Kirstie Alley, Emmy-winning ‘Cheers’ actress, dies at 71
By Eduardo Medina and April Rubin
Kirstie Alley, the actress whose breakout role as the career-minded Rebecca Howe in the sitcom “Cheers” catapulted her career and earned her an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe, died Monday. She was 71.
The cause was cancer, according to a statement from her family on Twitter.
Alley quickly won over millions of viewers while playing Rebecca in “Cheers,” the timeless NBC show that ran for 11 seasons in the 1980s and ’90s. She had stepped in to replace Shelley Long in the ensemble cast in 1987, at the height of the series’ popularity, and remained through the final season.
Critics noted how Alley had brought a refreshing new dynamic to the character, with scripts giving her a more fun arc that helped create a “denser joke machine,” as one writer noted. At times, Rebecca, who managed the bar in the show, appeared to be a hapless and gold-digging mess. In other moments, Alley portrayed Rebecca with a faux-bravado, and with an attitude of indifference to others’ romantic advances.
Her character gradually evolved from being a corporate-pleasing manager to a full-fledged, genial member of the gang who was perky yet perpetually disappointed.
In an interview with “Entertainment Tonight” in 2019, Alley looked back on her “Cheers” years as a somewhat chaotic time, with all kinds of misbehavior being the norm on a set that included co-stars such as Ted Danson and Woody Harrelson.
“We never paid attention, we were always in trouble,” she said. “We never showed up on time.”
In addition to her 1991 Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series for “Cheers,” Alley also won the 1994 Emmy for lead actress in a miniseries for the title role in “David’s Mother,” a drama about a mother who raises her autistic son alone.
Alley, who acted regularly for about four decades, also starred in the NBC sitcom “Veronica’s Closet,” which ran from 1997 to 2000. Her character was the successful head of a lingerie company.
Marta Kauffman, a creator and an executive producer of “Veronica’s Closet,” said of Alley in 1997: “She is crazy most of the time, and I mean that in the best sense of the word.”
Alley was born Jan. 12, 1951, in Wichita, Kansas, where she was raised in a Roman Catholic family. She was particularly close with her grandfather, a lumber-company owner.
She attended Kansas State University but dropped out to become an interior decorator. Around that time, she developed an addiction to cocaine.
She eventually moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in Narconon, a rehabilitation program affiliated with the Church of Scientology.
When asked by Barbara Walters in 1992 why she had joined a religion with a problematic past, Alley said that she had “not come across anything” negative.
“It answered a lot of questions for me,” Alley said in 1997 of the church. “I was a pretty able person. I wasn’t looking for something like that. But I wanted to get rid of the barriers keeping me from what I wanted, to be an actress. It’s just part of my life.”
While living in Los Angeles, Alley began to take an interest in acting. In 1982, she made her film debut in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” playing a half-Vulcan, half-Romulan lieutenant with pointy ears.
In 1989, she starred alongside John Travolta in the film “Look Who’s Talking,” a comedy in which a baby’s thoughts are narrated by Bruce Willis. Vincent Canby, who reviewed the movie in The New York Times, wrote that “cute” was the “operative word” for a movie that starred “some good actors doing material that is not super.”
In 2005, Alley shifted her attention to a mock-reality show about her weight. She said at the time that the show, “Fat Actress,” drew from her experience as a woman in Hollywood who did not meet the industry’s stereotypically slim beauty standards. Another show, “Kirstie Alley’s Big Life,” also focused on Alley’s weight-loss journey.
Alley was married to Bob Alley, and the two eventually divorced. A later marriage to Parker Stevenson also ended in divorce.
She is survived by her two children, True and Lillie Parker. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
Alley told The New York Times in 1997 that she had sought out TV series throughout her career in order to have a normal schedule and be closer to her family.