By Ken Levine
Special to Page 3
Few comedy series incorporated sports more or better than Cheers. If it was devised today I'm sure Cheers would be set in an ESPNzone. I'm a comedy writer and sportscaster so working on Cheers was like dying and going to heaven. Page 3 asked me to share some of my favorite sports related episodes and memories and I was happy to as long as I didn't have to rate them in any order. I leave that up to you. (And I'm sure if you turn on TV Land one is airing right now.)
Everyone knows that Sam Malone was a former pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. But in the original draft of the pilot, written by Glen & Les Charles, Sam was a former New England Patriot. It was only when Ted Danson won the role that he was traded from the Pats to the Sox. Few linemen weigh 165 pounds.And the switch to baseball also helped explain the Coach's addled character. Too many fastballs to the head. Originally I think it was a Frank Gifford type accident. I don't really recall. Ted wasn't much of a baseball fan. The first year of the show when the Red Sox came out to play the Angels we took Ted to Anaheim to get a picture with him and Yaz. Neither knew who the other was. I'm not sure if either does today. By the way, the framed picture hanging on the bar of Sam supposedly in action is really Jim Lonborg. Both wore #16. For Mayday Malone, that's his perpetual age. Early on we knew we had to deal with the intense Boston-New York rivalry. In our third episode, "The Tortelli Torte" written by Tom Reeder, Carla encounters an obnoxious Yankee fan (you can imagine the nightmare of that casting session) and smashes his head into the bar. The audience went nuts. And that was before A-Rod. It got one of the biggest laughs in the show's history. Screw sophisticated comedy! It was pretty funny. Trivia note: For the voice of the TV announcer, we used ESPN's Jon Miller, then a broadcaster for the Bosox. In later episodes I did the announcing. I'm sure it will be the last time anyone will be stupid enough to replace Jon Miller with me. Later that season David Isaacs and I wrote "Now Pitching: Sam Malone" in which Sam gets hired to do beer commercials. We see one of the TV spots featuring Sam and Luis Tiant. El Tiante was a great pitcher but had a little trouble with English. And diction. And memorization. It must've taken fifty takes to complete the thirty second scene. Afterwards, David and I showed Luis around the set and he said (at least I think he said), "That was fun, I should give this acting thing a try." Yeah, right. Maybe if they ever get around to "CSI: Cuba." During that season we wrote an episode based on the Glen Burke situation. Former Dodger Burke was the first big leaguer to publicly announce he was gay. Gay bar In "Boys in the Bar" Sam's former roommate comes out of the closet. Sam's standing by him causes the bar patrons to assume Cheers will go gay ... complete with ferns, even! We won a Gay Image Award for that show; thanks, in large part I'm sure, to removing the big "tug-of-war" scene we had originally written. Former L.A. Ram, Fred Dryer, was used in several episodes as local sportscaster/buffoon, Dave Richards. (Patterned after practically every local sportscaster in every market.) Dryer was actually one of the three finalists to play the Sam Malone role. William Devane was the other. One of my favorite sports related episodes comes from the second season, "Manager Coach," written by Earl Pomerantz. The Coach (Nick Colassanto) manages a little league team and becomes a "Nazi." Colassanto was such a sweet guy, he had a little trouble playing such a mean character. We said it's just like the guy you played in "Ragin' Bull" but with little children. David and I did a two-parter called "Never Love a Goalie" in which Carla hooks up with Boston Bruin goalie, Eddie LeBec (Jay Thomas). It was love at first save. What other couple would have "Oh Canada" as their "song"? Unfortunately, their romance was proving to be a huge jinx on his hockey career. They resolved the issue by breaking up just before every game. Thomas was so popular with audiences we kept the relationship going, eventually even marrying them. I was thrilled. Having created an on-going character meant royalties every time he appeared. But then Thomas took some unflattering shots at Rhea Perlman on his morning radio show. And she happened to be listening. In "Death Takes a Holdiay on Ice" David and I wrote the episode that killed Eddie off. In "Dark Imaginings" by David Angell, Sam winds up in the hospital after playing raquetball and realizes he's not as young as used to be. Watching that episode now he looks nine years old. Note: When you have a room full of Jewish comedy writers sooner or later you're going to get around to the hernia episode. Remember that old rummy who always used to sit at the bar? His name was Al Rosen and in the '50s he was a TV wrestling champion. TV wrestling is still considered a sport, isn't it? Dream job In season six, David and I wrote "I on Sports," again going after one of our favorite targets. Sam is given the opportunity to become a local TV sportscaster. Feeling he needs a schtick, he resorts to hard hitting editorials on rooting for the home team, a commentary on groin injuries delivered in rap, and finally -- a puppet. My favorite line in the show was delivered by Cliff to Sam: "Why don't you do something really different like just read the scores?" I only wish I could see the "Dream Job" judges critique Sam's performance. Later that season my partner and I were huddled with the show's producers mapping out an episode involving a practical joke war between Cheers and their dreaded rival, Gary's Old Towne Tavern. One twist would be a famous sports personality coming into the bar, the gang, thinking he's a fake runs him out. I suggested Wade Boggs, then at the height of his career. Great idea, but it was March. He was in Spring Training in Winterhaven, Florida. We decided to inquire anyway and sure enough, a half hour later word came back that he was in, he'd gotten a few days off from the Grapefruit League. Boy, did I feel important! All I had to do was mention a name, snap my fingers and poof, in a few days he's on a plane. Later I learned the truth. He was really excited to get a free ride to LA to spend time with his mistress, Margo Adams. She writes about the incident in her "Playboy Magazine" exposé. She also reports that Boggs asked her for a pair of her undies because he promised the guys on the team he could get a pair of Kirstie Alley's panties. I had to be on the stage the day Kirstie read that. To her credit she just laughed. Kirstie is the ultimate good sport. A year later I approached her and said, "Kirstie, this Saturday night is my high school reunion and I'm sure my classmates won't believe that I work on Cheers. So could I borrow a pair of your panites?"
