35 Years Ago: Kirstie Alley Enters ‘Cheers’ as Sam’s New Foil
The departure of a main character needn’t be the death knell for a TV series. Still, the odds against a good show finding its groove again after losing an important member of the cast aren’t great, especially when the character in question is not only part of the central relationship driving the action, but has been in the mix since the very first episode.
Lucky for us, Cheers hit the ground running immediately after the departure of Shelley Long’s Diane Chambers, with Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca Howe not so much taking Long’s place as providing a much-needed change in direction.
As fans of the long-running and still-beloved NBC sitcom know, the on-again, off-again relationship between former Red-Sox-pitcher-turned-bar-owner Sam “Mayday” Malone and perpetual grad student and perennial fish-out-of-water barmaid Diane Chambers was frequently the focus of the series’ first five seasons. So much so that the “Sam and Diane” template became a well-known shorthand for the sexually charged, opposites attract, will they/won’t they dynamic in TV series to the present day. In the end, Sam and Diane did, of course. Then didn’t. And then, finally, in the fifth season finale, “I Do, Adieu,” they did, then didn’t, as Diane, informed that her unfinished novel (Jocasta’s Conundrum) has received interest from a publisher during her Cheers-set wedding, leaves for a temporary writing retreat. In the memorable ending, Sam, sensing the finality of their separation both are trying to avoid, intones a somber, “Have a nice life” to the departed Diane, leaving the couple, and the series’, future very much in doubt.
And it was very much in doubt. Creators Glen and Les Charles and James Burrows have stated since that their initial concept of Cheers as a hangout ensemble comedy set in a Boston bar had been increasingly overtaken by the Sam and Diane of it all. (Unsurprisingly, Ted Danson and Shelley Long, despite never being the closest of friends offscreen, created one of the most enduringly funny, tellingly troublesome and slyly powerful romantic pairings on television.) When Long - who wanted to spend time with her baby daughter (her pregnancy was hidden throughout Season 3) after signing a multipicture deal with Disney/Touchstone and had grown tired of Diane’s role as Cheers’ resident pretentious stick in the mud for five years - announced she was moving on, the producers were both happy and very concerned that Cheers without Diane (or “Sam and Diane”) wouldn’t work.
So it was with anxious anticipation that fans tuned in for the sixth season premiere, “Home Is the Sailor” (broadcast on Sept. 24, 1987) to see just how Cheers would look without the ever-studious and stunted Diane perched on a barstool with a book. The first act, indeed, keeps viewers waiting, even as stalwart barfly Dr. Frasier Crane engages in a bout of helpful exposition with peerlessly clueless farm-boy-turned-bartender Woody Boyd (Woody Harrelson). We learn that Sam, correct in assuming that the lure of literary success would mean the end of the pair’s relationship, has sold Cheers, bought a sailboat and set out on a trip around the world. Diane, as Woody explains with a sly allusion to Long’s decampment, has characteristically moved on from her still-unfinished novel to Hollywood to try writing for TV.
As for Cheers (the bar and the series), things do, indeed, look different. For one thing, Woody and cantankerous waitress Carla (Rhea Perlman) are decked out in hideous green-and-white-striped TGI Fridays-looking uniforms, there are tablecloths and ferns everywhere, and a dourly humorless second bartender looms behind the bar. Sam’s playing-days photograph is gone and, when George Wendt’s beloved barfly Norm Peterson warily walks through the door, only Woody thinks or knows to greet him with a hearty “Norm!,” leading Norm to turn on his heels and leave. Plus, when the credits roll, Long’s title card and old-timey illustration are gone, replaced with the period image of a stern-looking saloon matron, the name “Kirstie Alley” boldly proclaiming that Cheers has a new female lead in town.
Cheers’ writing was, and remains, a master class in joke construction, and Frasier’s typically long-winded lament for the good old days (complete with Alfred, Lord Tennyson quotation) is masterfully interrupted by Sam silently perching on the stool next to him, Frasier matter-of-factly noting, “Oh, hi Sam” and letting out a surprised shriek. Yep, Sammy’s Back, his ‘round-the-world voyage scuttled along with his boat by a Caribbean reef. Assuming that he’ll be able to slide his way back into a bartending job at the bar he’d sold to a multinational corporation, Sam is warned by a once more knocked-up Carla (“Thank God you’re still pregnant, huh?” he jokes, patting Carla’s tummy) that the new boss is a real hard-ass. Still, finding out that his job’s been taken by a woman (and an unmarried one at that), Sam prepares to turn on the old womanizer’s charm, boasting to Frasier, Woody and Carla that he’s “learned a few new grabbers while I was out at sea.”
