‘Cheers’: How Show Let ‘Coach’ Live on Through Woody Harrelson’s Portrayal of Woody Boyd

by Suzanne Halliburton
Photo by NBC Television/Fotos International/Getty Images

Nicholas Colasanto was a father-figure to the Cheers cast. And he was a fan favorite, too. Everyone loved Sam Malone’s old coach, the former catcher who claimed he took one too many pitches to “the melon.”

Then Colasanto died three years into the Cheers historical comedic run. Colasanto was perfection as Coach Ernie Pantusso. It was his first try at comedy, but he had the light touch as a lovable, but very slow-witted ex-player. Although Colasanto showed some signs of severe illness, no one knew how truly sick he was. Four days after he visited the Cheers set, Colasanto died at his home.

In creating the new character, the brother writing team of Glen and Les Charles decided to make the next guy a walking-talking tribute to Coach. That’s how Woody Harrelson became Woody Boyd.

Cheers Executive Said Writers Made Woody Like Coach

Warren Littlefield, who was senior and executive vice president of NBC Entertainment while Cheers was on the air, talked about Colasanto and how Woody Boyd came to be. This was back in 2011 when he did an extensive interview with the Television Academy Foundation.

“No one knew it, but when Nick first took the role, he was severely ill,” Littlefield said of Coach. “And, yet, he was the guy everyone fell in love with. It was really hard to imagine replacing him. But we had to. And, with the Charles brothers there was a wonderful sense of that delightfully absent-minded, not completely there coach character that Sam Malone (Ted Danson) loved.

“And (the Cheers writers) decided just to keep some of the ‘well, the light’s not fully on, it’s a low wattage bulb’ (traits) with Woody,” Littlefield said. “Yet (with a) young fresh face, a completely different generation.

“Maybe part of it was a tribute to Coach, to Nick, not to compete in any way. Yet, Woody Harrelson comes in to play Woody Boyd. And he was delightful. It brought a new level of energy and fun to the show. We didn’t want that to happen (the change in Cheers actors) but it was a brilliant piece of casting that only added to the fun of that ensemble.”

Woody Harrelson on the ‘Cheers’ television set in file photo taken 3/17/86 in Los Angeles, Calif. (Photo by Bob Riha Jr/WireImage)

Colasanto and Harrelson Nominated for Multiple Emmys for Series

Talentwise, Colasanto was a tough act to follow. He was nominated for three straight Emmys in the best supporting actor category. Harrelson was only 24 when he accepted the part as Woody Boyd, his first major role. The Cheers writers created a backstory for Boyd. He’d been Coach’s pen pal and was learning how to bartend from him. Woody Boyd was a kid from Indiana living in a big city for the first time. He was both naive and kind of daft.

In the season four debut, Cheers paid tribute to Coach and wrote his death into the show. That’s when Woody Boyd was introduced to the country. Harrelson was outstanding in the role, with an Emmy win and five nominations. He spent eight seasons working alongside Sam Malone, pouring mugs of beer and fixing cocktails to Cheers customers.