'Cheers' star Rhea Perlman reflects on 40 years of the classic sitcom: 'We were all so happy to be there'

The cast of Cheers in one of the show's early seasons. (Photo: NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection)
The cast of Cheers in one of the show's early seasons. (Photo: NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection)

It's rare for a supporting actor on a hit TV comedy to turn down the chance to headline their own spin-off series. But that's precisely what Rhea Perlman did when the makers of Cheers — including creators Glen and Les Charles and James Burroughs — approached her about leaving the classic NBC series midway through its run to star in The Tortellis, a series that would revolve around the extended family of her tart-tongued waitress Carla Tortelli.

"They originally wanted me to be in the spin-off," Perlman reveals to Yahoo Entertainment on the 40th anniversary of Cheers's series premiere on Sept. 30, 1982. "But I felt the soul of Cheers was the bar people, and I didn't want to leave the bar to go to a completely different show. I told them I didn't want to do it, and could I please stay at the bar? So they went off and made it [without me]."

That turned out to be the right call. Premiering in January 1987, The Tortellis — which starred Dan Hedaya as Carla's ex-husband, Nick, and Jean Kasem as his new wife, Loretta — lasted only 13 episodes. (Perlman does briefly appear in a dream sequence during the pilot, a scene she says she doesn'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't going 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, who oversaw a rambunctious family that grew to include eight children. "She'd be bursting in to complain, she'd be bursting in to beat up Norm, she'd be bursting in for whatever it was. Her life was not simple, and she carried whatever was with her right into work. I just remember it being very energetic."

In a lively interview — not filmed before a live studio audience — Perlman looked back on the arc of her Cheers career, from the low-rated series premiere to the high-rated series finale, and what she thinks Carla is doing now.

Rhea Perlman as Carla Tortelli in Cheers. (Photo: NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Rhea Perlman as Carla Tortelli in Cheers. (Photo: NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection)

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't know, but I'll go by whatever Ted says. I had done an audition with Shelley Long, so I knew she was in. And I knew they were deciding on who was going to play Sam, although I thought Ted had been cast by then. My memory is pretty foggy, 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 have our read-throughs, so there was just enough room for all the writers to be around. I have no idea what we had to read — I've blocked that part out of my memory. 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 there on 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 we were cast. We all brought our personalities, so I don't feel like deep changes were made to accommodate the actors. The actors fit into what they wrote, and I was always very thankful for that. There was a lot less improvisation in those days in general unless you were on an improv show like Saturday Night Live or something. And I was always much more comfortable being able to interpret what somebody else wrote rather than creating my own lines. That's what 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 mistakes that had to be re-done?

The way we filmed the episodes back then — and I don't know if this is how they still do it now — is that we'd basically film everything once, maybe twice, in front of the audience. If there was a big mistake, we'd stop and do that section over again so we could get the laughs in. Then after the audience applauded 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 new joke or something that we'd add in. And Jimmy did a lot more camerawork in the beginning, so we would stay later. Later on, that fell by the wayside and we found 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. And I got along with Ted right away. I mean, it's pretty hard not to! He's just an amazingly great person and loves what he's doing. He gives out a lot of love and 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 not doing well in the beginning. It's part of the lore now, but we were almost last in the ratings. The amazing NBC executives at the time had our backs as actors. We were all very protected, and just felt like we were having a great time. 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 took maybe a year or two before many, many people would stop me on the street or in the supermarket. But we always felt that we were on a show that was popular and 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 a food fight! We got to do that twice, because we did it in the dress rehearsal and during the taping. I'd never had a food fight in real life, and it was the most fun thing ever. I wanted to do it everyday! It was so cool to be able to throw 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 all eventually bombarded Jimmy Burroughs, who was not extremely excited about that! [Laughs] It was after we were done with the fight, and I can't remember if he had yelled, "Cut" or not. We all went over and smashed things on him, but he had on a plastic raincoat thing.

You also played Carla's sister, Annette, in one episode. Were there plans to do more with her? It always reminded me of Lisa Kudrow playing both Phoebe and Ursula on Friends later on.

Yeah, that was fun. I asked if I could do that, and they agreed. It was such a different character, so that was cool. And I had special teeth made for Annette — I don't even know if you can tell, but her teeth kind of stuck out a little. 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 leave the show over the years, most notably Shelley Long, who was replaced by Kirstie Alley. Did you ever consider leaving?

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

There were days where all the kids would come to set, but they wouldn't integrate into the show or anything. They would hang around the craft service table and the candy drawer. We had a great candy drawer! I had a little office downstairs from the set where my kids could be. Kirstie is actually responsible for getting everybody together outside of the show, because she'd have these amazing parties — Halloween parties, Easter parties. Everyone would bring their kids, and she invited the crew as well. I always tried to imitate that at my house, but I didn't do it as well. She's really good at entertaining people.

The cast of Cheers in the final season. (Photo: ©NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection)
The cast of Cheers in the show's series finale. (Photo: NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection)

The show ended in Season 11 largely because Ted Danson decided he was ready to move onto other things. The producers considered continuing the show without him — did they ever talk to you and the rest of the cast about what a Sam-less version of Cheers might look like?

Yeah, there were discussions, but we weren't really consulted. I mean, maybe we were asked what we thought, but we all felt that without Ted it wouldn't be a good way to go out. Maybe if it had happened earlier in the show, but I doubt 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 all smoked a cigar, and that was the end. The end of me, because I had never smoked a cigar before! [Laughs]

Carla begins the series complaining about her kids, and ends the series talking 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. My sister, [screenwriter] Heidi Perlman, started on that show! She's gone on to write 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 ended. Was it fun to revisit the character then?

Yeah, that was a good thing to do. I always wish that he had done a revival like Will & Grace did a few years ago. A few years after the show ended, we were all at some event together, and we said: "I think we can talk them into it." 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 even entertain 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 them all again.

What's Carla doing now? Do you think she's running the bar or is she still serving drinks?

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

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

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

Cheers is currently streaming on Hulu, Paramount+ and Peacock.