Matrimony for Sam Malone? Sure looked like it: After the cliff-hanger finale of Cheers’ 1985-86 season found playboy barkeep Sam (Ted Danson) on the phone, proposing to an unseen woman, fans of NBC’s barroom sitcom spent the summer wondering who was on the other end. Was it his most recent flame, city councilwoman Janet Eldridge (Kate Mulgrew)? Or his priggish on-again, off-again squeeze, Diane Chambers (Shelley Long)? On Sept. 25, 1986, 53.8 million viewers would learn that the object of Sam’s affections was Diane — who made him propose again and turned him down.
Engagement or not, Cheers’ creators had reason to toast: The Sept. 25 episode cemented the show’s top five status, a position it held for the next 5 of its 11 seasons (in fact, only in its last year, 1993, did Cheers again finish below No. 5). Quite a feat for a series that was a cellar-dweller its first season. And the speculation during the summer of ‘86 turned the show into a cultural touchstone. ”Right before the [fifth] season started, I saw this Cathy cartoon,” recalls Glen Charles, who shared executive-producer duties with his brother Les, and James Burrows. ”She said, ‘I’ve gotta watch TV tonight to find out who Sam was calling.’ And I thought, ‘Ooh — that’s good.”’
Ironically, none of the producers really wanted a Sam/Diane wedding. Long fortuitously solved their problem: Midway through the season, she announced she was quitting the series to make movies. So in the season’s final episode, Diane left town to write a novel; from then on, Sam rebounded — or tried to — with his new boss, Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley).
Long’s later career has been uneven. After the big-screen success Outrageous Fortune, released her last year on Cheers, she wouldn’t have another hit until she made a film based on, yes, a sitcom: 1995’s The Brady Bunch Movie. She plans to give TV another try with The WB’s mid-season comedy Kelly Kelly.
Danson, for his part, would make a few unremarkable post-Cheers films (like Pontiac Moon) before he too returned to series TV, with mixed results. His CBS sitcom Ink would last only one season. But his NBC Gulliver’s Travels miniseries impressed critics and audiences alike.
In short, it seems their Cheers characters have remained Long and Danson’s most engaging roles. Charles attributes the duo’s enduring popularity to one simple, TV-friendly fact: ”People love mismatches — and nobody was more mismatched than Sam and Diane.”
September 25, 1986
NBC JUGGERNAUT The Cosby Show launches its second Nielsen-topping season; it will go on to be No. 1 for the next two years as well. Starting in 1996, stars Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad would rule a new roost on CBS’ less successful Cosby. TOP GUN soars at the box office. In addition to star Tom Cruise, the cast includes the future Batman Val Kilmer, the future ER resident Anthony Edwards, and the future Sally, Meg Ryan. ”STUCK WITH YOU” keeps Huey Lewis & the News fans glued to the radio. The band would stick together to the present day, releasing a retrospective, Time Flies, in 1996. AND IN THE REAL WORLD, Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern’s offscreen romance becomes part of the lore of Blue Velvet, released on Sept. 19. The two later move on to even higher-profile relationships — she with Jurassic Park costar Jeff Goldblum, he with supermodel Linda Evangelista, whom he meets at a photo shoot in 1991.