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Kirstie Alley, Emmy-winning ‘Cheers’ actress, dies at 71

Ms. Alley also starred in the sitcom “Veronica’s Closet” and the “Look Who’s Talking” comic movie franchise

Kirstie Alley, a two-time Emmy winner known for her role on the NBC hit sitcom “Cheers,” died Dec. 5. She was 71. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)
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Kirstie Alley, an Emmy Award-winning comic actress best remembered for playing high-strung bar manager Rebecca Howe on NBC’s hit TV show “Cheers” from 1987 to 1993 and who also starred in the “Look Who’s Talking” verbal-baby film franchise, died Dec. 5 at 71.

The cause was cancer, her children said in a statement on social media. No further details were immediately available.

Over her four-decade career, Ms. Alley was known for her candidness — whether openly sharing her struggle to control her weight; ardently defending the Church of Scientology, which she belonged to for decades; or giving an off-color speech at the Emmys after winning the 1991 award for lead actress in a comedy series for “Cheers.”

Ted Danson, her “Cheers” co-star, 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.”

With her brunette hair and husky voice, Ms. Alley became a household name in 1987 after replacing Shelley Long on the five-year-old, hugely popular Boston bar-set sitcom.

Ms. Alley, who had made only a modest impact as an actress in a handful of TV and movie roles, was tapped for “Cheers” after co-creator and executive producer James Burrows saw her as Maggie in a Los Angeles stage production of Tennessee Williams’s melodrama “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” one of her rare theatrical performances.

“You don’t see it coming,” Burrows told the Times. “She’s got that hair and that face, and you don’t think a woman who looks like that should be funny. And yet she is. Comedy is surprise, and comedy coming from this sultry woman surprises you and makes you laugh that much harder.”

On “Cheers,” audiences had long become accustomed to the sarcastic and innuendo-laden banter between Long’s book-smart waitress character, Diane Chambers, and Danson’s lothario bar owner, Sam Malone — imbuing the sitcom with romantic tension that fueled plotlines for years. Eventually, Diane leaves to write a novel, and Sam sells his bar to sail the world, only to come back as an employee under new management, with Ms. Alley’s Rebecca in charge.

She — bold but perpetually insecure — becomes attracted to Sam, and the dynamics shift further as Sam regains control of his bar and demotes her to barmaid.

Amid the continuing high ratings, Ms. Alley starred as a new mother opposite John Travolta in “Look Who’s Talking” (1989) and its critically drubbed but commercially successful sequels.

In 1994, Ms. Alley earned a second Emmy for lead actress in a miniseries or special for her role in the made-for-TV movie “David’s Mother,” in which she played a woman caring for her son with autism.

Ms. Alley starred in NBC’s “Veronica’s Closet” (1997-2000) as a former model who runs a lingerie catalogue company. Reviewers commented on her stiletto-sharp delivery of sitcom lines, as she tells a gaggle of models, “There are M&M’s out there; maybe the three of you could share one.”

In addition to the film comedy “Drop Dead Gorgeous” (1999) and the miniseries “The Last Don,” Ms. Alley continued making cameos on sitcoms and starred in a short-lived mock-reality series, Showtime’s “Fat Actress” (2005), in which a fictionalized version of Ms. Alley struggles to lose weight.

Kirstie Louise Alley, whose father owned a lumber company, was born in Wichita on Jan. 12, 1951. She recalled wanting to act since her childhood. “I remember carrying around a picture of [movie star] Linda Darnell when I was three years old, and I knew that was what I wanted to be,” she told the Saturday Evening Post.

Describing herself as rebellious, artsy and lacking direction as a teenager, she said she enjoyed testing the boundaries of her conventional upbringing by breaking curfew, hitching motorcycle rides around the state and using fake IDs to gain entry to bars. She briefly attended Kansas State University and the University of Kansas before leaving college to work as an interior decorator, inspired by Doris Day’s character in the romantic comedy “Pillow Talk” (1959).

She plowed her income into drugs and, by the end of the 1970s, was addicted to cocaine. “When I was an interior designer in Wichita,” she recalled to the Times, “I was a druggie and life didn’t go well. I’d call in sick a lot, making excuses just so I could do coke.”

She attended Narconon, a drug-treatment program run by the Church of Scientology, and said she walked out clean in 1979. She remained a supporter of the organization, which has been called a cult and accused of abuse.

Inspired by the book “Dianetics,” by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, she decided to quit her life in Kansas and move to Los Angeles to pursue acting, saying the book’s message was, “If you want something, you go get it, and you work for it.” After appearances on game shows, she acquired an agent and won a role in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982) as a half-Vulcan officer mentored by Leonard Nimoy’s pointy-eared Spock.

Her marriages to Robert Alley (no blood relation) and actor Parker Stevenson, with whom she had two children, ended in divorce. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

Ms. Alley was a spokeswoman for Jenny Craig’s weight-loss program and in 2011 called out comedian and late-night TV host David Letterman for making jokes about her size when she appeared on “Dancing With the Stars.”

In more recent years, Ms. Alley became known for her comments on Twitter, where she raised doubts about the #MeToo movement, played down the threat of the coronavirus and touted ivermectin as an unauthorized treatment for the disease. She also publicly supported former president Donald Trump, laying out her political views on “Tucker Carlson Today” in 2021.

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.”