It was an impossible job. Nobody could do it. Few would even want to try.
Kirstie Alley pulled it off.
This was the fall of 1987. Shelley Long had just left Cheers, the wildly popular, influential NBC sitcom that was built entirely on the scorching, hilarious romantic chemistry between Long’s pretentious Diane Chambers and Ted Danson’s cocky Sam Malone. The show had made Long into a big enough star that she felt she could leave the bar and hit it big in movies. A film career didn’t quite work out for her (though Troop Beverly Hills has its fans), and it sure seemed like Cheers would be in as much trouble without her as she turned out to be without it.
Enter Alley, who was still largely unknown in her mid-30s, other than supporting roles in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the Civil War miniseries North and South. As often happens when TV shows have to replace a major character, the Cheers producers wanted their new female lead to be as different from the former one as possible. Where Diane was a would-be intellectual with a fondness for classic literature and high art, Alley’s Rebecca Howe was a ruthless executive with an eye on either climbing the corporate ladder or grabbing on to a man on his way up(*). Diane didn’t trust Sam, but had a weakness for him, while Rebecca seemed wholly dismissive of her new employee, despite his many attempts to get her into bed.
(*) Rebecca’s dream guy was Donald Trump, which had a very different connotation in the late Eighties than it does now; life would later unfortunately imitate art when Alley became an outspoken MAGA type.
Alley did fine with the shark in a suit approach in her early episodes, and displayed some surprising skills along the way, like her ability to hold a lit cigarette inside her mouth. (She later said her uncle taught her the trick when she was eight.) But the producers quickly recognized that they had hired TV’s funniest crier since Lucille Ball. Soon Rebecca was much less cool customer than hot mess, forever breaking down in front of Sam, Norm, Carla, and the rest of the gang. In time, Sam gave up on his pursuit of Rebecca altogether, realizing they were better off as friends, which was still a fairly shocking idea for TV of the period. (They did later attempt to conceive a child together, but without any pretense of couplehood.)
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The audience not only didn’t reject the Sam/Rebecca version of the show, but seemed to embrace it even more. Alley’s seasons were more popular than Long’s, and eventually a show that had once floundered in the ratings became the most-watched in America for a while. And by recognizing that Alley didn’t need a romantic set-up to thrive comedically, Cheers in those later seasons was able to turn into more of a pure ensemble hangout show. Alley got to shine plenty (and won an Emmy for her performance), but so did everyone else.
When Long returned for the series finale, she and Alley shared a couple of scenes together where Rebecca pretended to be Sam’s girlfriend so he wouldn’t feel like a loser in front of his ex. Rebecca is herself devastated over her latest break-up — finally with a Don, only this one a humble plumber rather than a real estate tycoon — and is barely coherent throughout their meal. All the tension is between Sam and Diane, yet here is Rebecca — once a potential interloper to the whole series, now one of its most reliable comic engines — getting all the laughs in the scene. When Don shows up and takes Rebecca away from him, Diane smugly tells a mortified Sam, “She’s interesting!” Even she couldn’t help being amused by the woman who tried to take her place on the show, and instead became something much more complicated, and ultimately beloved.