‘Cheers’: Why the Show Had to ‘Start Over’ When Shelley Long Left, Kirstie Alley Arrived

by Suzanne Halliburton

The beauty of Cheers was the chemistry between all the characters. The actors played tight friends on TV and made it look authentic, no matter who was serving or drinking the many, many beers.

So that’s why Cheers was able to thrive after a major character left the show. When Shelley Long, who played Diane Chambers, departed the series for a movie career, Cheers prospered with Kirstie Alley as bar manager Rebecca Howe. Alley worked perfectly with Ted Danson as Sam Malone.

Rich Frank, who was president of the Paramount Television Group during the Cheers run, called the character exchange “a magical matches.” This was during an interview with the Archive of American Television in June 2012.

“You create another character and you create some sexual tension and you almost start over,” Frank said of Cheers. “We had introduced a lot of other people by that time, so the cast was bigger. And again, it was one of these magical matches that worked. They just, the two of them (Danson-Alley) worked together, it just worked. So you didn’t want to lose Shelley (Long), but it was time, too. It was not all pleasant what was going on there.”

The interviewer asked Frank if Long wanted to leave Cheers.

“Yea, she was tough to work with,” Frank said. “And then they were pushing (for a decision) and she wasn’t sure if she wanted to stay. It got all of them to thinking what if we had somebody else. They decided on that and it worked, they got lucky. Look, if it didn’t work, the show wouldn’t have stayed on. As I remember, it went on another five years after that.”

Portrait of actors from the TV series, ‘Cheers,’ on the barroom set, 1983. L-R: Nicholas Colasanto (1924 – 1985), Rhea Perlman, Ted Danson and Shelley Long. (Photo by NBC Television/Fotos International/Getty Images)

Cheers Never Faltered As Cast Changed Through the Years

Shelley Long and Cheers worked great together on your TV screen. She earned three Emmy nominations for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy, winning in 1983. That was after the first season of Cheers. She left the show after the fifth season.

Alley worked on Cheers for the final six seasons, winning an Emmy as Best Actress in 1991. For its final eight seasons on the air, Cheers was entrenched as one of the top eight shows on television.

And some of the show’s most memorable characters were the ones who were added as the show progressed. The first change happened when Nicholas Colasanto, who played Coach, died of a heart attack. Cheers brought on Woody Harrelson as Woody Boyd. And Harrelson won an Emmy as an outstanding supporting actor.

Kelsey Grammer started out as a recurring character named Frasier Crane in season three. Grammer played the same character through 20 years and two series. He was nominated for two Emmys while on Cheers. Then, the show created the character of up-tight, but brilliant Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth), Frasier’s wife. Neuwirth won two Emmys as Lilith.

So Cheers proved that change, although uncomfortable, can still be good if the match is magical.