fb-pixel Skip to main content

‘Cheers’ star Kirstie Alley has died at 71

Kirstie Alley in 2010.Evan Agostini/Associated Press/file

Globe wire services

LOS ANGELES — Kirstie Alley, who stepped into Boston lore as the high-strung manager of the famed bar “Cheers” in the hit sitcom from 1987 to the last show in 1993, winning an Emmy as a foil and sometime love interest to bartender Sam Malone, died Monday in Tampa. She was 71.

The cause was cancer, her children said in a statement on social media that called her “fierce and loving” and recalled her “zest and passion for life.” Ms. Alley had only recently been diagnosed and was being treated in Tampa, her family said.

She starred opposite Ted Danson as Rebecca Howe on “Cheers,” one of television’s most-beloved sitcoms, about a Boston bar modeled after the Bull & Finch Pub on Beacon Hill. She joined the show at the height of its popularity after the departure of original star Shelley Long.

Advertisement



Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs (center) joined the cast of "Cheers" during rehearsal for an episode in which he appeared in 1988. Cast members include, John Ratzenberger, Rhea Perlman, George Wendt, Woody Harrelson, Ms. Alley and Ted Danson. Ira Mark Gostin/Associated Press

While Long’s character, Diane Chambers, was known for her flirty banter, Ms. Alley’s Howe was a bold but insecure woman-in-charge. Critics noted how Ms. Alley had brought a refreshing new dynamic with her character, as writers gave her a more fun arc that helped create a “denser joke machine,” as one writer noted.

She would win a Golden Globe and an Emmy for best lead actress in a comedy series for the role in 1991.

“I only thank God I didn’t have to wait as long as Ted,” she said in her acceptance of the Emmy, gently ribbing Danson, who had finally won an Emmy in his eighth nomination the previous year.

Ted Danson and Ms. Alley showed off their Golden Globe Awards backstage in 1991.Doug Pizac/Associated Press

“Cheers” made the Bull & Finch Pub one of Boston’s most popular tourist attractions. In its 11 seasons, it would garner 26 Emmy awards.

Ms. Alley would take a second Emmy for best lead actress in a miniseries or television movie in 1993 for playing the title role in the CBS TV movie “David’s Mother.”

Advertisement



She had her own successful sitcom for NBC, “Veronica’s Closet,” from 1997 to 2000. Her character was the head of a lingerie company.

Over her four-decade career, Ms. Alley became known for her candidness - whether that involved openly sharing her feelings about weight loss or ardently defending the controversial Church of Scientology, which she belonged to for decades.

Danson once called her “a biker chick crossed with an earth mother” and praised her lack of self-consciousness.

“She knows no fear,” Danson told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “Most of us walk around concerned about how people perceive us, but she is totally unconcerned about that.”

Although she was most known for her TV work, her career was boosted by her roles in the “Look Who’s Talking” series of movies. In the initial 1989 comedy, she played the mother of a baby who’s inner thoughts were voiced by Bruce Willis. She would also appear in a 1990 sequel “Look Who’s Talking Too,” and another in 1993, “Look Who’s Talking Now.”

John Travolta, her co-star in the trilogy, paid her tribute in an Instagram post.

“Kirstie was one of the most special relationships I’ve ever had,” Travolta said, along with a photo of Alley.

She would play a fictionalized version of herself in the 2005 Showtime series “Fat Actress,” a show that drew comedy from her public and media treatment over her weight gain and loss.

She dealt with the same subject matter in the 2010 A&E reality series “Kirstie Alley’s Big Life,” which chronicled her attempt to lose weight and launch a weight-loss program while working as a single mother in an unconventional household that included pet lemurs.

Advertisement



Ms. Alley said she agreed to do the show in part because of the misinformation about her that had become a tabloid staple.

“Anything bad you can say about me, they say,” she said at the time. “I’ve never collapsed, fainted, passed out. Basically, anything they’ve said, I never. The only true thing is I got fat.”

In recent years she appeared on several other reality shows, including a second-place finish on “Dancing With the Stars” in 2011. She appeared on the competition series “The Masked Singer” wearing a baby mammoth costume earlier this year.

She appeared in the Ryan Murphy black comedy series “Scream Queens” on Fox in 2015 and 2016.

Ms. Alley’s “Cheers” co-star Kelsey Grammar said in a statement that “I always believed grief for a public figure is a private matter, but I will say I loved her.”

Another “Cheers” co-star, Rhea Pearlman, recounted how she and Ms. Alley became friends almost instantly after she joined the show. She said Ms. Alley organized large Easter and Halloween parties and invited everyone. “She wanted everyone to feel included. She loved her children deeply. I’ve never met anyone remotely like her. I feel so thankful to have known her.”

Kirstie Louise Alley was born in Wichita on Jan. 12, 1951. She recalled wanting to act since her childhood. “I remember carrying around a picture of Linda Darnell when I was three years old, and I knew that was what I wanted to be,” she told the Saturday Evening Post in 1990, referring to the popular 1940s actress.

Advertisement



Naturally rebellious, Ms. Alley said she had a rough relationship with her mother while growing up. She attended Kansas State University and the University of Kansas, leaving both before receiving a degree.

Inspired by Doris Day’s character in “Pillow Talk” (1959), she pursued a successful career in interior design and developed an addiction to cocaine. Ms. Alley became sober while participating in Narconon, a drug-treatment program run by the Church of Scientology. She remained a defender of the organization, which has been described as a cult and accused of abuse.

Soon after she moved to Los Angeles, Ms. Alley earned a role in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982) as Saavik, a Starfleet officer who is mentored by Spock. Her film debut was followed by mostly unremarkable performances before she was tapped for “Cheers” in 1987.

Ms. Alley is survived by her children, True and Lillie Parker. She was married twice and split with her second husband, Parker Stevenson, in 1997.

Ms. Alley’s career and legacy were united by her willingness to be blunt. “I’ve always felt like if someone asks me something, they want the real answer,” she told Good Housekeeping magazine in 2007.

“Usually people think I’m from New York. The only similarity between New Yorkers and Midwesterners is that what you see is what you get.”

Advertisement



Material from The New York Times, Associated Press, and Washington Post was included in this obituary.