The Tears Behind the Cheers
In Kirstie Alley’s favorite fantasy, she sweeps into an ornate Beverly Hills living room wrapped in a cloud of lilac perfume, her dark mane tucked into a diamond-studded turban, a cigarette poised in a long holder. She poses before a shelf crowded with Emmys and Oscars, trains her high-beam opalescent eyes at a journalist and announces, “I’m ready.”
A real-life interview Chez Alley, however, is more Beverly Hillbillies than Sunset Boulevard. The 32-room, former Al Jolson estate on 2½ well-kept acres in Encino. a 20-minute drive from Hollywood, is crawling with something like 40 critters. Two large dogs paddle in the swimming pool, and a third naps on a chaise lounge. There’s a goose in the backyard, and strange sounds come from the aviary. In the spacious kitchen. Alley’s friend Doc Lawrence, a Los Angeles rocker, extracts milk from the actress’s German shepherd Annabelle, who recently had puppies. Alley puts the milk in a tiny feeding syringe and gives it to an hours-old possum that was rejected by its mother. “We’ve got a rocker, an actress and a German shepherd trying to perform a miracle on a baby possum,” says Alley, 35, in the brassy, scare-hell-out-of-men alto that provides the sound track of her kinetic charm. “It’s too weird.”
“Too weird?” asks Alley’s actor husband of seven years, Parker (Baywatch) Stevenson, 38, as he hurries into the room carrying a heating pad for the possum. “For you it’s kinda normal.” Stevenson recalls that when Alley was rehabilitating an injured raven, she hung a family portrait in the aviary so that the bird would have a more homey atmosphere. “I didn’t exactly agree with her perspective,” says Stevenson, “but then, Kirstie has her own unique agenda.”
Even in Hollywood, where miracles are routinely manufactured in special-effects factories, in plastic surgeons’ offices and in publicity departments, no one could have predicted Alley’s agenda—or her success. An outspoken dervish whirling through life at redline speed, she has successfully battled a cocaine addiction, achieved a stable marriage in an unstable profession, squelched false rumors that she and husband Stevenson are gay and is presently recovering from a miscarriage during her first pregnancy.
Nor has Alley been playing possum professionally. Now in her fourth season as Cheers’s neurotic overachiever Rebecca Howe, she has made predecessor Shelley (waitress Diane) Long merely a fond memory, despite worries that Alley would upset the show’s delicate magic. Far from dampening the ratings, her onscreen charisma as Ted (Sam) Danson’s sexual sparring partner has helped nine-year-old Cheers to grace the top of the ratings and enjoy its best season ever. Alley also stars in two new big-screen features due out before year’s end. “I used to think that I was a television actress who dabbled in movies,” she says, laughing. “Now I like to think of myself as a movie star who also works on a TV series.”
Perhaps, but at present Cheers remains emotional home base, a place where Alley feels like part of the close-knit sitcom family. (“I’ve slept with them all,” she jokes.) “It’s hard to remember when she wasn’t on the show.” says Rhea (Carla) Perlman. “Kirstie was the second coming.” Alley has expanded her role and given depth to her character. “We thought of the part as a martinet, a bitch.” says Cheers director and executive co-producer Jim Burrows. “Then we met her, and there was this vulnerability, so we made her the neurotic woman of the ’80s.”
Despite the perfect fit between actress and show, this may be Alley’s last turn on Cheers. Her contract expires at the end of this season, and given her recent box-office success, moviemakers would like to get more of her services. All things being equal, however. Alley says that she would like to stay bellied up to the bar. “The thought of not coming into work every day and seeing Ted and Rhea and everybody seems a huge loss.” she says.
Ironically, it is her Cheers success that has attracted the competition. Hollywood’s first perception of Alley was that of big-screen alien (Mr. Spock’s half-Vulcan pal in 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). “Now.” she says, “they see me as funny.” That view was right on the money, given her performance as straitlaced and befuddled single mom Mollie in last year’s surprise comedy hit Look Who’s Talking. She reprises the role in Look Who’s Talking Too, due in theaters at Christmastime. Alley was delighted to team up again with pal and fellow Scientologist Travolta. “John is the funniest person I’ve ever met in my life.” she says. “He does impressions of Tom Cruise, my husband, even me.”
In Sibling Rivaby, opening Oct. 26, Alley plays a wannabe-writer housewife in search of an orgasm, a quest that leads to cardiac-arresting results. “She’s honestly comic,” says Rivalry director Carl Reiner. “She brings all the little extras that only real comedians have.”
