Cheers Turns 40: Ranking the Show’s Ten Best Characters
The Cheers Cast. Ranking our favourites!
Cheers, which debuted 40 years ago today on NBC, is one of the most important sitcoms in history. It ran for 11 seasons and 275 episodes, and pioneered all sorts of sitcom innovations, from the way it was shot to the way it set up slow-burn will-there-or-won’t-they arcs.
Perhaps most importantly, Cheers never coasted or got old, remaining funny all the way to the end. It even had one of the best finales in sitcom history.
The show rang more than a decade out of a simple premise: A bunch of employees and customers at a bar in Boston, just hanging out. Roughly 95 percent of the show took place on a single set, and it somehow never got old.
Cheers is perhaps most famous for the Diane/Sam arc, the cerebral grad student and somewhat dim, womanizing ex-ballplayer, and their love-hate relationship. When Shelley Long left the show for an ill-fated shot at movie stardom, Kirstie Alley stepped in as Rebecca, who had a different but still fascinating dynamic with Sam (Ted Danson.)
Always there were Norm and Cliff (George Wendt and John Ratzenberger), sharing banter with mean-spirited waitress Carla (Rhea Perlman) and psychiatrist Fraser (Kelsey Grammar), introduced early in the series as a boyfriend of Diane, and later replacing her as the show’s resident intellectual (he would continue to play the character for something like 15 more years, and once again in a planned reboot.)
As for Cheers itself, the show was never remade or rebooted. It had one spinoff, Frasier, that ran almost as long as Cheers did, and occasionally Cheers characters would pop up there.
Sure, it was a strange bar, where all the same people worked there at the same time, the regulars all drank all day every day but were never drunk, and no one ever ordered any specific beer, just “beer.” But the bar on Beacon Street where “everybody knows your name” was always a great place to be.
And the best part was the characters. Here are the best ones :
10. Robin Colcord
Played by Roger Rees, Robin was Rebecca’s mogul boyfriend in the show’s later seasons. A British snob and 1980s-style yuppie criminal, Robin later turned out to have hidden depths, after he went to prison and came out with no money.
Gary was the owner of the rival bar Gary’s Old Towne Tavern, with which the Cheers gang engaged in protected prank wars throughout the run of the series. These were always some of the series’ funniest episodes, and Gary was played interchangeably, throughout the series, by two different actors (Joel Polis and Robert Desiderio.)
8. Rebecca Howe
Cheers had a tough act to follow after Shelley Long’s departure, and Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca stepped in. She was the manager of the bar, after Sam sold it to a food services corporation, and had a different dynamic with Sam- they were never, at any point in the series, a couple. Rebecca started out as rather pathetic, and very much a gold digger, but she grew over time.
7. Dr. Frasier Crane
What started out as a side character ended up one of the most legendary to emerge from the series. Frasier played beautifully off of the likes of Norm and Cliff, later given a fantastic love interest of his own, in Bebe Neuwirth’s Lilith.
6. Ernie “Coach” Pantuso/Woody Boyd (tie)
In the early years of the series, Nicholas Colasanto played Coach, Sam’s old pitching coach with the Red Sox, now a dimwitted bartender. After Colasanto’s death after three seasons, future movie star Woody Harrelson stepped into that niche for the duration of the series, playing a cornpone Midwesterner who followed the same Indiana-to-Boston trajectory as Larry Bird.
5. Carla Tortelli
Rhea Perlman’s Carla was a fantastic creation: Italian, foul-mouthed, oft-married and with many children, and always quick with a well-timed insult. Exemplifying the old adage that Jews and Italians can easily play one another, Carla’s episode in which she fights her mother about a family wish to name her son “Benito Mussolini” was one of the series’ highlights.
4. Cliff Clavin
It became a standard in ’80s and ’90s sitcoms for there to be a designated “loser” character, and the gold standard was Cliff, the trivia-spouting, momma’s boy mailman. Cliff’s visit to Jeopardy! may be my favorite episode of the series, and when I once had the opportunity to interview Alex Trebek, I had lots of questions about it.
3. Sam Malone
The protagonist for the whole series, Sam was a very specific archetype: The vain, womanizing, ex-athlete, cocky but frequently hoisted by his own petard. He was capably played by Danson in one of the best sitcom performances in history.
Ahead of the show’s ending in 1993, Sports Illustrated’s Steve Rushin, with the aid of some Cheers writers, wrote a brilliant longform “profile” of Sam Malone, ex-baseball player. Rolling Stone would do something similar in 2021, reproducing the central article from Almost Famous.
2. Diane Chambers
Long’s character was an amazing creation, a grad student asked to play off of a bunch of barflies, and put in a love/hate relationship with a man very much her opposite. Yes, the show survived for many years with her, but it was at its absolute best with her.
1. Norm Peterson
Good afternoon everybody… Of course, there’s no Cheers without George Wendt’s Norm, showing that a man who’s sporadically employed and sits on a bar stool all day every day can emerge as an iconic character. Maybe it was the one-liners, or perhaps it was running jokes involving his binder-sized bar tab. And in all those years, no one noticed that this Boston guy had a noticeable Chicago accent.
Honorable mention: Nick Tortelli, Guy Edward “Eddie” Lebec, Harry the Hat, Paul, and the cameoing Alex Trebek, Wade Boggs, and Kevin McHale.