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Cheers Actors You May Not Know Passed Away

Cheers ranks near the very top of any list of the all-time great TV comedies. Nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series every year of its 11-season run and at one point the most-watched show on television, it played a major role in establishing NBC's beachhead in Thursday night comedies, a dominant trend that would continue through the lives of Seinfeld, Will & Grace and even The Office.

The low-key sitcom took place in and around Cheers, a Boston bar "where everybody knows your name," run by ex-Red Sox pitcher Sam "Mayday" Malone (Ted Danson), along with bartender Ernie "Coach" Pantusso (Nicholas Colasanto, later Woody Harrelson's Woody Boyd), irascible waitress Carla Tortelli (Rhea Perlman), romantic interest Diane (Shelly Long, later yielding to Kirstie Alley's Rebecca) and chatty barflies Frasier (Kelsey Grammer), Cliff (John Ratzenberger), and Norm (George Wendt).

As Cheers was set in a bar, a lot of people came through the well-appointed watering hole: employees, customers, family, and friends. In nearly 300 episodes, that made for a large, sprawling cast beyond just the small core of regular cast members. Cheers ended production nearly 30 years ago, and while some of its actors remain big stars (such as Danson and Harrelson), others have sadly left us after last call. Below, we look back at some memorable friends from Cheers who have passed away, some without much fanfare. 

Jay Thomas (Eddie LeBec)

Working as the bar's primary server, no-nonsense Carla held a steady job throughout Cheers, but she was always unlucky in love. First she divorced the sleezy Nick Tortelli (Dan Hedaya), but she later remarried Eddie LeBec, a somewhat equally-sleazy French Canadian pro hockey star turned ice show performer. Their relationship was in constant flux, but concluded in comic tragedy in the 1989 episode "Death Takes a Holiday on Ice," when Eddie was killed at the ice show by a Zamboni, leaving Carla to raise her eight kids alone.

Jay Thomas portrayed Eddie LeBec in nine episodes between 1987 and 1989, his biggest role since his memorable two-year run as deli owner Remo DaVinci on Mork and Mindy, and just before he'd star in the CBS romantic sitcom Love & War and land a recurring role as love interest Jerry Gold on Murphy Brown. A true Hollywood character, Thomas injected his larger-than-life personality into nearly 100 TV shows and movies including Ray Donovan, and later launched a second career as a radio talk show host, dishing dirt about his years on set. He was also a beloved recurring guest on The Late Show With David Letterman for years, throwing footballs and re-telling what Dave called "the best story I've ever heard" every Christmas. 

Sadly, Jay Thomas died of throat cancer in August 2017 at age 69. Wherever he is, here's hoping he's still cracking somebody up with the Lone Ranger story.

Roger Rees (Robin Colcord)

On the first several seasons of Cheers, the primary love triangle concerned Sam, Diane, and Frasier. In Season 8 and Season 9, however, the romantic machinations concerned Sam, Rebecca and Robin Colcord, a dashing British businessman and multimillionaire affiliated with The Lillian Corporation — the company that bought the Cheers bar. 

Sam wanted to be with Rebecca, but she had designs on Robin (both personally and professionally), believing that romancing him was a way to make herself rich and comfortable. But he was a shady and fickle scoundrel, however, and ended up ultimately discredited, left broke, and sent to prison for embezzlement — at which point Rebecca lost interest (and Sam got his bar back).

Roger Rees portrayed the slimy Robin Colcord over 17 Cheers episodes, his biggest TV role in a career full of memorable performances, mostly in film (he memorably portrayed the Sheriff of Rottingham in Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights) and stage work. Rees did a lot of Broadway, earning Tony Award nominations for directing and acting, and won in 1982 for The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. In his later years, he even played Gomez in the stage musical adaptation of The Addams Family. About a year after receiving a cancer diagnosis, Rees died in 2015 at age 71.

Harry Anderson (Harry "the hat" Gittes)

Sporadically throughout the first few seasons of Cheers, the patrons of the titular bar were harassed by an entertaining but shifty scoundrel named Harry Gittes, aka "Harry the Hat." Harry was a talented magician and small-time con man who'd sneak into Cheers on occasion to swindle employees and patrons out of a few bucks, or just steal their wallets and watches while employing some sleight of hand. 

Sam Malone issued a standing order for him to be thrown out if he ever showed his face around Cheers, but he was also something of a friend — the bar owner once bailed him out of jail, a favor Harry repaid by helping Coach regain the $8,000 he lost to a cheat.

