The Lost Roles of Cheers

Lost Roles is a weekly column taking a particular subject and exploring all of their movie and TV casting decisions that almost happened but didn’t. This week, we turn our attention to the classic sitcom Cheers.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the debut of Cheers, one of the most revered sitcoms ever made. Cheers earned scores of Emmys, sky high ratings, and spawned one of the most successful spin-offs ever (Frasier), but the greatest honor bestowed upon Cheers is clearly landing a spot in the final 8 in Splitsider’s Best Sitcom Episode Tournament. From the show’s impeccable scripts (most of the Cheers scribes came from the James L. Brooks school of sitcom writing) to the perfectly balanced ensemble cast to Sitcom King James Burrows’s steady direction, Cheers is a show where everyone on either side of the camera was doing stellar work.  When Cheers premiered in 1982, though, it was with a cast was made up of mostly unknown actors and a lot of now-famous faces auditioned for role on the show. Let’s take a look now at the actors and actresses who came close to nabbing parts on Cheers but lost out on being a part of this piece of sitcom history.

John Lithgow

The role: Dr. Frasier Crane

Who got it: Kelsey Grammer

Then coming off of back-to-back Oscar nominations for his supporting turns in The World According to Garp and Terms of Endearment, John Lithgow was sought after to play the part of Dr. Frasier Crane, when the character was only intended to be a guest star. Lithgow was unavailable, and Kelsey Grammer slid into the part in his absence. Grammer parlayed his guest starring role as Frasier Crane into a series regular spot on Cheers and, after Cheers ended, into a spin-off show of his very own. Frasier Crane is one of the most prolific TV characters of all time, since Kelsey Grammer played him for 20 straight years across 4 different series (Cheers and Frasier plus guest spots on Wings and The John Larroquette Show). Had John Lithgow accepted the part, he may not have been able to achieve that same kind of success and his version of Frasier Crane would have been broader than Kelsey Grammer’s.

John Ratzenberger

The role: Norm Peterson

Who got it: George Wendt

Before he was cast as bar patron/mailman Cliff Clavin, John Ratzenberger auditioned for the part of Cliff’s buddy Norm. Second City Chicago vet George Wendt beat Ratzenberger out for the part, but after the audition, John Ratzenberger remarked to the producers that they should include a bar know-it-all and the character of Cliff was born. Had John Ratzenberger kept his mouth shut and not, in fact, acted like a know-it-all, Cliff Clavin never would have existed, the Cheers ensemble would have felt a little emptier, and Ratzenberger probably wouldn’t have become the king of Pixar bit roles in the decades that followed.

Timothy Treadwell (Grizzly Man)

The role: Woody Boyd

Who got it: Woody Harrelson

Timothy Treadwell was an actor-turned-wildlife enthusiast who lived amongst grizzly bears and was the subject of Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man before tragically being eaten by bears. Treadwell tried out for the part of Woody Boyd, the new young bartender who replaced the character Coach after actor Nicholas Colasanto passed away. It’s absurd to think of anyone but Woody Harrelson playing Woody Boyd, and at first glance, it seems like the part was named after the actor, but it was actually a complete coincidence that Woody Harrelson shared his character’s first name. The character was called Woody before he tried out for the part. I can only imagine that Woody Harrelson would have done something way crazier than go live with bears if Timothy Treadwell had won the part over him.

Janis Ian

The role: Carla Tortelli

Who got it: Rhea Perlman

Singer Janis Ian (best known for her 1975 hit “At Seventeen”) turned down the part of Cheers waitress Carla Tortelli. Rhea Perlman, then a recurring guest on the show Taxi which shared a lot of Cheers’s creative staff, was cast and proved to be perfect for the role. Janis Ian looks the part but it’s hard to imagine her playing Carla in the same mean-spirited but loveable way that Rhea Perlman did. Janis Ian stuck with music and never had a substantial acting career. Said Janis Ian in 2006, “Rhea is much, MUCH better than I’d ever have been.”

David Alan Grier

The role: Proposed African American character

Who got it: N/A

According to IMDb, David Alan Grier auditioned to play a new African-American character on the show that never came to be. Like many sitcoms from the era, Cheers didn’t have a major African-American character and it would have been cool to see David Alan Grier join the Cheers gang. After all, the Cheers writers were always great at creating new characters that added to the show (Frasier, Woody, Rebecca, Lilith) rather than detracting to it, which is a rarity in sitcoms. David Alan Grier also tried out for another part in a big sitcom: George Costanza in Seinfeld. Between Seinfeld and Cheers, Grier almost ended up in two of the most prolific sitcoms in history (without him, they were also two of the whitest). It’s a shame that there wasn’t more diversity to the show’s cast, a problem that was only worsened on the Cheers spin-off Frasier.

Ed O’Neill

The role: Sam Malone

Who got it: Ted Danson

Five years before being cast as the grumpy Bundy patriarch on Fox’s Married with Children, Ed O’Neill tried out for a pair of big parts for two NBC sitcoms at the start of the 1982 season: father Steven Keaton, the anti-Al Bundy, on Family Ties and womanizing bar owner Sam Malone, who was originally a football player, on Cheers. Producers decided O’Neill wasn’t the right fit for either part, and Michael Gross and Ted Danson, respectively, won the roles instead. From Married with Children to Modern Family, Ed O’Neill exceeds when playing downtrodden louts, and the part of Sam Malone was very different from the type we’ve seen him play.

Other actors who were almost cast:

  • The six finalists for the parts of Sam and Diane were Ted Danson, NFL guy-turned-actor Fred Dryer (Hunter), William Devane (Knots Landing), Shelley Long, Julia Duffy (Newhart), and Lisa Eichhorn (Yanks). Danson and Long auditioned as a pair and their chemistry was so impressive that they beat out everyone else.
  • Robert Prosky (Hill Street Blues) was originally cast as Coach but dropped out and was replaced by Nicholas Colasanto.
  • Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

    The Lost Roles of Cheers