TV URBAN LEGEND: Jay Thomas’ character on Cheers was killed off because he called Rhea Perlman ugly.
While obviously one of the most amazing things that can happen to an actor working in television is to be part of a show that turns out to be a major hit (look at the ways that, say, the cast of Friends went from an assortment of mostly no-names, and “Hey, that’s the girl from the Bruce Springsteeen video!” to global superstars), there is something that is almost more amazing, which is to join one of these shows after it has become a hit and become accepted as part of the show’s DNA. It is very difficult to work your way into a hit TV show after it has become a hit. All the leads from Friends in its final season were the same as in its first; the same with Seinfeld.
A notable exception was Cheers. The comedy, about a bar in Boston, lost one of its main characters after the third season when Nicholas Colasanto, who played the beloved bartender Coach, passed away. He was replaced by a young hayseed named Woody Boys, played by Woody Harrelson (amazingly enough, the character was named Woody before Harrelson was cast), who improbably became even more popular than Coach! Even before Coach’s departure, the show had introduced a wrench into the main romantic relationship between bar owner Sam Malone and uptight waitress Diane Chambers. Originally intended for just a short story arc, Diane’s new boyfriend, Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier Crane, ended up sticking with the show for the rest of its run (plus 11 more seasons in his own spinoff series). Later, Bebe Neuwirth joined the cast as Frasier’s wife Lilith. Finally, and most importantly, Kirstie Alley successfully replaced the female lead Shelley Long (who played Diane) after Season 5. The show actually aired longer without its original female lead than it did with her, a remarkable achievement for any television show. So Cheers had clearly established itself as a series where notable characters could be added to the ensemble. That’s exactly what it looked like was going to happen with Jay Thomas’ character, Eddie LeBec, who joined the show in Season 5 as the boyfriend to Rhea Perlman’s character, the perpetually pregnant waitress Carla. In Season 6, they got married and it seemed like Thomas would be sticking around. Instead, his character was killed off-screen in Season 8. As it turns out, it appears Thomas’ own big mouth got himself kicked off of the show.
Jay Thomas was a popular radio personality for years before he began receiving acting opportunities on television. He was on the cast of Mork and Mindy for a time (20 episodes in total between 1979 and 1981). He had a few small roles during the early 1980s, popping up on big shows like Family Ties and The Golden Girls, and in 1987 (in the middle of Season 5) he joined Cheers as Boston Bruins goalie Eddie LeBec. Season 6 saw the show change dramatically with the addition of the aforementioned Kirstie Alley, and in that season, LeBec and Carla got married. It seemed like Thomas was going to become a regular character. Instead, Thomas is sent off to perform in an ice show, making just two appearances in Season 7 after seven episodes in Season 6. Eddie is killed off (off-screen) in Season 8’s “Death Takes a Holiday on Ice,” where we also learn he was married to another woman.
Now obviously, when you have a cast as large as Cheers, while they were able to add characters more easily than other shows, it was still not an easy thing to do, so there were plenty of reasons why the show would not be willing to add Thomas to the actual cast. However, I think it is fair to say a leading cause in Thomas’ dismissal had to do with comments he made on his radio program (Thomas still kept his disc jockey job even while acting). When asked about kissing Carla on Cheers, Thomas noted he received combat pay for doing so. Soon after, rather than being added as a cast member like Bebe Neuwirth (who also made recurring appearances in seasons 6 and 7 before being officially joining the cast in Season 8), Thomas was done for good. He recalled:
I’m doing Cheers, having the greatest time of my life, and one day I get a phone call from Jimmy. I knew they were deciding [about] whether to add me or Bebe to the cast full-time, and I thought he was calling with good news. He said, like in a movie, “Are you sitting down?” And he goes, “Look, we’re not going to have you back on the show. And it has nothing to do with Rhea.
Here is where things get a bit disputed. Thomas has been telling the story for years, but he’s not exactly the best source, as people always tend to come up with reasons for why they didn’t get a particular job. Sometimes they are true but sometimes it is a matter of wishful thinking and they didn’t get the job for other, more traditional reasons (the actor wasn’t good enough for the role, there wasn’t enough money in the budget to add another regular, etc.). Heck, note that in the quote above, Thomas even says he was specifically told Perlman was not the reason. In addition, the actress denies the story, saying:
That’s not true. I loved Jay Thomas as Eddie LeBec. But there was a point where they [thought] maybe we would live together, and I didn’t like the idea of Carla being with somebody because that would make you feel like [you’re] not part of the people in the bar.
A reasonable enough reply, right?
So why do I lean toward it being true? Well, Ken Levine, longtime TV comedy writer, producer and creative consultant on Cheers, backs up Thomas’ version of events, noting:
Rhea came up to my office and she was furious — I’d never seen her like this. She said, “I want him off the show.”
In addition, Levine wrote about the incident on his amazing blog here, explaining how he came up with the episode where they killed off Eddie.
I just don’t see any reason for why Levine would make up such a story. Thomas, certainly, but Levine? I don’t see it, so I’m willing to believe that, at the very least, Thomas’ insult of Perlman was a notable cause in his removal from the show.
Thomas went on to have a recurring role on Murphy Brown and then a starring role on the sitcom Love and War (from Murphy Brown creator Diane English). He’s acted here and there ever since (including a memorable supporting role in Mr. Holland’s Opus).
Here’s an amusing post-script. During the panel discussion for the 200th episode of Cheers that aired in Season 9, Thomas heckled the cast and crew (presumably as a joke) over being written off the show.
The legend is …
STATUS: I’m Going With True
Thanks Brian Raftery’s excellent Cheers oral history in GQ for the Perlman, Thomas and Levine quotes.
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