Harry the Hat didn't appear much in the late '80s and early '90s, because actor and actual magician Harry Anderson was very busy starring on Night Court, another beloved NBC sitcom that often followed Cheers on the Thursday night schedule. Anderson earned three Emmy nominations for his work as fun-loving judge Harry Stone, appeared on Saturday Night Live eight times, and in the '90s kept his career strong with a CBS sitcom based on columnist Dave Barry's life called Dave's World. Tragically, one of television's warmest '80s stars died in 2018 at age 65, having suffered a cardiac event exacerbated by a bout of influenza.

Nicholas Colasanto (Coach)

In the early seasons of Cheers, much was made of how lead character Sam Malone (Ted Danson) was a former Sox pitcher and recovering alcoholic who had turned his life around, somewhat ironically, by buying and running a bar. Part of that redemption story was hiring his favorite coach, Ernie Pantusso, or just "Coach," to work for him as a bartender. Coach was a sweet and conscientious guy who just happened to have been hit in the head with a few too many pitches. Plagued by a bad memory, he told lots of long and rambling stories that never went anywhere — but it was hard to not enjoy the ride anyway.

In his fifties and already suffering from heart issues when he began playing Coach, Nicholas Colasanto was hospitalized in 1984 for water in his lungs. Unable to get doctors to declare him healthy enough to return to work, Coach's absence was explained with a variety of excuses. Then in February 1985, Colasanto died at age 61. 

Later, the show would air "Birth, Death, Love and Rice," an episode that addressed Coach's death and introduced Woody Harrelson as a new (also dim) bartender. As Cheers was winding down in 1993 and 80.4 million people tuned in, some eight years after his death, Sam Malone reminded audiences that the crew at their favorite bar had not forgotten their Coach, walking over to a picture of Geronimo that Colasanto loved and straightening it.

Philip Perlman (Phil)

There were customers at Cheers beyond just Norm Peterson, Cliff Clavin, and bespectacled Paul. Look around on any given episode, and there's bound to be at least a few other barflies in the background quietly nursing a cocktail or a mug of beer, many recurring. 

The most commonly seen among these patrons: a guy named Phil. He'd get the occasional line, but he typically just sat nearby Norm and Cliff while they did all the talking. Phil showed up in a total of 142 episodes between 1986 and 1993, which constitutes more than half the entire run of the series.

In real life, Phil was Philip Perlman, and he was the father of Cheers cast member Rhea Perlman. He got into acting late in life, in his sixties, then was cast in a bit part on Hill Street Blues. In addition to his close-to-his-daughter regular gig on Cheers, he frequently took small roles in projects starring or directed by his son-in-law, Danny DeVito, such as Throw Momma from the Train, Hoffa, Other People's Money, and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Perlman died in 2015 at age 95.

Al Rosen (Al)

Another background barfly who appeared over and over again on Cheers: a guy name Al, who appeared in the fringes of the fictional Boston bar, milking his drink while Sam and Diane bickered or Norm and Cliff shot the breeze. 

First appearing in the Season 1 episode "The Boys in the Bar," Al was a regular customer of Cheers, ultimately showing up in more than 70 installments of the comedy series. Talk about minor screentime, major impact: when Al was allowed to drunkenly scream out one word, it cracked up the live studio audience enough to make the show's stars jealous — if they hadn't also been laughing along.

Al's last quasi-cameo came in the 1989 episode "Two Girls for Every Boyd," although in 1990, "Norm and Cliff's Excellent Adventure" was dedicated to the memory of the actor who had portrayed him, Al Rosen, who died in August 1990 at age 80.

Rosen was in his seventies when he joined the auxiliary cast of Cheers, having worked in the entertainment industry since the 1940s as an extra and bit player, then as a production supervisor for soaps and game shows. Other than Cheers, his biggest claim to fame was a brush with some other comedy legends: he was a stuntman for The Three Stooges.

Keene Curtis (John Allen Hill)

Cheers was in the basement of an old Boston building, and so it sat directly below the snooty Melville's, a seafood restaurant that would only seem to work its way into the show when the ownership wanted to complain about the rowdy bar downstairs.

It's occasionally mentioned throughout the series, but in Season 9 of Cheers, Melville's factored into plotlines in a big way when stuffy, condescending snob John Allen Hill acquired the restaurant, starting a feud with Sam Malone and the Cheers crew. Pointing out that Cheers' pool room and bathrooms technically belonged to Melville's, he demanded rent, and when Sam refused to pay, he sealed them off. The good guys eventually won, however, getting the rooms back (for a large sum) while keeping John Allen Hill at a hostile arm's length for 15 episodes, during which time the character also engaged in an unlikely affair with Carla.

