Five years into the hit sitcom Cheers, set in a homely neighbourhood bar in Boston, its female lead Shelley Long, who played the prim waitress Diane, quit the series. This left Sam (Ted Danson), the self-obsessed bar-owner, no one to spar with, and risked depriving the show of its screwball-style sexual tension.
Kirstie Alley, who has died of cancer aged 71, beat Sharon Stone and Kim Cattrall to the role of Long’s replacement, joining the show in 1987. As the bar’s apparently tough new manager, Rebecca, she went toe-to-toe with Danson right from her audition scene. “She had an incredibly sexy voice that was perfect to drive Ted bananas,” said James Burrows, the show’s director and co-creator. “In the test scene, there was a line where she says she’s not attracted to Sam. With Kirstie, you believed it.”
Rebecca takes Sam back into the business as an employee after his ambition to sail the world runs aground. Instantly the power balance is altered in fruitful and fascinating ways, with Sam’s status reduced and his credentials as a Casanova more robustly tested.
The original idea, said the show’s co-creator Les Charles, had been to position Rebecca as “the dragon lady, Cruella de Vil”. One of the first comments made about her on screen is that she “eats live sharks for breakfast”. Then Charles’s brother Glen, also a co-creator on Cheers, noticed Alley chain-smoking on set. “She was obviously nervous and who wouldn’t be, following Shelley? I thought we could probably use that, break down this cool, sophisticated facade she presents.”
One of the show’s writers, Cheri Steinkellner, admitted that “it took a while for us to figure out where the fun was with her”. A scene in which Alley was called upon to sob made it suddenly plain. “She started crying like nobody since Lucy Ricardo [Lucille Ball’s character in I Love Lucy]. That was the day we got our handle on Rebecca. We figured out she was not just another loser; she was the biggest, saddest loser in the bar.”
Alley played Rebecca in 148 episodes, winning an Emmy and a Golden Globe in 1991, and was the only surviving member of the Cheers cast not to appear even briefly in the spin-off series Frasier, though she did play Rebecca in an episode of Wings, a sitcom about a Nantucket airline.
The highlight of her screen work before Cheers had been her performance as a Vulcan officer in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), still one of the strongest of the Star Trek series. Other films, including Champions, starring John Hurt as the jockey Bob Champion, and the futuristic Tom Selleck adventure Runaway (both 1984), did little to boost her prospects.
She became a film star, though, with the comedy Look Who’s Talking (1989), even if she was inevitably upstaged by Bruce Willis, who provided her small child’s wise-cracking internal monologue. The movie grossed more than $297m worldwide, spawning two less popular sequels in which she and her original co-star John Travolta reprised their roles: Look Who’s Talking Too (1990) and Look Who’s Talking Now (1993).
Alley later starred in her own sitcom, Veronica’s Closet (1997-2000), in which she played the owner of a lingerie company. In one episode in the first season (Veronica’s $600,000 Pop), Danson has a guest role as her high-school crush, now working as a plumber.
She was born in Wichita, Kansas, to Robert, the owner of a lumber company, and Lillian, a housewife. From Wichita Southeast high school she went on to study liberal arts at Kansas State university before pursuing a career in interior design. Around this time, she became addicted to cocaine and later credited her recovery to the Church of Scientology.
Though her only screen appearances had been as a contestant on TV quiz shows, she enrolled in an acting class. A role in a student film led to agency representation. “I know some actors really study their asses off for years and they have a craft,” she said in 2013. “I’m just this starstruck fan who got lucky.”
She played Gloria Steinem in A Bunny’s Tale, a TV movie about the feminist writer’s month undercover in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club, and an abolitionist in the American civil war mini-series North and South (also 1985) and its 1986 sequel. She won a second Emmy for her performance as a woman with a son on the autism spectrum in the television film David’s Mother (1994). She was in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry, and starred with Tim Allen as New Yorkers posing as an Amish couple to escape their tax debts in For Richer Or Poorer (both 1997).
In the barbed comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999), she was amusingly deranged as a murderous former beauty pageant winner. She also appeared in Joyce Chopra’s Blonde (2001), a television adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s novel about Marilyn Monroe.
The tabloid media could be unkind in its reporting about her. “I was being attacked in the press for being fat,” she told Women’s Health in 2014. “I also remember that I owed the IRS a lot of money, and I needed to figure that out in 30 days.” Her response was to write the TV comedy series Fat Actress, in which she played herself. She sold it to the Showtime network, though its president, Bob Greenblatt, demurred at first. This prompted Alley to send him a delivery from Krispy Kreme with a note attached which read: “Maybe you’re not fat enough to get it. Have a doughnut.”
The show, which ran for one season in 2005, allowed her to cast vanity to the wind. She is seen pleading with Travolta to make Look Who’s Talking 4, badmouthing overweight stars such as James Gandolfini and John Goodman, and taking advice from an unhinged diet guru (played by Travolta’s wife, Kelly Preston).
In 2013-14, she was the lead in another single-season sitcom, Kirstie, as a Broadway star reconnecting with her estranged son; her former Cheers colleague Rhea Perlman played her PA. The following year, she was seen in Accidental Love, David O Russell’s bizarre unfinished comedy shot in 2008. Alley plays a chain-smoking vet who operates on an injured waitress while consulting Wikipedia for instructions.
She was one of the first stars to publicly congratulate Donald Trump on being elected president, and later claimed that her support of him had left her a pariah in Hollywood. Not that it deterred her: in 2020, she announced on Twitter that she was voting for him again.
Her first marriage, in 1970 to Bob Alley, with whom she coincidentally already shared her surname, ended in divorce in 1977. She is survived by her son, William True, and daughter, Lillie, from her second marriage, to Parker Stevenson, which ended in divorce in 1997, and by one grandson.
• Kirstie Alley, actor, born 12 January 1951; died 5 December 2022