‘We were all so happy to be there’

It’s rare for a supporting actor on a hit TV comedy to turn down the chance toheadline their own spin-off series. But that’s precisely what Rhea Perlman didwhen the makers of cheers — including creators Glen and Les Charles andJames Burroughs — __ approached her about leaving the classic NBC seriesmidway through its run to star in The Tortellis a series that would revolvearound the extended family of her tart-tongued waitress Carla Tortelli.

“They originally wanted me to be in the spin-off,” Perlman reveals to YahooEntertainment on the 40th anniversary of cheers ‘s __ series premiere onSept. 30, 1982. “But I felt the soul of cheers was the bar people, and Ididn’t want to leave the bar to go to a completely different show. I told themI didn’t want to do it, and could I please stay at the bar? So they went offand made it [without me].”

That turned out to be the right call. Premiering in January 1987, TheTortellis — which starred Dan Hedaya as Carla’s ex-husband, Nick, and JeanKasem as his new wife, Loretta — lasted only 13 episodes. (Perlman doesbriefly appear in a dream sequence during the pilot, a scene she says shedoesn’t remember filming.)

cheers , of course, wound up running for 11 seasons and 275 episodes,finally closing its doors in 1993. And Perlman appeared in every single half-hour. “I was there for the long haul, man,” she says, laughing. “I wasn’tgoing anywhere!”

And cheers fans wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, Carla was the> Boston’s bar’s resident cynic, regularly providing much-needed reality> checks for regulars like Norm Peterson (George Wendt) and Cliff Clavin (John> Ratzenberger), as well as the rest of the staff, including owner Sam Malone> (Ted Danson) and his on-again, off-again love interest Diane Chambers> (Shelley Long).

“Carla was always bursting in,” Perlman fondly says of her alter ego, whooversaw a rambunctious family that grew to include eight children. “She’d bebursting in to complain, she’d be bursting in to beat up Norm, she’d bebursting in for whatever it was. Her life was not simple, and she carriedwhatever was with her right into work. I just remember it being veryenergetic.”

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In a lively interview — not filmed before a live studio audience — Perlmanlooked back on the arc of her cheers career, from the low-rated seriespremiere to the high-rated series finale, and what she thinks Carla is doingnow.

Rhea Perlman as Carla Tortelli in Cheers.  (Photo: NBC/Courtesy EverettCollection)Rhea Perlman asCarla Tortelli in Cheers.  (Photo: NBC/Courtesy EverettCollection)

Rhea Perlman as Carla Tortelli in cheers. (Photo: NBC/Courtesy EverettCollection)

Ted Danson once said that you were the first actor cast on ** cheers**— does that jibe with your own memory?

Well, if he said it, how could it not be true!? [ Laughs ] I really don’tknow, but I’ll go by whatever Ted says. I had done an audition with ShelleyLong, so I knew she was in. And I knew they were deciding on who was going toplay Sam, although I thought Ted had been cast by then. My memory is prettyfoggy, though, so I would always trust someone else’s.

What do you remember about that audition with Shelley?

It was scary as hell! We were in a room in Paramount where we would later haveour read-throughs, so there was just enough room for all the writers to bearound. I have no idea what we had to read — I’ve blocked that part out of mymemory. As soon as they said, “OK, you’re in,” I forgot all about that part.

When you started playing Carla, how much of the character was already thereon the page, and how much did you bring to the part?

I feel like everything was there; every piece of the show was there before wewere cast. We all brought our personalities, so I don’t feel like deep changeswere made to accommodate the actors. The actors fit into what they wrote, andI was always very thankful for that. There was a lot less improvisation inthose days in general unless you were on an improv show like Saturday NightLive or something. And I was always much more comfortable being able tointerpret what somebody else wrote rather than creating my own lines. That’swhat was so remarkable about the pilot: there wasn’t a lot of fishing around,it was just making it come alive.

What do you remember about filming the pilot? Were there any big mistakesthat had to be re-done?

The way we filmed the episodes back then — and I don’t know if this is howthey still do it now — is that we’d basically film everything once, maybetwice, in front of the audience. If there was a big mistake, we’d stop and dothat section over again so we could get the laughs in. Then after the audienceapplauded wildly, they would go home and we’d do pieces of it again or,rarely, all of it again. Once in awhile, the writers would come up with a newjoke or something that we’d add in. And Jimmy did a lot more camerawork in thebeginning, so we would stay later. Later on, that fell by the wayside and wefound it was better to just keep it simple.

The animosity between Carla and Diane is established right off the bat in> the pilot. Was that always a fun dynamic to play?

Yeah, the animosity was essential. I was very grateful for the animosity,because any real animosity I might have had came out with the character! [Laughs ] That was a great relationship: I worried about Sam being with her,because he was my best friend there. But she was the perfect foil for him. AndI got along with Ted right away. I mean, it’s pretty hard not to! He’s just anamazingly great person and loves what he’s doing. He gives out a lot of loveand I can take that.

To be fair, most of our relationships were filled with a lot of love. I mean,we were all so happy to be there! And we had no idea that the show was notdoing well in the beginning. It’s part of the lore now, but we were almostlast in the ratings. The amazing NBC executives at the time had our backs asactors. We were all very protected, and just felt like we were having a greattime. It just seemed like we were very funny and the audience loved us.

