According to Warren Littlefield’s memoir “Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must-See TV,” the producers of “Cheers” were keen to cast John Lithgow as the endearingly highbrow Frasier. This is one heck of a “what if,” one that, if it had come to pass, might’ve derailed the show.
When the third season began in 1984, Lithgow was an in-demand character actor. Two years prior, he’d received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor as the transgender former football player Roberta Muldoon in George Roy Hill’s “The World According to Garp.” He’d followed that up with critically acclaimed performances in James L. Brooks’ “Terms of Endearment” and George Miller’s white-knuckler segment of “Twilight Zone: The Movie.”
He was also 6’4″ and looked every inch of it on screen.
Though Lithgow was remarkably adept at making himself feel emotionally small, if not wholly pathetic, on camera (particularly in “Twilight Zone: The Movie”), he needed directors who knew how to shoot and cut around his size. In a multi-camera sitcom, he’d physically dominate as the stiff, ramrod straight Frasier in full shots with Danson’s Sam. While I’m sure an actor as gifted as Lithgow would’ve found a way to play smaller than he is within this visual framework, the point wound up being moot because he didn’t want the part.