Actor Kirstie Alley dies at 71 of cancer that was 'only recently discovered'

For the record:
7:41 p.m. Dec. 5, 2022: A previous version of this article said Alley was in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” She was in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”

Emmy Award-winning actor Kirstie Alley, whose larger-than-life personality left an indelible mark on the cherished NBC sitcom "Cheers" and segued into the blockbuster movie franchise "Look Who's Talking," died Monday. She was 71.

Alley was battling cancer that was "only recently discovered," according to a statement by her children, True and Lillie Parker, posted on Twitter on Monday evening. The TV star had colon cancer, her manager Donovan Daughtry said Tuesday in an email to The Times.

"She was surrounded by her closest family and fought with great strength, leaving us with a certainty of her never-ending joy of living and whatever adventures lie ahead," said the statement shared on Alley's social media.

"As iconic as she was on screen, she was an even more amazing mother and grandmother."

Her family thanked doctors and nurses at the Florida-based Moffitt Cancer Center.

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

Alley, a Kansas native, rose to fame after taking over the female lead on "Cheers" in 1987 after the departure of Shelley Long and her character, Diane Chambers.

The much-beloved sitcom not only survived but also thrived after the cast shake-up, with Alley's character, Rebecca Howe, as the new manager of the show's titular bar.

In a statement provided to The Times on Tuesday, “Cheers” co-star Ted Danson recalled how Alley "was truly brilliant" in the sitcom.

"Her ability to play a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown was both moving and hysterically funny," Danson, 74, said, referring to a scene in which Tom Berenger's character Don Santry was proposing to Alley's.

"She made me laugh 30 years ago when she shot that scene, and she made me laugh today just as hard," he said, adding, "I am so sad and so grateful for all the times she made me laugh. I send my love to her children. As they well know, their mother had a heart of gold. I will miss her.”

In 1989, Alley teamed with John Travolta and director Amy Heckerling in one of the year's biggest and perhaps most surprising smashes, "Look Who's Talking," which earned nearly $140 million at the domestic box office.

The film was such a hit that it spawned two more installments, both starring Travolta and Alley: "Look Who's Talking Too" (1990) and "Look Who's Talking Now" (1993).

"Kirstie was one of the most special relationships I’ve ever had. I love you Kirstie," Travolta wrote Monday in an Instagram tribute to his longtime friend. "I know we will see each other again."

In her 2012 book, "The Art of Men (I Prefer Mine al Dente)," Alley spoke of Travolta being the love of her life (comments she later clarified out of respect for his wife, the late actor Kelly Preston) and her crush on the late actor Patrick Swayze.

“Travolta is [the] love of my life because of our evolution," she later tweeted. "From the actor I wanted to run off with to being J & Kelly’s childrens’ Godmother."

Both she and Travolta were among high-ranking, celebrity members of the Church of Scientology. Alley famously blasted critics of the organization and publicly sparred with former member Leah Remini for turning on the church.

Travolta was among several celebrities — including Jamie Lee Curtis, William Shatner and Tim Allen — who paid their respects on Monday.

Curtis, who co-starred with Alley in Hulu's "Scream Queens," fondly remembered Alley's talent.

"She was a great comic foil in @tvscreamqueens and a beautiful mama bear in her very real life," Curtis wrote on Instagram, sharing a photo of them from the series. "She helped me buy onesies for my family that year for Christmas. We agreed to disagree about some things but had a mutual respect and connection."

Alley was a show-business natural who resisted the urge to go into the industry until she was well into her 20s, according to an Aug. 20, 1987, Times article about her joining the cast of "Cheers."

She worked as an interior decorator in Wichita until she packed up and drove to Hollywood one day in 1981 "on an impulse." Six months later, she was making her feature film debut in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan."

"I’d always wanted to be a star," she said at the time. "I’m from an ordinary middle-class family in Kansas. When I was 5, I announced I wanted to be an actress. They laughed. I thought to myself, 'I will, I will, I will — and when you least expect it!'"

At the time she moved to Hollywood, she said, she knew one person in California, who did not work in entertainment.

A woman reclines on a sofa
Kirstie Alley photographed at her Los Feliz in the early 2000s, around the time her show "Fat Actress" debuted. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

"I figured if you went in and auditioned and were good they would hire you," Alley said. "Isn’t that ridiculous?"

But the parts came in.

She landed roles in both film and TV. She starred in Woody Allen's 1997 comedy "Deconstructing Harry" as an analyst who marries her titular patient (Allen) only to later confront him for having an affair with another of her patients.

In the 1997 film "For Richer or Poorer," she and Tim Allen played Manhattan socialites who hide out from the IRS in Amish country. And in the 1999 beauty pageant romp "Drop Dead Gorgeous," Alley portrayed a strong-willed former beauty queen and pageant coordinator whose latest contestants drop dead. The mockumentary, which also starred Allison Janney, Ellen Barkin, Kirsten Dunst, Denise Richards and Amy Adams, has become a cult classic.

Alley also earned her second Emmy Award for her dramatic turn in the 1994 TV movie "David's Mother" and was again nominated for her starring role in NBC's late 1990s sitcom "Veronica's Closet," in which she played a romance expert who dumps her philandering husband and has to rebuild her life and business.

In recent years, Alley sparred with establishment Hollywood figures over her conservative political views.

The actor claimed she was "blackballed" from the industry after voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

"On Twitter I had many celebrities follow me and now I think three follow me," she told Fox News' Tucker Carlson in 2021. "I'm the same person. I'm the girl who voted for Obama, twice. And I'm like, ‘Oh, so you liked me when I voted for Obama, and now you're this?’ And it's made me have to rethink, weirdly, my whole friendships, all my friendships."

Alley returned to the small screen later in her career, starring in the Showtime series "Fat Actress" while also publicly chronicling her fluctuating weight and serving as a spokeswoman for the weight-loss empire Jenny Craig Inc.

In 2006, she famously donned a maroon bikini on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to fulfill a pledge she had made a year prior after her weight gain was documented by the paparazzi. The actress said that she had hit a high of 220 pounds but that she had shed 75 of them before strutting out to the tune of the Commodores' "Brick House" on Winfrey's show.

“I think women — I don’t think we ever feel like we’re good enough. We don’t feel like we’re thin enough or pretty enough or smart enough or work hard enough. And we are good enough,” she said.

Alley also participated in a number of reality TV series. She danced in ABC's ballroom competition "Dancing With the Stars" in 2011 and 2012, then took up residence — and was a runner-up — in the U.K. version of "Celebrity Big Brother" in 2018. She made her final TV appearance in April when she embodied Baby Mammoth in Fox's zany competition series "The Masked Singer," but was swiftly eliminated.

“I came on ‘Masked Singer’ because about 10 years ago I realized I always had to keep mixing my career, mixing my life up," she said in her exit interview, "or it was going to get really mundane, it was going to get really boring fast. So I finally got up the nerve to do it.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.