George Wendt brushed past questions about his success as beer-quaffing Norm in the NBC hit comedy "Cheers" with the throw-away line: "I get a lot of free beers. It's one of the great perks of employment history.
"Whenever I go out people are always sending over a beer, or a round, for me and my friends." While in Pittsburgh recently shooting some scenes for the movie "Gung Ho," free beers from the bar "were stacked up at our table all the time," Wendt said. Even in Buenos Aires, where some of the movie was shot this summer, "I'd be sitting at a bar and a guy would see me and start rubbing his eyes deeply, shake his head and ask, 'That you?' Then, bingo, a free beer."
It's been a lot of fun for Wendt since he began with Cheers three years ago. But then, Wendt looks back at most of his life as a lot of fun. When he first read for a part in "Cheers" the character was named George. He was supposed to come in have a beer and stay all night, recalls Les Charles, one of the writers of the show.
Wendt recalls working on another show at the time in a minor part. Soon writers Les and Glen Charles started re-writing the "Cheers" scripts and Norm evolved. "They've been very good to me. They've been very good to the entire show."
Cheers and all six of its regulars have been nominated for Emmys, which will be awarded Sept. 22. The regulars are Ted Danson (Sam), Shelley Long (Diane), Wendt (Norm), the late Nicholas Colasanto (Coach) John Ratzenberger (Cliffie) and Rhea Perlman (Carla).
"That's a tribute to the boys," said Wendt. "When you say 'The Boys,' everyone in the business knows you're talking about Les and Glen," who are brothers.
This is the second time Wendt has been nominated in his three years on the show, a long way from the "unfocused" guy who was bounced from Notre Dame University with a 00.0 grade-point average.
As Wendt tells it: "I feel like once again I'm explaining how I flunked out to my dad. And, I'll say the same thing. I don't know why I did it. I remember I wasn't having a particularly good semester and on Saturday night before the finals I was at a party. As it was breaking up someone said, 'I know where there's a good party.' I went along. The party was in Denver where I spent the next two weeks and missed all my exams, which explains the 00.0 average and that I wasn't very focused at the time."
George then spent some time in his father's real estate office in Chicago. "I wasn't setting the business world on fire, although after a year or so I was okay with the Xerox machine and getting coffee for the secretaries." He did put forth enough effort to eventually get a B.A. from Rockhurst College.
Whenever he saved up enough money he would take off for places like Europe and Africa. When he ran out of money he came back to work for his dad. "You didn't need a lot of money then. A round trip ticket to Luxembourg cost $165, and then it was catch as catch can. A loaf of bread here and a nickle would get you a jug of wine . . . "
In no small way his career got started on these trips. The reaction of his friends to his antics and monologues while camping around Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia spurred him to think about a career in the performing arts. In 1974 he joined Second City and worked there for six years until an NBC pilot "Nothing But Comedy" featuring Second City players brought him to Los Angeles.
He has guest starred in several TV series, "Alice," "Taxi," "Hart to Hart" and "The American Dream." In addition to the movie "Gung Ho" he has had roles in "Fletch," "No Small Affair," "Thief of Hearts" and "Dreamscape."
His relaxed off-hand delivery is serving him well. John Ratzenberger, mailman Cliffie in "Cheers," says Wendt makes "good comedy look so effortless. He just knows what's right." Les Charles calls it a great throw-away delivery. "Some guys throw away lines, he throws away his whole performance."
The toughest part of his role in "Cheers" is drinking the beer. You see, it isn't beer. Wendt says it's near beer, "which to the best of my knowledge has no alcohol. It doesn't come in kegs. So the crew pours cases of cans into a rigged soda pop dispenser which is run up through the tap on the set.
"This is done early each day and the stuff is warm and flat by the time shooting begins," Wendt explained. "When they first filled the glasses, the cameraman yelled that he couldn't see any foam. Then they started putting a half teaspoon of salt into the empty glasses to create a head.
"There I was slamming those down for a whole day. It not only tastes disgusting, I was afraid of keeling over from high blood pressure. Then I got the knack. I didn't have to put all those brews away. It only mattered when the camera was pointing my way. It took a couple of years but now I watch the camera. That's how I make my money. That's acting."
What isn't acting is his over-stuffed appearance. At 36, Wendt weighs more than 200 pounds. "The program says 235 pounds." The only time he recalls working with his shirt buttoned was in an early "Cheers" episode where he was to go to work as the bookkeeper at the saloon and showed up spiffy, shirt buttoned, tie up and a flower in his lapel. "Actually none of my shirts button, " Wendt quipped, admitting to a size 19 neck.
Off camera Wendt likes a quiet home life, just lounging around and reading papers. He says he reads at least four a day, sometimes more on the road. "I like the features and style sections. I also read one or two sports sections, front pages and editorial pages. And, I read all the gossips."
When talking to journalists he likes to remid them that his grandfather was one, a photographer whose picture of the electrocution of Ruth Snyder appeared on the front page of the New York Daily News in 1928. "He dressed as a priest and hid the camera under his cassock. The picture is in the Smithsonian."
He also likes to cook for his wife Bernadette and his two sons, Joshua, 15, and Andrew, 14. "Just the fire house, he- man stuff, you know, barbecued ribs, chile, stuff like that."
Wendt said he's reluctant to give advice on acting or playing the bar scene. But in response to a request, he said if people want to come off like Norm at the neighborhood bar, they should "hire Glen and Les Charles. It'll spice up their patter." For would-be comics: "Play it straight. Everyone at Second City had to learn the Elaine May quote, which said, 'Never let them catch you trying to be funny.' "
And what about Norm? Will he be played any differently in his fourth year at the corner stool in "Cheers?" Wendt replied, "I haven't the foggiest."