The beloved TV classic “Cheers” lasted for 11 seasons, a feat that was all the more remarkable given the loss of one of its central characters midway through the series.
When Shelley Long’s Diane vanished from the show, the cast, crew and creators were terrified, as executive Warren Littlefield explained in a 2011 interview with the Television Academy Foundation. Would the show stumble and collapse without her? What would audiences make of her replacement?
“Shelley Long, after doing five years of ‘Cheers’ – and Shelley was a, Sam and Diane were the core of that show – Shelley wanted to pursue a feature career, and her contract was up. And we were scared to death,” Littlefield recalled.
“And yet, we weren’t going to give up on the show just because she was leaving,” he continued. “[Then] Kirstie Alley comes in. Very, very different sensibility. And I was there for that first night of shooting with Kirstie Alley, and we were biting our nails, wondering, you know, would this work? But she just had a strength, and a go-for-it – she was in Sam’s face, and then she also had at the same time this vulnerability.”
“And the audience loved her,” Littlefield added. “The cast loved her… ‘Cheers’ became a wonderful ensemble comedy.”
Watch Littlefield recount the transition here:
‘Cheers’ Cast Survived the Shock of Long’s Departure
“Cheers” basically had to start over after Long left. But somehow, the cast pulled it off.
“You didn’t want to lose Shelley [Long], but it was time, too. It was not all pleasant what was going on there,” former Paramount Television Group president Rich Frank told the Television Academy Foundation in 2012. “She was tough to work with.”
Long was reportedly especially difficult for Frasier Crane actor Kelsey Grammer to work with. In his autobiography, “So Far…,” Grammer related that his character was only supposed to appear in three episodes. However, Long took a strong dislike to the character and to Grammer himself. She allegedly badgered the producers to get rid of Frasier. So they supposedly kept him on just to spite her.
In a 2016 appearance on “The Rich Eisen Show,” Grammer certainly didn’t seem to have missed Long after she left. In fact, he said, Long’s departure opened up the possibility for the show to become truly great.
“You know when Shelley Long decided she was gonna leave the show in the fifth season?” Grammer said. “So once that was done, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, that’s really weird. This show is really popular, really successful. And they’ve brought this new girl in, Kirstie Alley.’ And I thought, ‘This has the potential to be one of the greatest shows ever now.’”
As for Littlefield, he said the show was simply different – not necessarily better or worse – after Long left. The center of gravity shifted from Sam and Diane to the ensemble. But as Grammer had predicted, the show did indeed go on to make television history.