What the Hell Happened to Shelley Long?

Shelley Long

Over the course of five seasons on Cheers, Shelley Long was nominated for an Emmy four times.  After the show’s first season, she won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe.  Long was Cheers‘s first breakout star to the point where many wondered whether or not the sitcom could carry on without her.  As it turns out, Cheers ran for six more seasons closing up shop in 1993.  By that time, Long’s movie career had long since fizzled out.
What the hell happened?

Shelley Long – Second City

After high school, Long moved from Indiana to Illinois.  She attended Northwestern University where she studied drama, but she left to pursue an acting and modeling career.  She joined Chicago’s famous comedy troupe, The Second City, in 1976.
Meanwhile, Long was working as a model.  She appeared in print ads for shampoo and commercials for soap and furniture.
Here’s a clip of Long promoting the weekend lamp extravaganza for Homemaker’s Furniture:

In the late seventies, Long started landing guest spots on TV shows like Family and Trapper John, M.D.  Here she is on an episode of The Love Boat from 1978:

That scene plays like a test run for Sam and Diane.

Shelley Long – M*A*S*H – 1980

Once Long had her foot in the door, she appeared in a string of TV movies and guest spots.  The Cracker Factory starred Natalie Wood as a suicidal housewife who goes to an asylum to recover.  Long played a fellow inmate.  In The Promise of Love, Long portrayed Valerie Bertinelli’s best friend.  She helps Bertinelli cope with the loss of her husband after he is killed in Vietnam.
Among Long’s numerous TV roles was an appearance on M*A*S*H.  She played a nurse who is initially attracted to Alan Alda’s Hawkeye.  But after Alda sobers up, he begins lecturing Long for drinking.  She ends their date early declaring that Hawkeye is no fun.
Shelley Long – Caveman – 1981

Long made her big screen debut the following year in the prehistoric screwball comedy, Caveman.  Former Beatle Ringo Starr portrayed a wimpy cro-magnon who loses a girl played by Starr’s future wife (Barbara Bach) to a rival in the tribe.  Starr and his best friend (Dennis Quaid) are sent into exile where they meet another tribe.  Among the misfits in the new group was a cavewoman played by Long.
Almost none of the movie’s dialogue was intelligible.  Instead, the actors spoke in a made-up caveman language.  In her audition, Long impressed producer Lawrence Turman:

The very first girl we interviewed was Shelley Long.  She hadn’t yet done a film, but was (and is) funny and talented.  I loved her.  But how could I only see one actor for the role and decide to cast her?  Well, I couldn’t.  The director and I must’ve seen thirty or forty others before realizing that Shelley was our girl.

Caveman was an inauspicious beginning to Long’s movie career, but it was a start.  That same year, Long appeared in the TV movie The Princess and the Cabbie.

Shelley Long – Night Shift – 1982

Long followed up Caveman with a supporting role in Ron Howard’s comedy, Night Shift.  Howard’s former Happy Days costar, Henry Winkler, starred as a former stock broker who takes a job at the city morgue.  Long played a prostitute (with a heart of gold of course) who moves into the apartment next door to Winkler’s.  After Long reveals that she is in the market for a new pimp, Winkler’s goofy coworker (played by Michael Keaton) convinces him to start a side business.
Howard and producer Brian Grazer noticed Long in Caveman, but she was filming another movie at the time.  Later, during a two-day furlough, Long read for the part of Belinda.  She was initially hesitant to play a prostitute, but eventually decided that she liked the character even if she didn’t approve of her profession.  She researched the role by meeting with real life prostitutes.
Reviews for Night Shift were mostly positive and the movie was a hit at the box office.  But Long’s success on the big screen was about to be eclipsed by a TV show.
Shelley Long – Cheers – 1982-1987

From 1982-1987, Long played waitress Diane Chambers on the NBC sitcom, Cheers.  But you already knew that.  According to cheers co-creator, Glen Charles, Long was everyone’s first choice for the part.  But the actress wasn’t sure she wanted to work on television:

I was not looking for a sitcom, because the philosophy at that point was that you had to make a choice: Were you going to do movies or TV? You couldn’t cross over. Then this script came along, and it was the best TV script I’d ever read.

Charles and company were less sure about casting Ted Danson as the womanizing bar owner, Sam Malone.  Originally, the character was written as a former football player.  Danson didn’t fit the physical type so the script was rewritten to make Sam a pitcher.  Also, Danson initially came across as somewhat insecure.  He said he struggled for about two years trying to figure out how to play the character.  But Long figured out Diane right away:

I maintain that I got Sam because I was teamed with Shelley. She was really unique. You can’t imagine anyone else playing Diane. She was Diane.

Co-creator Les Charles agreed:

Shelley knew who her character was and had a much surer idea of herself than the rest of the cast. She was able to carry the show in the beginning while the others were finding their way.

Despite critical acclaim, Cheers was not initially a hit show.  During its first season, it ranked 74th out of 77 shows in the ratings.  But NBC’s president Brandon Tartikoff championed the show despite the low ratings.  He claimed that he did so because he believed in the show’s quality, but also NBC didn’t have any hit shows to take its place.
It also helped that Cheers was nominated for nine Emmys that year.  It won four awards including Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for Long.

Shelley Long – Losin’ It – 1983

In early 1983, before most audiences has discovered Cheers, Long costarred opposite Tom Cruise in the teen sex comedy, Losin’ It.  Formerly titled Tijuana, Losin’ It was the movie Long was filming when Night Shift was being cast.
Cruise played one of four teens in the late 1950’s who take a road trip to Mexico to blow off steam and lose their virginity.  Long played an unhappy housewife looking for a quickie divorce who joins the boys for mischief and mayhem.
When it was released, Losin’ It was seen as just another cheap sex comedy at a time when the market was flooded with them.  Cruise and Long were still far from household names though that would change soon enough for both of them.  The movie was directed by Curtis Hanson who went on to write and direct L.A. Confidential.  I imagine all three of them would have liked to have forgotten their humble beginnings on Losin’ It.