Enter Rebecca Howe, power-suited in a flared red leather jacket, striking such an alluring figure that all Sam can blurt out is an appreciatively taken-aback sound, translated here as something akin to “Ha-bwooa.” It’s a fine buildup to a memorable entrance for Alley, then perhaps best known for her role as humorless Vulcan Saavik in 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (Alley, in a later interview, good-naturedly confessed that she’d cost herself a recurring Trek role by imperiously asking for more money.)
Watch a Scene From Kirstie Alley's 'Cheers' Debut
For Sam Malone, the old ways are what he knows, even if his repeated come-ons/job entreaties are met with a disdainful cold shoulder even Diane could never quite muster. Sam’s constantly on-the-make womanizing may have been tamped down by his time with Diane, but here he’s in full borderline sexual-harassment mode, urging Rebecca to consider rehiring him while suggesting they “slip out of our things and say howdy.”
It’s a pivotal episode for Cheers about its main character, as Sam’s reluctant attraction to the substantial (if mismatched) presumed love of his life began to teach the lifelong skirt-chaser the emptiness of his bed-hopping. If Charles, Charles and Burrows were looking to transform the post-Long Cheers back into a closer approximation of the ensemble workplace comedy they’d intended, transitioning Sam back into the horndog fulcrum of the piece while still maintaining some vestiges of his character arc and growth would be key. As would be the woman hired to be Long’s replacement as Danson’s main sparring partner.
The scene where Rebecca eventually offers Sam a pity gig as a weekend-replacement bartender (under Woody and the dour but professional Wayne) is where Danson lets Sam’s playboy visage slip, and it’s as affecting in the actor’s hands as any time before. Stonewalled from returning to the one place in the world that still feels like home, Sam first doubles down on his criticisms of Rebecca’s trendy changes, earnestly responding to Rebecca’s objections by admitting that the changes — as stupid as he thinks ferns and uniforms are — have helped him. Danson, as he’s proven once more and just as impressively in NBC’s The Good Place 30 years later, is one of the finest sitcom actors in TV history, able to ground the requisite episodic gags and cyclically erasable growth with a veiled vulnerability. Confessing that he was worried he’d see Diane’s face everywhere at Cheers, Sam’s openness is just enough to wrench a begrudging offer of part-time work, with the businesslike Rebecca softening merely enough to admit she’s only doing so out of pity.
Rebecca never would become Sam’s new love interest in the show’s final six seasons. Despite Sam’s initial, doggedly crude attempts to worm his way into her bed, Rebecca remained resolutely, if shakily, aloof, a character trait whose cracks were already starting to show in her first appearance. Freudian slips suggest how insecure the corporate underling is in her ambitions, and we’re introduced, via an eavesdropped phone call and some Carla gossip, to her completely unrequited crush on her wealthy boss, the even more aloof Evan Drake. Even as she dresses Sam down at episode’s end (after returning regulars Norm, Cliff and lower tier denizens Alan, Tim and Steve team up to humiliate the stuffy Wayne into quitting), with a then-risque pun about former baseballer Sam having “no balls” left in their relationship, Sam is allowed to cheekily humiliate his new boss with an elaborate setup punchline preying on Rebecca’s insecurities.
It’s a canny, if not entirely unproblematic, way to introduce Long’s long-anticipated replacement. The seeds were there should Cheers plan to turn “Sam and Rebecca” into the next “Sam and Diane,” their mutual jousting gradually softening into prickly romance. But, perhaps in deference to Alley’s facility with physical comedy and her ability to fit in among the bar’s wacky regulars as Cheers went incrementally broader in its final seasons, the show played up Rebecca’s sad-sack unluckiness and self-destructive professional grasping instead. Ultimately, she and Sam tottered up to the edge of getting together a few times, but the show wisely recognized that Danson and Alley’s chemistry was better suited to chummy antagonism than romance. Sam’s initial pursuit came off more like Mayday relishing his regained freedom, with the pair finally consummating their relationship in a forgettable Season 10 arc in which Rebecca decides she wants a child. Sam’s womanizing ways, meanwhile, are dealt with in similarly uninspired (if edgy for a sitcom of the time) recognition of Sam as a sex addict, belatedly unpacking some of the show’s earlier double standards when it comes to sleeping around. (Carla reveals in this episode that she’s pregnant with her sixth and seventh children, this time by dimwitted former hockey player Eddie Lebec.)
Cheers took a long time to become the all-time success it turned into, with the Sam and Diane storyline proving invaluable to building its initially meager audience. And if Long’s leaving allowed the creators something of a do-over, casting Alley proved a brilliant one. Alley became the perfect vehicle for Burrows and the Charles’ to equalize Cheers’ heart-to-yuks quotient, with Rebecca Howe’s ever-thwarted dreams in business and love marking her out as just another of Cheers’ lovable losers.