The best-loved barfly sobers up for his art

Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got, as George Wendt, a.k.a. Norm, is finding out. By James Rampton

GEORGE WENDT could use a drink. He is hot and bothered and slightly late for our interview. As one does, he has spent the morning locked in a set of stocks, stretching for a beer that is tantalisingly just out of reach. Such are the perils of publicity photos.

"I thought: `Here I am in the stocks. I'm nearly 50 years old and I'm doing this silly play-acting'," he says, sitting down with a sigh of relief and taking a well-earned sip of his drink. "What a life!"

Indeed. But he should take it as a compliment. Wendt only attracts such attention because of his alter ego, Norm - one of the best-loved characters from the most-watched sitcom of all time, Cheers.

The barflies' barfly, Norm represented everything that men aspire to in life: he just sat in a bar all day and all night, drinking from a bottomless barrel of beer and being effortlessly funny.

No wonder his entrance into the world's most celebrated bar was always greeted by the sort of whoopin' and hollerin' usually reserved for the appearance of Boyzone on stage.

But just why did we all fall so head-over-heels in love with Norm; an oversized, idle boozer who by any rational standards was not much of a role model? Five years after the character's demise, the actor who played him so wholeheartedly for more than a decade can now reflect on him with something approaching dispassion.

Dressed down in shorts and a T-shirt with the slogan "Divine One", he causes heads to turn in Damien Hirst's impossibly trendy Central London restaurant, Quo Vadis. (While we're about it, just why does it enhance one's eating experience to be faced with a picture of a man in a suit and tie with an egg instead of a head?).

Wendt gives off Norm's easygoing air of someone whose philosophy could be summed up by the phrase: "Life's too short."

In Wendt's eyes, "Norm was the least offensive character - except to Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. The thing was, Norm never really got drunk. There are a lot of men who would love to be able to drink that much with impunity. You had the feeling that he'd always rather have just one more drink than do anything else. He was the prototypical slacker - that's why he was so popular.

"But look at the reality: he was terribly overweight, he couldn't hold down a job and his marriage was a mess. Still, if more barflies had award- winning Hollywood writers at their beck and call, they'd be popular, too."

Paradoxically, it is Norm's very popularity that has made things occasionally sticky for Wendt since Cheers ended. Initially, everything seemed hunky- dory. He was sure it was right for the series to quit while it was ahead, after 11 chart-topping seasons.

"It was a hard call. It seemed initially to defy logic because of the job security, the quality of the work and the fantastic salaries, but it was absolutely the correct decision. Ted [Danson, who played Sam, the barman and leading character] is a really smart guy, and he made a gut decision. He was six months ahead of the public and the critics, and that's a good thing. You always want to leave them begging for more."

So, at that point, Wendt was apparently in a no-lose situation. He had played the best-loved character in the best-loved sitcom in the history of the universe (if you want to see why, you could do worse than wallow in the Cheers Weekend on the Paramount Comedy Channel on 19 and 20 September.) How could he possibly fail?

In the event, quite easily. First, a spin-off series starring Norm was proposed, but "it was quickly rejected. The writers had a hard time making Norm the protagonist. They didn't see him as proactive." Then he had his own vehicle on CBS - called, with stunning inventiveness, The George Wendt Show - but that was pulled after just five episodes.

"The network expected the show to be their saviour, and it didn't work out. We had all the elements, and it still failed. That happens over and over. The question is: how does any sitcom work? There are a zillion ways it can fail. It's like winning the Lottery.

"The only thing is when it goes down in flames and it's called The George Wendt Show, it seems harsh. I almost got the blame. But I'm a big boy."

The success of Frasier - one of Cheers' least effective supporting characters turned into a blinding lead in a spin-off series - must have made that all the more galling. Like that man in the stout advert, Wendt claims not to be bitter - "Frasier is a great character loaded with hubris" - but all the same it must have been hard for him to swallow.

His problem is that he suffers from what you might call Anita Dobson Syndrome: once actors have been so heavily identified with a distinctive and hugely popular character in a long-running series, commissioning editors lack the imagination - or the bottle - to cast them in anything else.

Wendt is the first to acknowledge the difficulty. "It has been hard for executives to envision me doing something other than Norm. A lot of film- makers thought that audiences would see me as Norm and respond in a prejudiced way that might break the integrity of their film.

"It didn't seem fair. Transitioning from Cheers hurt me a bit, but we've all had problems transitioning. Kelsey [Grammer] may even end up being haunted by Frasier."

Wendt's furrowed brow has certainly been smoothed by his casting alongside Stacey Keach and David Dukes in the new all-American version of the hit play, Art, at Wyndham's Theatre in London.

"It's such an acute play about friendship. It's like a painting; everyone has their own subjective take on it. It resonates, so there's a lot to take home with you. Also, there is no shortage of middle-aged actors who'd be thrilled to play any one of those roles."

Wendt relishes these sort of parts that require a good old-fashioned dollop of character acting. "I'm better used as Third or Fourth Banana. There is the odd role where I could get lucky and do the lead - like Archie Bunker - but lead roles are usually more to do with boy meets girl. How could I do that? It's not acceptable.

"It just so happens that in real life I've met a girl and she's lovely [Wendt and his wife have three young children]. I'm sure most people would be surprised that the fat boy can indeed meet a beautiful girl, but it does happen. It's just that you'll never see it on TV."

When his contract in Art runs out in November, Wendt is going on to play a part in a new movie version of Alice In Wonderland. "You have to guess which part I play," he teases. When I suggest Tweedledum, he gleefully tells me: "No, Tweedledee." He then invites me to venture who might be playing his twin. I get this one right first time: Robbie Coltrane.

Who says Wendt doesn't get great parts anymore?

The Cheers Weekend is on the Paramount Comedy Channel on 19 and 20 September. Art continues at Wyndham's Theatre, London, WC2 (0171-369 1736).

Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
Arts and Entertainment
Crowd control: institutions like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are packed

Art
Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices