Thomas Babson On Cheers, Hockey and His Life

Thomas Babson grew up loving two things: hockey and theater. He was introduced to the world of drama and acting by his mother and was instantly hooked. Seeing Helen Hayes was an early memory of his theater going days. He enjoyed the contrasting lives of playing hockey and the arts throughout his childhood but also had memories of being made fun of for it. Babson remembers being asked where his "tutu" was at the rink. He went on to St. Lawrence University, where all his time was taken up playing hockey as there was no theater program. During his junior year, he had a severe concussion on the ice and was sidelined for a year. He went home to Gloucester, Massachusetts to recover but was subsequently drafted to go to Vietnam with his two older brothers. Unlike his two older brothers, he was given an appeal to finish college as he planned to join the war as an officer after he finished ROTC and college. He became trained as a medical flight officer but was not needed in South East Asia by that time, "the war was winding down; they didn't need any new 2nd Lieutenants," said Babson. He went on to get his MFA from Smith College around this time while doing theater four hours a day, "Gosh, I loved it," he said with a sharp smile on his face.

Compared to many people today, Babson did not instantly go to Los Angeles to land an acting job or to New York to work on Broadway. You guessed it: he went to work at a friend's Hang Gliding school out west. After that, Babson would start finding other projects to act on and make a living. One of those projects included "The Edge," on which he worked for a year. He worked closely with Yvon Chouinard, one of the most well known and storied rock climbers but is more well known today for founding the clothing company Patagonia.

Babson filming The Edge, 1976.

After filming The Edge, and the now cult classic Snow Beasts, a friend Bob Butler (who directed The Ultimate Thrill and co-created Remington Steele) invited Babson to LA, “now that you have a couple roles on you, I will get you an agent if you want to try LA,” Butler said to Babson. “I haven’t even thought of that,” Babson remembered thinking.

Babson and co star Kathy Christopher filming Beasts, 1982.

That agent got him a movie with Andy Griffith when he got to LA, and then later on, Cheers. Some of the stories about who auditioned for who is so well known like John Lithgow for Frasier Crane, or Fred Dryer auditioning for Sam, but it is not so known that Thomas Babson was originally part of a group that auditioned for Sam, “I read with Shelley [Long] and auditioned a couple times, they had me back,” said Babson. Steve Kolsak, was the original casting director of Cheers and was a friend of Babson’s. The show ended up going with Ted Danson, but because of Babson’s persona and ability to do a Boston accent, they assured him he would be a part of the show, and a part of it he was.

Babson's character, Tom, had his first appearance in the show at the start of the third ever episode, “The Tortelli Tort” and the episode opens with him at the center of the screen drinking a beer as Sam walks by and pats him on the back. “I felt like I was in on the ground floor, I was a part of the series. They accepted me like I was part of the family, everyone made you feel that way,” he said.

Babson in the suit holding the paper, 1983. From Paramount Pictures/NBC

The first episode Tom the lawyer made a starring appearance in was Season 2 Episode 13 titled, “Where There’s a Will”. A man that has a short amount of time to live (played by George Gaynes) visits Cheers and is so thrilled by the hospitality that he leaves an unsigned $100,000 check in will form. Everyone in the bar is unclear so they come to Tom, the unofficial “lawyer” of the barflys to understand if this is a real check, and if it is, who does the money go to. Babson remembers the name and year of the episode that was his first big role he had on the show. It had been almost 40 years to the date since the show aired and he knew almost all the moments from that episode, “I remember it very well,” he remarked. This was a general theme among all the projects and moments of his long career. He could recall scenes shot for shot, for example, a movie where he does his own stunt like in Snow Beast, released 47 years ago, where he is skiing and falls down the mountain slope, “that was all me, I blew out my knee,” he remembered. He also knew years of a certain show appearance he was on, or random moments and conversations like one with a Dallas producer of which Babson asked him if he would like his character to do a Texas accent, the producer replied, “have you seen the show? We gave up on that a long time ago.” All of these memories that are remembered by Babson in detail are of something unique for any 78 year old, but they are especially impressive in Babson’s case as he has had 16 concussions, and they are impacting/have been impacting his life in a negative way for years now. His first concussion happened at age six skating on a pond a mile away from his home in Gloucester where he still resides today He had 16 in total from the young age of 6 to coaching in his late 50s, in which he had two behind the bench. One of the first times Babson remembered feeling the effects of his head injuries was in his days at Chestnut Hill, where he coached the Women's hockey team, “When I was coaching my last year at BC, I remember I could not remember player’s names at certain times,” he said. “I started to see deficiencies with my balance, memory and coordination.” After those two concussions, he retired from hockey and went back to the acting world, but this time to teach it at Boston University and Emerson College. After doing that for a couple years, Babson retired permanently.

When I first received a call from the former Cheers actor, he called himself a "recluse" saying he doesn't get out or talk that much to anyone anymore. That started in the last 15-20 years after leaving coaching, acting and teaching. "There has been a descent, I physically am a wreck…loud noises and bright lights can trigger me and I am gone, going out [of the house] is hard." he said. "I have sort of given up; I can't get better at this point."  

Sitting and talking with Babson for around 3 hours in his home overlooking the water, he was very sharp and quick witted, but at times it was somewhat evident a lot has been going on under the surface. He would take long pauses to collect his thoughts, which have been getting progressively more challenging to do, but he would ultimately find those things he was trying to say. He mentioned an experience that many people have in their life that have had many serious head injuries, suicide attempts, "I tried twice to kill myself nine or ten years ago," Babson said. His family now is aware of the warning signs and he takes eight pills a day to help his health but continued to urge the sentiment multiple times throughout our conversation, "it's over, I am not getting better… it's killing me, and I know it." 

After our conversation, the 78 year old Babson walked me down to his garage where he has a sizeable in-house workshop. This is where he has done projects for his home and friends whether it be a night stand or a farm table, but now, he mostly does projects for the town free of charge. Babson mentioned that there is not much that he can physically and mentally do except work in his shop due to his health, "this is all I do." 

Babson is known by many for his roles in iconic 1980s television shows like Cheers, Dallas, Hill Street Blues, and St. Elsewhere. There are many characters in every great show and movie that make it from good to great. With Cheers there are multiple people who did that, Babson and others that gave the show its whit and character are absolutely in that category. Cheers was a bar where everybody knows your name and Babson's story is something that everybody should also know.