Cast members of "Cheers" have lost one of their own, but those who watch and love the show certainly feel that Nicholas Colasanto was one of their own, too. Nicholas Colasanto played Ernie "Coach" Pantusso, agile bartender and pixilated philosopher, and it's the nature of television and the result of a superb continuing performance that you could adopt Coach electronically and make him a member of that old gang of yours.
Television characters are immortal but actors are not. Colasanto died this week in Los Angeles of a heart ailment. He did not take Coach with him, because although the character will be written out of "Cheers," he still exists on film and will return in reruns as if still among us. Indeed, a 1982 episode in which Coach was prominently featured was rerun by NBC last Thursday night, preceded by a still photograph of the actor in character and the voice of "Cheers" costar Ted Danson saying, "This encore presentation of 'Cheers' is dedicated with love and appreciation to the memory of Nick Colasanto."
At one point in that show, Coach, trying as usual to get his bearings, said to his cronies behind the bar, "This is the nineteen -- what, eighties?" Coach was a daft comic exaggeration; sports fans in particular knew him as a recognizable type, a kindred spirit. Glen Charles, who with his brother Les created this fine, compassionate television show, says from Hollywood that there were little bits of Yogi Berra, Sparky Anderson and Casey Stengel in Coach. "These are certainly not dumb men," Charles says. "They just had a different perspective on things. We tried to make Coach not so much stupid as indecisive and pursuing his own line of reasoning. Behind the seeming stupidity was a sweetness and innocence and a striving to make sense out of life."
The beauty part was that Colasanto didn't just bring the character to life from the printed page, he completed Coach and gave him qualities even the Charles brothers didn't know were there. "We have absolutely lucked out with all our cast," Glen Charles says. "Each one has taken their character farther than we thought they could go. That was certainly the case with Nick. Among other things, he was a great listener -- Nick as an actor and in the role. The character was somebody all the other characters could explain things to. And we could always cut to Nick for a silent reaction, when another character did a joke and we needed something to break up the laughter. We'd cut to Nick because as Coach he was always trying to make sense of what was going on, and he had that wonderful puzzled look on his face."
Charles says there will be a "Cheers" episode in which the death of Coach is dealt with by the other characters who inhabit or frequent the Cheers bar, probably at the beginning of the fall season, much as the cops on "Hill Street Blues" contended with the loss of Sgt. Esterhaus after the death of actor Michael Conrad. Years ago -- and, on some TV shows, even today -- the disappearance of a principal character because of an actor's death might never be accounted in the narrative for fear of depressing or alienating the audience. That these things can now be faced and stated is one small indication that television has matured.
While a new bartender will be added to the "Cheers" cast, Charles said, under no circumstances will the character be a duplication of Coach: "That is one absolute that we will not do." Instead a totally different character will be developed. In 1982, when "Cheers" was put together, between 50 and 75 actors tested for the role of Coach -- one of them Sid Caesar, the veteran TV clown -- but Charles says, "Nick was our first choice from the very first time we saw him." The ensemble casting of "Cheers" is an extremely important factor in the success and excellence of the program. This may be the most ingratiating extended family created for television since the days of bliss in the WJM-TV newsroom on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
And Coach was the father figure of the group, especially to Sam (Danson), with whom he shared a baseball past. Couldn't it be that some viewers will feel in their own way as keen a sense of loss as those who actually knew Colasanto and worked with him on the show? Television can foster intimate vicarious friendships, and we'll remember Coach as the actor played him: someone who wished no harm to any fellow human being and regretted every harsh word he ever spoke. There are such people on the planet. You're lucky to meet them on the street or on a TV screen.
The other drama of Coach is that for Colasanto, the role was the crowning achievement of an erratic career that included directing episodic television like "Bonanza" and "Starsky and Hutch." On Thursday night's rerun, to help Coach work up the nerve to assert himself and conquer an obstacle, Sam told him an old baseball tale in which the key booster phrase was "Go get 'em." Coach licked the problem and in his last scene said exultantly to his friend, "Hey, Sam, I got 'em!" Sam said, "You got 'em, Coach," and that moment froze instantly in the mind as The Way We'll Remember Nicholas Colasanto. It was a sweet epitaph for an actor and a character you had no trouble finding room for in your heart. Coach, you got 'em.