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TV Bartender Talks About His Alcoholism

By KEN FRANCKLING

SMITHFIELD, R.I. -- Actor Nick Colasanto, who plays Coach the bartender on the TV comedy series 'Cheers,' makes a quick correction when he is described as a recovered alcoholic.

'I am an alcoholic,' Colasanto said Monday, reminding that constant vigilance is the only thing keeping him from a relapse.

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'You learn to see the devil two steps away from knocking on your door. When he does, you just don't answer it, because he's waiting all the time,' says Colasanto, an active participant in Alcoholics Anonymous.

March 31 marked what Colasanto calls his 'seventh birthday in sobriety' after 18 years 'in the corridors of horror in drinking. It got to a point where I actually thought I was going mad,' he said.

Colasanto, 59, returned to his Bryant College alma mater for two days of meetings, interviews, and a spotlight role in a 'controlled drinking experiment' designed to alert students to the effects of alcohol on the body.

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He will serve as bartender at Bryant's experiment Tuesday night just as he does on the NBC-TV series, which uses a Boston neighborhood bar as a setting to chronicle the lives of its half-dozen principal characters.

He said he hopes discussing his malady with Bryant students will act as a deterrent on those who are not hooked, expressing pessimism it will sway those who already have serious problems.

The gravel-voiced, white-haired Providence native got hooked on acting at age 28, when he went to New York City. 'I saw a couple of Broadway plays and just fell in love,' he said.

Colasanto became an actor, and has also directed 100 TV series episodes and several movies. One of his most recent film roles was as the godfather in 'Raging Bull.'

Colasanto says he got hooked on booze in the summer of 1956 when he landed a Broadway role in 'A Hatful of Rain.'

'When you start to move in circles of working actors and directors, especially in New York City, you live a cafe life. When you're done working, you repair to a bar. It's such an insidious disease, you only feel good when you catch it,' he said.

His drinking worsened over the years, to a point where he says he was consuming two fifths of vodka or bourbon a day. His weekends became drinking marathons, and the bottle led to gambling problems.

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'The deep vice of alcoholism seeks out the baser aspects of life. It doesn't want decent company,' Colasanto said.

The final straw, he says, was in 1976, when he was giving a cabbie directions from Los Angeles International Airport to his home near Los Angeles and heard his own voice coming out of the doorposts of the taxi.

'I was speaking, but the voice was coming out of the metal. That was the final straw. That kind of thing is a gift when it is that pronounced,' he said, explaining he has not taken a drink since.

Colasanto said the greatest problem for alcoholics to overcome is the 'great fear that they will lose their livelihood or their neighbors will censure them.

'It's quite the opposite. People love an underdog. You look at a kid on a pair of crutches trying to walk, and your heart goes right out to him, and you pray for him and applaud him. You don't say 'that dirty little crippled kid.'

'When a human being is making an effort to better himself and the world he lives in, he gains a tremendous respect,' he said.

When he landed his role on 'Cheers,' last spring, producers told Colasanto they had arranged for him to attend bartenders' school at studio expense.

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'I said: 'I've had 18 years of rehearsal, save your money. I'm AA.'

'They said, 'Oh good.''

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