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Despite her diminutive stature, actress Rhea Perlman cut a formidable onscreen presence with memorable, strong-willed characters all throughout her career, but none were as larger-than-life than her unflinchingly sharp-tongued and oft-pregnant barmaid, Carla Tortelli, on the iconic sitcom "Cheers" (NBC, 1982-1993). For 11 seasons, Perlman's Carla slung beers and barbs while assuring her place as one of television's great masters of the putdown. Prior to her Emmy-winning success on "Cheers," Perlman was a veteran of stage and screen, most notably with a recurring role on "Taxi" (ABC/NBC, 1978-1983), which starred real-life husband Danny DeVito. In fact, she and DeVito routinely appeared together in a wide variety of films and television projects, though notably he never appeared on "Cheers." Once the show left the air in 1993, Perlman made a couple of attempts to be a regular on other series - including one that was a spin-off for Carla - but nothing ever took hold, leading her to focus more on family-oriented TV movies and features. Of course, she would guest star on popular shows like "Becker" (CBS, 1998-2004), which starred "Cheers" alum Ted Danson, and "Frasier" (NBC, 1993-2004), which starred...
Despite her diminutive stature, actress Rhea Perlman cut a formidable onscreen presence with memorable, strong-willed characters all throughout her career, but none were as larger-than-life than her unflinchingly sharp-tongued and oft-pregnant barmaid, Carla Tortelli, on the iconic sitcom "Cheers" (NBC, 1982-1993). For 11 seasons, Perlman's Carla slung beers and barbs while assuring her place as one of television's great masters of the putdown. Prior to her Emmy-winning success on "Cheers," Perlman was a veteran of stage and screen, most notably with a recurring role on "Taxi" (ABC/NBC, 1978-1983), which starred real-life husband Danny DeVito. In fact, she and DeVito routinely appeared together in a wide variety of films and television projects, though notably he never appeared on "Cheers." Once the show left the air in 1993, Perlman made a couple of attempts to be a regular on other series - including one that was a spin-off for Carla - but nothing ever took hold, leading her to focus more on family-oriented TV movies and features. Of course, she would guest star on popular shows like "Becker" (CBS, 1998-2004), which starred "Cheers" alum Ted Danson, and "Frasier" (NBC, 1993-2004), which starred Kelsey Grammer. Though never reaching the heights she did in the 1980s, Perlman remained a busy actress who brought wit and charm to every role she played.
Born on March 31, 1948 in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, NY, Perlman was raised in Bensonhurst with her sister Heide by her father, Phil, a former doll and toy part salesman, and her mother, Adele, a homemaker. Inspired by musicals like "Peter Pan," Perlman dreamed of one day being an actress on Broadway. After graduating Lafayette High School, she studied drama at Manhattan's Hunter College and hit the audition circuit full-time after graduating in 1968, taking various jobs, including one as a waitress at New York's legendary Rainbow Room. Though she would act in several plays off-Broadway, it was her role as an audience member that had the biggest impact on her personal life. In 1970, after watching a friend's performance in "The Shrinking Bride," Perlman met the production's diminutive co-star Danny DeVito - who was an inch shorter than her 5"1' frame - and immediately struck up a romance that led to them moving in together two weeks after meeting. Meanwhile, Perlman made her screen debut with a small part in the short film "Hot Dogs for Gauguin" (1972), directed by Martin Brest and the first of many collaborations she would have with DeVito.
The couple eventually made the leap from New York to Los Angeles in 1976, with Perlman quickly landing parts in several TV movies like "Stalk the Wild Child" (NBC, 1976) and "I Want to Keep My Baby" (CBS, 1976). As the work picked up, an even greater succession of made-for-television films followed in the next year, notably "Having Babies II," (ABC, 1977), "Mary Jane Harper Cried Last Night" (CBS, 1977) and "Intimate Strangers" (ABC, 1977). In 1978, DeVito landed a star-making regular role on ABC's hit comedy, "Taxi" (ABC/NBC, 1978-1983) while a year later Perlman made her debut as DeVito's onscreen girlfriend, Zena Sherman, which developed into a recurring role during the show's illustrious run. Meanwhile, Perlman appeared in made-for-TV movie "Like Normal People" (ABC, 1979) and again joined DeVito for the feature film, "Swap Meet" (1979). On Jan. 28, 1982, Perlman and DeVito finally tied the knot after 10 years together, while she continued to shuffle between feature films and television, mixing things up with the films "National Lampoon's Movie Madness" and "Love Child" (1982), as well as the television movie, "Drop-Out Father" (CBS, 1982).
In September 1982, Perlman was cast as her most famous character, the oft-pregnant, sharp-tongued bar maid Carla Tortelli on "Cheers" (NBC, 1982-1993). Fresh off of the cancellation of "Taxi," which was then wrapping up its last year on NBC, producer James Burrows specifically earmarked her for the role in his burgeoning Boston bar sitcom. Among its eventual successes, "Cheers" also become something of a family affair, with Perlman's sister Heide serving as a series producer and her retired father sometimes appearing as bar patron Phil, though DeVito never made an appearance during the show's 11-year run. Throughout that time, however, Perlman appeared outside the "Cheers" universe to play DeVito's love interest in his directed vignette, "The Selling of Vince D'Angelo" (Cinemax, 1983). Also that year, Perlman and DeVito saw the birth of their first child, Grace, while in 1984 she received the first of three consecutive Emmy Awards for playing Carla. By 1986, the challenge of animated fare had beckoned the two-time mother, and Perlman found her introduction to the world of voiceover work with a duo of animated projects: Bill Melendez's PBS TV special, "Happily Ever After" (1986) and the feature film "My Little Pony" (1986).
