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Eleven years ago, John Ratzenberger was just looking to recover his dignity.

But, in the process, he ended up more or less creating the character he's played on "Cheers" for all these years - mailman/know-it-all Cliff Clavin.Ratzenberger was auditioning to be one of the bar patrons for the producers of the then-on-the-drawing-boards "Cheers," an audition he said he "failed."

"I was actually walking out the door after they'd said, `Well, thanks anyway,' and I turned around and said, `Do you have a bar know-it-all?' " Ratzenberger said. "They asked what I was talking about, and I improvised a bar know-it-all.

"All I really wanted to do was leave with my dignity. That's all I really wanted to do, get a couple laughs out of them and get out of there.

"A few days later they called and said, `We'd like to try that character out for a couple of episodes.' "

Ratzenberger was actually headed back to England, where he'd been performing in comedy improv groups for a decade, when the call came. He was originally signed for just seven episodes, but ended up appearing in all but one that first season - and has appeared in every episode in the subsequent 10 years.

Not that he was immediately secure in the job. "I didn't give up my flat in London for three years," he said.

It also took the producers a couple of years to learn to trust Ratzenberger to improvise on the show. That's right - those long-winded, bizarre tangents that Cliff is forever taking off on are made up on the spot by the actor who plays him.

"Over the years, they've let me improvise a lot of that," Ratzenberger said. "It's kind of like being in a jazz combo and the leader points to you and says, `Take it!'

"After a couple of years on the show they realized they could trust me not to mess it up. So little by little they've let me just sort of run off. Because I know when to stop.

"It's easy to improvise comedy. It really is. But the art is knowing when to shut up and let other people talk. That's a hard thing to learn."

Among Ratzenberger's biggest fans are employees of the United State Postal Service.

"I did for the mailbag what Art Carney did for the sewers," he said.

The actor said he's constantly receiving requests for autographed pictures for various post offices around the country.

"That's what my guidance counselor said in high school," Ratzenberger said. "She said, `You're going to have your picture hanging in a lot of post offices.' She was right, it turns out."

NEW SITCOM: Ratzenberger may be back on television in the fall - he has a sitcom in development for Fox that's a candidate for the fall schedule.

Titled "Locals," it's about a town full of eccentrics, and Ratzenberger plays the town barber.

Fox will announce its fall line-up later this month.

SHANDLING TO CBS? Neither the comedian nor the network will comment, but reports are circulating that Garry Shandling is talking to CBS about hosting a late-night talk show that would follow David Letterman's new show.

Is this a hoot or what?

What we do know for a fact is that CBS is committed to a second talk show that will follow Letterman's, which debuts in August.

(Contractually, Letterman will have at least part-ownership of the show.)

And we also know that Shandling seriously considered succeeding Letterman as host of NBC's "Late Night" show - an offer he turned down.

Reportedly, one of the major stumbling blocks was that NBC wanted him to debut on "Late Night" no later than the end of August, and Shandling won't be finished producing 22 episodes of his HBO talk-show parody "The Larry Sanders Show" until sometime that month.

No such problem exists at CBS. A post-Letterman late-night show wouldn't debut on that network until next year at the earliest.

We can only imagine how CBS is salivating at the prospect of signing Shandling. Think of the promotional possibilities - "Don't watch some guy named Conan. Watch the guy NBC really wanted."

QUOTABLE: As reported by the New York Times News Service, O'Brien quickly corrected a reporter who asked him how it felt to be getting the "Late Night" job as a "relative unknow."

"Sir, I am a complete unknown," O'Brien said.

QUOTABLE, PART 2: O'Brien, appearing on Tom Snyder's CNBC show tonight, on his sudden celbrity:

"I get recognized now. I pass people on the street and they say, `Look there's the guy who doesn't deserve a show.' "

WEDDING BELLS: The producers of "Coach" promise that, this time, Hayden and Christine really, truly will get married.

According to the folks at Universal Television, the long-awaited, much-delayed wedding will take place in the season-ending episode on May 19.

(Coincidentally, that's also the series 100th episode.)

However, I'm still rather unconvinced. This will the third time this season the Coach and his fiancee have headed to the altar.

First, the big church wedding was KO'd when Christine fell and broke her leg.

Then, on a trip to Las Vegas, a stalled car and a rain storm killed plans for a ceremony at a drive-up wedding chapel.

On May 19, plans call for a wedding in a "small, rustic chapel in the woods," which is about to be torn down.

We'll see if it actually comes off this time.

Let's hope so. It's been a funny plot device, but if it carries on any farther it will become simply annoying.

(By the way, "Coach" has been renewed for not one but two more seasons by ABC.)

MORE LARRY KING: CNN has signed Larry King to a new six-year contract, replacing the five-year pact that was due to expire in 1995.

In addition to his "Larry King Live," which airs five nights a week, the contract includes plans for "a sixth night of programming" on which King will be the "principal talent."

Oh, joy.

Now, if only he'd spend five minutes a day doing some preparation for those vapid interviews.