On a balmy Saturday afternoon in November, George Wendt is riding in a Mercedes van and revisiting his days as a college student.
“Kansas City was Sodom and Gomorrah compared to South Bend,” he said. “There was a bar right across the street, which I thought was fantastic.”
The van is headed toward that same bar, Mike’s Tavern, which sits across Troost Avenue from Rockhurst University, where Wendt enrolled at the turn of the 1970s after he was expelled from the University of Notre Dame.
“I remember the pay phone at Mike’s,” he said. “You could rig it. I worked for AT&T back in the day, and we could see the kids were rigging it. They were getting free phone calls.”
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Wendt is in town rehearsing for the “The Fabulous Lipitones,” a comedy at the New Theatre Restaurant about a barbershop quartet, and he is out this warm, autumnal afternoon with nostalgia on his mind. He and his fellow cast members — Phil Fiorini, Levin Valayil and James Wright — accompanied by the theater’s vice president of marketing, Rob McGraw, and three Star staffers, are on a short barhopping odyssey, revisiting his two favorite college taverns: Mike’s and Kelly’s Westport Inn.
As the van approaches Mike’s, he recalls candidly why he got the boot from Notre Dame, his father’s alma mater — which precipitated his move to Kansas City.
“I flunked out,” he says. “I basically quit and didn’t inform the university. I’d moved off campus my junior year, and I didn’t think it through. I didn’t have a car. It was cold. I never went to class.”
Wendt is best known for his role as Norm Peterson in the beloved, award-winning sitcom “Cheers,” which aired 1982-93. Norm was a customer with perfect attendance: the guy who, rain or shine or otherwise, took roost on the same stool at the end of the bar every day, chugged mugs of beer, ping-ponged wisecracks among bar staff and fellow patrons and did all he could to not go home and hang out with his wife, Vera.
In 2010, he parlayed the role into the memoir “Drinking With George: A Barstool Professional’s Guide to Beer.”
At Mike’s, he takes a seat at a table facing a large TV that is broadcasting the Notre Dame-Army game. Between sips of Hamm’s (he’s happy to sing the entire jingle) and bites of a cheeseburger (pickles only), he retells some of those “Drinking” stories and some college tales, including the only job he had at Notre Dame.
“I got caught freshman year accepting collect calls on the dorm phone,” he said. “They nabbed me. I didn’t want them to tell my parents, so I got a job in the dining hall to work it off.”
He also recalled how he ended up in Kansas City. After flunking out of Notre Dame, he returned to his native Chicago to live with his parents, who were not amused.
“I was at home for a semester, getting seriously badgered,” he said. “So I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got to get out of here. Where can I go?’ I think it was my mom who reminded me that Father Carey was at Rockhurst College.”
The Rev. Frank Carey was a Kansas City native who had been the director of admissions at the Jesuit boarding school in Wisconsin that Wendt attended in his youth.
“Rockhurst is not in the business of accepting Notre Dame flunk-outs,” he said. “But we did have an ace-in-the-hole, and he put in a good word.”
Wendt studied economics at Rockhurst, though he initially needed another reminder that attendance was mandatory.
“The head of the economics department told me if I missed one more class, I’d be kicked out,” he said. “I said, ‘Absolutely, Father. You’re right. But I guess if I’m sick or something …’
“ ‘No, if you miss one more class, you’re out.’
“ ‘‘If there’s a death in the family?’
“ ‘No. One class and you’re out.’
“It was obvious they were taking attendance. I don’t know if they even bothered at Notre Dame. So I started going to class, and it was like college was so much easier all of a sudden.”
After graduating from Rockhurst, Wendt “hung out in Europe, vagabonding, for the better part of three years.” He also did some soul-searching, which led him to decide to become a comedic actor.
“One thing I did learn at Rockhurst was Karl Marx’s theory of alienation, and I didn’t want to be alienated from myself and I was determined to do something with my life that I enjoyed and felt right to me,” he said. “I remember going to see Second City (in Chicago) when I was in college. It looked for all the world like a bunch of young men and women goofing off onstage, and I was pretty sure they got paid. So I thought, wow, if I could do that.”
Though he’d never spent a moment onstage, he attended several workshops and graduated to Second City’s resident company.
“Then I got fired after a year and bumped back to the touring company,” he said, “for sucking. They didn’t want to get rid of me, they wanted me to find my voice.”
Wendt spent six years with Second City, where he met his wife, Bernadette Birkett, who made a cameo on “Cheers” and became the off-screen voice of Vera.
Over the course of a late lunch and two rounds of beers, other subjects arose, including “Cheers.”
In 2015, Wendt attended an evening dedicated to the show’s creators, Glen and Les Charles and Jim Burrows. They were asked whether they had anybody in mind back when they were casting the show. It turns out they did, thanks to a role Wendt played in an episode of “Taxi.”
