A chat with Kirstie Alley is like stepping into a screwball comedy.
“These batteries just don’t last!” she huffs as her smartphone sputters. But it’s a happy huff, spun with the barbed wit and harried befuddlement of a Preston Sturges heroine. “Hold on one second — I’m plugging in! ...I think I had the last remaining Razr phone. These other things I call bricks.”
Alley is hardly a fuddy-duddy — but she’s old-school. She doesn’t TiVo (“I like watching shows with the rest of the country”). Her favorite movie is the 1950 Bette Davis drama All About Eve. And this TV icon loves the stage. “I don’t care about the theater part of it. I love the theater life — you know, Sardi’s and people getting dressed up for a show.”
Her work also reflects a certain timelessness: as the modern yet old-fashioned Rebecca Howe — the Boston bar owner Alley made so endearing on Cheers — the star could let out a loony cry to rival Lucy’s. Now, the kid from Wichita, Kansas (she keeps a stately but colorful home there, complete with carriage house and screening room) is headlining a new sitcom on the retro-friendly TV Land.
On Kirstie, Alley plays Madison Banks, a Jersey girl–turned–Broadway diva with issues. For starters, her long-lost son (Eric Petersen) is back. Then there’s her inner Eliza Doolittle. “She’s ditsy. She has major voids in her education and in her social skills. She got lucky with the acting thing.”
Alley herself waited until thirty to try acting. A rambunctious child of middle-class parents — dad owned a lumber company, mom was a homemaker — she was a cheerleader in high school, studied liberal arts at Kansas State University, then wed her high school sweetheart. The couple spent some time in California before splitting up.
Back home, she picked up interior design — inspired by the décor in her favorite ‘50s and ‘60s flicks, like Pillow Talk. In her late twenties, she also picked up an addiction to cocaine and underwent treatment via Scientology back in L.A.
When the fog cleared, Alley thought of Margo Channing, the stage actress of All About Eve that was perhaps Davis’s greatest role. She took an acting class and quickly wound up in a student film that landed her a soon-to-be huge agent at ICM. Before long, she was turning heads as Vulcan-eared Lieutenant Saavik in the hit Star Trek sequel, The Wrath of Khan.
“I know some actors really study their asses off for years and they have a craft,” she allows. “I’m just this starstruck fan who got lucky.”
Alley’s diverse credits suggest fearlessness played a role. Early on, she made a splash as a Playboy Club-era Gloria Steinem in the TV movie A Bunny’s Tale. In the Civil War miniseries North and South and its sequel, she played abolitionist Virgilia Hazard (“That was like the worst name ever!”). She showed a glimmer of comic chops as the romantic interest in Summer School, a sleeper hit with Mark Harmon.
In 1987 she joined Cheers in its fourth season — first as a staid businesswoman, then as a hilarious mess once the writers saw how well Alley could do slapstick nervosa. She would be Emmy Award-nominated 5 times for the role, winning the 1991 nod for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.
More success followed: the Look Who’s Talking film franchise with her friend John Travolta; another Emmy statuette for her dramatic turn in the 1994 TV movie David’s Mother; and her own NBC sitcom, Veronica’s Closet, from 1997 to 2000.
Tragedy struck as well. Her mother, Lillian, was killed by a drunk driver in 1981. A fourteen-year marriage to actor Parker Stevenson yielded two adopted children (William and Lillie, now in their twenties) but ended in 1997 with lots of show biz tongue-wagging.
All along, she has been very open about her addictive bent. She spoofed her weight-addled self in the Showtime series Fat Actress. And she fought back by starting her own weight-loss product line, Organic Liaison, though she admits she doesn’t always follow the program.
How game is the dame? In 2011 she came in second in Dancing with the Stars and also sashayed in last year’s All-Stars version. Now, she’s ready to tango with Emmy magazine. Says Alley: “Just ask me whatever you want!”
So, how was Kirstie born?
First, it’s slightly embarrassing that it’s named Kirstie. When we first started shooting, it was called Giant Baby, which I loved! Anyway, [executive producer] Marco Pennette and I did a pilot for ABC together, The Manzanis. That didn’t go, so we took this idea to TV Land, and they loved it.
What do you like about playing Madison?
She has a good heart, but she’s a diva. She was born Brenda Klazewksi, doesn’t come from money, so she’s got a nouveau-riche view. She’s especially flawed in love. And I always like to play flawed in love. I’m probably flawed in love in my own life, that’s why!
How else are you like Madison?
The biggest thing I have in common with Madison is that I live my life like I’m in 1942. Before I moved to Hollywood, I began living in old houses. I would resist everything technological, like cell phones. I really want Madison to live the way Broadway stars used to.
Do you have a diva side?
Well, I don’t have a limo driver [Michael Richards plays her driver; Rhea Perlman plays her personal assistant]. I’m just told this — that I am very eccentric. I have animals. Friends tell me stories about my life that I don’t even remember — like, “Don’t you remember when you had a marmoset living in your sauna?” To me, that’s normal! [Laughs]
You’re a cheerleader from Wichita, which sounds idyllic on paper....
