Pity Sam Malone, the resident ex-ballplayer-turned-strike-out-king of lech on NBC's Cheers. For five seasons Diane Chambers, the refined barmaid who touted her intellectual superiority summa cum loudly, had Sam's head spinning more than a long night's worth of boilermakers. You'd think that with Diane out of the picture—Cheers fans will recall she left Sam at the altar for the sake of a juicy book deal—the guy would finally get some peace of mind. No such luck, Sammy boy. Enter Rebecca Howe, an uptight, upwardly mobile, upstart yupcake who takes over management of Cheers when Sam (Ted Danson) sells out to a conglomerate. And in the guise of Rebecca enter Kirstie Alley, 32, who last summer was tapped to take the place of Diane (Shelley Long) as Mr. Malone's sparring partner—and to help hold Cheers's high spot in the ratings.

Certainly it's not easy to walk into a hit series and mess with carefully formulated chemistry. Certainly it's not easy to walk onto the set of a show whose cast is as close as many families. Yet the tall order seemed to be right up Kirstie's alley; she waltzed in and danced out with everyone's heart.

It helped that her first day on the job Kirstie showed up disguised as Long, complete with blond wig, goody-two-shoes dress and a yellow coating on her dark eyebrows. "I wanted to break the ice and get off to a fresh start," she explains. The dress-up got a thumbs-up from the cast. During a party after the first week of shooting, John Ratzenberger (Cliff, the dim-witted mailman) and George Wendt (the hard-drinking Norm) gave Alley a shotgun. "If you ever want to leave," said Ratzenberger, "you'll have to shoot your way out."

Though not exactly a household name, Alley (whose credits include Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, North and South and Summer School) didn't exactly have to shoot her way in. Her dusky hair, wine-dark voice and tempestuous eyes were all good recommendations. "Stand us next to each other and it spells sex," says Danson. "I mean, sparks fly."

The Cheers cast members—bar one—genuinely seem to think she's the greatest thing since draft beer. The dissenter is Alley herself. When she looks in the mirror she says, "I see someone with a crooked nose; my right eye's bigger than my left and sometimes I have zits. [The latter might result from her diet; for lunch she's having a cup of coffee, endless cigarettes and a heaping bowl of barbecued pork rinds.] I also have this tiny face and lots of hair, which makes me look like Mrs. Potato Head."

Okay, no one will pin her as a classic beauty, not with that lanky 57", 118-lb. body and schoolgirl figure. But her wild streak—more in tune with rock 'n' roll than acting—has an obvious effect on men. "She's hot, no doubt about it," says Woody Harrelson, Cheers's oft-bewildered bartender. "She's got an interesting sexuality. Not your standard bombshell sexuality. She's got this quirky side, which I think is much more interesting."

"Am I TV's newest sex goddess?" Alley shouts to Ratzenberger, tongue in cheek.

"You're the only one," he replies, not missing a beat.

Whether audiences would agree was another matter. They were accustomed to watching a woman who wouldn't use a one-syllable word to save her Mensa membership and who was constitutionally incapable of filling a drink order correctly. In her stead they found what Alley calls "a gutsy, ballsy businesswoman," a striving yuppie who, as the acid-tongued barmaid Carla (Rhea Periman) notes, "eats live sharks for breakfast."

And in contrast to Diane, who was looking for something, well, a little less Neanderthal in a man, someone like, say, Buckminster Fuller, Rebecca is looking for someone a little less no-account than Sam, someone like Grant Tinker. "There will be comparisons made between Kirstie and Shelley," says Danson, "but in a while they'll all disappear."

Two floors above the Cheers set in Paramount Studios is Alley's undistinguished, unadorned, closet-size dressing room. On her desk are several scripts, a pile of fan letters and a large container of thick, ugly liquid that looks like something extruded from a sewer. "It's Chinese herb tea," says Kirstie, mixing the sludge with hot water and taking a reluctant swig. "Ted recommended it. I just felt like I've abused my body enough. For 30 years it's been body abuse in one way or another. Now I drink swamp water. It can't hurt. It cleans you out."

This is a sea change for the woman who 10 years ago found a friend in pharmaceuticals. Alley's cocaine use was chronicled recently in a national publication; she claims the article was blown out of proportion. "I was whacked-out of my mind for two years," she admits. "It wasn't good, but it wasn't a story of someone lying in the gutter. It was a personal failure."