“They said, ‘We had Rhea (Perlman) in mind. And George,’ ” he said. “That was the first I’d heard of it. … I’m kind of glad I didn’t know that. I think I would have blown it somehow.”
Wendt had a role in an episode of “M*A*S*H,” playing a Marine who’d been in a brawl. “I did a scene with David Ogden Stiers, sitting on a table with a 3-ball in my mouth.”
For Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series, he played a psychopath in a 2006 episode titled “Family,” directed by John Landis. Did he die?
“I got tortured,” he said. “You assume I die.”
Landis wanted to film Wendt’s vocal cords while he screamed, so Wendt agreed to let an ear/nose/throat specialist insert a camera into his throat via his nose.
“The crew had a pool whether I’d throw up,” Wendt said. “They had buckets ready. … I was horrified by how much nasal hair I had.”
Wendt has more ties to Kansas City than Rockhurst. His sister Kathryn Sudeikis, mother of Jason Sudeikis, lives in Overland Park. What brought her here?
“(Her husband) Dan joined the Navy and got an office gig at the Pentagon,” he said. “So they moved to (Washington) D.C. That’s where Jason was born. … Then Dan got an offer from IBM to come to Kansas City after the Navy. They never looked back.”
The Chicago Cubs and the World Series came up. Wendt is a South Side native and a White Sox fan. Was he happy the Cubs won?
“It was a good feeling because if the Cubs won I could be happy for the fans and the city of Chicago, but if they blew it I would have been tickled … by the Cubbiness of it all,” he said. “Every once in a while I play a Cub fan. I’ll sing the seventh-inning stretch. … The first time I did it, my nephews from the South Side were, ‘Whaaatt?? You sell-out!’ ”
Wendt may be the world’s most famous barfly, and he still looks like Norm, but at Mike’s Tavern, he goes relatively unnoticed. A couple of patrons come over to say hello or have a photo taken. One says his parents named him Sam after the “Cheers” bartender. And an employee brings over a black-and-white photo of Wendt in Mike’s that has been hanging in the bar for years.
Things are different at Kelly’s, his other favorite college bar.
“Kelly’s was an event,” he said. “Mike’s was an every night sort of thing. Kelly’s was for weekends. Whenever we’d go to Kelly’s, we’d wind up afterward at Nichols (Lunch).”
Kelly’s is loud and crowded, and Wendt is recognized immediately. Before he takes a seat, two patrons bellow, “Norm!” Someone asks him why he isn’t at Mike’s Tavern. And fans of all ages come over to say hello, shake hands, ask for selfies and offer to buy him a beer or a shot of Jameson.
One of them is Nathaniel Pike of Overland Park, who is wearing a “Cheers” shirt.
“I used to watch the show all the time,” he tells Wendt. “I don’t know, maybe a year ago I actually bought this shirt and just happened to decide to wear it tonight and, lo and behold, I walk in the bar and … there’s Norm.”
A few minutes later, Wendt tells a story about going to bars and being recognized. He was in Dublin shooting a film, and a friend invited him to go barhopping.
“I said, ‘If I go in these pubs in central Dublin, the kids, they go nuts,’ ” he said. “ ‘They mob me. It’s not really pleasant. I’m flattered but …’
“He says, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll take you to a place where no one will know who you are, and if they do, they won’t care.’ ”
So they went to a place called the Ferryman, which was nearly empty except for a “few geezers” at the bar and a man and woman across the room at a table. While Wendt’s friend was in the bathroom, the woman invited him to come over for a drink with her and her male companion.
“So we go over there, and it’s Bono,” Wendt said. As in the lead singer of U2. “And he goes: ‘I didn’t want to meet you because you were Norm on “Cheers.” I wanted to meet you because you were Norm on “Cheers” and you found this place. Dublin’s in kind of a code, and you cracked the code.’ So we ended up hanging out for a while.”
The talk turns to music, and Wendt recalls being in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s and he was a regular at the Palomino Club, which was booking bands like X and the Blasters. Wendt got one of the bouncers, a Boston native, a bit role in an episode of “Cheers,” which Wendt parlayed into a permanent prime seat.
“I turned him into a god with his family by getting him a job on ‘Cheers,’ ” he said. “He had me on the corner (of the bar), two seats, any show I wanted. I didn’t have to show up at 5 o’clock. I could show up at the downbeat. If someone was sitting there, he’d go, ‘Get out of here.’ ”
Before we leave Kelly’s, Wendt obliges a small horde of fans who’ve been waiting to take a photo. One or two yell “Norm!” as he heads out the door. But his day isn’t finished.
On the ride to Kelly’s, Wendt inquired about music events going on that night, and his interest was piqued when told Alejandro Escovedo was performing at Knuckleheads.
He would make arrangements to catch the Escovedo show. His only special request with the venue’s owner: He wanted a seat at the corner of the bar closest to the stage.
And that is where he ended his Saturday night, looking very Norm-like.