Why Kirstie Alley Didn't Return To Play Saavik In Star Trek III: The Search For Spock  

"Star Trek III: The Search For Spock" is a memorable entry into the "Trek" canon for several reasons. The 1984 movie hesitantly followed up franchise high point "The Wrath of Kahn," introduced new Federation starship designs, and resurrected everyone's favorite half-human, half-Vulcan officer, played by Leonard Nimoy. "The Search For Spock" is a story for Spock lovers, and though it doesn't quite match the thrilling emotional and narrative highs of its predecessors, it still feels like "Star Trek" boldly going where it never has before. Unfortunately, though, there's one thing "Star Trek III" is missing: Kirstie Alley's Vulcan junior Lieutenant Saavik.

Saavik does appear in "The Search For Spock," but future "Cheers" star Alley is missing, replaced by actor Robin Curtis. Curtis does a fine job as Saavik and would go on to reprise the role in the next "Star Trek" film as well, but the recast is jarring for close watchers of the saga. Though the reason for the recast wasn't immediately clear at the time, Alley and others later explained that a pay problem led to her choosing not to return to the role. In Leonard Nimoy's book "I Am Spock," the actor and director wrote that Paramount "dropped the ball" on Alley's contract early on, as there should've been a clause for a sequel with predetermined pay in the contract covering her first franchise appearance.

"We contacted her while the script was still in the works, and the salary we discussed was reasonable," the late filmmaker and actor wrote. "It looked like everything would work out, so when the script was ready, we sent it along for Kirstie and her agent to read."

Pay negotiations broke down

After reading the script, though, Nimoy said Alley's agent called back, saying, "Look, we didn't realize how large a role Saavik was going to have in this film. So we're withdrawing our earlier figure. Here's what we have to have now..." According to Nimoy, the figure Alley's agent asked for shocked him and was higher than DeForest Kelley's salary even decades into the franchise.

"We couldn't agree to the price on either budgetary or ethical grounds, but Kirstie and her agent held firm," Nimoy wrote. "We had no choice but to search for a new Saavik, and Kirstie went on to a wonderful career, which included numerous movies and the series 'Cheers.'" For her part, though, Alley told StarTrek.com that she was being offered less than she had in "The Wrath of Khan" for a larger part. "I'm not trying to sound ungrateful at all, because what they paid me when you did your first job is fine," Alley told the website. "But it wasn't like it was a massive amount of money, trust me. It just wasn't. And so that never made sense to me. Like, 'You're not paying as much as the first one, and it's a bigger role?'"

Alley recalled that she didn't simply pass on the film, but inquired about the pay cut. "I feel like what I said was, 'Okay, I don't get this.' And when we queried it sort of gently, like, 'Why would you offer someone less money for a bigger role?'" The actor told the outlet that she's "heard rumors" about who was responsible for the lowball offer but wasn't sure if they were true. "It still doesn't make sense to me," she admitted in 2016.

The raise struggle is real in Hollywood

For his part, Nimoy also compliments Alley's performance in "The Wrath of Khan" elsewhere in his book, writing that the newcomer to the scene "delivered her lines like a seasoned pro." According to the filmmaker, "[Alley's] performance — or, perhaps more correctly, presence — was simply amazing."

Since both Alley and Nimoy have since passed away, fans are left only with the accounts of the people who were a part of the situation four decades ago — at a time when conversations about the gender pay gap, studio cost-cutting, and a lack of upward mobility for actors were much more muted than they are now. Actors today are finally speaking up about their difficulty making a living wage in an industry that doesn't promise raises in salary according to talent or visibility. In late 2023, "The Color Purple" star Taraji P. Henson said that "the math ain't mathing" when it comes to her paychecks, noting through tears that she's had to fight for her worth again and again. "I'm just tired of working so hard, being gracious at what I do, getting paid a fraction of the cost," Henson said.

Alley didn't return for "The Search For Spock," and writer Harve Bennett told "Star Trek: The Magazine" that he and Nimoy initially considered cutting the character of Saavik altogether. Eventually, though, they decided that they "needed to have someone in the crew to replace Vulcan knowledge," and Curtis was brought on board. Alley would go on to have a fruitful post-"Trek" career, starring in the most-loved sitcom of the '80s, "Cheers," as well as the TV series "Veronica's Closet" and the cult favorite film "Drop Dead Gorgeous." She died in 2022.

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