Her addiction started when Alley, just out of college, was working as an interior decorator. "I avoided drugs all during high school and college. Then someone said I'd really like cocaine." Someone was right. Kirstie says she began "getting loaded on Fridays and Saturdays," then added Thursdays to her schedule. "It wasn't like I got up at 6 and hit it all day long," she says. But eventually cocaine had the whip hand in her life. "Like when my sister came out with her kids and I was loaded," says Kirstie. "It caused a lot of damage. When I stopped doing drugs—cold turkey—I realized I'd affected certain people's lives, so I wrote letters apologizing."

Letters of apology? Proof that you can take the girl out of the Midwest—in this case, Kansas—but you can't take the Midwest out of the girl. Born in Wichita, the second of three children, Kirstie remembers being viewed by her middle-class family as "pretty goofy. I was kind of stupid. I wasn't out doing drugs and pillaging people, but if someone said 'don't,' I did." Sneaking out after curfew, wearing micro-miniskirts, using fake IDs to get into bars and riding on the backs of motorcycles with hoods is but a brief list of Kirstie's teen activities.

"I was kind of of an unsettled person," admits Alley, who dropped out of Kansas State University after two years. Following her coke interlude, she decided to head for Los Angeles and act. "I think my family is really happy I'm now doing something I like."

Whatever her adventures, Kirstie has always managed to stay close to her brother, Clay, 30, manager of a lumber company, and to her sister, Colette, 35, a biology teacher, both in Wichita. Alley's mother was killed six years ago—and her father, a retired lumber company owner, seriously injured—when their car was hit by a drunk driver. A terrible irony: It was the same week Kirstie got her first major role, that of Mr. Spock's sexy protégée in Star Trek II. "There are times on holidays and stuff when my dad will walk into the room and there'll be this flash that my mother should be there too," she says. "They were real close. I guess mostly I miss her for my father."

Alley has found great comfort in her four-year marriage to actor Parker (The Hardy Boys) Stevenson, whom she met in a manner cute enough to warm a screenwriter's word processor. "I was sitting in a restaurant with Mimi [Someone to Watch Over Me] Rogers," says Kirstie. "Parker walked in, I saw him in the mirror and said, 'For him I would die.' " Unfortunately Stevenson was with a date. Fortunately Mimi Rogers, now Mrs. Tom Cruise, knew Parker and arranged for everyone to go dancing together after dinner. His date got lost in a mescal haze. "Parker bought like $500 of tequila for our table trying to impress me," says Kirstie. "And I got drunker and drunker, and he asked me to dance. I smooched with him, and he thought I was forward, which I was. Then I thought he was too clean cut for me and that would be the last time I saw him."

It wasn't. "I thought she was sexy and wild," says Stevenson. "But I sensed that underneath it all was just a girl from Kansas. Very American." Parker pledged his allegiance to her three months later. The two were in the midst of a romantic dinner at L.A.'s L'Orangerie restaurant when Stevenson popped the question—by proxy. "The maître d' brought me a letter," says Kirstie, "and the letter was an invitation from Parker to get married. How could I say no?"

Home for Alley, Stevenson and a menagerie of dogs, cats, birds, chickens, a horse and a rabbit is the monstrous Al Jolson estate—30 rooms, 8,000 square feet on 2½ acres—in Encino. Besides the critters (40 at last count), chez Alley frequently serves as a haven for friends who are ailing or unlucky in love. "If you break up with someone, you come and live at my house," says Kirstie. "If someone cheats on you, you come over. If you're sick, same thing. I always have people living at my house."

Surely all this caretaking is good practice for the children Alley plans to have in a few years. A girl's name, Lily Detroit, has already been picked out. But for the next three years—the length of her Cheers contract—Alley will be concentrating on her career. She co-stars with Tom Berenger and Sidney Poitier in Shoot to Kill, a kidnapping thriller due out early next year, and other movie projects are on the boards. Gene Kelly, whom Alley met while shooting North and South, "told me that if this were the '40s, I'd be the biggest film star in the country."

Such high praise hasn't made Kirstie forget her failures. The roles that got away—especially the femme fatale in Body Heatand, of all things, a small part in TV's B.J. and the Bear—still stick in her mind. So does the prospect of fizzling on Cheers. "People say, 'Aren't you afraid you're going to ruin the show?' " says Alley. "If enough people ask, you start asking yourself the same question."

Based on Cheers's first few months, she can stop asking. The comedy's habitual Top Five ratings are present, accounted for and show no sign of dipping. Nevertheless Alley remains philosophical. "I decided that if I screw up and the show goes down the tube," she says, "I won't be on it for long."

Nobody but nobody at Cheers will drink to that.

  • Contributors:
  • Todd Gold.