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'Cheers' co-creator looks back at series finale: 'Ted Danson's decision to quit caught us by surprise'

Will Lerner
Producer, Yahoo Entertainment

Cheers was the brainchild of “two Mormons and a Jew,” according to co-creator James Burrows, who partnered with Glen and Les Charles and James Burrows on the hit “Must-See TV” series. The Charles brothers had met Burrows when he was directing episodes they had written for another classic sitcom, Taxi. Realizing that their combined efforts were capable of creating high comedy, they came up with the idea of a sitcom based in a charming Boston bar where everybody knows your name. The show would be picked up by NBC and last 11 seasons.

May 20 marks the 25th anniversary of the Cheers series finale. By the time Cheers was ready to leave the air, the series had endured several casting changes and turmoil behind the scenes while receiving a meager 111 Emmy nominations (including 28 wins) and 31 Golden Globe nomination (6 wins).

Yahoo Entertainment sat down with Burrows, who not only co-created the sitcom but directed 240 of the 275 episodes, to look back at the time Cheers turned off the lights for good.

“Ted’s edict caught us by surprise”

In GQ‘s excellent oral history of Cheers, Ted Danson explained why he felt the need to leave the show that made him a household name, saying “It felt like if I really wanted to rock my boat and make changes in my life and who I am and how I am, that would also mean moving on from Cheers.”

“Ted’s edict to us caught us by surprise. We had overcome one person leaving the show and we were really successful in doing that. When Ted said he wanted to go, I remember the house I was in, I remember talking to the boys [Charles brothers] and we talked about whether we could continue, could we go on and we thought that Sam Malone and Cheers were too symbiotic to go on [without him].

Cheers co-creator and director James Burrows (r) seen here going over a scene with stars Ted Danson (Sam Malone) and Shelley Long (Diane Chambers). (Photo: NBCUniversal)

“When Shelley left we were devastated”

If there was ever a sitcom that could have figured out how to move past the departure of a star, it would have been Cheers — the producers had previously handled Shelley Long‘s exit so she could spend more time with her family.

“When Shelley left we were devastated because Sam and Diane had driven that show for five years,” Burrows explained. “People either hated them or loved them… you had this great energy and then she left. The three of us talked and, believe it or not, we went back to the original concept of the show before the Charles brothers went off to write it, which was Sam working for a woman.”

Since the sitcom wasn’t about a nuclear family, Burrows and the Charles had freedom to bring in different actors and actresses as the show grew older.

“With [Nicholas Colosanto] passing, we were lucky enough to find [Woody Harrelson],” said Burrows. “With [Shelley Long] deciding to leave, we were lucky enough to find [Kirstie Alley]. Third year we found [Kelsey Grammer]. We got [Bebe Neuwirth] because we knew about her because she was in the running for [the character of Diane] originally. … Glen Charles had seen her in one of those revues in New York City. We were lucky to replace great actors with great actors.”

The cast and crew of Cheers gathers to watch the series finale. Pictured: (l-r) Woody Harrelson (Woody Boyd), Rhea Perlman (Carla LeBec), Ted Danson (Sam Malone), George Wendt (Norm Peterson), John Ratzenberger (Cliff Clavin), Paul Willson (Paul Krapence), Kelsey Grammer (Dr. Frasier Crane), and director/creator James Burrows (Photo: NBCU Photo Bank)

“It was a family that I will never have again”

And did they entertain the idea of continuing Cheers without Sam Malone behind the bar?

“When [leading man Ted Danson] wanted to leave the show, we felt that was the right time to end the show,” Burrows explained. “And of the good things is you end it when you’re on top. And one of the bad things is you ended this wonderful, wonderful experience with this wonderful cast that went on for 275 shows. It was a family that I will never have again and we see each other infrequently, not as much as I’d like to. It was great experience and it ended exactly when it should have been ended.”

Watch our full Director’s Reel interview with James Burrows where he talks about working on Friends, Will & Grace, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and more:

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