Nicholas Colasanto was born January 19, 1924, in Providence, Rhode Island. He attended Central High School in Providence, but in 1943, he joined the Navy before graduating. He served in World War II as a coxswain, being honorably discharged in 1945, then returned to Rhode Island to finish his studies. He attended Bryant College, a private institution in Smithfield, Rhode Island. After college, he worked as a bookkeeper.
Colasanto began his entertainment career at the age of 28, getting interested after seeing Henry Fonda act on Broadway. He joined a theatre company in Phoenix, then moved to New York. He acted in off-Broadway productions, such as "A Hatful of Rain" and "Across the Board Tomorrow Morning" - the latter earning him a Tony nomination. He also appeared in television commercials.
He moved to Hollywood in 1965, and became known as a director. He directed several episodes of television shows, including "Starsky and Hutch", "Bonanza", "Columbo", "Hawaii-Five-o", and "S.W.A.T.". Though better known as a director, he also had some notable acting roles. He appeared in the films "Fat City" and "Raging Bull".
Colasanto was cast as the befuddled ex-coach and bartender Ernie Pantusso. His character was explained to be a former minor league manager and major-league coach of Sam Malone's, and an ex-ballplayer that had been beaned several times, explaining his deteriorated mental status. Colasanto accepted the role after Robert Prosky - who later returned to play Rebecca Howe's father in the final season - turned it down. His role on Cheers won him three Emmy nominations, one for each season.
Illness and Death
Colasanto was diagnosed with heart disease in the mid 1970s. He began having trouble securing directing jobs by the end of the 1970s due to his declining health. His last major film role was a mob boss, Tommy Como in Raging Bull (1980). Colasanto was prepared to retire when the role of Coach Ernie Pantusso was offered to him. Suffering from heart disease, his health worsened by the third season of Cheers. His weight loss was evident, though the actor chose to keep the severity of his illness a secret. Co-star Ted Danson later commented that the veteran actor had difficulty remembering his lines during production of the season. The producers reportedly lit the underside of the bar where Colasanto had 'cue cards' hidden out-of-sight or he would surreptitiously write his lines on cocktail napkins. He filmed his last full episode in late November 1984. His character was written out of several third season episodes, with the pretense that his character was traveling.
Shortly after Christmas 1984, he was admitted to a local hospital due to water in his lungs. When Colasanto was released on the week of January 28 – February 3, 1985, from the hospital after a two-week stay, his doctor recommended that he not return to work. Although he appeared in the cold opening of the third season finale episode, "Rescue Me" (1985), his last full episode was "Cheerio Cheers" (1985), filmed in late November 1984.
Colasanto returned to work against medical advice, and despite his weakened state, assured his cast-mates he would be back for the season finale, "Rescue Me". Unfortunately he passed away on February 12, 1985, in Studio City, California, before the finale was filmed; the producers used a previously filmed cold-opening featuring Colasanto for that show.
His cast-mates were said to be shocked and devastated to hear of his passing, and cancelled taping for the day. His funeral was held on February 16, with 300 people in attendance, including John Ratzenberger. He was buried in Cranston, Rhode Island.
Ted Danson described Nick as the "heart and soul" and the "sweetness" of Cheers. The show memorialized him by hanging a picture of Geronimo in the back of the Cheers set, near the piano. Colasanto had previously kept it in his dressing room as a good luck charm. He was subtly honored in Cheers's final episode, as Danson straightens the photo before turning out the lights for the last time.
His alma mater, Bryant College, also memorialized him by dedicating a common room at Bryant Center to him. A photograph of Colasanto in a Bryant College sweatshirt, and an apron signed by many of his Cheers cast-mates, hangs in the room.
Colasanto was a recovering alcoholic, who had joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1976. While a bartender role might have seemed like an odd choice for someone like Colasanto, he was quick to defend it. He was proud of the way Cheers handled drinking, never showing anyone who had gotten drunk and showing characters using designated drivers. The beer on the set was specifically non-alcoholic as were the other drinks.
Colasanto was briefly married in 1972. The marriage ended in divorce. He had no children.