Question: My sister and I keep arguing about this. She insists the first actor to play Woody on Cheers died, but I say Woody Harrelson was the first to take the role. I mean, why else did they name him Woody? Duh.
Televisionary: Duh, indeed. Oh, who am I kidding? Be nice to your sis — at least until the next big family get-together, when you can mock her properly in front of loved ones.
Actually, it sounds like your sis is confusing characters here. When Cheers first hit NBC's Thursday-night schedule in the fall of 1982, ex-Boston Red Sox pitcher and owner Sam Malone Becker's Ted Danson) was accompanied behind the bar by former baseball coach and manager Ernie "Coach" Pantusso (Nicholas Colasanto). Coach was a lovably lunkheaded presence, but when Colasanto passed away in early 1985, producers introduced the lovably lunkheaded Woody Boyd (Harrelson) as his replacement. Woody, an Indiana native who had corresponded with Coach by mail, came into the bar for a face-to-face and stuck around until the show went off the air in 1993.
The move was a bit of deft writing and casting and it illustrates a key ingredient for keeping a show on the air — flexibility. Cheers, like M*A*S*H before it, maintained a deep stable of funny, unique characters and the creators were able to throw new ones into the mix when necessary. Erudite psychologist Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), jilted by equally bookish barmaid Diane Chambers (Shelley Long) for Sam, joined the cast as a permanent fixture in the fall of '84 (yes, kids, the wildly popular Frasier is a spin-off) and he brought along colleague and eventual wife, Dr. Lilith Sternin (Bebe Neuwirth), in 1986.
Meanwhile, after Diane departed, Sam sold the bar and left for an extended sailboat trip, but returned when the boat sank. He ended up working for Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley), who joined the cast in 1987 as the new manager working for the corporation that owned Cheers. By the time the show ended its 11-year run, Frasier and Lilith had a kid, Woody was a City Councilman and Sam and Diane nearly got married.
The final episode attracted one of the largest TV audiences ever — and for good reason. Lesser shows have collapsed after the loss of just one key character. Cheers, for all its ups and downs, managed to maintain a high laugh quotient over its long lifespan when many an inferior show counts its blessings after five years, having made the point where the producers and studio have enough episodes to sell in the lucrative syndication market.
Not bad for a dinky little basement pub.