His Cheers role may have become his best known work, but actor Keene Curtis established an extensive resume as a stage star and TV character actor. In 1971, he won a Tony Award for his work in the Broadway musical The Rothschilds, just before he'd go on to guest on episodes of everything from M*A*S*H to Baretta, Cannon, Wonder Woman, Quincy M.E., and Three's Company. Curtis died in 2002 at age 79 from complications of Alzheimer's disease.

Doris Grau (Corrine)

On rare occasions when the sometimes sparsely-occupied Cheers got extremely busy, the staff would bring in an older lady named Corrine as a second server to assist Carla Tortelli. Corrine showed up in a handful of Cheers episodes in this capacity, but viewers later got to see her other job. 

In the Season 5 episode "Cheers: The Motion Picture," Norm became obsessed with The Hungry Heifer, a Boston restaurant that served terrible food of questionable origin, but it was cheap and presented in very large portions. Although he hated the food, he kept going back — and it turned out to be where Corrine labored when she wasn't at Cheers.

Doris Grau portrayed Corrine, one of only 11 acting credits she amassed after dabbling in performing in her sixties. She's best known, however, for her voice acting — originating the role of Lunchlady Doris on The Simpsons, where she also worked as a script supervisor (a job she held on more than four dozen movies and television series, dating back to the 1950s). Grau died at age 71 in 1995, leading The Simpsons to retire the character for a period and then rename her "Lunchlady Dora" out of respect to Grau.

Max Wright (Jim Fleener)

Cheers' central relationship of Sam and Diane, and its will-they-or-won't-they, fighting-alternating-with-romance conceit, reached its near peak with the fourth-season-ending two part episode "Strange Bedfellows." Sam dated a city council member who Diane thought was using him, so to retaliate she went to work as a volunteer coordinator for the politician's opponent, a nerdy guy named Jim Fleener.

The character of Fleener appears in only those two Cheers episodes, but the actor who portrayed the character is highly recognizable from his extensive work in 1980s sitcoms. 

That's Max Wright, guesting on Cheers after his gig on the acclaimed, but low-rated NBC comedy Buffalo Bill as exasperated TV station manager Karl Schub, but before his four years on ALF as Willie Tanner, exasperated foil to a sassy, cat-chasing alien.

Wright worked extensively on TV into the 2010s, including some episodes on Friends as Central Perk manager Terry, and as Max Denby on the Norm Macdonald sitcom Norm. The actor died from complications of cancer at age 75 in 2019.

Michael Currie (Mr. Sheridan)

As part of the extended Cheers plot arc in 1989 in which The Lillian Corporation bought the Cheers bar from Sam, Rebecca was placed in charge of the business and spent most of her days trying to impress her corporate overseers. One of those guys was a character known only as Mr. Sheridan, a vice-president at Lillian. In the episode "Adventures in Housesitting," Rebecca agreed to house-sit for Mr. Sheridan (only to lose his dogs), and the character returned again in "For Real Men Only" when Rebecca threw a retirement party for one of the character's business associates.

The man who played executive Mr. Sheridan: veteran character actor Michael Currie. He'd appeared in dozens of TV shows before his short run on Cheers, and usually in a similar capacity, lending his talents to an episode or two as an authority figure. For example, he played a Governor on Soap, a minister on Knots Landing, and a boss on Family Ties. Currie worked only occasionally in the 1990s, and retired from acting entirely after the new millennium. He died in 2009 at age 81.

Georgia Brown (Madame Lazora)

Madame Lazora is a character in the expanded Cheers universe, appearing once in 1990 and again in 1991. She was introduced as bar waitress Carla's primary spiritual advisor, whom she'd been seeing since she was a teenager for life advice. In other words, she was a psychic and Carla utilized her assistance when she thought her ex-husband's ghost was haunting her and preventing her from going on dates — she later showed up again to tell Carla she was retiring and thought the Cheers waitress should become her replacement as a medium.

Georgia Brown played Madame Lazora, and for her second appearance, she received an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series. A veteran of the stage in both London and New York, she starred in the musical Oliver in both cities before moving on to movies and TV, where she appeared in an episode or two of shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Murder, She Wrote. Brown often worked as a voice artist too, heard on cartoons including Paddington Bear, Gravedale High, and the infamous Fish Police. In July 1992, less than a year after her final Cheers episode aired, Brown died in London at age 58.