb guy with a young dumb guy; Woody Harrelson’s Woody could have been Coach in his slow-witted youth. A lesser actor might have been dismissed as a Coach rip-off. Harrelson’s Woody quickly established himself as a dim bulb of a different wattage, a uniquely charming video bozo.
Woody Boyd was an Indiana farm boy whose fondest dream was to become a bartender. He and Coach became pencil-pals and then Woody traveled to Boston to meet his mentor. There he learned of Coach’s death and became a Cheers bartender. Over the years, he has dated a beautiful socialite and palled around with Robert Urich when the actor (in one of those neat, Cheers-y blends of fact and fiction) was in Beantown to film Spenser: For Hire.
Lots of good sitcoms have used dopes as comic foils: From Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show to George Utley on Newhart, dunces make for solid laughs but also inspire lots of affection. Woody is the most beguiling patsy in prime-time. In a recent episode, he gazed at the comics page of The Boston Globe and sighed, ”I don’t get ‘The Far Side.”’ Cliff rolled his eyes at Norm in condescending pleasure and started to explain the joke. Woody snatched the paper back and snapped, ”I mean my hometown newspaper doesn’t carry ‘The Far Side’! But thanks for making me feel like a 1-year-old!”
Woody realizes that people think he’s thick-headed; this bugs him, and the element of suspense — will Woody get it or not? — distinguishes him from other sitcom dopes. As does the fact that women find him very cute: Somehow, Woody makes stupidity sexy.
Here’s one fan’s dream episode of Cheers: The eminent novelist Vladimir Nabokov stops in at Cheers for a quick boilermaker between lectures at B.U. Carla, recognizing the author of Lolita, chides him for his speculation on the allure of very young women — or, as Carla puts it: ”Hey, Vlad, been hanging around the schoolyard lately?” The writer deflects her with typical eloquence (”Oh, stuff it, you impertinent hag”), but on this day, psychiatrist Frasier Crane is also occupying a bar stool in Cheers. Frasier, we know from many lovably pompous remarks, is a dedicated Freudian analyst; Nabokov has always referred to Sigmund Freud as ”the Viennese quack.” A dream edition of Cheers would consist of a half-hour debate between Nabokov and Frasier over the value of dream analysis and the Oedipus complex, Frasier getting all hot and loud as only he can, with suitably boorish remarks thrown in from Cliff, Norm, and the rest of the gang.
If this seems like a highfalutin fantasy, well, Frasier inspires one to think deep thoughts. He’s the most amusing highbrow in prime-time. Kelsey Grammer spent time on the New York stage before going sitcom — in fact, I once saw him in an Off-Broadway production of Quartermaine’s Terms in which he played — hmmm — a stuffed-shirt academic. But unlike most video intellectuals, Frasier has been allowed to develop a rounded personality, a private life. During the 1985-86 season, this haughty nice-guy fell in love with an aggressive Jungian, Dr. Lilith Sternin. Their impeccably grammatical courtship was a distinctive addition to Cheers‘ usual blithe informality and gave the series an unexpected boost in both popularity and fresh story lines. It was inevitable, therefore, that in the 1989-90 season Frasier and Lilith would have a baby; this enabled the Cheers writers to explore the comedic possibilities of a pair of systematically repressed, neurotically neat people in the throes of emotional, messy childbirth.
These days the most distressing thing about Frasier is that he is becoming more of a guy’s guy — his stiff neck has loosened somewhat; his thinning hair, once short and slicked-back, now curls raffishly over his collar. Although he’s a new father, Frasier seems to be hanging around the bar an awful lot. In a show as well-written as Cheers, these little changes carry weight. Will Lilith soon confront Frasier for neglecting his paternal responsibilities, or will he fall for the first cute Lolita who asks for a Shirley Temple? Freud only knows…
If Sam is the heart of Cheers and Norm is the soul, then yuppie psychiatrist Dr. Lilith Sternin is the mind. Cheers has a tradition of brains — Diane Chambers, psychiatrist Frasier Crane — but these eggheads are also airheads, perfect objects of ridicule for the philistines at the bar. Lilith is different: an intellectual with some sense.
Lilith joined Cheers four years ago as an uptight parody of professionalism. Diane persuaded Lilith to let down her hair (literally) before debating clinical methods with Frasier on a talk show. Both were stricken with desire. They played footsie and used such blatantly sexual metaphors that viewers would have screamed for the censors if either character had had an iota of sex appeal.
For a while, the old sexual dynamic was enough to define Lilith. Egghead or earth mother? Hair up or down? This was sexual tension, all right, but not the usual kind that exists between two characters: Lilith created this tension all by herself. Once Lilith and Frasier married, something had to replace sex. In their case, it has been cultural tension. Are they trendmongers or purists? They think they’re purists, which naturally makes them trendy. Great episodes have arisen from the Sternin-Cranes’ struggle with the good life: Can a beer- guzzling slime (Norm) update your color scheme and improve the traffic pattern in your tastefully decorated townhouse? We owe it to the world to reproduce, but won’t having a baby cut into our leisure time and destroy our careers? Whenever there is conflict, Frasier rants and theorizes, then Lilith gets her way, never losing her monstrous self-control.
Once, she came close. ”Think gentle, loving thoughts,” advised the doting Frasier when Lilith went into labor. ”Novocaine!” she bellowed. ”Codeine! Demerol! Whiskey! Rum! Knock me unconscious with a mallet!” And then she proceeded to have the baby efficiently, in a taxi, off-camera.
Now a confident wife and mother, Lilith is used mainly to show what a wimp Frasier is. Times have changed. Jane Hathaway’s mannishness on The Beverly Hillbillies was pitiable; Lilith’s is powerful. She’s the paradigm of the dominant female, and a perfect foil for fluttery, bumbling Rebecca.
Last season the woman who once needed help to take the pins out of her hair was drafted by Rebecca for beauty advice. Rebecca wanted to look tough enough to scare a man to death. She wanted to look like Lilith. Shows you how far women have come, one way or another.
Carla Lozupone Tortelli LeBec is the queen of TV waitresses. Consistently rude to customers and just plain mean as hell, she is a heroine to anyone who ever depended on the whims of the public for wages — she wins tips through intimidation. Every Thursday she fulfills the fantasies of waitresses across America, and a personal credo of many: The customer is always wrong.
You’d be mean, too, if you were the only person at your job who was actually working her butt off. Rebecca, Sam, and Woody waltz in and out, tossing over their shoulders, ”Carla, cover the bar for me!” Oh, sure, her regular station, the back room, and the bar, too? Including those two regressive yutzes, Cliff and Norm, who’ve made Cheers their entire existence? At least Carla has a life — a sex life, anyway. Even with tacky designer jeans, Brillo hair, and seemingly countless children (eight, actually), she has a unique sex appeal. Men, intellectual and blue-collar alike, are inexplicably mad about Carla. But the only ones who really get her hot are low-life scum, with one exception — Sam Malone. She’d jump his bones in a second if asked — but then again, she feels that way about a lot of guys.
All right, so Carla’s mind is in the gutter, so what? She doesn’t live there. She’s a survivor, and this survival skill spills over into her personal relationships. Women dread her. Confiding your most vulnerable thoughts to her would be a mistake; she’d tell everyone and then torment you mercilessly. And men quake in Carla’s presence. They know she can goad them into doing anything merely by calling them ”wuss” or ”chicken.” They know that Carla, if dared, would do anything.
Which brings us back to why waitresses love Carla. She’s making up for the terrible blow done to the profession by Five Easy Pieces — the image of a beleaguered waitress forced to take attitude from a stupid ’60s antihero. Carla could hold Jack Nicholson and his damn toast between her knees and leave him begging for more.
To know Coach was to love him, though not really to understand him, which was why you loved him. Coach — the late Nicholas Colasanto, who died in February 1985 after filming episode No. 59 — was Cheers‘ link to unreality, its stairway to heaven knows what. He spent his life trout fishing in a stream of consciousness and non sequiturs. He was Ronald Reagan as written by Woody Allen.
Bartender Ernie Pantusso — Coach — was both the simplest and most complex character on the show. Created as an avuncular counterpoint to the cynics around him, he developed into something more sublime and ridiculous. He never cracked a smile but got more laughs than anyone on the show.
Coach was on a permanent natural high — probably from taking too many sliders to the head at Fenway — that left him with a take on life somewhere between a preschooler’s and a pothead’s.
Diane: Hey, Coach, how about a pizza? You love pizza.
Coach: No, I don’t. You can’t crawl in bed with a pizza. Well, you could, but a pizza doesn’t keep you warm at night. Well, it could, but you can’t kiss a pizza. Well…
Sam: We get the point, Coach.
Coach could never see the forest for the trees, or the trees for the forest. But he saw everything in between. Like why do they call them tellers? They never tell you anything; they just ask you questions. And why do they call it interest? It’s boring. And another thing, how come the Trust Department has all their pens chained to the table? You call that trust? And another thing?
With his furrowed brow, craggy features, and quizzical expression, Coach had the look of a longshoreman racked by existential doubt — a completely ingenuous character. When Coach said, ”Sometimes I forget things. Or do I?” he wasn’t being coy or rhetorical.
He was often described as absent-minded, and there was some evidence for that. Witness this exchange after he announced the engagement of his workaholic daughter, Lisa:
Sam: I always thought she was married to her job.
Coach: No, Sam, she wants both. I mean, after all this is the nineteen — what — eighties?
But Coach wasn’t truly absent-minded. He was just leaving room for more important stuff, like the separate names he gave each of the identical beer glasses. Why? So he could tell them apart, of course.
The final Coach episode aired on April 11, 1985, and though it obviously was taped before Colasanto’s fatal heart attack, it almost plays as a farewell. This is the episode in which Diane, torn between Sam and Frasier Crane, decides to accompany Frasier to Europe. While saying goodbye to Coach, she glances over at Sam.
Diane: Do me a favor — stand by him.
Coach: Sure. (starts walking toward Sam)
Diane: No, no, no. Coach, come back here. On second thought, could you just sort of watch over him?
So, here’s to you, Coach, hoping you’re in a place now where the bank tellers always have something to tell, and the pens are never chained to the desks.