‘CHEERS’ IS CHEERING ALLEY ON
They wanted someone funny but prickly, someone who could get laughs while thwarting Ted Danson. They wanted to keep the “Cheers” formula going after Shelley Long’s departure. They wanted to start the next five years of the show with someone the same only different.
Kirstie Alley, who got the part of Danson’s new boss in the popular NBC comedy, is the type of person who gives you no rest. She is not to be taken seriously, as in: “They liked me because I’m the complete opposite of Shelley--I’m fabulous and beautiful. No! I mean, I’m not an intellectual like Shelley.”
All the world’s an audience for Alley, and life is one long ad-lib. “It took awhile to negotiate getting the part,” she says. “First there were the pre-negotiations. There were meetings with Ted and the producers. There were meetings with Rhea Perlman and the producers. Then for some reason they wouldn’t give me a million dollars a week.”
Eventually the “Cheers” producers decided they liked Alley’s non-stop performance and hired her to play the new woman in charge. Explaining her character, she says, “She’s supposedly managing the bar for this corporation--or for her father, I’m not sure. She’s a debutante gone wild--ever met any of those?
“She and Ted don’t get along, naturally. It’s him hitting on her, her rejecting him. Shelley supposedly went off to write for six months, but none of us at the bar expect her back.”
Danson himself says of his new co-star, “Kirstie plays a boss, a boss-like villainess. The show’s premise stays the same: the bar versus the outsider, which is what Shelley played. I don’t know if I’ll miss Shelley--I don’t miss people till I see them again. As for the direction of the show, I know some things, but it’s more fun to keep them out of the papers.”
Alley says, “The show’s writers have had a good time writing for me. They call and I hear laughter in the background. They’ve used stuff about me--my nervous, psychotic, twitty quality.
“Like this zit on my cheek. See this zit?” She indicates a tiny, previously unnoticeable blemish. “I get self-conscious about things like this zit. I become this zit. It goes beyond vanity into the psychotic.”
The choice of Alley, nutzoid as she tries to appear when asked about “Cheers,” went against the run of her previous dramatic work. Among other strong characters, she has played Gloria Steinem in “A Bunny’s Tale” and fanatical abolitionist Virgilia Hazard in “North and South.” She also played Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the Mark Taper Forum in 1983.
But she doesn’t take herself seriously enough to want to play just “serious” parts. How serious can serious be? “I had a lot of crummy jobs. I was a nanny, I worked in a taco joint. Believe me, if you’ve done other jobs and then you become an actor, you can’t take it seriously. Acting is the nirvana of the job world.
“Also, I don’t get where everyone says acting is hard. It makes me sick to hear that. Acting is like life, it’s just talking. For instance, it’s real easy for me to cry. Other actors ask how I do it. It says to do it in the script. That’s good enough for me. I dunno, maybe I’m a robot.”
On the contrary, Alley is a show-business natural who resisted the urge to be a star until she was well into her 20s. She was an English major in college (Kansas State) and worked as an interior decorator in Wichita for five years. One day in 1981, on an impulse, she packed up and drove to Hollywood, where six months later she was starring in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
It’s as if a tornado had come and swept her off to Oz. “I’d always wanted to be a star,” she says. “I’m from an ordinary middle-class family in Kansas. When I was five I announced I wanted to be an actress. They laughed. I thought to myself, ‘I will, I will, I will--and when you least expect it!”’
In high school, Alley still had her dream. “I was a cheerleader, but only because I could jump high, not because I was good-looking. I used to make my own dresses. The other kids would ask where I got that dress, and I’d tell them I made it, and they’d go, ‘Oh, cute city!,’ and I’d feel ashamed. And then I’d think, ‘I’ll become a famous actress and you’ll want to come to my premiere, and then I’ll ask you where you got your icky awful dress.’ ”
Besides English, Alley also studied art in college, so she obtained a position at Dean’s Designs, doing up condos. “I was pretty good, but I was a dilettante. I knew I was just working for Dean’s so I could say to myself I wasn’t working in a laundry.
“I was getting paid for a job I did well but didn’t like. I spent a lot of time fearing failure until I realized I was a failure. Then I remembered my old dream. Why not try?
“If I failed after trying my best for about 70 years, I wouldn’t have to come back to Kansas with my tail between my legs--I could always go to Missouri or Oklahoma. So I took off.”
Alley had worked in plays, but that was in college. She knew one person in California, but no one in the business. “I figured if you went in and auditioned and were good they would hire you. Isn’t that ridiculous?
“It turned out to be the way it works. You also have to be persistent, like totally. But that was easy. What happened was, I joined an acting class. I was in it a week and one of the guys said some friends of his were doing a student film.
“I went for an interview. I told them lies. I said I was in this little low-budget film in Kansas, that little play in Kansas City. I said I went to the Ruth McCormick School of Fine Arts, which doesn’t exist. Ruth McCormick was my high school drama teacher.
“I don’t think they believed me, but they liked me and hired me to play a Jewish girl, which convinced me I must be good, if I could play a Jewish girl.” The film, “One More Chance,” was good enough to be bought by Cannon and distributed in Europe.
Since then, Alley has worked constantly, rising quickly through the normal Hollywood stages to her present eminence as star of movies such as the current “Summer School,” opposite Mark Harmon, and the upcoming “Mountain King,” with Sidney Poitier and Tom Berenger. She starred in a short-lived series for ABC in 1983-84, “Masquerade.”
“Cheers” is the icing on the cake. “I think I’ll like doing it,” she says with typical insouciance. “If I don’t, too bad--they’re paying me a million a week. After the $900,000 level, the negotiations were really hardball. I hope Ted and Rhea aren’t too upset. Hi, Ted and Rhea!”
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