When "Cheers" co-creators James Burrows and Glen and Les Charles had to come up with a title for the episode they were filming at the end of last November, the name "Cheerio Cheers" seemed to fit. After all, the plot line centered around Diane Chambers' (series star Shelley Long) announcement that she was leaving for Europe, the writers' ruse to cover Long's pregnancy.
They had no idea at the time how sadly appropriate that title would be.
"Cheerio Cheers," which is scheduled to air April 11, also marked the final time Nicholas Colasanto stood behind the bar as the dense but lovable Coach Ernie Pantusso. Colasanto died Feb. 12 of a heart attack.
"I don't think we'll ever want to replace Nick," Burrows said the other day.
Burrows and the "Cheers" staff were not alone this season in their need to make some difficult and often painful decisions after the loss of an important cast member. Death, imprisonment and resignation took their toll on five shows this season--and very nearly a sixth.
"For a single season, that's quite an unhappy number of people to be affected that way," said Michael Gleason, executive producer of "Remington Steele."
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday April 5, 1985 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 18 Column 6 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
In the April 1 edition of Calendar, William Conrad was credited with having narrated a tribute to Jon Erik Hexum on a "Cover-Up" episode after Hexum's death. The narration was done by Richard Anderson, who has starred on the show since its inception.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 6, 1985 Home Edition Calendar Part 4 Page 4 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
A story in Monday's Calendar about cast changes in television series reported incorrectly that Chris Robinson, who plays Dr. Rick Webber on ABC's "General Hospital," was charged with and pleaded guilty to tax evasion, a felony. The charge in fact was willful failure to file income-tax returns, a misdemeanor.
Robinson is serving a sentence nights and weekends and remains available for daytime taping of the soap opera.
In addition to Colasanto's passing:
--Jon-Erik Hexum accidentally shot himself in the head while toying with a gun loaded with blanks on the set of "Cover-Up" last October. Even as cast and crew mourned, a talent hunt for his successor ensued.
--Stacy Keach began serving a nine-month sentence in England's Reading Prison Dec. 7 after his conviction for importing cocaine. That left "Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer" with no star, an uncertain future and a rush order for the services of mimic Rich Little.
--Chris Robinson, Dr. Rick Webber on "General Hospital," avoided a prison sentence for tax evasion that would have forced him to leave the show (starting Tuesday) by serving his sentence nights and weekends so that he can remain available for daytime taping.
--Chad Lowe, the young lead on this season's new teen comedy "Spencer" unceremoniously bowed out of his contract late last year, an action that likely will keep a battery of lawyers busy for some time. The show was hastily modified and returned to the Saturday night lineup two weeks ago under a new name, "Under One Roof," with a new actor as Spencer.
--Even as production on this season's episodes of "Dallas" began, Barbara Bel Geddes announced she would not be returning to the show. The season was well on its way before Donna Reed appeared as the new Miss Ellie.
All of the above shows have had to deal with the personal and professional tragedy that comes with the loss of a star.
Soap operas historically have had a no-fuss method of dealing with an actor's absence: They simply hire a new face to portray the old character and go on as if nothing happened.
"If indeed Chris was going to be in prison we would have had to replace him with someone else," "General Hospital" executive producer Gloria Monty said regarding Robinson's predicament.
But Monty said that she generally tries to avoid replacing a character and has done so only once in her eight years with the show.
Prime-time producers are even more reluctant to replace them. "I think most attempts to duplicate are very dicey at best," Burrows said. "There's always a constant comparison (to the previous actor)."
Instead, Burrows said, an attempt is made to replace the character's qualities. The Coach's were "his sweetness, his density--not stupidity, but just getting hit in the head with a number of baseballs--and I guess the third is he was an incredible listener.
"Maybe you can't find all that in one character," Burrows added.
"Dallas' " producers knew they had to find very particular qualities following Bel Geddes' resignation. To keep a character like J.R. under control, Miss Ellie, the lone voice of parental authority in the Ewing household, had to be replaced. (Jock Ewing had been killed off following actor Jim Davis' death in 1981.)
Donna Reed eventually was selected because she exhibited the same "authority and gentleness" and was in "the same age range" as Bel Geddes, according to producer Leonard Katzman. "We weren't looking for a doppelganger ," Katzman said, "but we didn't want somebody too far off."
"Cover-Up's " producers took a slightly different approach.
"It was always in mind to come up with a new character and give him a new persona," according to Terry Allan, vice president of Glen Larson Productions.
Four weeks after Hexum's final appearance as Vietnam veteran-turned-secret agent Mack Harper, "Cover-Up" returned to the airwaves with Antony Hamilton, 30, as Jack Stryker.
The producers were not displeased that their new star had an Australian accent and a slightly rougher look than Hexum. "It helped audience acceptance by making him his own character," Allan said.
But what happens when the leading character's name is in the title of the show?
Obviously, "Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer" must have a character named Mike Hammer.