Boston’s real-life ‘Cheers’ bartender is laid off

By Jay Lindsey

BOSTON – Eddie Doyle was the guy who really did know everybody’s name, at least when he started working at the tavern that inspired the television show “Cheers.”

To the tens of thousands of tourists that later passed through, Doyle remained behind the bar to offer a smile, a beer and tips about where to find the Boston that wasn’t shown on TV.

Now Doyle is out of a job, laid off from “Cheers” after 35 years. The bar’s owner has said a tough economy and sagging business forced the move, which was one of several layoffs.

Doyle said he’s not bitter, just surprised and a little sad.

“This bar, for me … it was not just another job,” Doyle said. “It was the perfect job.”

Longtime friend and lifelong bartender Tommy Leonard called Doyle’s exit “the end of an era” and said Doyle is one of the most giving men he knows.

“He just has a way to connect,” Leonard said. “If you want to feel good about yourself you go in and see Eddie Doyle, whether you were a total stranger or a longtime friend.”

Doyle, who was laid off in February, has spent the past few weeks cleaning out his office and reflecting on what he considered a great run.

He began working in 1974 at the bar, then called the Bull & Finch Pub, after a few years of bouncing around the advertising world as a graphic artist. He had worked occasionally as a barkeep and said the fast pace and personalities sucked him in.

He took a regular shift at the restaurant above the bar, then moved downstairs, turning down a chance to head the graphics department at a now-defunct department store chain, a decision he never regretted.

“I’d probably be in a nursing home right now,” he said with a laugh.

Doyle, who will give his age only as around 66, described his job in the early years as “ringmaster.” People of all stripes, from college professors to working men, would meet to hash out the day’s events, give one another a hard time and occasionally cause mischief.

He recalled a group of regulars who got in trouble racing wheelchairs at a hospital where he was staying with an illness, just before stopping in to surprise him with a party on the night “Cheers” made its debut in 1982.

“It was a great mix of people,” Doyle said. “I could probably say goodnight to each one of them by name or face.”

The clientele changed when the TV show took off, and Doyle has had plenty of brushes with famous people. Kevin Costner stopped by once, and Doyle shook hands with Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The TV show’s entire cast has been in and out of the bar, though probably not for inspiration.

Doyle was nothing like his TV counterpart, the womanizing barkeep Sam Malone. He’s married to the same woman he met at the bar when he was a regular there in the early 1970s.

The corpulent Norm wasn’t based on a real guy, but there was a heavyset regular who would snarl at tourists who would remark, “you must be Norm.”

But the surly waitress Carla may have had some real-life inspiration. Actress Rhea Perlman prepared for the show by training several days with a waitress who eventually got fired after chewing out a customer for leaving a $1 tip on a $100 bill.

At the height of the show’s popularity, 3,000 people would pass through the bar daily and 5,000 on weekends, Doyle said. The traffic kept him hopping and filled his pockets. But many of the regulars who didn’t appreciate the crush of people wandered to new haunts. It didn’t matter much to Doyle, who used the bar’s fame to start a charity auction.

He started the annual “Cheers for Children” charity in 1979, which hit the $1 million mark in donations 25 years later. The charity will end with his time at the bar.

Doyle said he doesn’t know what’s next but added he’s grateful to be of an age where he can take time to think about it. His boss is paying him until the end of the year, but his last day at Cheers will come at a going-away party this month.

He’ll be leaving a place best known for the fiction it inspired but was actually a lot like it, despite the sometimes goofy plots, Doyle said. The interactions between characters remind him of what the real Cheers was: “a bunch of eccentrics that could get together and become friends,” Doyle said.

“When it came down to the end, I said, ‘You know, they actually hit it right on the head,'” he said.