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John Ratzenberger is reminiscing.
“I can remember sitting there,” he says, referring to his regular mark on the set of Cheers, “and saying to George Wendt, ‘Do you realize that we get paid to sit at a bar and crack jokes? That’s our job.’ And we just sort of laughed at, well, the dreamlike quality of it.”
Now, 30 years since the show premiered, he still has a special reverence for the experience of starring on what he — and many others — consider the greatest sitcom of all time.
That Ratzenberger was even on Cheers came as a bit of a stroke of luck. He tried out for the role of beer-slugging bar regular Norm, and after getting turned down — in favor of Wendt — he pitched a whole new character. Although he had spent the previous decade touring around Europe with his improv comedy group, the Connecticut native knew that back home in New England, every bar had a know-it-all, and he suggested that the show’s Boston-based pub best have one, too.
He got the green light and a seat at the bar, and Cliff Clavin, the blowhard mailman who was a constant stream of false facts and half-true boasts, would become one of four characters to appear in all 271 episodes of the series.
Perhaps the most critically acclaimed and popular show of the 1980s, the four-time Emmy winner for outstanding comedy series celebrated its lunch-pail, blue-collar characters and reveled in tweaking the upper-middle-class interlopers that drank away the problems of the upwardly mobile Reagan economy. And on a blue-collar show, Clavin did the dirty work.
Even on a sitcom, Cliff and Norm provided the comic relief; they’d offer wry remarks while throwing back rounds or end up the butt of jokes in a side story. They were the constants, too, offering a laugh from the mahogany island no matter what happened throughout the 11 seasons. And a lot happened, moving the wheels forward even as things seemed to always stay the same.
Joining the barstool buddies in each and every episode were bartender Sam Malone, the former Red Sox pitcher and ladies man played with wry playboy perfection by Ted Danson, and waitress Carla Tortelli, a caustic spark plug played by Rhea Perlman. Together with Cliff and Norm, the four took shots at the intellectuals: psychologist Frasier (Kelsey Grammer, of course), the neurotic perpetual grad student Diane (Shelley Long, in the first five seasons) and eventual bar manager Rebecca (Kirstie Alley, in the last six).
Sam had relationships with both Diane and Rebecca, Fraiser got married, and Carla spent half the series pregnant. But Cliff’s storylines largely consisted of sounding like a bizarro encyclopedia to no one in particular — and his arc, as a postal worker who lived with his mother, didn’t offer much in the way of character development, which brought a welcome steadiness.
“In the beginning, Cliff was more a font of knowledge,” Ratzenberger remembers. “Coach [played by Nick Colasanto the first three seasons], his character was always amazed at how brilliant Cliff was. I enjoyed playing the character because it really comes from the premise that, if you say something with enough authority, people will believe you. So I always got a chuckle out of that. And then later, down the line, Cliff became less of a perceived expert as someone who just interrupted conversations, who was more of an annoyance.”
Coach was an especially beloved character: an old ballplayer and coach of Sam’s with the Red Sox, he had perhaps been hit in the head with one too many pitches and lived his later days in a perpetual confusion. Ratzenberger said Colasanto “got a kick out of” his old 1953 Chevy pickup truck, and the two used to go out for rides on Saturdays, when they’d be off from filming the show.
Colasanto spent much of the show’s third season hiding an illness — he missed many of that year’s later episodes — and died the following winter. Ratzenberger still vividly remembers the funeral.
“It was a freezing day in February, and I came out of the church and the street was packed from one end of the street to the other, in the street and the sidewalks, you would have thought that it was the pope that died,” he says, still touched two and a half decades later. “He was well loved, as a character, and in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. I remember how cold it was that day. But it didn’t diminish the crowds at all.”
After Colasanto’s death, the show brought in Woody Harrelson to fill the gap of lovable dunce booze slinger. In what would be his breakout role, Harrelson played Woody Boyd, country bumpkin from Indiana. He was a fresh face and pulled off the seemingly impossible, replacing a fan favorite with a just-as-beloved original character. Cliff and Norm had a new guy to serve them round after round; Coach was mentioned infrequently in the seasons that followed, though he was never forgotten.
The bartender switch would end up being the first of two big transitions the show made, as Long’s exit led to Alley’s entrance in 1987. There were times, Ratzenberger says, when they weren’t sure the show could survive such big changes — Diane was especially difficult to see go, as Long had turned in Emmy-winning performances as Sam’s main foil and love interest.
Yet Alley, too, would end up appearing in more episodes than Long, as she teamed with the writing staff to craft a character that flipped the power dynamic of the bar on its ear. Malone went from bar owner and alpha male to employee and at least a little bit humbled; while he pursued Rebecca just as he had Diane, he also had to answer to her as a boss. Both Long and Alley won Emmys for their roles as Sam’s foil; it took him nearly a decade, but Danson would eventually win two of his own for his work on Cheers.
Given their roles as creative catalysts, the exits might have been hardest on an audience that grew attached to each character. Between the limited settings — the first season took place solely in the bar, and subsequent seasons had only limited ventures outward — and the quintessential work-family cast, a real sense of community and warmth turned living rooms into an extension of the place where Everybody Knows Your Name, as the show’s ubiquitous theme song put it. An illusion is shattered when it’s reminded that the set was not actually a pub but a TV studio, and that it was shot in sunny Los Angeles, not freezing-cold Boston. Even worse: The stars of the show weren’t throwing back beers and shooting the breeze together late into the night.
“Early on in Cheers, we all had young families, and I don’t think anybody really hung around on the weekends,” Ratzenberger says, to every fan’s eternal disappointment. “We saw each other at work, but as far as hanging around, it was pretty much like any other job.”
Not even he and Wendt?
“A lot of people like to think that,” he laughs, “but George — I was just starting out with my kids, but he had five. So he had a lot on his plate.”
Still, being a regular in the world’s most famous bar means a lot of free drinks — and a lot of easy friends.
“I find that it’s an advantage when you’re in a place where you don’t know anybody,” Ratzenberger offers, “because you’re really in a place where everybody knows your name.”
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