Monday, March 20, 2017

From the Coach to Woody -- a rough time on CHEERS

Here’s a Friday Question that became a dedicated post.

cd1515 asks:

With Paxton dying and his series Training Day now apparently over, I wonder if you can take us thru some of what went on with Coach dying on Cheers, obviously the series wasn't going to be cancelled but the adjustments that had to be made, how far in advance were they planning to make them knowing Coach was sick, what other people were in the mix to play Woody, what other ideas did people have to replace Coach, etc.

We were not caught totally off guard. Watch the pilot of CHEERS and then the first few episodes. You’ll see that Nick Colasanto lost some weight. We all had an inkling that something was wrong.  Later in that season he came down with pleurisy. He spent a couple of days in the hospital but insisted on coming back for the show. 

In year three he really started to lose weight. You can tell from watching the episodes. We really didn’t know the extent of his failing condition and Nick always downplayed it, but it was a matter of great concern.

By the last half of the season he was hospitalized and we kept his character in the show by saying that the Coach was traveling and sending letters. By reading the letters aloud it kept his voice alive.

Nick passed away shortly before the end of that season (February 12, 1985). He was only 61. I never spoke to the Charles Brothers about it so I have no idea whether they were expecting the worst and already starting to come up with a new character or just hoping Nick would recover during the offseason and be back when season four began in August.

Once he died, thoughts were turned to how to replace him?  You'd think there was a real luxury of time since production wouldn't begin for six months, but the writers wanted the actor in place so they could write scripts and tailor them to the actor. 

The Coach played a very important role. I’ve talked about this before – “dumb” characters are not only easy to write but they also provide a real function. It’s always difficult to get out exposition and by explaining something to the Coach we were in fact explaining it clearly to the audience.

NBC wanted a young character. All networks want young characters. And the Charles Brothers wisely didn’t want to bring in someone who was too similar to Nick.

So the character of Woody was created. It’s not enough to make a character “dumb.” You need a reason. The Coach was hit in the head with too many fastballs. In the case of Woody, the idea was that he was just a naive farmboy. And if you listen carefully to his dialogue you’ll see he’s not stupid, he just takes everything literally.

So that was the casting assignment and you know the rest – Woody Harrelson got the part. Ironically, the character’s name was Woody before Mr. Harrelson auditioned.  Lots of actors went up for the role.  I honestly don't remember who.   I'm sure three or four that went on to be huge stars but Woody was the absolute perfect choice.  (And he became a pretty big star himself.)

In closing, I have to say that as much as I love Woody I always missed the Coach. There was something so sweet about his relationship with Sam and his affection for the others at the bar that to me was never duplicated – and that was a wonderful element of the show.

27 comments :

Mike Barer said...

That was when Hill Street Blues and Night Court also lost characters. All were able to remain on the air.

Matthew Brannigan said...

A memorable auditioner for the Woody part would be Timothy Treadwell - the "Grizzly Man" although he was a strange chap, he may well have just made it up.

Ray Barrington said...

I always thought when the give the character the first name as the actor it was because the actor was such a doofus he/she wouldn't respond if it wasn't his/her own name. Happy that wasn't the case with either Woody.

tavm said...

About the character of Woody Boyd and his being naïve: It probably helped immensely that Harrelson himself had never watched "Cheers" before being cast, so he didn't know the characters on the show previously, nor the actors that portrayed them. And, yeah, I still miss Coach!

Buttermilk Sky said...

When Jack Soo died, BARNEY MILLER put together a sort of clip show/tribute. Did you consider doing that for Nick?

Chris G said...

I also thought the friendship that developed between Coach and Diane was lovely; rewatching the series I'm struck by the idea that she finds herself working in this bar she'd never have set foot in if her life hadn't imploded, and befriending this sweet little man she'd never have met otherwise.

Dave Wrighteous said...

Funny this should come up as just last week I heard a podcast with one of the actors up for the part of Woody, Uncle Joey himself, Dave Coulier. Seems he made it to the finals with Woody Harrelson, but some health issues caused by hockey related head injuries made him drop out of the running. Thankfully, Full House came along shortly thereafter and the rest is history.
You can check out the podcast here: http://carsonpodcast.com/dave-coulier/

Curt Alliaume said...