Did you get a sense of when the show started to take off?

Well, we always thought we were taking off! [ Laughs ] But I’d say it tookmaybe a year or two before many, many people would stop me on the street or inthe supermarket. But we always felt that we were on a show that was popularand on top.

This is jumping ahead of a few seasons, but I have to ask about the> classic Thanksgiving episode. When you first read that script, did you know> it was going to turn out as well as it did?

I didn’t know how it was gonna turn out, but I was so excited to be doing afood fight! We got to do that twice, because we did it in the dress rehearsaland during the taping. I’d never had a food fight in real life, and it was themost fun thing ever. I wanted to do it everyday! It was so cool to be able tothrow mashed potatoes and peas and s**t like that.

I’m sure I hit Shelley pretty hard, and I probably hit John, too. And we alleventually bombarded Jimmy Burroughs, who was not extremely excited aboutthat! [ Laughs ] It was after we were done with the fight, and I can’tremember if he had yelled, “Cut” or not. We all went over and smashed thingson him, but he had on a plastic raincoat thing.

You also played Carla ‘s sister, Annette , in one episode. Were thereplans to do more with her? It always reminded me of Lisa Kudrow playing bothPhoebe and Ursula on ** friends later on.**

Yeah, that was fun. I asked if I could do that, and they agreed. It was such adifferent character, so that was cool. And I had special teeth made forAnnette — I don’t even know if you can tell, but her teeth kind of stuck out alittle. I kind of wanted her to come back, but I had feeling she wasn’t gonna![ Laughs ]

you turned down ** The Tortellis , but other cast members did leavethe show over the years, most notably Shelley Long, who was replaced byKirstie Alley. Did you ever consider leaving?**

I had three kids during the show, and the fact that I could carry on thisamazing show and my life simultaneously was such a gift. They made it so easyfor us. Other people were having babies, too, so there were all these kidsaround us. It was something in the beer, I guess!

There were days where all the kids would come to set, but they wouldn’tintegrate into the show or anything. They would hang around the craft servicetable and the candy drawer. We had a great candy drawer! I had a little officedownstairs from the set where my kids could be. Kirstie is actuallyresponsible for getting everybody together outside of the show, because she’dhave these amazing parties — Halloween parties, Easter parties. Everyone wouldbring their kids, and she invited the crew as well. I always tried to imitatethat at my house, but I didn’t do it as well. She’s really good atentertaining people.

The cast of Cheers in the final season.  (Photo: ©NBC/Courtesy EverettCollection)The cast ofCheers in the final season.  (Photo: ©NBC/Courtesy EverettCollection)

The cast of cheers in the show’s final season. (Photo: NBC/Courtesy EverettCollection)

The show ended in Season 11 largely because Ted Danson decided he was readyto move onto other things. The producers considered continuing the showwithout him — did they ever talk to you and the rest of the cast about what aSam-less version of ** cheers might look like?**

Yeah, there were discussions, but we weren’t really consulted. I mean, maybewe were asked what we thought, but we all felt that without Ted it wouldn’t bea good way to go out. Maybe if it had happened earlier in the show, but Idoubt it. Ted was the heart of cheers — the cast was the heart of the bar,but he was the heart of all of us. It was better to go out on top. We allsmoked a cigar, and that was the end. The end of me, because I had neversmoked a cigar before! [ Laughs ]

**Carla begins the series complaining about her kids, and ends the seriestalking about how having kids is one of the most important things in life.That ‘s a nice full circle moment that the writers crafted for her. **

Oh wow, yeah. I actually didn’t remember that. Our writers were amazing. mysister, [screenwriter] Heidi Perlman, started on that show! She’s gone on towrite on many other shows, but none as famous as cheers. [ Laughs ]

Carla, Norm and Cliff all returned for an episode of ** Frasier a> few years after ** cheers finished. Was it fun to revisit the> character then?

Yeah, that was a good thing to do. I always wish that he had done a revivallike Will & Grace did a few years ago. A few years after the show ended, wewere all at some event together, and we said: “I think we can talk them intoit.” But it didn’t work; Jimmy and the Charles brothers never wanted to do it.I have no idea what their objection was, they just didn’t want to evenentertain the thought. That’s OK! They can do what they want.

But you would be in if they changed their minds on a revival?

If they were doing it, for sure I’d be in! I’d give anything to be with themall again.

**What ‘s Carla doing now? Do you think she’s running the bar or is she stillserving drinks? **

You know, she’s the kind of person that doesn’t move around, so she’s stillgonna be there serving drinks. She’s watching the grandkids — she’s probablygo great-grandchildren by now! And they all live with her in her one-bedroomhouse. You know, I don’t think she ever had enough money, so she had to workin the bar, but she was never going to own the bar. And she was also nevergoing to leave the bar for some fancy-schmancy Boston restaurant. She stays inone spot and is happy being queen of that spot. There’s no reason for her togo anywhere else. She met all the guys she wanted to and had all the kids shecould. I guess after menopause it would have been easier. Then she wouldn’thave had to have all the kids! [ Laughs ]

I like to imagine her having a food fight with her grandkids everythingThanksgiving.

Yes, but the grandkids would have to clean it up! I wasn’t gonna clean uptheir crap.

cheers is currently streaming on Paramount+ and Peacock.