Pop Culture

Seriously! Beer sparked Norm’s ‘Cheers’ career

George Wendt and beer have shared a lot over the years: good times, great stories, endless trivia and a successful show-business career. In his new book “Drinking With George: A Barstool Professional’s Guide to Beer,” George Wendt invites readers to crack open a cold one and pull up a seat at the bar as he celebrates his favorite beverage. Readers who saddle up with him hear stories from the time Wendt spent on “Cheers,” “Saturday Night Live” and other shows. In this excerpt, Wendt shares insights into the origins of the hit series “Cheers.”

Sam: What do you say, Norm?

Norm: Any cheap, tawdry thing that’ll get me a beer.

Bernadette and I decided to give it a go in Los Angeles. I picked up small parts in episodes of “Soap” and “Hart to Hart” and played an exterminator on “Taxi,” hired by Danny DeVito’s Louie de Palma to take down the world’s biggest cockroach. Then came a writers’ strike that shut down the town and ushered in what Bernadette and I would come to call the days of Generic Beer.

The strike ended after three months. And not long after, I caught a big break: a major supporting role in a new comedy. Soon people everywhere would know me as ... Gus!

The show was called “Making the Grade.” I played Gus Bertoia, a superjock gym teacher at a high school in St. Louis. CBS picked up the pilot, written by a talented guy named Gary David Goldberg (who would go on to create “Family Ties” and “Spin City”), for a mid-season tryout. There would be no more generic beer for the family Wendt. In the midst of the excitement, I got a call from my agent.

“George, honey, how are you, it’s Jinny.”

“I’m great! Really excited about the show. Gus is a perfect character for me. Maybe I’ll actually get back into shape.”

“That’s wonderful, George, really wonderful. Listen, honey, Jim Burrows called. He was wondering if you’d be available for a pilot he’s directing for NBC. Something he’s doing with the Charles brothers.”

The Charles brothers — Glen and Les — were great comedy writers. They’d written the episode of “Taxi” I appeared in, which also happened to be directed by Jim Burrows. I was flattered that they wanted to work with me again. But.

“Jinny, I’ve already got a job.”

“It’s nothing, George, nothing. Just one line. One word. They really want you.”

Now I really couldn’t turn it down.

Beer to the rescue
According to the original script, I wasn’t supposed to appear until the end of the episode. By that time, one of the show’s stars — played by Shelley Long — has been dumped by her fiancé and taken a job as a waitress in a Boston bar. I was supposed to be George, her first customer. “I’m Diane,” she would introduce herself. “I’ll be your waitress.” Then would come a rambling monologue, a minute long, about all of the strange circumstances that had led up to her becoming a waitress. My job was to look impatient, until Diane finally remembered she was talking to a thirsty customer. “Oh!” she’d exclaim. “I should take your order. What can I get you?”

At which point I was to deliver my single line. My single word, actually: “Beer.”

“Beer, perfect!” she would reply, hurrying off to fill the order.

I had a lot of trouble believing that I was going to get paid to look like a guy who really wanted a beer. Talk about a job that matched up with the real me. My passion must have shown through, because almost immediately, my role began to expand. Sitcom scripts, especially pilots, are a fluid business. Until the actors are delivering lines — sometimes in front of a live studio audience — it’s impossible to know which jokes are going to work and which lines are going to fall flat. The writers are always working on the fly. What begins as a 50-page script on Monday might be 50 completely different pages on Friday.

By the end of the week in the bar, my character had a new entrance (I was the first regular customer to walk in) and a new point of view (I badgered Diane, rather than the other way around). I also had a new name: Norm Peterson. And when “Making the Grade” got canceled after just six episodes, I was happy to have a new job waiting for me.

A star series is born“Cheers” premiered on NBC in 1982. nobody noticed, except for a couple of critics. We finished the season in last place, 77th out of 77 primetime programs. The show aired Thursday nights, which at that time meant it was being crushed by CBS’s unbeatable one-two: “Magnum, P.I.” and “Simon & Simon.”

We were lucky to have a lot of support from a boss who understood comedy. Back in my improv workshop days, before I made it into Second City, I used to help fold up the chairs after the more experienced students were done performing. One night one of my co-folders turned to me and said, “You know, George? That’s going to be us up on that stage someday.” He was half right. I made it. As for the co-folder, Brandon Tartikoff, he managed to do all right for himself. When “Cheers” began, he was the youngest-ever president of NBC’s entertainment division and, more important, he had our backs.

A few more people watched the show when the CBS behemoths went to reruns. We got a big boost from the Emmys — five in our first season, the winners including Shelley Long, Jim Burrows for directing, and the Charles brothers for writing the pilot. And the one for Outstanding Comedy Series probably helped. Our ratings got a little better the second season, especially after NBC moved “Family Ties” to the slot before us. Then, in season three, the network added a new sitcom called “The Cosby Show.” It turned out to be the perfect lead-in to what became “Must See Thursday”: “Cosby,” “Family Ties,” “Cheers,“ “Night Court” and “Hill Street Blues.”

Norm and me
One question I’m constantly asked is if I really like beer as much as Norm Peterson. “Nobody’s that good of an actor,” I tell them. Despite the obvious similarities, however, there are a couple of critical differences between Norm and me.

I actually like my wife; Norm, on the other hand, was a bit more ambivalent about his heard-but-never-seen wife, Vera (who, by the way, was voiced by my real wife, Bernadette Birkett). And when I drink a lot of beer, I will occasionally get drunk. Not so for Norm: It was very important to the network (and to my mother) that Norm never seem like he was getting loaded. They didn’t want him to appear pathetic. But the biggest difference? Norm had way better writers than I do.

From “Drinking with George: A Barstool Professional’s Guide to Beer” by George Wendt. Copyright © 2009. Reprinted by permission of Simon Spotlight Entertainment.

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