When Cheers returned for season two, the show enjoyed a larger audience.  During the summer reruns, the show went from the ratings basement all the way up to 9th place.  But the creative team faced a new challenge.  They worried that after bringing Sam and Diane together in the first season, there was nowhere left to go.  Long offered a suggestion:

Our audience was so tuned in to every move, because the flirting between Sam and Diane during the first season was totally outrageous. There was talk about “Would it be right to advance the relationship, or could that condemn the relationship?” I put my two cents in—big surprise—and said, “In a real relationship, you take two steps forward, one step back. So just because we take two steps forward and get all the benefit from that doesn’t mean we can’t go back or to the side.” Ultimately, that’s what worked.

Shelley Long – Irreconcilable Differences – 1984

As Cheers grew more popular, Long was offered bigger movie roles.  Irreconcilable Differences was Long’s first appearance on the big screen since she became a TV star.
The movie was loosely based on director Peter Bogdanovich’s divorce from his ex-wife Polly Platt.  Ryan O’Neal starred as a director who leaves his wife in favor of an actress played by a pre-fame Sharon Stone.  (In real life, Bogdanovich left his wife for Cybil Shepherd.)  Drew Barrymore, who was a hot child star following her scene-stealing performance in E.T., played Long and O’Neal’s daughter who divorces her parents when they start to neglect her.
Irreconcilable Differences was a modest hit at the box office despite mixed reviews.  Both Long and Barrymore were nominated for Golden Globes for their performances.  Long lost the Globe to Kathleen Turner who won for Romancing the Stone that year.  Long won her first Golden Globe for her work on Cheers and she was nominated for another Emmy which she lost to Jane Curtin who won for Kate & Allie.
The third season of Cheers introduced Kelsey Grammer as psychologist Frasier Crane.  Frasier was introduced as a temporary character meant to form the third point on a love triangle.  But the show’s producers liked Grammer’s performance so much, they kept the character around.  Initially, Grammer was perpetually worried about his future on the show.  In his 1996 autobiography, Grammer accused Long of trying to get rid of him:

Shelley was convinced that Diane and Sam should be together, that it was a terrible mistake to break them up…Shelly’s efforts to get me off the show were relentless. I learned after read-throughs she would insist the writers took out every laugh I had.

Grammer’s allegations have been denied by Long as well as the show’s writers and producers.  They appear to have stemmed from a conversation about how to handle Long’s real-life pregnancy on the show:

In the third year, right before we started the season, I told them I was pregnant. And they were saying, ‘Oh, well, we could do this, and we could do that, and Frasier could be the father.’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t think that’s right. You said Hepburn and Tracy to us when we started, and I think this should be Tracy’s baby.’ I guess Kelsey had been told that, and he was really upset about it. I talked to him on the phone once and I said, ‘You know, this was not about you, the actor; this was about Sam and Diane.’

For the third season in a row, Long was nominated for an Emmy for her work on Cheers.  And for the second year in a row, she lost to Jane Curtin.  The following year, Long received her fourth consecutive Emmy nomination which she lost to Betty White.  The Golden Girls crowded the Outstanding Lead Actress category for the next several years.

Shelley Long – The Money Pit – 1986

In between the fourth and fifth seasons of Cheers, Long found time to star opposite Tom Hanks in the domestic comedy, The Money Pit.  Long and Hanks played a couple who gets more than they bargained for when they but a fixer-upper in a remake of the Cary Grant movie Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.
Despite mixed to negative reviews (Roger Ebert called The Money Pit “a movie that contains one funny scene and 91 minutes of running time to kill.”) the movie performed well at the box office.  According to Hanks, who wasn’t a fan of the movie, “it made a ton of money, and then it stopped.”
The movie was originally scheduled for the busy Christmas season, but Universal pushed it back into a less competitive slot in early March.  This allowed The Money Pit some breathing room it might not have had if had been released during the holidays as planned.
Going into the fifth season of Cheers, it was uncertain whether or not Long would renew her contract with the show.  The actress found herself isolated from the rest of the cast:

I’d gotten into a routine of going into my dressing room and meditating at lunch. I needed to rest, just let go of all of it. Because I really felt sometimes like I was physically pulling the plot, and it was heavy. I’m sure it didn’t look great that I was going into my dressing room at lunch. I wish I could’ve hung out with the cast and got lunch. But it’s not restful for me to be in a public dining room and eat. It’s just not. And I was exhausted by the end of the morning because I tried to deliver as much of a performance as I could for each run-through.

Assistant director Thomas Lofaro said that Long “believed she was the new Lucille Ball” and that she would “spend hours after the run-through talking with the writers about her character and the story, just talking it to death. They would indulge her, but they indulged her to a point where they couldn’t stand it anymore.”
Glenn Charles clarified that Long never through tantrums on the set, but that she “liked to discuss things”.  After a read-through, the rest of the cast was ready to move on to blocking, but they had to indulge Long’s discussions.  The actress defended her approach, “There was scuttlebutt about me talking too much and being passionate about Diane. But I thought, ‘That’s my job. That’s what I’m supposed to do…. Don’t tell me not to get involved in the discussion.'”
In December of 1986, Long announced her decision to leave the show.

The Cheers writers were the finest in television. But I felt like I was repeating myself; it bothered me a little bit. And I was getting movie offers, which made people think, ‘Oh, she’s so snooty. She thinks she’s going to do movies.’
But most people tended to understand, because I had a two-year-old baby, and I wanted to spend more time with my family, which was the other reason I left the show. And I did spend more time with my family. It was a good decision. It was really good.

Danson had already committed to another season of Cheers.  Everyone who stayed with the show was worried that it could not go on with one half of “Sam and Diane”.  Writer Ken Levine observed, “It’s funny, there were actors who said that she drove them nuts, yet they were also mad that she was leaving. It’s like the restaurant where the food is so bad and the portions are so small.”
Two endings were filmed for the season five finale of Cheers.  The one the live audience saw ended with Sam and Diane getting married.  This was done partially to maintain the surprise, but also on the off chance that Long might change her mind and come back for another season.  After the audience left, they shot the actual ending which ultimately aired in which Diane leaves.
According to Les Charles, Long’s decision probably upset a lot of viewers who may have confused the actress with the character she played.  “Diane was not a lovable character, and I think people transposed that onto Shelley and blamed her for breaking up a show they really loved.”

