• Festivals

ATX TV Festival 2023: “Cheers” Creators and Cast Reunited

It’s been three decades since the legendary situation comedy series Cheers had its final curtain call in the spring of 1993 after 11 seasons, during which the show won an impressive tally of 28 Emmy Awards and six Golden Globes, including one for Best Television Series – Comedy or Musical in 1992.

Just in time to commemorate its anniversary, this year’s ATX TV Festival hosted a reunion event that brought together stars Ted Danson, George Wendt and John Ratzenberger, along with screenwriters and producers, brothers Glen and Les Charles, and the highly regarded television director James Burrows, all three of whom co-created the show in the early 1980s after having worked together on a previous successful comedy series, Taxi, which starred Judd Hirsch, Danny DeVito, Tony Danza and Marilu Henner.


“We wanted to do a workplace show as opposed to a family show,” explained Burrows during the reunion panel in Austin, while describing the origins of the idea for the show “We wanted to be in the East, but New York was being used too much. So, we settled on Boston – the city has a character all of its own. And when we walked into this bar for the first time, there was a group of about four or five guys expounding on every subject. You could tell they’d been there for a while. They came in every day. We liked everything we saw about the place, even the step-down steps and the stairway, we liked the idea of romance developing and then the social club atmosphere there, again gathers to a place where the door opens, and it could be any character who comes in every week and the comedy spools out from there.”

In the fall of 1982, the comedy series about customers and crew of the bar “where everybody knows your name” premiered and introduced viewers to proprietor Sam Malone (Danson), whose budding baseball career was derailed by alcoholism, sophisticated intellectual turned waitress Diane Chambers (Shelley Long) who would soon become Sam’s love interest, bartender “Coach” Ernie Pantusso (Nicholas Colasanto), wisecracking waitress Carla Tortelli (Rhea Perlman) and such frequent bar goers as know-it-all mailman Cliff Clavin (Ratzenberger), sardonic accountant Norm Peterson (Wendt) and over the years such additions as psychiatrist Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) and dimwitted bartender Woody Boyd (Woody Harrelson).

“They invited me down to their offices, they were just starting to cast,” remembered Danson about being cast, and admitting that, in his opinion, it was his chemistry with Long that ultimately sealed the deal. “Les and Glen had me read a couple of times for them. The second time they said, ‘Don’t take another job without checking with us first,’ and I went, ‘So you’re saying I got the part?’ and they went, ‘No, just check with us first.’ I went out one door and I looked out to the hallway, and there was every actor I know coming up the stairs to audition. So, I go out of my way to say I believe I got Cheers because I worked well with Shelley – she was just a knockout and I don’t think we’d seen a character like that since Lucille Ball, she just really nailed it.”

Through the course of the evening, the creators talked about staying on the air despite initial low ratings, seeing their perseverance pay off after the first season had finished, when the summer reruns exposed them to more viewers, and finally cementing their success with multiple award wins. Meanwhile, the actors talked about the inspiration for their characters, behind the scenes banter, joked around at Harrelson’s expense and remembered Kirstie Alley, who passed away last December. Alley joined the show in its sixth season, after Long chose to leave, and played neurotic manager Rebecca Howe in a role that earned her an Emmy and a Golden Globe.

“We were having dinner right before the show, ” remembered Wendt, “and somebody said, ‘Oh, geez Louise, we should have gotten her something, right? Flowers or something?’ and so John and I were tasked with getting a gift for Kirstie. We were literally driving down Melrose in Hollywood, a very trendy area, going past all these places, and we go past Big 5 Sporting Goods, and John goes, ‘You want to buy her a shotgun?’ I laughed for about five minutes at the thought of it, and then we pulled into the Big 5 parking lot, and we bought her a freaking shotgun. John and I were never tasked with finding the gift again.”

Wendt also acknowledged a recent Cheers homage on an episode of current comedy hit Ted Lasso, co-created by and starring his nephew, actor Jason Sudeikis, simply saying of the younger actor, “He’s a good boy, he’s my godson.”

Despite the common notion that the traditional multi-camera comedy format with a live studio audience is a thing of the past that in the 21st century has been replaced by the new single-camera comedy format, Burrows insisted that is not the case. In fact, after Cheers spun off Grammer’s character with Frasier, a huge success all on its own which ran from 1993 to 2004, it has recently been rebooted and set to premiere in the coming year, with Burrows yet again very much involved with the new iteration.

“I’ve attended the funeral for the sitcom many times, and somehow it springs out of a coffin,” said Burrows, whose résumé includes directing such iconic shows as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Friends, Will & Grace and The Big Bang Theory. “I have four daughters, and they were too young when Cheers was on the air to understand it. But I have grandchildren now, and I’ve gone to their houses, and they’ll always want to watch a Cheers episode. And I cry all the time, sitting there with them and seeing their reaction. They’ve binged the show. I’m just so proud of what that show was and proud of working with these guys and I will always cherish it. Of all the shows I’ve ever done – and I have done a lot – this will always be my fifth child.”