Kirstie Alley was a godsend to “Cheers” when she joined the storied NBC sitcom in 1987, famed director- producer James Burrows recalled Monday as he paid tribute to the comedic star.
“She was funny and she was gorgeous. You don’t find those two things together too often,” Burrows told Variety of Alley, who died Dec. 5 at the age of 71 after a battle with cancer. Off camera, she was naturally “bawdy” in a way that endeared her to the comedy community, Burrows recalled.
Alley signed on to “Cheers” at the midpoint of its 11-season run on NBC, from 1982-1993, as the show sought to make the tricky turn from the years of romance between the Sam Malone and Diane Chambers characters played by Ted Danson and Shelley Long. Long’s exit from the show after Season 5 prompted the shakeup that brought in Alley. “She revitalized the show,” Burrows said.
The new hire made a strong impression on her colleagues when Alley showed up on the first day of filming dressed up just like Shelley Long’s Diane Chambers character.
“That set the tone for her on the show,” Burrows remembered.
On camera, Alley’s strength was her unpredictability. “When she walked into that bar, everybody’s eye went with her. The surprise that she was funny made her jokes even funnier.” Alley earned five Emmy nominations and one win (in 1991) for her work on “Cheers” as aspiring corporate executive Rebecca Howe.
Burrows, a co-creator, exec producer and primary director of “Cheers” for its 271 episodes, also recalled Alley as being “the world’s greatest crier. She could funny-cry and make it real.”
The core “Cheers” ensemble at the time Alley joined — Ted Danson, Rhea Perlman, Woody Harrelson, Kelsey Grammer, Bebe Neuwirth, John Ratzenberger and George Wendt — was a murderer’s row of comedic talent. “Kirstie became ‘one of the boys’ literally, almost overnight,” Burrows said. “She had some of the greatest moments on ‘Cheers.’ ”
Burrows and Alley would later work together on the pilot for her NBC comedy “Veronica’s Closet” (1997-2000). The two kept in touch over the years but hadn’t seen each other since the “Cheers” gang convenved for a series of 30th anniversary celebrations in 2012.
“I’ll miss the energy she brought into a room,” Burrows said.
Other “Cheers” alumni paid tribute to Alley with statements:
TED DANSON: “I was on a plane today and did something I rarely do. I watched an old episode of ‘Cheers.’ It was the episode where Tom Berenger proposes to Kirstie, who keeps saying no, even though she desperately wants to say yes. Kirstie was truly brilliant in it. Her ability to play a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown was both moving and hysterically funny. She made me laugh 30 years ago when she shot that scene, and she made me laugh today just as hard. As I got off the plane, I heard that Kirstie had died. I am so sad and so grateful for all the times she made me laugh. I send my love to her children. As they well know, their mother had a heart of gold. I will miss her.”
RHEA PERLMAN: “Kirstie was a unique and wonderful person and friend. Her joy of being was boundless. We became friends almost instantly when she joined the cast of ‘Cheers.’ She loved kids and my kids loved her too. We had sleepovers at her house, with treasure hunts that she created. She had massive Halloween and Easter parties, and invited the entire crew of the show, and their families. 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. I’m going to miss her very, very much.”
KELSEY GRAMMER: “I always believed grief for a public figure is a private matter, but I will say I loved her.”