Shelley Long – Outrageous Fortune – 1987

Outrageous Fortune was released midway through the fifth season of Cheers.  If Long had any lingering doubts about her decision to leave the show, the success of her latest feature probably allayed them.  Long costarred opposite Bette Midler in the female equivalent of an 80’s buddy action-comedy.  Both women played actresses who take an instant dislike to one another when they meet in an acting class.  Further complicating matters, they discover that they are both dating the same man (Peter Coyote).  After his apparent death, they team up to solve a mystery and get caught up in international intrigue.
Long and Midler were relatively evenly matched in terms of star power at the time.  Both had been promised top billing on the picture by Disney.  Neither actress would give up the top spot to the other, so they split billing with Long’s name coming first in the West and Midler’s name in the East.  The testy relationship the characters shared on-screen appears to have spilled over into real life.  When asked what it was like working with Long, Middler said it was “pretty rough”.
Critics were largely dismissive of the movie’s generic action-comedy premise which cobbles together bits and pieces of better movies.  Some felt that Long and Middler’s performances were enough to make  Outrageous Fortune worth watching.  Overall, reviews were mixed to negative.  But the movie was a hit with audiences.  It opened in second place at the box office behind Platoon and ranked in the top twenty highes-grossing movies of the year.
Shelley Long – Hello Again – 1987

Later that year, after Long had departed Cheers, she starred in another comedy for Disney.  But Hello Again didn’t enjoy the same level of success as Outrageous Fortune.  Long starred as a housewife who chokes to death on a chicken ball but is brought back to life by her wacky spell-casting sister (Judith Ivey) one year after her death.  She returns to find out that her husband, played by Corbin Bernsen, has taken up with her scheming college friend (Sela Ward).  Gabriel Byrne played the doctor who failed to save Long, but ends up falling for her after she comes back to life.
Critics panned Hello Again calling it a lifeless comedy.  Despite a decent opening weekend (it took second place behind Fatal Attraction), Hello Again ended up grossing less than half of what Outrageous Fortune earned.  After its first couple of weeks, negative word of mouth spread and the movie just died.
Despite the disappointing box office, there was reason for Long to be optimistic about the future of her movie career.  She had signed a contract with Disney that provided her production company with resources to develop future projects.  At the time, Long told the LA Times, “They haven`t always said yes, but we’ve agreed on a couple of things and are pursuing them.  We don`t always win, but we have a chance to say how we feel and how we see it and offer something constructive into the process, which is good.”
Shelley Long – Troop Beverly Hills – 1989

Unfortunately for Long, her Disney deal didn’t go anywhere.  It took two years for Long’s next movie and it was released by a different studio.  In Troop Beverly Hills, Long played a socialite who is facing a divorce from her husband played by Craig T. Nelson.  In order to prove that she can follow through on her commitments, Long’s character takes over her daughter’s girl scout troop.  As den mother of the Wilderness Girls, she takes her troop camping at a Beverly Hills Hotel.
Reviews were uniformly negative and the movie bombed at the box office.  It opened in seventh place and grossed less than half of its production costs.  But against all odds, the movie has found an audience on video.
Shelley Long and Steve Guttenberg – Don’t Tell Her It’s Me – 1990

The following year, Long returned to the big screen for the romantic comedy, Don’t Tell Her It’s Me.  Steve Guttenberg starred as a formerly over-weight cartoonist who has recently recovered from cancer.  Long played his sister who helps set him up with an attractive reporter played by Jami Gertz.  In order to help him get the girl, Long gives Guttenberg a new identity as a leather-clad, mulleted biker named Lobo Marunga.
The movie was based on Sarah Bird’s novel, The Boyfriend School.  Bird adapted her own book for the big screen, but she wasn’t impressed with her screenplay or the movie.  Years later, she confessed “My exceedingly mediocre screenplay was made into an exceedingly mediocre movie.”
Don’t Tell Her It’s Me received a limited release in theaters topping out at 177 screens.  It grossed just over a million dollars.  For all intents and purposes, this was the final nail in the coffin of Long’s movie career with one notable exception.  Meanwhile, Cheers was still on the air and going strong.
Later that year, Long returned to television in a dramatic role.  On the mini-series, Voices Within: The Lives of Truddi Chase, Long played a woman diagnosed with multiple personality disorder.  Voices was produced by Long’s company, ItzBinso Long.  More TV movies followed.  Long starred in Fatal Memories and  A Message from Holly in 1992.
Also that year, Long reunited with her Hello Again costar, Corbin Bernsen, for the comedy, Frozen Assets.  This movie played in just enough theaters to qualify as Gene Siskel’s pick for the worst movie of 1992.  Here’s a clip of Ebert and Siskel trying to adequately convey the movie’s awfulness:

In his zero-star review for Frozen Assets, Ebert wrote:

I didn’t feel like a viewer during Frozen Assets. I felt like an eyewitness at a disaster. If I were more of a hero, I would spend the next couple of weeks breaking into theaters where this movie is being shown, and lead the audience to safety. And if I’d been an actor in the film, I would wonder why all of the characters in Frozen Assets seem dumber than the average roadkill…
Movies like Frozen Assets are small miracles. You look at them and wonder how, at any stage of the production, anyone could have thought there was a watchable movie here. Did the director find it funny? Did the actors know they were doomed? Here is a movie to watch in appalled silence. To call it one of the year’s worst would be a kindness.