I sometimes wonder if the deaths of Nick Colasanto, Selma Diamond, and Florence Halop (both from Night Court) during such a short time span led to so many 20- and 30-somethings being the leads of their shows for the next 15-20 years. Must-See TV didn't have a lot of card-carrying AARP members around.

The good news is the situation may be slowly reversing itself, as Superior Donuts' lead is 82-year-old Judd Hirsch.

Ken said...

I loved when you had the shots that Woody took about Larry Bird because of the neighboring town ( French Lick?)he came from and then had Bird do an "extended cameo" where he reinforced the whole identity of woody by taking same shots about the town that Woody came from.

Anonymous said...

I loved Coach for a lot of reasons, but especially for his sweet friendship with Diane. No one else in the bar was interested in being her friend, but Coach was always there for her, always glad to see her. Sam and Diane loved each other, but their incessant banter was sometimes callous and unkind on Sam's part---too much for my taste, although many fans loved it. I recently discovered something called "fan fiction". Most of it is so amateurish or just so bad that it can't be enjoyed. But there is one who writes CHEERS fan fiction that is really quite lovely, and the only character she changes just slightly is Sam---she does soften him a little by removing his mean-spirited banter. She submits her stories under the name Jessica Simpson Bourget--HA!
I was surprised that it was legal to write stories about characters from TV shows!

DIANE D

Rick said...

Occasionally, Woody got to show that there was a little more going on between his ears that people realized. My favorite example went something like this:

Woody: "Good evening Dr. Crane. Thank you for patronizing us."

Dr. Crane: "Oh Woody, you used a big word there, but I don't think you chose the right one. Patronize means to speak down to a person..."

Woody: "As if speaking to a small child? Uh huh"

thirteen said...

I remember how Cagney & Lacey kept the memory of Sidney Clute alive. Clute (who played Det. La Guardia) died in 1985, midway through the run of the series. However, his credit remained in the title sequence all the way to the end of the series in 1988, and his character was said to have "retired to Italy" in the several C&G TV-movies that followed in the '90s.

Susie said...

Hi Ken,

Nice post.

I have a Friday question: Do writers get letters from fans addressed to the show. Say like "to the writers of Cheers or Simpsons"....

I do remember that you once talked about actors getting letters, so what about writers? Have you got any fan mail or hate mail for that matter, when you were working on a show?

Mark said...

Friday question

When a show has a cliff hanger episode that spans the last episode of one year and the first of the next do they film them together and then take an extra week off before starting up again? Or do they just film the last one and then do the first one on schedule and hope the continuity works out.

Friends, who we have been binge watching, did the Barbados episodes and I just can't imagine doing part 2 five months later. But what do I know?

Thanks, Ken!

Mike Doran said...

Showing my age here:

In the mid-'60s, Perry Mason faced a similar situation when Ray Collins (Lt. Tragg), well into his seventies, saw his long-standing cigarette habit catch up to him.
Starting in the show's fifth season ('61-62), Lt. Tragg began to appear less and less, with his assistant Lt. Anderson, played by Wesley Lau, doing most of the on-camera work.
During Seasons Six and Seven, Collins's appearances became fewer and fewer; his final show was near the end of the seventh year. No special mention was made of this; Ray Collins had become noticeably thinner in his later shows, and his friends on the show protected him all the way.
Ray Collins died in 1965, at the onset of Season Eight; at the insistence of Raymond Burr and the company, his name remained in the opening credits throughout that season.
Interestingly, Wesley Lau's name was not added to the open, although he always received billing in the closing credits.
When Season Nine came along, Richard Anderson joined up as the new character, Lt. Steve Drumm. For whatever reasons, although Ray Collins's name was removed from the opening, Anderson's name was not added. (I've never seen an explanation of why this was.)
So that's that story, long before people made such a big deal about these things ...

Cat said...

