Shelley Lee Long was born August 23, 1949, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She was an only child whose parents were both teachers. She attended South Side High School in Ft. Wayne, and went on to study drama at Northwestern University. She did not complete her studies there, choosing instead to pursue a career as a model and actress.
She got a job with the "Second City" comedy group, and appeared in their television show, SCTV, in 1976-77. She appeared in some print advertisements as a model. She also wrote for, produced, and co-hosted a Chicago television program, "Sorting It Out", which earned her three local The Annual Emmy Awards|Emmy awards. Long was the spokeswoman for John M. Smyth's Homemakers from 1976 to 1984.
Aside from local positions, she also appeared in national television and film. She guest-starred in episodes of "The Love Boat", "Family", "M*A*S*H", and "Trapper John, M.D.". She appeared in a television movie, "The Cracker Factory". In 1981, she earned a starring role in the Ringo Starr film "Caveman", and in 1982 before Cheers, Long also starred in "Night Shift" with Henry Winkler of Happy Days fame, and in "Losin' It" with Tom Cruise.