There can be few greater challenges for a television show than replacing a key cast member at the height of the series’ popularity.
The people behind Cheers, the greatest American sitcom of the 1980s, managed to solve that problem twice in the show’s first five years. In 1985 Woody Harrelson stepped in for the late Nicholas Colasanto to play a differently dim bartender. Two years later Kirstie Alley, who has died at the age of 71, was plucked from relative obscurity – her most prominent role was probably in Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan – to take over from the departing Shelley Long.
It was a brilliant move. Long had played Diane, the intellectual slumming it behind the bar, as a pompous ditherer, divided in her affection for Sam Malone, Ted Danson’s chiselled bar owner.
Alley made something quite different of Rebecca Howe. A striving businesswoman, she managed the bar after it was sold to a megacorporation – and, uninterested in Sam’s advances, emerged as a defining avatar of 1980s capitalism.
Nothing excited Rebecca more than money; her shoulder pads swelled with the rising stock market. In her own way the character was as much a Reaganite icon as Gordon Gekko from Wall Street, but Alley’s genius was to draw laughs from Rebecca’s constant, crippling insecurity.
There have been few more hilarious weepers in comedy history – her face crumpled with a flourish that even Lucille Ball would have envied. She won an Emmy for her efforts and went on to film success in Look Who’s Talking and another decent run on TV in Veronica’s Closet, during the late 1990s.
Born in Kansas in 1951, Alley moved to Los Angeles with a mind to becoming an interior designer and to pursue her interest in the Church of Scientology, which she joined in 1979. Married to a high-school sweetheart from 1970 to 1977, she seems to have finessed her way into acting via appearances on gameshows such as Match Game and Password Plus. By 1982 she had secured that memorable role as Lieutenant Saavik in Wrath of Khan, but she declined to appear in subsequent sequels.
Carl Reiner, who had directed Alley in the film Summer School, recommended her to Glen and Les Charles, creators of Cheers, when Long elected to leave the series during its pomp. Cheers managed to maintain its popularity as part of NBC’s “Must See Thursday” as Rebecca anchored herself in the public consciousness.
It was harder then for actors to cross over from television to film. Despite his good looks, Danson never really became a proper movie star. But Alley did have a huge hit opposite John Travolta in Look Who’s Talking. Released in 1989, the picture concerned a couple raising a troublesome baby voiced by a then unstoppable Bruce Willis. (All three stars of that film had emerged via the smaller screen.) Look Who’s Talking Too, an unloved sequel, was released a little over a year later.
Alley remained visible for the rest of her career without ever replicating her great success in the 1980s and early 1990s. She was terrific opposite Woody Allen in the director’s acerbic Deconstructing Harry, from 1997. The amusing Veronica’s Closet, featuring Alley as the head of a lingerie company, ran from 1997 to 2000 and earned her another Emmy nomination.
In recent years Alley appeared on reality shows such as Dancing with the Stars and the British version of Big Brother. She continued to follow Scientology and became a declared supporter of Donald Trump. She said that Hollywood had shunned her for that decision. “You can be cooking meth and sleeping with hookers, as long as, apparently, you didn’t vote for Trump,” she told the Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
As news of her death emerged, former colleagues and friends stepped up to celebrate her great comic gifts. Danson noted that, in an eerie coincidence, he had been watching a key scene from Cheers just before he heard of her passing.
“Her ability to play a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown was both moving and hysterically funny,” he told Deadline. “She made me laugh 30 years ago when she shot that scene, and she made me laugh today just as hard.” The actor Parker Stevenson, to whom she was married from 1983 to 1997, also paid tribute. “I am so grateful for our years together, and for the two incredibly beautiful children and now grandchildren that we have. You will be missed.”
Kirstie Alley had a spitfire energy to compare with the great screwball-comedy actors of the 1930s and 1940s. Perhaps she didn’t get as many great roles as she deserved after Cheers, but she leaves the world as an undisputed television great.
She is survived by her two children.