Oh, Diane D, you are clever, I also found "Jessica Simpson-Bourget's" fanfiction. Quite the read, she's a great writer.

Ty said...

I always appreciated that Coach would be mentioned now and then on the show after he'd passed away. It was probably only a handful of times, but it was nice that the show still acknowledged that he'd been part of their lives.

Hank said...

I heard a podcast with one of the actors up for the part of Woody, Uncle Joey himself, Dave Coulier. Seems he made it to the finals with Woody Harrelson, but some health issues caused by hockey related head injuries made him drop out of the running.

Poor Dave Coulier. Up for a part in one of the finest sitcoms of the 1980s but ends up in a turd like FULL HOUSE. Life can be a bitch.

I sometimes wonder if the deaths of Nick Colasanto, Selma Diamond, and Florence Halop (both from Night Court) during such a short time span led to so many 20- and 30-somethings being the leads of their shows for the next 15-20 years.

Well, the problem with Diamond and Halop wasn't just their ages. Both women had been very heavy smokers for years and both died prematurely from lung cancer.

Kyle Burress said...

I'm going to say that Coach was probably my favorite character. I always felt that his death was kind of just brushed over. There weren't any real 'good-byes' to the character. It was almost as if he was there and then he just wasn't. As previously mentioned maybe it was just the times as in other shows as well that it was just briefly acknowledged that the character died. Obviously, a show like 'The West Wing' when Spencer died there definitely had to be more of an explanation as to why the character was no longer there. What are you thoughts on how they handled Colasanto's death? I always appreciated it whenever the character was mentioned and loved that the final scene of the series included his memory.

Andy Rose said...

@Curt Alliaume: This was also around the time that Dolph Sweet of Gimme a Break! died. NBC shows had a unfortunate series of deaths in the mid-80's, to the point that the network developed something of a template for dealing with it. On the next scheduled airing of the show after the actor's death, they would usually start by showing a black-and-white photo of the actor, with another member of the cast giving a brief remembrance in voiceover. Then they would air a repeat featuring that character.

Anonymous said...

I agree, Cat! Too bad she hasn't written anything in several years. Maybe she is now getting paid a lot of money for her writing. She deserves it!

DIANE D

Donald Benson said...

I recall reading somewhere that Colasanto was effectively the most "grownup" of the cast and the rest related to him that way; after his passing the male cast members tended to be a bit like frat boys.

There's a Friday question: How does cast chemistry work offstage, and does it change what goes on camera? Say, a parent figure who other actors look up to? Or high school types cliques that affect which combinations work most smoothly in a scene? Or a performer the rest of the cast feels especially protective of?

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Kyle Burress said, "I always felt that his death was kind of just brushed over. There weren't any real 'good-byes' to the character. It was almost as if he was there and then he just wasn't. As previously mentioned maybe it was just the times as in other shows as well that it was just briefly acknowledged that the character died. Obviously, a show like 'The West Wing' when Spencer died there definitely had to be more of an explanation as to why the character was no longer there. "

I have a feeling the big difference is: one is a 1/2 hour sitcom meant to make people laugh vs one is an hour drama.
And Cheers wasn't a show like MASH or All In The Family or any 'dramedy' today was going to ponder the meaning of life.



Bill Jones said...

My all-time favorite episode of Cheers is "Birth, Love, Death, and Rice," where Woody is introduced. The way he is introduced, and the way it's tied back to Coach, is perfectly written and executed. And there's a second call-out later in the episode when Sam informs Diane about his death. A marvelous episode and a primer on how to write a transition.

MikeN said...

>he’s not stupid, he just takes everything literally.

Did Woody Harrelson know this, and if so, did he ever go against the script and react in character?

Stu said...

The way I heard Coulier tell it, some years back, he claimed that he was actually first choice for the part of Woody. However, he had a medical problem that was going to require him to miss a couple of episodes, and he said when he told the producers of CHEERS this, they were not sympathetic, and the next thing he knew, they were announcing that Woody Harrelson had been cast in the part. He claimed they didn't even bother to call and let him know.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.