To commemorate the series finale’s 25th anniversary, The Hollywood Reporter gathered key members of the “Cheers” team to reminisce over the show’s many triumphs and very few missteps. Unsurprisingly, they acknowledged that the transition from Shelley Long’s Diane to Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca Howe was especially tricky — though maybe not for the reasons you’d expect.
The producers cast a wide net for Rebecca, and went with Alley in part due to a recommendation from TV comedy legend Carl Reiner (who’d recently directed her in his 1987 big-screen hit “Summer School”). But series co-creator Glen Charles still wasn’t convinced she could do comedy, so, according to his brother (and also co-creator) Les Charles, they opted to play her as the bad guy. “She’ll be the dragon lady,” said Les, “Cruella de Vil, and make everyone else uncomfortable and funny.”
The fit was initially awkward, which forced the writers to avoid the issue altogether. Per Cheri Steinkellner:
“It took a while for us to figure out where the fun was with her. In her early episodes, you can see we contrived all kinds of ways to send her into the office or out on an errand, just so we could return to the cast — and comedy we knew. It was always going to be a discovery process, but none of us knew if we were ever going to find it.”
Then one day during rehearsal, Glen spied Alley nervously chain-smoking. She knew the fit was awkward, too. “I thought we could probably use that,” he said. “Break down this cool, sophisticated façade she presents.”
The key to bringing this out of Rebecca was to play up her unrequited love for the establishment’s rich new owner, Evan Drake (Tom Skerritt). Rebecca’s hard-nosed managerial style grew out of her desire to impress Drake, and she quickly realized nothing was ever going to come out of it romantically. This led to an unrehearsed moment where Alley’s comedic talents exploded into full view.