‘Cheers’: Actor’s Death Led to Woody Harrelson Getting Role on Show

by Joe Rutland
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Fans of NBC’s “Cheers” remember Woody Harrelson as part of its cast. Yet he wasn’t part of the original cast until a show member died.

“Cheers” is based in a Boston bar that has a former baseball player named Sam Malone (Ted Danson) overseeing it. During the show’s first three seasons, Malone had Ernie “Coach” Pantusso as a bartender. But in February 1985, Nick Colasanto, who played “Coach,” died of a heart attack. He was 61 years old.

Now the show’s cast needed someone to fill that role, according to Biography.com. At that time, Danson, Shelley Long, George Wendt, and John Ratzenberger were key cast members. Kelsey Grammar had a recurring role as Dr. Frasier Crane, whose character got his own spinoff series, “Frasier.”

Colasanto’s “Coach” was a rather dense character, so the show’s producers were looking for someone who could play that type of role.

‘Cheers’ Producer Looked For Their ‘Woody’ And Found It

As producer Ken Levine later told The Hollywood Reporter, the idea was to replace “Coach” with another character who could serve a similar purpose.

“When Nick died, they wanted the new character to be similar because of the role ‘Coach’ played,” Levine said. “Having such a ‘dumb’ character (from too many head concussions in baseball) allows you to get exposition out. When you explained things to ‘Coach,’ you were really explaining it to the audience.”

Incidentally, the replacement character for “Coach” happened to be named “Woody.”

Harrelson already had a role on Broadway with Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues.” But he decided to go in for the “Cheers” audition anyway.

Woody Harrelson Did Audition With Nothing To Lose

“I was really carefree because I knew I was going back to New York, and they’d pretty much decided on this one guy, but they were just doing a few more auditions, so I went in and I could tell right away — [the casting director] was like, ‘Aha! Hang on,'” he recounted to The Hollywood Reporter. “She says, ‘I want you to come in and do this for the boys,’ right? Well, it turned out she was taking me in to meet the writers. I didn’t know this.”

Harrelson walked into the writers’ room blowing his nose, an unfiltered moment that delighted the group. He then caught them off-guard again with his nothing-to-lose audition.

“This guy walks in wearing basketball shorts, a T-shirt, and unlaced high-tops. He looked like he could be trouble if you crossed him,” producer Peter Casey said. “And then he read and caught everyone’s attention in that room by doing one thing that nobody else did. When Sam told him that Coach died, he teared up and started to cry. You’re sitting there going, ‘This is a comedy audition,’ but then he does that and it’s like, ‘Whoa, he can really act.'”

Harrelson Keeps ‘Woody’ Character Alive In Syndication

Of course, Harrelson could act. He got the role and went on to play “Woody” on “Cheers” until it left NBC.

Now he, along with the other cast regulars, is in syndication around the world. The fact that Harrelson could match what producers were looking for and add a special touch to his audition left them impressed.

Harrelson would go on from “Cheers” and play in movies and even do more stage work. His TV career, though, always will be tied to “Cheers” and the audition that he didn’t take too seriously.

Outsider.com