Shelley Long – Good Advice – 1993-94

In 1993, Long returned to television full-time.  Good Advice was a sitcom that aired on CBS for two seasons.  It was produced by Long’s company and starred the actress as a successful author and marriage therapist.  In the pilot episode, Long returns from a book tour to find that her husband is sleeping with another man and she now shares an office with a divorce attorney played by Treat Williams.  Teri Garr costarred as Long’s supportive sister.
Good Advice was originally intended to be part of the Fall 1992 season, but CBS had too many successful sitcoms on its schedule.  Long’s show got bumped to mid-season in favor of the Golden Girls spin-off show, Golden Palace.  While talking about the delay, Long addressed rumors of a feud with Cheers star, Ted Danson:

Ted and I didn’t fight.  Maybe we should have. He got angry once – and it was pretty late in the game – about something that I wish he had told me about long before.  Because I made every effort to change it, and I think I did a pretty good job – although maybe it wasn’t good enough for him.
He said that I wasn’t ready in time for the show to start.  The problem was that we would finish rehearsal at 5 or 5:30, then, being a girl, it took me a little longer to get dressed. You know, I wasn’t wearing easy clothes. I was wearing frilly, take-some-time clothes.  That was my job: to be the girl, a frilly, take-some-time kind of girl. But I went as fast as humanly possible. I ate more hair in those five years because I would have my dinner as my hair was being done. I did that after Ted made the suggestion.

Long finally returned to Cheers for the series finale in 1993.  Much to Long’s disappointment, Sam and Diane didn’t get a happy ending:

I was disappointed that Sam and Diane didn’t get together in the very last episode. I had no input whatsoever. I expressed my opinion, but just in passing. It didn’t change.

According to Les Charles, they never seriously considered having Sam wind up with Diane in the finale:

I’m not sure if that big of a portion of our audience would have been happy with it, because there were people who loved Shelley, but a lot of people liked Rebecca better, or thought Diane was bad for Sam, and so on.

Long was nominated for another Emmy for her guest spot on the Cheers finale.  Additionally, her own show, Good Advice, was performing well enough in the ratings to get picked up for a second season.  Unfortunately, Long’s good luck ran out when it came time to start production on the show’s second season.  Long was unable to show up for work because she had fallen ill with the flu.  When production was halted, CBS pulled Good Advice from their schedule indefinitely.  The second season aired in the summer of 1994 and the show was quietly cancelled.

Shelley Long – The Brady Bunch Movie – 1995

In 1995, Long starred opposite Gary Cole in The Brady Bunch Movie.  She donned a wig and delivered a spot-on Florence Henderson impersonation while portraying “lovely lady” Carol Brady in the satire of the beloved sitcom.  The movie was an extremely affectionate send-up of the family friendly TV show.  Audiences were hungry enough for Brady nostalgia to make the movie a modest hit despite mixed reviews.
Paramount was pleased with the results and doubled down on A Very Brady Sequel the following year.  But it turns out, there wasn’t a demand for another helping of the big screen Brady Bunch.  The sequel grossed less than half of what the first movie pulled in.  In 2002, Long and Cole reprised their roles for a made-for-TV sequel, The Brady Bunch in the White House.
Shelley Long – Frasier – 1996

Most of Long’s time was spent on television.  After the cancellation of Good Advice, she began making guest appearances on TV shows like Lois & ClarkMurphy Brown and Boston Common.  Long returned to the role of Diane Chambers for several episodes of Frasier.  The first, in 1994, was a very brief cameo.  The second time in 1996, Long was nominated for an Emmy for the episode “The Show Where Diane Comes Back.”  Finally, in 2001, Long returned for a scene in which Frasier examines his history of troubled romantic relationships.
When she wasn’t doing guest spots, Long was starring in TV movies like a remake of Freaky Friday (1995) costarring Gaby Hoffmann and the Disney Channel movie Suzie Q (1996).
In 1996, Long starred in her own self-produced sit-com, Kelly Kelly, on the WB.  Long played a literature professor whose first name was Kelly.  She married a fire chief (Robert Hays) whose last name was Kelly so she became Kelly Kelly.  Critics complained that the show was bland and it was quickly cancelled.
Shelley Long – Dr. T & the Women – 2000

Four years later, Long appeared Robert Altman’s romantic comedy, Dr. T. & the Women.  Richard Gere starred as the titular gynecologist who is struggling to deal with the women in his life.  His wife, played by Farrah Fawcett, is committed to a mental hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown.  Kate Hudson portrayed his eldest daughter who is getting married despite her romantic relationship with her maid of honor played by Liv Tyler.  Long appears as Gere’s secretary who has unrequited feelings for her boss.  Tara Reid plays Gere’s youngest daughter, Laura Dern is his sister-in-law and Helen Hunt is his golf instructor.  Long’s was just one of many characters who orbited Gere.  It was a small part in what would be Long’s last appearance in a mainstream Hollywood movie.
In 2004, Long’s second marriage to securities broker Bruce Tyson ended in divorce.  Facing an uncertain future which included possibly losing her home, Long overdosed on painkillers which was seen by many as an attempted suicide.  The incident resulted in an extended hospital stay.
Shelley Long – Modern Family – 2009-2017

