By Michael A. Lipton
May 24, 1993 12:00 PM

FOR 11 YEARS IT HAS BEEN AMERICA’S favorite TV watering hole, the bar where everybody may not know your name, but you surely know theirs. What Cheers addict doesn’t know about the entries in priapic proprietor Sam Malone’s little black book. Or hasn’t watched a weepy Rebecca Howe, Sam’s emotionally unmanageable bar manager, fling herself at yet another unsuitable suitor. Or gulped in admiration at waitress Carla Tortelli LeBec’s sneer-in-your-beer put-downs. Or raised a baffled brow at boyishly naive bartender Woody Boyd’s nonpareil non sequiturs. Or paused to analyze stuffy shrink Frasier Crane’s Jung-at-heart witticisms. Finally. who could fail to marvel at motormouth mailman Cliff Clavin’s cornucopia of trivia (including, eh, no doubt, the etymological roots of “cornucopia”) or appreciate round-as-a-Buddha (weiser) imbiber Norm Peterson’s favorite aerobic exercise: crook elbow, tilt mug to lips, guzzle.

But now (sorry, Normie) it’s closing time. On Thursday, May 20, NBC will air Cheers: Last Call, a final 98-minute episode, rumored to include at least one marriage and one last appearance from the long-departed—and long-winded—barmaid Diane Chambers (Shelley Long).

And then this lovable bunch of lovers and losers will all be outta there for good. For the Cheers family, breaking up is hard to do. “They get along like siblings,” observed Bernadette Birkett, actress-wife of George Wendt (Norm), 44. “To somebody peeking in from the outside, they look like they’re having the greatest time in the world.”

Indeed, they did. As Bebe Neuwirth explained with Lilithian terseness: “There are no jerks in the cast.” Practical jokers, yes, with Danson (Sam), 45, and Woody Harrelson (Woody), 31, the principal perps. Noted Rhea Perlman (Carla), 45: “I’ve seen Woody’s butt one too many times.”

Off the set, too, the cast meshed. Harrelson has contributed to Danson’s American Oceans Campaign, the environmental lobby he founded in 1987. When Woody’s play Farthest from the Sun—which he wrote, directed and starred in—premiered in Los Angeles last month, Danson, Wendt and Kelsey Grammer (Frasier), 37, were in the audience. And in 1990, when Grammer went on trial in L.A. for a 1988 cocaine possession bust, Kirstie Alley (Rebecca), 38, who had kicked her own coke habit years earlier, showed up in court to plead for leniency. (Grammer was put on probation and sentenced to 300 hours of community service.) “These people go the extra mile for each other,” says actor Paul Willson (the portly barfly Paul), 47. “They’ll always be connected.”

Even Long, 43, who left the series in 1987 to pursue a film career—and later admitted she’d irked her colleagues with displays of perfectionism to equal Diane’s—was warmly welcomed back for the series’ finale.

It was Danson’s decision to quit after this season (“to rock the boat and get out the creativity,” he explained ). and no one else wanted to go on without him. Explained Harrelson: “He’s the hub of the wheel.”

He is, in fact, the Biggest Wheel in TV sitcoms—reportedly earning $450,000 an episode and a spate of unwanted publicity when he separated in March from Casey, his wife of 16 years and mother of his daughters, Kale, 13, and Alexis, 8. The split came amid reports of a romance with Whoopi Goldberg, his costar in the movie Made in America. Asked about it on a press junket, the couple simply held up a sign: “Next question, please.”

Danson’s castmates have had their ups and downs too. Wendt, a dangerously heavy 250 lbs. in 1983, has shed some of that with the help of a personal trainer. Alley suffered a miscarriage early in her 1990 pregnancy, but last October she and her husband, actor Parker Stevenson, adopted a son, William True, now 7 months old. Parenthood has also blessed Woody Harrelson and his live-in love, Laura Louie, 28, who have a 3-month-old daughter, Denni Montana.

Life, in short, goes on. But it will never be quite the same. During the next-to-last filming on March 31, cast members managed to keep their emotions in check. When John Ratzenberger (Cliff), 46, flubbed an entrance scene, he shuffled back to the barroom door, explaining with a sly smile, “I’m just trying to stretch out the season.” But the usual wisecracks came to an end at the final filming a week later. “As soon as they finished,” says Willson, “the floodgates came down. Everyone was crying. It’s like your parents selling the house you grew up in. You can’t go back anymore to where your memories are.”