On paper — you’ve got something there. I don’t think my upbringing was good. My mom and I had a rough relationship. Marco put elements of that into the show. Cloris Leachman plays my mother, and she’s just an asshole to me! [Laughs]
Were you a shy or gregarious kid?
I was a combo. I was either on the swings brooding, “Why do people blink? Where is God? Why am I here?” — I was very esoteric, I guess — or funny-crazy-wild. There wasn’t a lot of in-between. I’m still that way, I guess. Hot or cold. I’m always contemplating the universe.
A philosophical cheerleader!
I was only a cheerleader because I could jump really high. I was good at doing flips and diving and trampoline and swimming. I could do weird things. I could jump off roofs. I thought I was good at horseback riding, but I wasn’t. I was falling off all the time.
Who was your first movie crush?
Rock Hudson. He was everything. He was tall and strapping, and he could be so funny and sexy at the same time. I love how he would pick up Doris Day and throw her around in the air. I was obsessed with Pillow Talk because she was an interior designer, and his apartment was badass.
Any other early screen obsessions?
I loved Lucy, of course — who didn’t? As I got a bit older, I loved crazy movies like A Clockwork Orange and Harold and Maude. But I think romantic comedies are my favorite.
Before you started taking classes at twenty-eight, you had never acted?
I’m trying to think if anything was real on my résumé. [Laughs]
You’re like David Geffen!
Fake it till you make it!
Okay, how about a true career highlight?
When I did Deconstructing Harry with Woody Allen. That was a huge coup for me. But I don’t ever think so much about the acting. I think, “Oh, my God, here I am — I’m on the set with Woody Allen... There he is, he’s talking about baseball... Oh, my God! They’ve got cute sandwiches for lunch... Isn’t it pretty in New York? Oy vey! I don’t have to work in Kansas!”
I don’t want to say that I don’t take it very seriously. Maybe I should take it more seriously. I just love pretending.
Dancing with the Stars, Fat Actress — you’re pretty fearless.
“Ignorance is bliss” applies to me. I want to try things that I haven’t done. Anything that sounds exciting, I’m in.
Where do you get that ability to let loose?
Part of it is innate. Fat Actress was just born from me gaining weight — I wanted to get control back in my life even more than getting skinny. The [tabloid] rags were on me and people were on me about gaining weight. I felt like, “I’m nothing, I’m bad, I’m stupid.” I was going along with whatever their view of me was. But I’ll go along for a while, then stop and ask, “Why?”
God, I love that game of rising up and turning something that was quite tragic into something gloriously fun. I think that’s my best quality. I’m not saying that if something tragic happens, I don’t suffer. But usually when I’m knocked down, I deserve to be because I’ve done something stupid. [Laughs]
You’ve been open about your addictions — drugs, alcohol, food. Any thoughts for people in that kind of pain?
I would say: you actually do have a choice. Nobody cares as much about your life as you do. That’s the truth. People can have empathy for you, but the only person who feels your pain is you. And the only person who feels your joy is you. So, you’re the only one who can change it. You can’t depend on, as Blanche DuBois does, the kindness of strangers. Because that’s a momentary fix — like a drug.
Will Kirstie mirror some of your struggles?
Oh, yeah. I probably shouldn’t say this, but after I did the first Dancing with the Stars, I started hanging out in New York and, though I don’t drink, I decided I was a drinker. And I hadn’t smoked in eight years, and I started smoking! And kept smoking until nine months ago.
By the time I quit, I’d gained like fifteen pounds. The rag mags said I gained eighty. Whatever. I was, like, “Oh, my God!” because I have my own weight-loss company. So I took my own advice. I had to work out more. Anyway, Madison will have some similar issues in the show — everything is pretty fair game. But I don’t want a mean show. All the jokes are basically at my expense.
Sounds, um, fun!
[Laughs] I’m in my element. I’m having the best time of my life.
What’s fun for you away from work?
I’m in Kansas right now. I drove across country by myself. I’m never going to do that again, ever. There was some dude following me from Winslow, Arizona, all the way here.
He wanted to know if I was married. I told him yes, which was a lie. And he still kept following me and asked for my phone number at the next gas station, another 250 miles down the way. That was sort of strange. Also, the hotel I stayed at in Winslow was out of The Shining — I’m not kidding.
You started out fearless there again, though.
Well, it was sort of stupid. I’ll forget that I’m recognizable. So, at every gas station I’m signing autographs and taking pictures and being followed.
When I got to Kansas, I rested for two days. Then I got bored. A friend of mine’s daughter moved into a new place, and I went to see it and said, “Can I do a few things here?” She’s a young reporter in Wichita. She said, “Sure.” Basically, I redid her whole house. It was her first house. She didn’t have anything.
Speaking of projects, everybody talks about a Friends reunion. What about a full-on Cheers reunion?
I would die to do a Cheers reunion. I think it’s smart while everyone is still alive. I think people would love it.
Any other career wishes?
I would really like to win an Academy Award just to astonish myself. I don’t think I’ve ever played the role where I would say, “Oh, my God, you’re an amazing actress!” That would prove that this wasn’t all just a joke.