Since her divorce, Long has worked steadily.  She alternates from TV movies to guest spots to indies.  In recent years, Long has had a recurring role on Modern Family as Ed O’Neill’s infuriating ex-wife, DeDe.  She can also be seen in TV movies like The Dog Who Saved the Holidays, Merry In-Laws (in which she plays Mrs. Claus), Holiday Road Trip and the upcoming Christmas in the Heartland.  Long appears in a lot of Christmas movies.
So, what the hell happened?
Conventional wisdom is that Shelley Long’s career collapsed because she left Cheers for movies.  I am not going to argue against that point of view.  Obviously, Long’s movie career didn’t take off the way she hoped it would.  Her biggest hit movie, Outrageous Fortune, was released while she was still on the show.  Long was banking on a deal with Disney that never yielded any fruit.
Additionally, Long’s fans saw her as Diane and they weren’t especially eager to see her branch out into other roles.  Many probably harbored a grudge against Long for leaving the show.  Over the years, I have heard a lot of people take delight in Long’s perceived failure post-Cheers.  There’s a mentality that Long was a little full of herself and got what she deserved for jumping ship on a hit show.
That argument is not without merit.  But I think you have to remember that Long spent five seasons on Cheers before she left.  Early on, she was the show’s anchor.  But after five years of watching Sam and Diane’s on-again-off-again relationship, things were beginning to get a little stale.  Cheers actually became more successful after Long’s departure.  I don’t think that reflects negatively on Long so much as the fact that the show needed to move in a new direction.  If Long had renewed her contract, I don’t think Cheers would have lasted nearly as long as it did.  Arguably, Long wouldn’t have been much better off if she had stuck around.
But I don’t want to let Long off the hook too easily.  For all of her perfectionism, most of her movies were pretty lousy.  I’m sure she wasn’t receiving the best scripts, but Long had her own production company.  Had she developed the right project, she could have set herself up for success.  Or at least aimed higher than Troop Beverly Hills.
Also, let’s not discount that Long was considered hard to work with.  You will find lots of people who will defend Long’s methods saying that they were motivated by a desire to get things right.  It does seem like Long was motivated by a desire to do her best work which is commendable.  But it’s equally clear that a lot of people found her maddening to work with.  One possible explanation for why Long’s deal with Disney wasn’t more successful is that the Mouse House decided she was a difficult partner.
Although movie stardom eluded Shelley Long, she was instrumental in the success of one of the most enduring sitcoms in television history.  No matter what happened after Cheers, you can’t take that away from her.  And I think you have to give Long some credit for sticking it out through some tough times.  We may not always have been watching, but she never stopped working.

What The Hell Happened Directory



Post Author: lebeau

43 thoughts on “What the Hell Happened to Shelley Long?


    (September 15, 2017 - 11:42 am)

    Nailed it perfectly. On one hand, Long is the textbook example of actor walking away form successful TV show and ends up pursuing unsuccessful movie career (the other one is of course David Caruso). On the other hand, if she had stuck around and the Sam/Diane thing continued after it started getting run into the ground, it’s likely that Cheers wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did or if it had, maintained the level of quality it did.
    It’s common for many successful sitcoms to stay on past their expiration date. Even many of the classic ones. All In The Family was a groundbreaking one. But once the Jeffersons and Stivics were gone, the show lost its mojo. Other ones that come to mind include Night Court, Happy Days, The Office, Two And A Half Men, That 70s Show, Will And Grace, Frasier etc etc etc. The aforementioned Cheers is an example of one that knew when it was time to pull the plug, along with Seinfeld, The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air and several others.
    When reflecting on sitcoms that stayed on past their expiration date, would be remiss not to mention the king of them: The Simpsons. AS most people know, there was a time when that was the greatest thing on TV. hat time started around 1992 and ended not long before the 90s ended. After that, the show started on its gradual descent into mediocrity. I stopped watching on a regular basis about 10 years ago and when I do tune in from time to time, it’s usually a reminder of how the mighty hath fallen. I’ve heard it rumored that Groening and Brooks priginally intended to see if they could go for ten seasons and then do a movie as a send-off. That would’ve been an excellent idea if it were true. But that plan was doubtlessly ditched when Fox began waving stacks of money around. If they had pulled the plug after the movie in 2007, that still would’ve been good. Today, it’s basically the TV equivalent of a Rolling Stones album: it will sell because of brand loyalty. But the glory era is way in the past.
    Re: The Money Pit. In some ways, it’s interesting that the two leads in that are the opposite in terms of success. One was able to transition from TV into movies and the other was less so.


      (September 16, 2017 - 2:04 pm)

      I’ve been watching “Night Court” the last month +; I was too young to understand it at the time, but I kind of got it (like “Miami Vice” was too, i suppose). But now, I just LOVE watching “Night Court”; wow, so many characters there (Dan acts like a cad, but there’s a heart there) and the Christine Sullivan character? So noble, so earnest, and funny by just being noble and earnest (go Markie Post, who was great on game shows, and always hip with haircuts).. Wow, I liked it as a kid, now I just see it as amazing.
      “The Money Pit” is what I’m going for; sometimes, all you want out of life is foreclosure.

      Terrence Clay (@TMC1982)

      (September 19, 2017 - 2:30 am)

      I was thinking about this today. To put things into some perspective, Ted Danson co-starred in the biggest box office hit of 1987 in “Three Men & a Baby”. Meanwhile, Shelley Long’s “Cheers” replacement, Kirstie Alley had a surprise hit two years later in “Look Who’s Talking” (being the fourth highest world-wide grossing movie of 1989).
      I don’t know for sure if Shelley Long simply over-estimated her star power outside of “Cheers” and no longer had a proverbial safety-net (kind of like how George Clooney still had “ER” despite of the stink of “Batman & Robin” being on him) to fall back on. Shelley Long kind of in the middle ground. She didn’t exactly leave a successful show too early like say David Caruso (the male poster child for somebody who shouldn’t have tried to become a movie star after leaving a hit TV show) and she didn’t overstay her welcome.

      Terrence Clay (@TMC1982)

      (October 19, 2017 - 3:55 am)

      The Sitcom Explained Part V: 10 Sitcom Characters That Improved the Show
      Cheers — Woody, Frazier, and Rebecca
      Debuting an ensemble of five characters, the sleeper sitcom went through a succession of cast changes, enlarging its cast to eight characters by season 10 in 1991. Following the untimely death of actor Nicolas Colasanto as Coach in 1985, NBC opted to fill his void with Hoosier-based bartender Woody Boyd in Season 4. His naivety placated fans mourning Coach’s loss. The cast expanded the following year when Kelsey Grammer was upgraded to a contract player as neurotic, sophisticated Dr. Frasier Crane. Shelley Long’s exit in 1987 left the show’s fate in the air, leaving Kirstie Alley to seamlessly energize the series, leaving no ratings loss. The series would remain a top-5 player through 1992, becoming the TV landscape’s 1st place show in the 1990-91 season.


