Question: Why was Cheers cancelled? Martha P., Ridgway, Colo.
Televisionary: It wasn't. Its creators decided to end the show after star Ted Danson, who played Cheers owner Sam Malone, threw in the towel and ended its successful 11-year run on NBC (September 1982 to August 1993).
Your next question, I'm sure: Why did Danson want to quit? Basically, as he told it at the time, he simply wanted to move on to other things. "[O]nce Ted decided not to come back, it was all academic," Cheers executive producer and cocreator Les Charles told TV Guide in 1993. "We would not do the show without Ted."
Since the network and Paramount, which produced the show, wanted to go for another season, as did nearly all of the cast, and making that call meant he was single-handedly putting people out of work and disappointing an audience that wanted more, Danson went to impressive lengths to avoid taking full responsibility. "It wasn't that they didn't want to do the show without me," he explained. "It's that they didn't want to do the show without Sam Malone. There is a difference."
Uh-huh. To be fair, however, everyone reaches a point where they simply don't want to play anymore, and despite such mental contortions, the star certainly had the right to say he'd reached his. Why else would he willingly walk away from a reported $450,000 a week? "Everybody loves the show and it still has life," Danson said. "It's not like you leave great comedy in the hopes of doing something better or more fulfilling. And I don't believe that you only leave when you're on top, when you're No. 1. I think that's hogwash. If you're in the mood, run 'em into the ground. No, it was just time for me to leave."
"[T]he part I understood was that he was 44 years old and has been doing this for a quarter of his life," said executive producer and cocreator Glen Charles (Les' brother; the two also created Taxi). "He wanted to try something else."
The funny part was that when those conversations were going on, no one could imagine anyone other than Danson as the former Boston Red Sox pitcher. But the guy the producers initially had in mind, Knots Landing's William Devane, apparently insisted on trying out barefoot and then flubbed his dialogue when he stepped on some broken glass. And Hunter's Fred Dryer, a former Los Angeles Ram who initially was in the running to play Sam when the character was imagined as a former football star (after the creators shifted the setting from a hotel to a pub), wasn't right for it when the move was made from football to baseball.
"Ted had made an episode of Taxi and we saw him in Body Heat and he seemed to have just the right blend of humor and character, and the right responses for a leading man," Glen Charles explained in 1982. "Except that he was the most unathletic person we tested. So we rebuilt the show to suit him. With his height and build, he could be a baseball player. We concluded that a former relief pitcher would add humor to the show since some of them, like [late Phillies reliever] Tug McGraw, tend to be flaky, anyway. And all his friends wouldn't have to weigh 275 pounds."
Such flexibility ended up building the show into the massive hit it became. Out-of-work accountant Norm Peterson (George Wendt), for instance, was supposed to be a minor character who stopped in for one beer and ended up staying all night in an episode. "We didn't ever envision it to be this big a part of the show," Glen Charles said. So what earned Norm a permanent spot at the bar? "Laughs," Charles said. "He started getting laughs."
John Ratzenberger, who played Norm's cohort, know-it-all postman Cliff Clavin, had to work a little harder for his part, which didn't even exist when he walked in to audition for the role of Norm. He made Cliff up on the spot when he realized his reading hadn't gone over very well. "I'm walking out the door and I know I've failed at Norm not failed exactly, but you know whether you've done something that's got the producers excited or not," he recalled. "So I thought, 'Give it a shot, John, you're exiting anyway.' I turned around and said, 'Listen, do you have a bar know-it-all?' They said no. I said, 'Every bar has one' and went into a 10-minute dissertation on this guy, picking up things in the office for props. They started laughing and kept laughing." (And if that weren't industrious enough for them, Ratzenberger, who subscribed to various obscure scientific journals, ad-libbed much of Cliff's trivia streams when the show was shooting.)
All in all, Cheers was in many ways a happy improvisation those behind it were, in fact, known for deviating from the script in front of the cameras if something new and funnier was developing but it became an incredibly dependable hit, one of TV's biggest ever. "This one should be around awhile," TV Guide critic Robert MacKenzie wrote in his 1983 review. A more-than-a-decade while, in fact.