Watching an Alternate-Universe ‘Cheers’ That Shelley Long Never Left
The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
When Cheers was in its fifth season in 1987 there weren’t really any shows out there that held a candle to it. After a slow start, ranking overall at #71 on the charts, by this time they had shot to the number 3 slot, behind just The Cosby Show and Family Ties. However, Season 5 would prove to be the end of an era for the program, as it would see the farewell of Diane Chambers, played by Shelley Long, its female lead and love interest to main character Sam Malone. As the show moved forward they introduced Kirstie Alley, went on for six more years, ultimately becoming the number one show on television, and delivering one of the most-watched TV finales of all-time.
But what if there was a different version of Cheers? A version in which Diane never left? A version where in the Season 5 finale, she didn’t leave him at the altar (or, actually, the bar, since they were getting married in the titular watering hole.)? Well, if you were lucky enough to be at the taping for the episode “I Do, Adieu,” that’s exactly what you saw happen. But, of course, that version of the show has never been seen by TV viewers…
Well, except for one exception. On May 27, 1998, Fox aired a 90-minute special with a far too long title produced by the Paley Center called Behind the Laughs: The Untold Stories of Television’s Favorite Comedies: A Museum of Television and Radio Special. The bulk of the special is comprised of different television personalities talking about stories from the set, and about how popular shows came together, intersped with clips from the shows. But before we get to this alternate ending that appeared in the show, let’s go back a little bit first.
According to Warren Littlefield’s fantastic book Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV, Shelley Long’s departure is briefly discussed. The reason given by Bob Broder, agent to the show’s creators, was that she had a few children during the course of her five years on Cheers and was ready to move on. Legendary TV director and Cheers co-creator Jim Burrows doesn’t have much to say about the subject, but what he does say is right to the point. “When Shelley left Cheers, we hated her for that.”
In the episode that aired on May 7, 1987, Diane, recently engaged to Sam, is approached by her ex-boyfriend from the pilot episode of the series who tells her that he’s submitted her manuscript to a publisher who might be interested in publishing her book. Sam, who overhears this conversation, confronts Diane and pushes her towards waiting on getting married so that she doesn’t regret missing her shot at something great (because, obviously, a woman can’t be married and be a writer at the same time!). She counters, insisting that they get married that night in Cheers. In the middle of the ceremony a call comes in that they want to publish her book. Sam stops the ceremony and insists that she go to Maine to write her book. At the end of the episode Diane insists that she’ll only be gone for six months, but Sam states that you never know what could happen and tells her, with affection, to “have a nice life.”
The section from Sam stopping the wedding ceremony on, however, was filmed in secret with a completely different crew from the usual Cheers staff. The hope, according to Jim Burrows, was that when the studio audience saw this alternate ending in which Sam and Diane end up happily ever after, they would leak it leading to a much bigger surprise when they tuned in to Shelley Long’s final episode.
In the unaired ending there are some similarities to what audiences eventually saw: hard-edged Carla, played by Rhea Perlman, who had previously been opposed to Sam and Diane’s wedding can’t stop crying, Norm, Cliff, and Frasier take bets on whether or not the wedding is going to happen, and the ceremony is still interrupted when Woody takes a phone call informing them that they’re going to publish Diane’s book and give her a big advance to finish it. The officiant asks Diane if she will take this man — but Sam cuts him off, announcing that he wants to “change his answer.” At this, Cliff, Norm, and Frasier immediately begin to hand their money back.
It’s at this point that our alternate timelines skew: First Diane talks Sam down, and convinces him to go along with the wedding, and for a moment they do. But then, as the officiant continues, “You Sam, and you Diane have complied with the regulations…” but Sam cuts him off again, saying that he doesn’t want to be married to a woman “who’s always asking ‘what if?'” (The sound of money being crinkled can be heard from the bar.) He tells her to go away and finish her book, then come back and “they’ll see what happens then.” But Diane insists, “I don’t want to go away. I want to stay right here.” She tells the officiant to begin, and he does. “You Sam, and you Diane…” Sam interrupts again, and then true to form, this turns into a Sam-and-Diane-esque fight in which the two accuse each other of trying to back out of the wedding with such convoluted dialogue as Diane’s “Well, I think you’re backing out of this because you want to back out of this, not because you think I want to back out of this.” This evolves into an argument about which of the two want to get married more. They each ask each other some variation of “Now, hang on, are you saying you want to get married to me?!” and when they each answer “I do,” the officiant cuts to the chase and pronounces them man and wife and the bar erupts into applause.
While the writers worked hard to keep the season finale’s ending a secret, unfortunately it was widely reported before the episode aired that it would be Shelley Long’s last. In fact, according to one article I found, written in a Lakeland, Florida newspaper the morning the finale was to air, they reported that three endings were filmed. Producer Peter Casey reveals that one ending features Sam and Diane getting married, one in which Diane goes off to write her book, and a third exists but Casey declined to say what it was, and I’m unable to find any reference to it in my research.
What I did find in my research however, was that one YouTube user uploaded a copy of this alternate ending from the same Fox special I referenced above. The file has a gibberish filename to evade it being taken down for copyright infringement, but with a fairly simple Google search the Cheers alternate ending can be found (for the time being) pretty easily. It’s like stepping into an alternate universe beyond our own where everybody knows your name.