    (September 15, 2017 - 12:45 pm)

    Ted Danson pretty much nailed it on that quote about how Shelley was Diane, as the public seemed to agree wholeheartedly. It’s quite telling how her two hits at the B.O. were achieved while she was still actively Diane. It was as if audiences went to see the character, not the actual actress.
    And I do mean two hits, by the way. The Brady Bunch fluke was, as stated in the article, a product of nostalgia, laced with smirking irony in this case. In fact, that was pretty much the peak period for 70’s revivalism. Which in itself was just the confirmation of a pattern, as nostalgia for a decade’s pop culture usually starts in the second half of the next one and peaks right around the turn for the second half of the next next one.
    Sorry for the half-confusing wording, OK? 😀

      Terrence Clay (@TMC1982)

      (September 19, 2017 - 2:41 am)

      I’m guessing that’s largely why the second “Brady Bunch” movie wasn’t as successful at least commercially. The whole novelty of the first movie (i.e. an affectionate parody/satire/deconstruction of a saccharine ’70s sitcom) could only go so far (especially if you weren’t a hardcore fan of “The Brady Bunch” to really appreciate the jokes).


      (December 9, 2017 - 6:19 am)

      Sounds like most of the females I met (I met Linda Hamilton at LAX back in 2006, and she was was very observant and pleasant, but I never met the other ladies. I’d like to meet Sean Young actually; I find her captivating, since we both complain a lot and want to fix things in life). I’m pretty neurotic myself, and think of myself as a star, so I’m not one to talk, but yet, here I am:-).


    (September 15, 2017 - 7:35 pm)

    Nice unexpected post about Shelley Long and the film career that never quite took off after leaving “Cheers”.

      Terrence Clay (@TMC1982)

      (September 19, 2017 - 2:44 am)

      I wonder if one reason why Shelley Long’s film career didn’t really take off is that in some respects, she played the same sort of character (a rich, educated, snobby, prudish woman). Maybe, “Night Shift”, which admittedly came before “Cheers” was an exception to the rule.

        Terrence Clay (@TMC1982)

        (September 19, 2017 - 3:06 am)

        Shelley Long: Not a Dumb Blonde, Just an Odd One
        Sherryl Connelly Apr 2, 1989
        She turned down the role played by Kim Basinger in “My Stepmother Is an Alien” because she felt she couldn’t live up to the many script references to a “gorgeous” woman. (“I said `Gee, guys, this just ain’t me.”‘) In her new release, “Troop Beverly Hills” (now playing in Tulsa), she looks good, very good, but in the manner of the rich housewife she plays – buffed by money to a high sheen. Feckless Phyllis, her character, is typical of her screen class, in that she doesn’t mend her wealthy ways so much as she is able to convince others that one can be rich but worthy too.
        Long, who has been criticized for repeatedly playing a variant of her breakthrough role, barmaid Diane Chambers on TV’s “Cheers,” says she does look for a certain similarity in the characters she is willing to assume for the long haul of making a movie. She wants each to be, at heart, a good person.
        “I have no desire to play a villainess,” she says. “Why should I spend 6, 9, 12 months thinking about and feeling into a character I have no respect for? “Glenn Close says she forfeited her marriage in doing `Fatal Attraction.’ I’m not interested in forfeiting my marriage (to investment adviser Bruce Tyson. They have a 4-year-old daughter). I’ve worked pretty darn hard at my marriage, thank you very much. And I’m not going to give it up for a role in a movie.”
        Other particulars she can be particular about include whom she plays against. “I usually feel pretty strongly about leading men. Some people say anybody can play opposite anybody. I’m sorry. That is just not the case.” Long admits that given her sticking points, her checklist of yes, no, and no way, she might not have lasted in the business if she fell a peg short of stardom. Eventually she had to come by the clout that comes only at the top. “I’ve been speaking up and offering my ideas, not making demands, not insisting, but sharing opinions for all of my career.


    (September 15, 2017 - 8:51 pm)

    Good article. Also, funny you based your WTHH article on a TV actress who didn’t make a great transition to movies considering my next Whatever Happened To articles is also about a TV actress who didn’t make a great transition to movies, albeit one whose shows were aimed at a much younger audience


    (September 16, 2017 - 3:42 am)

    Ha, it isn’t like Lebeau wasn’t objective here, although if I recall he once crushed on Shelley Long? Cool beans, because I remember her line from “Losin’ It”: “Tequila, it is to you kill you”). Plus, I loved her in “Night Shift” (probably one of my favorite films of all time) and “The Money Pit” (very relatable for me, for quite some time really:-). I don’t know, I kind of like her.
    I recently viewed the film when she played Steve Guttenberg’s sister and tried to play matchmaker with Jami Gertz (I forgot how attractive she was; I think she’s like Jennifer Connelly attractive). Wait a second, 1990’s “The Boyfriend School”. I mean, it’s terrible I guess, but I kind of liked it (I liked the cast, especially Shelley Long, who kind of carried things I felt).
    Do I find Shelley Long pretty? Well, I’ve always kind of dug Bette Midler (I have no idea why, I just do:-), so yeah, I real she has a reasonable sense of sexiness about her.
    Good article, laughed all the way through the piece.


      (September 17, 2017 - 4:10 pm)

      You’re on to me. Long was an early crush of mine. She was a pretty blonde who claimed to like smart guys (although even on TV she kept falling for the jock). Night Shift helped.


        (September 17, 2017 - 5:42 pm)

        Ha ha, Lebeau, this article was personal, and you Terminated it. Michael Biehn & Linda Hamilton (who I actually met, and seems likes a cool person) would be proud.


          (September 17, 2017 - 6:46 pm)

          Funny you should bring up Linda Hamilton. You know, she has a birthday coming up.
          I know you’re kidding, but there is some truth to the joke about this article being personal. Researching the article, I got a sense of how she rubbed a lot of collaborators the wrong way. But I’m still pulling for her. I’m glad she saw her way through a difficult personal time and seems to be doing well.


          (September 17, 2017 - 9:39 pm)

          Oh wow, my moment with Linda Hamilton: It was at an airport at LAX in 2006, when I was leaving from the Entertainment Electronics Expo (E3), I guess).. I was just stilling there, waiting for my flight, and this lady from the other side started chatting. So we talked for a few minutes, just like everyday people, and it took me about 20 minutes to figure out who I was talking to. I know it’s 11 years later, but I’m so glad that happened.


