Star Trek II Director Recalls Kirstie Alley's Passion for Vulcan Role: 'She Wore the Ears to Bed'

Kirstie Alley
Kirstie Alley

CBS via Getty

Nicholas Meyer knew there was something special about Kirstie Alley the moment he met her for a possible role in his film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

At the time, Alley, who would go on to be a film and TV icon, had so little experience in the industry, she "faked" her résumé. But, Meyer needed a special actress to play Saavik, Spock's protégé and Starfleet commander-in-training. And that is what he got in Alley.

Speaking to PEOPLE on Tuesday, a day after Alley died of cancer at the age of 71, Meyer, 76, recalls meeting the young actress for the first time and sensing something different.

"The main cast was handed to me on a platter," Meyer says of the core actors from the classic TV series and 1979 film. "We were looking for Saavik, and I found myself seated with this stunningly attractive woman with this amazing pair of eyes and big mane of hair. She had this strangely merry aspect, which I was later to learn was absolutely a characteristic of her. I recall that she came from Wichita."

Nicholas Meyer
Nicholas Meyer

Sylvain Lefevre/Getty

RELATED: Kirstie Alley 'Faked' Her Résumé to Land Vulcan Role in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

In 2016, Alley participated in the Star Trek 50th Anniversary Con in Las Vegas where she talked about how extensive the casting process was for her, noting a few times that Meyer was her career "champion" in seeing that she got the role when Paramount execs were not thrilled about her lack of experience.

For more on Kirstie Alley, listen below to our daily podcast PEOPLE Every Day.

Beyond giving a "terrific reading" for the 1982 sequel, Alley played Saavik with an "unselfconscious originality" that the character required, Meyer says, in explaining why he fought for her.

"I don't think she was trying to be original, or as some might imprecisely call 'kooky,' but she nailed it," the director says. "What was impressive about her reading was that she didn't inject her own, as I called it, 'merry personality' into it. I don't know if she had enough experience, but she had enough intuition to do what the role called for."

Once cast, Alley was so thrilled to be a part of the sci-fi production she did not remove her Vulcan ears, Meyer tells PEOPLE.

RELATED: Kirstie Alley Dead: Star of Cheers Dies at 71 After Short Battle with Cancer

Leonard Nimoy, Kirstie Alley
Leonard Nimoy, Kirstie Alley

CBS via Getty

"She was so passionate or enthusiastic or entranced by the role — or she was an over sleeper — that she wore the ears to bed. She didn't take them off," he says, with a chuckle.

At the 2016 Vegas con, Alley also spoke about crying during the scene of Spock's funeral, which was not scripted; she was simply overcome with emotion in the moment. Meyer also recalls that moment and why he liked it — and why star William Shatner was not thrilled.

Noting that both his cinematographer and script supervisor cried while filming Spock's death scene with Capt. Kirk, Meyer says he knew the material was emotionally powerful.

Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from juicy celebrity news to compelling human interest stories.

"And that included her in the funeral scene," he says. "I didn't instruct her to weep. When I saw it happening, I remember Shatner came over to me and said, 'You're not going to let her do that, are you? Vulcans can't cry.' And I said, 'That will make this so much more effective when she does.'"

On Monday evening, shortly after news of her death broke, Shatner paid his respects via social media.

"Saddened to hear of the passing of @kirstiealley. Condolences to her family & friends," the Capt. Kirk actor wrote on Twitter.