That same year, DeVito would direct his wife in "The Wedding Ring" segment of Steven Spielberg's NBC anthology series, "Amazing Stories" (1985-87). In January 1987, Perlman taped a spin-off series for NBC based on her "Cheers" character, "The Tortellis" (1987), which co-starred her character's slimy husband, Nick (Dan Hedaya), but the series ended abruptly after the airing of the pilot. She would rebound with another television movie, "Stamp of a Killer" (1987), and ended the year as the mother of newborn, Jake. Meanwhile, she returned to the made-for-television world with "A Family Again" (ABC, 1988), won the last of her four Emmys for "Cheers in 1989, and had parts in two back-to-back features, "Enid is Sleeping" (1990), and the Bud Cort-directed "Ted and Venus" (1991). At the start of the 1990s, the mother of three found herself gravitating towards more family-friendly projects, specifically choosing ones with positive messages and often overlooked themes. Over the years, many of those roles reflected a dedicated interest in the welfare of children, for whom she advocated in her free time. Along with guest stints on sitcom fare such as NBC's "Blossom" (1991-95) in 1991 and a year later on Fox's "Roc" (1991-94), she appeared in "The Last Halloween" (CBS, 1991), "Shelley Duvall's Bedtime Stories" (Showtime, 1992) and provided the voice of 9-Eye for EuroDisney's short film attraction, "From Time to Time." (1992).
Perlman eased back into features with the Kid n' Play vehicle "Class Act" (1992) and "There Goes the Neighborhood" (1992), followed by the TV movies "To Grandmother's House We Go" (ABC, 1992) and "A Place to Be Loved" (CBS, 1993). After 11 years on the air, Perlman and her "Cheers" castmates bid a tearful goodbye to the show that dominated much of their lives. By the end, only Perlman and co-star George Wendt were the only two actors on the show that appeared in all 275 episodes. Meanwhile, after tackling the TV movie "Spoils of War" (ABC, 1994), she provided guest voices on "The Simpsons" (Fox, 1989- ) in 1994 and "The Critic" (Fox, 1994-95) in 1995, before concentrating again on features. She starred in Michael Moore's political satire "Canadian Bacon" (1995), "Sunset Park" (1996), "Carpool" (1996) and co-starred with DeVito in his directed adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic, "Matilda" (1996). Perlman decided to return to the small screen with the ill-suited CBS sitcom, "Pearl" (1996), her first since "Cheers.," in which she played a middle-aged widow who decides to go back to college. The series lasted only one season.
Despite no longer having a weekly on-air presence, Perlman continued to stay active with guest spots on such programs as the series "Union Square" (NBC, 1997-98) and "Mad About You" (NBC, 1992-99), while landing meaty parts in telefilms like "In the Doghouse" (Showtime, 1998) and "Houdini" (TNT, 1998). After a turn as the devil's wife in "H-E Double Hockey Sticks" (ABC, 1999), she starred alongside her former "Taxi" co-star Marilu Henner in "A Tale of Two Bunnies" (ABC, 2000), before playing the role of former first lady Jackie Kennedy in "How to Marry a Billionaire: A Christmas Tale" (Fox, 2000). True to her interest in social causes, Perlman co-starred in the drama "Kate Brasher" (CBS, 2001) as the savvy attorney Abbie Schaeffer who works to facilitate the efforts of a social worker played by Mary Stuart Masterson. The show would be short-lived, but she soon reunited with her old "Cheers" buddies Ted Danson and Kelsey Grammer for guest spots on CBS's "Becker" (1998-2004) in 2001 and NBC's "Frasier" (1993-2004) in 2002. In May of that same year, Perlman headed east again to the New York stage, replacing Valerie Harper in "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," performing once more alongside Henner.
Into the new millennium, Perlman continued to work sporadically on various projects, with guest appearances on "Karen Sisco" (ABC, 2003-04) in 2003 and "Kevin Hill" (UPN, 2004-05) in 2004. She also shot a pilot for CBS' "Stroller Wars" (2006) before executive producing the independent film "Bye Bye Benjamin" (2006). She also continued her devotion to children by penning the first four installments of her own children's book series, Otto Undercover, which began its publication run in January 2006. Following an episode of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC, 1999- ), Perlman co-starred as Sister Agatha in the television special "The Christmas Choir" (Hallmark Channel, 2008) and the direct-to-DVD release "Beethoven's Big Break" (2008). Back on the small screen, she had a short recurring stint on "Hung" (HBO, 2009-2011), and joined Michael C. Hall, Lucy Liu and Peter Fonda for the indie drama, "The Trouble with Bliss" (2012). In October 2012, Perlman was the subject of surprising news when it was announced that she and DeVito were separating after 30 years of marriage. Announced through DeVito's publicist, the news contained no reason for the split, particularly in light of the couple being seen arm-in-arm in public just weeks before.
By Shawn Dwyer
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