Weirdest Show Ever: ‘ALF’ Turns 30
ALF debuted on NBC 30 years ago on September 22, and Mihaly 'Michu' Meszaros, the Hungarian-born actor who donned a full body suit to play the titular role, died on June 14 at age 76. While the sitcom alien was voiced by series co-creator Paul Fusco, his nods and gesticulations — all in service of ALF's status as a furry, three-foot-tall About Last Night-era Jim Belushi type — were as key to his appeal as his wisecracks were. Meszaros and Fusco's portrayal alongside assistant puppeteers, combined with the alien's half cute, half homely appearance, made ALF one of the most popular characters of the late '80s.
That said, the show was suuuper weird, and the lore surrounding the show is pretty dark stuff. It's final episode is also one of the most notoriously crushing cliffhangers in TV history.
If you've never seen ALF because you're under 30 and/or prefer to watch TV that's culturally recognized as "good": Allow Keaira LaShae, instructor of a '90s dance workout class I've exercised to on Hulu one or twelve times, to sum it up for you between combo reps.
LaShae's only partially correct about his '90s classic status (ALF ran from 1986-1990, plus a TV movie in 1996), but she 100% nails his child's-nightmare inducing essence. ALF was disgusting. He was crude and gravelly-voiced and had giant moles, was fully covered in hair the color of a 1970s shag rug and talked about wanting to eat his host family's cat all the time. Much of the humor hinged upon this joke — cats were considered dinner on his home planet of Melmac —and, as with fellow '80s hit Perfect Strangers, ALF's gags often rested on the "wacky fish out of water meets lovable curmudgeon" formula.
In this instance, said curmudgeon was Willie Tanner, father of the perpetually beleaguered Tanner family (yes, there was a Tanner family before Full House). While a young child may wonder why Willie seems so mad all the time, any adult who's endured a terrible houseguest likely did not.
ALF, or Gordon Shumway as he was known on Melmac (ALF is short for "alien life form"), was generally well-meaning, and often a good friend to the Tanner kids. His lovable, hirsute schlubdom charmed a late '80s primetime audience, and they clamored for the merchandise that filled store shelves alongside that of fellow insolent glutton Garfield.
He was also perpetually in peril of being discovered by the military's Alien Task Force (a terrifying prospect here, more X Files than Men In Black), and in the last episode of the fourth season, he was. In the series' final scene, the Tanners take him to a field where a Melmacian aircraft prepares to reclaim him — until he's encircled by a bunch of matching military automatons.
And that was it. For six years, no one knew whether ALF became an Area 51 test subject or sports-joked his way out of it, or what. Ratings had faltered in Season 4, and NBC's reversal of commitment to a Season 5 made this "to be continued" permanent. Childhood scarring moment, much?
Answers finally came six years later — long after anyone was still thinking about it, basically — in a 1996 TV movie called Project: ALF that aired on ABC instead of NBC. Save for ALF voice/writer Paul Fusco, none of the original cast appeared, and the Tanners were said to have moved to Iceland (??). Instead, Project: ALF was the gloomy military prison dramedy no one asked for.
And then there's the accounts of general misery behind the scenes, even in the show's heyday.
"Believe me, there was no joy on the set," Anne Schedeen, who played mom Kate Tanner, said in a 2006 PEOPLE feature catching up with the stars on its 20th anniversary. Schedeen echoed her colleague's complaints of the "technical nightmare" of working with ALF when it was puppeteers instead of Michu Meszaros in a suit. She also said while the actors who played her onscreen kids were great, her adult peers had "difficult personalities. The whole thing was a big dysfunctional family."
Andrea Elson, who portrayed teenage daughter Lynn Tanner, developed bulimia on set and described the "tension" that arose from the cast having to play "second fiddle to a puppet." After a few voice acting parts, her onscreen sibling Benji Gregory decided ALF was enough to turn him off acting altogether.
Max Wright, the theater actor who rose to '80s TV fame as sad-dad Willie Tanner, said "it was hard work and very grim." After his last take, Wright reportedly grabbed his stuff and walked off the set without saying goodbye. In April 2001, Wright made tabloid headlines when a front-page National Enquirer story ran video stills allegedly taken at a "crack house" which featured him appearing to smoke something before having sex with two men. His acting roles have been intermittent.
ALF writer Jerry Stahl wrote of his time on the show in his 1995 recovery memoir Permanent Midnight (he disguises it as Mr. Chompers in the book), saying his scripts were inspired by fraught childhood memories. When heroin addiction became unmanageable, he was fired from the show in 1989.
Meanwhile, Paul Fusco, the voice and brain behind ALF who considers the alien an extension of himself, has attempted to resurrect the franchise several times over the years. A 2012 deal with Sony pictures for a CGI film has, blessedly, never come to fruition. In 2016, we've already got one loudmouthed, orange ignoramus gaining way too many fans as it is. We don't need another.
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