Fans of the beloved sitcom, Cheers, have a special place in their hearts for the one of the bar’s hilarious resident barflies: Norm Peterson. Played brilliantly by George Wendt, Norm quickly went from a glorified extra to a fan favorite. He appeared in every episode of the show, which was a hit for NBC from 1983 to 1993. Not only that, but he was awarded six Emmy nods for his work over the years. But, as tends to happen with larger-that-life characters, people often assume that George Wendt and Norm Peterson are exactly alike. And while every actor brings elements of themselves into their characters, the two are quite different in many ways. In this video, we’re going to take a look at George Wendt’s life and career, and the ways in which he’s different from his classic character, Norm. Join Facts Verse, as we present: George Wendt Says He’s Nothing Like Norm from Cheers
Perhaps the most notorious aspect of Norm Peterson’s presence on Cheers was his indulgence, and yes, over-indulgence of beer. We aren’t sure if anyone ever counted a tally of how many beers we saw Norm drink, but it was certainly in the hundreds. And that’s just the ones he drank during the show’s 22 minute run time! (And to answer your question, we ARE aware he’s a fictional character. We don’t think he was actually drinking beers when the cameras weren’t on. Just had to get that out of the way.) But regardless, George Wendt liked to point out that while he does enjoy beer, he doesn’t enjoy it nearly to the level that Norm did. Perhaps most relevant is the fact that George wasn’t ever drinking any real beer during all those tapings. That’s quite standard, since people aren’t supposed to be drinking on the job, even if they are famous actors. Otherwise they would have a harder and harder time nailing their lines! The stuff Wendt was drinking was actually pretty horrid tasting, he claims. The producers were insistent that the beer Norm drank looked like it came right out of the bar’s taps. So cans or bottles were not an option. He says they ended up pouring cans of fake beer and running them through dispensers that usually dispensed sodas. But this happened well before shoot time. So when Norm was finally handed a beer ‘from the tap’ it had been slowly getting flat throughout the day. Then the props department would pour salt into it, to make sure it had a frothy head on top. So Wendt was drinking flat, fake beer that was loaded with salt. Wendt jokingly said that while he did a lot of acting on the show, his BEST performance was pretending that the ‘beer’ he was drinking tasted good.
George’s Book on Beer
But that’s not to say that Wendt isn’t a pretty huge fan of the frothy good stuff. He enjoys beer so much that he literally wrote a book about it. It’s called Drinking With George: A Barstool Professional’s Guide to Beer. It was released in 2010, and it’s all about his relationship to it over the years. Wendt tells tales that, frankly, could be right out of a sitcom. He regales readers with myriad stories centered around beer, ranging from the time he had his first one as a child (only a sip, from his grandpa’s cup) to the time he and Woody Harrelson did a drunken performance with the U.S. Women’s Synchronized Swimming Team. He also dives into some perennial questions that beer drinkers might have, such as the differences between the various types, and how to quickly make warm beer colder.
When asked about the differences between himself and Norm, Wendt is always quick to point out that, unlike Norm, he’s a big fan of his wife. It was a running gag on Cheers that Norm wasn’t a huge fan of his wife, Vera, who we never actually see or hear from in the show. But Wendt has been happily married, and enjoys spending time with his real life wife, Bernadette. He also likes to point out that when he drinks beers, he gets drunk. Kind of like every other normal person. He says this because, as you may have noticed, Norm never seems to be intoxicated in the least on the show. He drinks beer after beer, but keeps the same sober personality going throughout. Wendt says that this is because the network didn’t want Norm to ever appear drunk. They felt like this would turn him from a fun and popular character, to one that audiences felt sad for. And that wouldn’t serve the show very well.
The infamous spitball wars
There’s a decent amount of downtime when you film a sitcom, even ones filmed all in one sitting in front of a studio audience. So actors often come up with ways to keep each other entertained in between takes. And sometimes, those antics can tend towards the infantile. Such was the case on Cheers. In addition to some standard bar games like darts, pool, and that paper football game where you flick a folded up triangle and try to get it through the other person’s hands, the gang liked to play… spitball. There were a lot of paper napkins on set, since it was a recreation of a bar. Same with plastic straws. And when you put those together, it can make for a mean game of firing spitballs at each other. In an interview with Thrillist, Cheers star Ted Danson talked about the spitball games the cast played, and in particular he mentioned that George Wendt would often get hit with them and not realize it. Danson said that there were episodes of Cheers in which you can clearly see spitballs stuck on Wendt’s head, above his hairline. Hopefully at some point there will be outtakes released that show some of these infamous spitball wars.
George gave the writers ‘more homework’
James Burrows, one of the co-creators of Cheers, was recently a guest on the Smartless podcast. On it, he spoke about the effect that Wendt had on the show – the writing staff in particular. First, he spoke about Norm’s initial entrance on the show’s pilot. In it, Norm walks in, and Sam Malone asks him ‘‘What do you know?” Norm, deadpan, replies ‘Not enough.’ According to Burrows, the line wasn’t even written as a joke. But Wendt’s delivery was so impeccable, it got a huge laugh. As such, the legend of Norm’s entrances was born. Burrows revealed that the pressure ot continually come up with “Normisms” that he’d say when he entered the bar was a huge challenge for the talented writing staffs over the years. And yet, Wendt had made Norm such a big part of the show, they couldn’t abandon these moments of levity.
The Normisms were made all that much more difficult to write by the fact that Norm’s usual stool at the bar was at the far end, away from the entrance. Burrows revealed that initially they were going to have Norm sitting closer to the door in the pilot episode. But they realized that, based on the storyline that Diane was going to be hovering near the door as she awaited the arrival of her fiancé, they had to move Norm to the other side. As such, that became Norm’s ‘usual’ seat. So because he had that much longer of a walk when he entered the bar, it put even more pressure on the writers to come up with great dialogue for him to say as he slowly made his way across most of the set to get to his seat.
David Isaacs, a former Cheers writer, talked to Entertainment Weekly about the process of writing Norm’s entrances. He talked about how it was so difficult because they were coming up with jokes that were not in any context, other than Norm finding a funny way to relate that his life is “just nothing.” He said his favorite of the Normisms was one written by Ken Levine. After he’s asked “What are you up to?” and Norm’s response is “My ideal weight if I was 11 feet tall.” Isaacs said he felt they’d never top that one, despite trying over and over to.
George was perfect for the role
On the same podcast episode, Burrows talked about how George Wendt was the ideal casting for the character. He noted that Wendt naturally has the look of someone who might have already had a few beers, which is perfect for Norm. He also has a very dry wit as a person, which he was able to utilize in Norm’s character. Burrows pointed out that it was a perfect meeting of a great part, played by a great actor. He even mentioned that a great part, played by only a GOOD actor will likely not pop on screen. But a great part played by a GREAT actor will be legendary, which is what he claims happened with Norm and George.
George Wendt will always be remembered best as Norm from Cheers. Which is generally what happens when you play such an iconic and memorable character for so many years. And it’s especially true if you play it to perfection, as Wendt did with Norm. But it’s always nice to learn where an actor ends and the character begins. So hopefully you have a better sense of the major differences between George and Norm, as well as where they overlap!
Now it’s time to hear from you. Who was your favorite character from Cheers? What about your favorite episode? Let us know in the comments section below!