It's always risky to let sports stars guest star. Although supremely gifted, they are traditionally enemies of comedy (Luis Tiant notwithstanding). And generally they come off stiff. The wooden Indian at the door has more life. The trick is to give these jocks very little to do and never ever ever give them big jokes.One exception was Kevin McHale of the Celtics. We used him in an episode called "Cheers Fouls Out" by Larry Balmagia in which he's recruited by the gang as a ringer in a basketball game against Gary's Old Towne Tavern. Kevin was such a natural we actually kept giving him more lines and jokes over the course of the week of production. He did so well we brought him back for a second episode. Even in comedy, Kevin McHale is the best sixth man in the game.
The following year David and I wrote "Where Have All the Floorboards Gone?". McHale goes into a slump (that novel plot device) when he becomes obsessed with the number of bolts in the floor of Boston Gardens. (Don't tell me you haven't wondered yourself.) Cheers was filmed in front of a live audience in a Hollywood studio, but for this episode we actually went to Boston to shoot at the Garden. That's the real reason we wrote it -- a free trip. (With no mistresses waiting for us, of course. We're writers.) There was also a short scene in the show where McHale is in bed with his wife and calls the bar. We used his real wife, Lynn and, like Kevin, she was great. If this VP of Basketball Operations for the Timberwolves thing doesn't work out for him, I'm sure he and his wife have a career as the next Osbournes. Bird burglar We once tried to a write a show for Larry Bird to guest. The premise of "Hot Rocks" was that Sam and his good pal Bird show up at Cheers after a big charity benefit. Bird goes into Rebecca's office to use the phone. After he leaves the bar, Rebecca discovers that her expensive diamond earrings, which she had left in the office, are gone. Larry Bird is accused of stealing her earrings. For "whatever reason" Larry decided not to do the show so instead we got Admiral William J. Crowe, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (When you think of one you just automatically think of the other.) Amazingly, we altered very little of the script. Changed some Celtic jokes to nuclear destruction gags, but otherwise the drafts were almost identical.
People forget but Cheers wasn't always an enormous hit. The first season's ratings were terrible&as in "dead last." In today's world "Joe Millionaire III" would kick our butts.In an effort to get better exposure NBC asked if we'd do a special scene to be aired sometime during the Superbowl pre-game show. Pete Axthelm, the distinguished sports columnist for Newsweek and gambling tout for the Peacock agreed to appear. My partner and I banged out the scene. Axthelm entered the bar, we did jokes about the match-up, gambling, the twelve hour pre game show, etc. NBC aired it right before kick-off. It was seen by 80 MILLION people.
And then never shown again.
I don't even know if the film still exists. If you happen to have it, I'll trade you a pair of Kirstie Alley's panties for it.
Bar bets and football pools were a staple on "Cheers." In "Fools and Their Money" by Heide Perlman, Woody bets his entire life savings on a ridiculous long shot. It was based on the real life experience of every writer on the staff.
The inevitable Sam comeback episode arrived in season nine. "Pitch It Again, Sam" by Dan Staley and Rob Long contained one of my favorite moments of the series. Sam and Carla are alone in the dugout. Sam is thrilled to be back but says there's one thing missing -- the Coach.Cheers was never really the same without him.
The inevitable second Sam comeback episode was hatched a year later. This time in "Take Me Out of the Ball Game" by Kathy Ann Stumpe, Sam gives the minors a shot. I had spent three years broadcasting in the bushes and was able to provide some key inside information that I think helped the show immensely. It was my idea that when Sam's team was on the road they should stay in a "motel." I earned my keep that week.
All in all there were 270 episodes of "Cheers" produced. Sports was pretty much mentioned or interwoven into every one of them. And yet, there was one sports-related moment that we never could get into the show despite our trying for 11 full years. Before the series aired, co-creator and director Jim Burrows went to Boston with a camera crew to film establishing shots. Those are the exterior shots of the bar and various locales that tell you where the next scene will take place. One of these shots was taken at Fenway Park. With the camera in the centerfield bleachers, what you see is sprinklers watering the outfield in an empty stadium. When we all looked at the footage we said, "When the hell would we ever use this?" So it became a running joke throughout the course of the series.Sam and Diane have just made love ... Quick! Let's cut to the sprinklers at Fenway. Carla just learned her husband has been killed by a Zamboni machine ... Go to the sprinklers. Frasier discovers a rat in Lilith's purse. Fenway time. Somehow we could never make it work.
Eleven years. That's quite a run. A day doesn't go by when I don't miss "Cheers." It was like being part of a storied dynasty. And just as players long for one more year, just one, so do I. Because I know, deep down in my heart, there has to be a way of getting that damn sprinkler shot in the show.