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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 & Clark, Murphy 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.
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.
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.