“On Melmac, we have 1st class, 2nd class and ham.”
The motion picture industry has certainly had their fair share of films featuring extraterrestrials who raid the earth and spark a war on humanity, but when the movies introduced E.T, a new form of alien, who is lost on earth and forms an inseparable bond with a young boy, the television medium tried to duplicate its success with a similar story, where a 229 year old alien must adapt to a family environment.
The name of the television series is ALF, a science fiction situation comedy that ran on NBC from September 22, 1986 to March 24, 1990, and lasting for four seasons. Although not as successful as E.T: The Extra Terrestrial, ALF, provided viewers with quality entertainment, and a good dose of laughter that was ineffectual in real life for a lot of people at that time.
The idea of having a television show featuring an alien as the protagonist first came to the fore in 1984, when Paul Fusco created the character of ALF, by employing an alien resembling puppet that he used as a house prop to irritate his family and friends. The puppet served as great annoyance to those close to him, but Fusco who was attached to the toy saw potential in him, and realized that children and adults alike would get pleasure out of a television series where an alien is the central figure. When Fusco approached the famed American producer, Bernie Brillstein with his proposed idea, he was automatically introduced to Tom Patchett, who agreed with this concept, and together Fusco and Patchett started conjuring up ideas for their upcoming project.
“To get a couple back together on Melmac, we’d recreate the happiest moment of their marriage.”
Their final decision was their most intelligent, and so, after much negotiation, the television industry familiarized audiences with ALF, a furry and cute alien from the planet Melmac, who is forced to become accustomed to life on earth when his spacecraft makes a crash landing in the garage of a suburban American family in California’s San Fernando Valley.
It didn’t take long for audiences to fall in love with ALF, the cantankerous alien, who despite of his cravings for the family cat, became a welcoming presence in the Tanner home. All most every episode revolves around the dilemmas that the Tanner family face when ALF causes some perplexing crisis, but no matter how many times ALF gets himself into mischief, the Tanner’s will always remain loyal to him, and will do all they can to protect and hide him from the outside world.
By the time the second episode titled, Strangers In The Night aired, ALF was already a household name. In this episode, Kate and her daughter Lynn ( Anne Schedeen & Andrea Elson ) are booked to attend a wedding ceremony, which means that Willie ( Max Wright ) has got the job of minding the house, but when Willie is unexpectedly called into work, the Tanner’s are forced to hire a babysitter, which proves to be difficult with ALF in the house. Faced with a last minute emergency, they call their snoopy neighbor, Mrs. Ochmonek to watch over their son Brian who is asleep in the back bedroom. While Mrs. Ochmonek is there, ALF is required to stay in the bedroom, but ALF, who is known for his immoral acts and pranks, decides to cause a stir by creating trouble that has Mrs. Ochmonek on the edge of her seat.
ALF was a delightful and entertaining television experience for audiences, but the filming process was less than pleasurable. The strong demands and onerous nature of having hand- operated puppets was technically difficult for the lead players. The constant challenge of getting everything right fueled high levels of tension on the set. In a 2006, interview for People magazine, Max Wright stated that he despised supporting a technically demanding inanimate object that received most of the good lines of dialogue, and later admitted that he was “hugely eager to have ALF over with.”. Anne Schedeen, who played Kate Tanner, recalled an incident on the last night of filming, and said “There was one take and Max walked off the set, went to his dressing room, got his bags, went to his car and disappeared… There were no goodbyes.”. In the same interview, Schedeen herself recounted the numerous nightmares that were endured on the set. The whole process was like torture. “There was no joy on the set, and nobody ever shared a laugh. It was extremely slow, hot and tedious”. However, Schedeen did talk about the close relationship she had with her screen children, but the constant adversities and the differing personalities of the adults seemed to eclipse the fond memories that she shared with Andrea and Benji.
“I don’t want to be an orphan. I saw “Annie.” Orphans have to eat gruel and tap dance with mops.”
The time on the set was not a joyous occasion for Andrea and Benji either. During the second season, Andrea Elson was suffering from Bulimia, which exacerbated the process of shooting. She later stated, “If ALF had gone one more year, everybody would have lost it.”. On the other hand however, Max Wright finally conceded that “It doesn’t matter what I felt or what the days were like, ALF brought people a lot of joy.”.
The artistic approach that was employed in ALF is to be commended. To create the set they used a high platform that was raised four feet above the ground, with trap doors that was constructed at many points so that ALF could appear almost anywhere. On almost all occasions, a puppet was usually used for ALF. However, there are quite a few scenes that show ALF doing physical movement, such as walking or running around. This was achieved by the help of, Michu Meszaros, the Hungarian born actor, who worked as a stuntman for a part of his career. Meszaros masqueraded around in a costume for these scenes, but because the costume was thick, hot, and uncomfortable, he couldn’t do it for long periods of time under the bright studio lights.
Despite the fact that filming days were frustrating due to the technical difficulties that ensured, there is no doubt that the cast members found the process fascinating. Benji Gregory, who was only eight years old when he started his stint on ALF, later stated that he enjoyed watching the way that Fusco operated ALF from underneath. He also remembered Fusco using his right hand to control ALF’s mouth, while he used his other hand to control ALF’s left arm. Assisting Fusco along the way was Lisa Buckley and Bob Fappiano, who both pitched in ideas of how to go about controlling other movements, etc.
A few years after ALF went off the air, DIC Entertainment tried to capitalize on the success of the series by producing a spin-off animated series that took place on ALF’s home planet of Melmac before it exploded. There was no way that the show could surpass its predecessor, but audiences were entertained with the new story-line that revolved around ALF, and his relationships with his family, friends, and girlfriend, Rhonda.
ALF may have came to its cessation back in 1990, but the series still lives on through its never-ending deluge of merchandise. My brother and I were lucky enough to attain an ALF doll years ago, and to this day we still deeply cherish it. We are also proud to say that ALF was the first television series that we were introduced to when we were children.
The name of every episode is also the name of a song. Each is relevant to the episode’s plot.
The character ‘ALF’ was ranked #8 in TV Guide’s list of the “25 Greatest Sci-Fi Legends” (1 August 2004, Vol. 52, No. 31) and appears on one of three collectible covers.
ALF’s name is Gordon Shumway, and he’s from the planet Melmac.
Max Wright: Born, George Edward Maxwell Wright, on August 2nd, 1943, in Detroit, Michigan.
Anne Schedeen: Born, Luanne Ruth Schedeen, on January 8th, 1949 in Portland, Oregon.
Andrea Elson: Born Andrea Elson, on March 6th, 1969, in New York, New York.
Benji Gregory: Born, Benjamin Gregory Hertzberg, on May 26th, 1978, in Los Angeles, California.