Although her career is on the fast track. Alley has recently suffered a tragedy in her personal life. She had a miscarriage in early September, just one month into her first pregnancy. During an August vacation, says Alley. “Parker asked me if I wanted to have a baby. We’d put it off and put it off. But we made love on a Friday night, and Monday morning I woke up and said, ‘I’m nauseous.’ Parker told me that it was impossible, but I knew otherwise. Three weeks later I did a home pregnancy test. My niece was there, and when the test proved positive. I had her get four more tests. They were all positive. Over the next two days I took 12 home tests, all positive. My niece was screaming, ‘When are you going to believe it?’ It was so exciting. I had a hard time believing it.”
Alley lost the baby in her doctor’s office during a regular checkup. “The fetus just died,” she says. “It was called a spontaneous abortion. I wasn’t far enough along to feel the baby kick, so the loss I felt was more mental than physical. In those few weeks you mock up an entire life—who the baby is going to look like, where it’s going to go to college. That’s the loss we suffered. But there will be another try. There will be babies.” Her positive attitude helped Stevenson through the trying time. “She’s a tough girl,” he says. “And that strength pulled everyone else up.”
Standing up for herself is one of Alley’s key traits. Born in Wichita, Kans., Alley was the second and wildest of the three children raised by her mother, Mickie, and father, Robert, a lumber company owner. Her brother. Craig, a lumber company manager, and her sister, Collette, a biology teacher, both still live in Wichita. At age 6 Alley debuted onstage as the sun in a class play. But, says best friend Sarah Campbell, a Los Angeles real estate agent, “The closest Kirstie came to an interest in acting was when she read the movie magazines in my mom’s beauty shop. Maybe she was too embarrassed to admit it.”
By puberty Alley kicked the hick image. “She used to sneak out of the house in geeky clothes and no makeup,” says Campbell. “Then she’d hop into the back seat of a car, transform herself into this wild creature, and we’d spend the rest of the night driving to every Dairy Queen in Kansas looking for boys.”
Her search soon turned to more dangerous thrills. When Alley dropped out of Kansas State University in 1977 after her sophomore year, she became a free-lance interior decorator in Wichita—and discovered cocaine. “I was a good decorator.” she recalls. “But I snorted up all my profits.” She was a weekend user—from Thursday night through Saturday. “Long weekend, huh?” she says. “I didn’t end up on the streets, thank God, but it put me in another, extremely selfish world, and I wasn’t able to give my attention to my friends and family. Finally it caught up with me, and I realized what a jerk I was.” Soon after, Alley moved to Los Angeles and entered Narconon, a drug-rehab program developed by L. Ron Hubbard. founder of the Church of Scientology. “When I came out of my drug stupor,” says Alley, “I decided I wanted to act.” So she did—in some forgettable TV series and feature films.
With the kind of drama that usually only makes it in prime-time movies, success and tragedy occurred simultaneously in 1981. Alley’s mother was killed and her father seriously injured when a drunk driver collided with their car in Wichita. That same week she landed the Star Trek part. “Children have the idea that their parents will always be together, and I’ve never completely adjusted to the fact that mine aren’t anymore,” says Alley, who has become extremely close to her father.
Meeting Stevenson several months later turned out to be good medicine for grief. Alley was dining out in L.A. with her actress pal Mimi Rogers (pre-Tom Cruise) when she caught a glimpse of Stevenson’s Ivy League good looks in a mirror. “My insides growled, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ ” she recalls. His date was subsequently replaced that night by Alley, who made all the right moves. “I thought I was doing the pursuing,” Stevenson recalls. “In reality, though, she was calling the shots.” They were married two years later.
Alley credits moderation and commitment for the success of the union. “In the first years of our marriage, Parker was apt to sulk in a corner,” says Alley. “I was likely to throw pots and pans. But we’ve hit a medium.” In a craft that demands on-camera involvement with leading men and women, the two work on a basis of trust. “If I’m making out with some incredible-looking guy,” says Alley, “I don’t go, ‘Well, this doesn’t get me excited at all.’ The same with Parker. So we made a real agreement. If that trust isn’t there, it’s too easy to say adios.”
That hasn’t stopped some talk of trouble in the marriage and even printed suggestions that Stevenson and Alley are gay. “It’s funny in a pathetic way.” she says. “It must be a last resort to find something controversial about us. As far as I’m concerned, if people believe in two-headed aliens from Mars, they might as well believe Parker and I are gay.”
Alley is too busy to spend much time on such falsehoods, however. There are possums to save, bars to manage and movie roles to consider. Then there’s her work as national spokesperson for Narconon and her involvement with Cry Out, an ecological booklet printed in both English and Spanish and aimed at grade schoolers. She is also working to fund a chimpanzee refuge in Africa with her longtime idol, zoologist Jane Goodall. Says the patient Stevenson: “If Kirstie’s got a major fault, it’s that she’s trying to cram six lifetimes into one. She’s a bizarre combination of eccentricity and determination to make a difference. It has taken me time, but I’ve learned that I’m just along for the ride.” Hang on. Parker.
—J.D. Reed, Todd Gold in Los Angeles