        (September 17, 2017 - 6:37 pm)

        Is it me or you seem to prefer blondes? 😉


          (September 17, 2017 - 6:41 pm)

          Guilty. But not to the exclusion of redheads or brunettes.


            (September 17, 2017 - 9:16 pm)

            Good on the redheads; Marilu Henner apparently has a strong memory, so does that count? Personally, I favor Alicia from Pizza Hut. She might not be famous, but she’s cool. Blondes do seem to have more fun though, so that’s always a consideration.


            (September 17, 2017 - 9:30 pm)

            I liked Marilu Henner back in the day too. Her memory is amazing.


    (September 16, 2017 - 3:01 pm)

    I think the lesson here is that are much as you think you know, sometimes you just don’t know enough. When you are the point lady/guy for something, that doesn’t necessary mean whatever you do is correct. I do understand the attitude about wanting to command, to control. I never knew Shelley Long had a production company; it kind of changes my point of view. Shelley Long’s production company set up a few bad vehicles. Lemons, really; maybe they where in cahoots with GMC.

      Terrence Clay (@TMC1982)

      (September 19, 2017 - 3:00 am)

      I don’t know if this matters much in the bigger picture, but Shelley Long during the height of her career was offered or tied to “Working Girl” (presumably Melanie Griffith’s role), “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (Whoopi Goldberg’s role before Shelley opted to do “The Money Pit”), and “My Stepmother Is An Alien” (Kim Basinger’s role).
      Apparently, Shelley dropped out of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” because she and the studio had “artistic differences”. The script (which later had to be rewritten on set) written by Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer was the one that was written with Shelley Long in mind as the star.


    (September 17, 2017 - 9:58 pm)

    Yeah, I wish my memory was like that. It’s okay, but not Merilu Henner good:-). I do take Gingko Biloba, but I don’t think I have type of muscle memory!

    Matt Rouge

    (September 24, 2017 - 4:57 pm)

    Great post, Lebeau. “Night Shift” is an underrated gem in my book. I own the DVD. Long, Hanks, and Keaton are all great, all before they became super big.


    (October 15, 2017 - 7:28 am)

    So I had a double dose of Shelley Long this morning: “Outrageous Fortune” is on the Laff channel (I did mention my fondness for Bette Midler, and Peter Coyote is in this film as well!), plus I’m trying out my new VCR (yes, I still like VCR’s;-), and put in my recording of “The Money Pit” (a tape which also has the “Miami Vice” episode ‘El Viejo’, the one which featured Willie Nelson). Shelley Long, Bette Midler, Willie Nelson, I’m off to a good start today!


    (October 17, 2017 - 9:17 pm)

    I love these articles, which are the best part of your blog. But you’ve already analyzed practically all movie star from the ’80s and’ 90s. Maybe you could analyze stars from classic movies, as Faye Dunaway, or music stars. I love popular culture, tv, movies and music, and I think this is one of the best sites I found about this topic and you have a huge file. Congratulations.



      (October 17, 2017 - 9:26 pm)

      Thanks for the kind words and thanks for reading. Faye Dunaway would make for a great WTHH entry. I will have to think about that one. A career like hers would take longer to research and write about, but it would definitely be an interesting read.


        (October 17, 2017 - 9:46 pm)

        Thank you for taking my suggestion into account. That article will make me very happy. I know you only analyze movie stars careers, but it would be great if you analyleze some pop stars careers too. For example, an article about Janet Jackson and her super bowl would be awesome. I miss What the Hell Happened articles.


        (October 18, 2017 - 12:19 pm)

        Call me a Faye Dunaway fan; I know it was my mother’s (still miss the mom, though it’s gotten better) favorite actress. Faye Dunaway though, I thought she had a run from about 1967-1979 in which she was as good as an actress on screen (1975’s “Three Days of the Condor”? Love it. I’m going through a Robert Redford phase right now, so the film REALLY works for me;-). Maybe it’s my genes (but not my shorts, nor sweater), but I still find her to be outstanding.


      (October 18, 2017 - 3:29 am)

      The destruction of Dunaway’s career is hard to figure out because she always worked and if she had any scandals they were kept private. There are theories.


        (October 18, 2017 - 12:38 pm)

        I like “Mommie Dearest” actually. I mean, Joan Crawford seemed liked a very powerful and revolutionary woman (not many people were single mothers in her era that had children), so I see the film as a half-truth, and I enjoyed Faye Dunaway’s performance. Then again, I first saw it as a youngster, so my perspective is likely different than what other people feel. Fresh out of the box, if I viewed it today, maybe I’d feel differently.

    Terrence Clay (@TMC1982)

    (November 11, 2017 - 9:46 pm)

    Shelley Long turned down an invite to Kim Kardashian’s ‘Troop Beverly Hills’ baby shower
    We can’t imagine Shelley Long as the type who keeps up with the Kardashians, but we were wrong.
    Yahoo Lifestyle recently caught up with the Cheers alum, who can be seen in the film Different Flowers, and had to ask if she had even heard about the Troop Beverly Hills-themed baby shower reality queen Kim Kardashian had back when she was pregnant with Saint West, now almost 2. After all, the actress spent long stretches of her career living out of the limelight — kind of the antithesis of the Kardashians. Well, not only had she heard about the party, which paid homage to the 1989 comedy she starred in, but she was invited but had to turn it down.
    “Yes, I was aware of that,” she says, “and they wanted me to come, [but] I was busy. It was … on a specific day, [and] I couldn’t to that.”
    Having Long bust in on the party (“You call this roughing it?!”) — attended by the KarJenner siblings and friends including Serena Williams, Cara Delevingne, and Gigi Hadid — to talk about black belts in shopping or to teach everyone the Freddie would have been amazing. Kim’s handlers apparently knew that, because Long says they contacted her again about attending another event for the reality star but that it never panned out.
    “And then they thought they would have me come for, I think, her birthday party,” she recalled. “The woman that was trying to arrange it said she would call my agent back, and they never called. I thought, Oh, well. They’re doing something else. No big deal.”
    There were no hard feelings from Long about never getting the second invite.
    “I think it’s wonderful that she’s a fan,” Long says of Kardashian, who is now expecting her third child via a surrogate. “That’s great.” (A rep for Kardashian has not responded to request for comment.)
    Kardashian’s baby shower saw the guests, in matching pajamas, camping out in teepees and sipping tea.
    Kanye West, Kris Jenner, and Caitlyn Jenner all made cameos at the bash, where partygoers snacked on breakfast food as well as Girl Scout cookies in keeping with the theme. There was no word if another star from the movie — alums include Carla Gugino, Jenny Lewis, Kellie Martin, and even Tori Spelling — attended the bash instead.
    Long has a recurring role in Modern Family, and in addition to Different Flowers, she can be seen in the upcoming movie Christmas in the Heartland, which also stars Bo Derek, in theaters on Nov. 23.

