Last Call for Cheers The Boston bar is just a sitcom set, but for viewers it has become a real place, Where friends hang out David Zurawik

May 16, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles--The taps pour real beer. But the stuff in the glass on the bar in front of where Norm sits and drinks and drinks and drinks is the non-alcoholic kind.

The yellow-and-red Wurlitzer jukebox plays real tunes: "The In Crowd" by Dobie Gray, "Heartbreak Hotel" by Elvis Presley, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" by the Platters and "I Fall to Pieces" by Patsy Cline. But the stairs behind it are fake and go nowhere. There is no Melville's fine seafood restaurant upstairs, as the sign promises.

And Sam Malone, in the person of Ted Danson, is standing right there behind the bar, pulling the lever to pour the beer and talking loudly. But the big hair is missing. There's a bald spot at the back of his head, and the rest of what's up there is mainly gray. And he's wearing glasses. Not the kind of glasses actors wear for looks when they want to appear smart. No, the lenses in Sammy Boy's glasses are really thick -- thick enough for him to be a high school physics teacher.

Welcome to Cheers, where everybody knows your name.

The pilgrimage to Soundstage 25 at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, the dream factory where "Cheers" is made, was a must once it was announced that Thursday night's show -- the 274th episode of "Cheers" -- would be the last.

It's not so much the 111 Emmy nominations (the most ever for a TV series) and the 26 Emmys (second only to "The Mary Tyler Moore Show") "Cheers" has racked up in the last 10 years that made the trip so important. Emmys are mostly an indication of how the TV industry itself, not the viewers, feel.

It's "Cheers' " popularity. For the last eight years, the story of America's favorite bar has ranked among television's top 10 shows. And, since it went into syndication five years ago, more than 80 million viewers have watched it every week. The numbers are huge and suggest "Cheers" has taken up residence in the public mind in a way only a handful of series -- including "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "M*A*S*H" -- have ever done.

Now, "Cheers' " final episode becomes a landmark in the popular culture of our lives and times.

"It's definitely the end of something, but I don't know what," says Danson, during an interview on the Paramount set of "Cheers." "You're asking me all these questions about what it means and why it appeals to so many people, and I don't know the answers.

"I'll tell you, no one will ask me anything two or three years from now, but I'll be in a much better position to answer these questions, because I'm still in it. I'm still in this no-brainy, unexamined process where after 11 years, you show up for work and you don't even think. So, I don't know how to answer these questions."

Danson is the main reason "Cheers" has its farewell toast this week. He says it was "definitely" his idea to call it quits at the end of this season, although the producers and others in the cast wanted to continue one more year.

"I'm not leaving this to go off and do something better," says Danson, who reportedly earns $450,000 an episode. "I'm not stupid. But I decided I had to stop doing 'Cheers' and take time to look inside of me and decide what I want to do next with my life."

As to that next step, Danson admits, "I haven't an idea."

Nor does he claim to have many clues about skirt-chasing Sam Malone and his chemistry with love interests Diane Chambers (Shelley Long) and Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley).

"Well, OK, I'll tell you what I've been told," Danson says. "I think Sam and Diane had more of a love-hate relationship, so it's easier to write that sparky, battle, kind of dialog. And Kirstie and I seemed to be more similar. So, we seemed to be more romantic buddies. . . . But I don't know."

Did Sam change over the 11-year run of the series?

"He got older, you know. That was the one inevitable thing, he got older," Danson says, smiling to himself.

"They tried to make him Sammy again," he adds. "But he's 45 now. I'm 45. It's OK to be chasing around when you're 37. But when you're 45, it's kind of sad to be chasing around that way. So, again, I'm not sure. . . . I'm spewing all these one-liners and I have no idea what I'm saying."

A nice place to visit

Finally, Danson does come up with an explanation for the appeal of "Cheers."

"I think 'Cheers' was just a nice, relaxing place to be for viewers," he says. "That's too simple, though, I'll bet. Huh?"

It's not too simple at all. In fact, it echoes what Dr. Sheri Parks, who teaches television and popular culture at the University of Maryland at College Park, says about "Cheers," looking at it from the outside in.

" 'Cheers' was just a pleasant place to hang out," she says. "For me, it's kind of the end of an era -- that whole 'Cosby'-'Designing Women'-'Cheers' era is ending. They were all pleasant places to visit for a while.

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