    Terrence Clay (@TMC1982)

    (November 13, 2017 - 8:57 pm)

    Shelley Long on playing an ‘ornery’ grandma her new film, ‘Different Flowers’
    Shelley Long is a true comedic great. From her star-making turn as Diane Chambers in Cheers to leading roles in ’80s favorites The Money Pit and Troop Beverly Hills, to an awkwardly funny appearance in Robert Altman’s Dr. T & the Women, Long has been making people laugh for the better part of four decades. With her new film, Different Flowers, she hopes to continue the trend.
    Different Flowers, available now on demand, features Long as the grandmother of a young bride who decides to run from the altar, accompanied by her young sister. The two set off to their grandma’s house in farm country, and butt heads along the way. For Long, something piqued her interest right away.
    “I decided to do Different Flowers because — there are a few reasons of course — but I was reading the script, and very early in the script it talks about my character, and her name is Mildred,” Long told Yahoo Entertainment. “Now, I did a character at the Second City whose name was Mildred. I still do the character for friends, so when I saw the name, I thought, ‘Oh, boy. This is a signal.’”
    Long also recognized the chance to play a character who spoke to her.
    “She’s a more traditional grandmother; she certainly isn’t Dede [from Modern Family],” Long told us. “I just really liked her. I loved being able to do a character like that — endearing, has a lot of traditional things about her, but who’s also, as my grandmother would have said, ornery. A little naughty.”
    Long also had nothing but praise for Different Flowers director Morgan Dameron.
    “When you work with Morgan, you can’t help notice how young she is,” Long shared. “And it’s astounding — I mean she’s written this screenplay. And she directed it and at the same time she was one of the producers. I think you’re going to see a lot from her. She’s very talented.”

    Terrence Clay (@TMC1982)

    (November 16, 2017 - 9:13 pm)

    Shelley Long ‘never would have dreamed’ that ‘Cheers’ would still be making people laugh today
    Any list of the best sitcoms in television history would certainly have to include Cheers. The Boston bar comedy might have spent the bulk of its impressive run in the ’80s, but its writing and performances are just as funny now as they were over 30 years ago. At the heart of its first few seasons was the crackling dynamic between its two leads, Ted Danson and Shelley Long. Long told Yahoo Entertainment that they had chemistry from the beginning.
    “There were three candidates each — three men and three women,” Long recalled of the casting of Sam and Diane. “And we worked with each one of the candidates. Ted was one, and I was one of the women. And then they asked us separately, ‘Which do you think you worked best with?’ And I said Ted, and unbeknownst to me, he said me. Right off the bat there was something special between us.”
    “We were all enjoying doing Cheers, from the beginning,” Long continued. “From the pilot and when you have such great material, it was great. I never would have dreamed, however, that it would have entertained people all these years.”
    We brought up an interesting note from GQ‘s 2012 oral history of Cheers — that there was a small chance the iconic Lucille Ball might have played Long’s television mother (a role that would eventually go to Glynis Johns).
    “Really?” Long exclaimed. “No! I wasn’t aware of that. I would have fought for that had I known.”

    Terrence Clay (@TMC1982)

    (March 25, 2018 - 9:14 pm)

    Would Shelley Long have had a better go in movies if she acted a bit quicker? “Outrageous Fortune” was if I’m not mistaken a genuine hit. while “Hello Again” was an under-performer. According to IMDb, all she did in 1988 was a Bob Hope special. I’ve heard she was considered for “Working Girl”, though, and turned down “My Stepmother is an Alien”. Anyway, once “Troop Beverly Hills: bombs in 1989, from then on, the “what were you thinking?” narrative took over.


    (April 13, 2018 - 5:10 pm)

    I don’t give a G*D Damn about her movie career, we all fail at things in life. Not one person in the world can deny that she was the most absolutely gorgeous female that has EVER been on television, Shelly and Kim Novak are tied…………..


    (April 13, 2018 - 5:51 pm)

    Sorry, also Mary Tyler Moore, forgot her…………..

    Terrence Clay (@TMC1982)

    (April 17, 2018 - 1:56 am)

    Shelley Long strikes me as one of those actors/actresses who wanted to keep home and work separate. Therefore, she didn’t go out and socialize with the “Cheers” crew whereas everyone else was very close and were good friends. In other words, Shelley was very ‘work is work’ and very business like rather than using it as an opportunity to socialize. Unfortunately, that mentality can easily rub people the wrong way and make one appear to be aloof, cold and stand-offish.


    (April 28, 2018 - 4:14 pm)

    I Love Shelly Long … And her work … I would say different people have different ideas about what success is …
    … I think lots of people would love to be as much of a failure as you think she is ….

    I’m watching Troop Beverly Hills … I think Shelly had fun … How does that make anyone a failure ?? ….


    (May 23, 2018 - 10:34 pm)

    She was hilarious as annoying TV host Dottie Wilcox on Murphy Brown (an obvious send-up of Kathie Lee Gifford). I hope they bring her back on the new version.

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