Dark side of hit family TV sitcom
When you think of hit 1980s alien puppet sitcom ALF, personal struggles, brutal working conditions, infighting, bulimia, and accusations of racism are probably not what immediately spring to mind.
The irreverent family puppet comedy was hugely popular with audiences over its four year run, despite having an offbeat premise and a brown, furry, extraterrestrial star.
But one of the main actors in the successful show struggled deeply with his role as a "comedic foil" to a large puppet who got all the good jokes, referring to his co-star as an "inanimate object". Numerous other ALF actors took time over the years to lash out at the program, saying it was a deeply "dysfunctional" workplace; others said playing "second fiddle to a puppet" caused tension on set; while others simply called it a "piece of sh*t" TV show.
ALF was based on the premise that an Alien Life Form (ALF), from the destroyed planet Melmac, had come to visit the regular Californian Tanner family, and decided to stay.
ALF, who had a larger-than-life look and character, was a cheeky and loveable fur ball with a croissant nose, comb-over, and overwhelming desire to maim and consume the family cat Lucky. The show ran over four seasons, from 1986 to 1999, and won numerous awards during its run - including a People's Choice award for Favourite New TV Comedy Program.
LEAD ACTOR HATED THE ALF PUPPET
One of the lead actors on ALF, Max Wright, who played the father and head of the family Willie Tanner, despised working with a star puppet. In a 2000 interview with People, he called it "hard work and very grim".
Before landing a role on the hit 1980s show, Wright had been a serious theatre actor. In ALF, he became the alien's jumping castle for edgy puppet comedy, including jokes about walking in on the Willie's wife in the shower.
"Max had a difficult thing to do, playing straight man against ALF," said Paul Fusco, the show's creator, and puppeteer and voice of ALF. He praised Wright's ability to create "comedic chemistry" between them. "He had to be that comic foil. Dying is easy, comedy is hard. To get that chemistry between ALF and Willie, it's hard," he said.
But despite the credit given to him by Fusco, Wright longed for the show to end.
He came to resent his starring role so deeply, that the moment the program wrapped he walked straight from the sound stage to his car, leaving the production without farewelling his co-stars.
"There was one take, and Max walked off the set, went to his dressing room, got his bags, went to his car and disappeared," his co-star Anne Schedeen said, explaining he'd disappeared before anyone could say "That's a wrap."
By the end of four years on ALF, Wright told People, "I was hugely eager to have it over with".
Wright went on to appear in a number of TV shows following his role in ALF, including Friends, The Drew Carey Show and Mad About You.
The actor died in his home in June of 2019, after a long battle with cancer. He was first diagnosed with lymphoma in 1995 but had been in remission for several years, according to Rolling Stone.
'TECHNICAL NIGHTMARE': ACTORS WORKED 'LONG, TEDIOUS' DAYS
Anne Schedeen, who played mother, Kate Tanner, said the actors experienced "no joy on the set".
Schedeen said scenes with the puppet were a "technical nightmare", with actors forced to work long hours.
She said later she was shocked the show was so well-received, and word never got out that the crew and cast had been so deeply unhappy.
"It was a technical nightmare - extremely slow, hot and tedious," she said. "If you had a scene with ALF, it took centuries. A 30-minute show took 20, 25 hours to shoot."
She also said some of her adult co-stars had "difficult personalities" and called the overall mood of the show a "big dysfunctional family".
She said it was "astonishing" to her that "ALF really was wonderful and that word never got out what a mess our set really was".
CAST MEMBER STRUGGLED WITH BULIMIA
Andrea Elson, who played teen daughter, Lynn Tanner, also said she remembers "tension" on set, due to the cast being stressed by having to "play second fiddle to a puppet".
But Elson went on to develop her own issues, saying she'd been cast to play a young teen, and struggled as a developing woman, eventually developing an eating disorder.
"I was this skinny little twig when I started, and then I started to get breasts and hips and I didn't like it," she said. "I just wanted to be stick skinny."
By the second season, the young actor had developed bulimia. She said once the show ended in 1999, she had become "obsessed" with exercise, spending two hours on a treadmill five days a week.
Elson said she didn't find peace until she became pregnant in 1997.
She went on to appear in a number of other TV shows, including The Young and the Restless, and Mad About You, and later became a yoga instructor, according to her Twitter account.
The show's youngest star, Ben Hertzberg, who played Brian Tanner, gave different reports about working on ALF. He said the only time he felt like he was at work was "when the lights were on and it was real hot".
Hertzberg moved away from Hollywood later in life, and said in 2000 he said he had no desire to become an actor.
RACISM ACCUSATIONS AFTER ALF BLOOPER TAPE RELEASED
More than two decades after the show had originally wrapped, the creators of ALF were rocked by controversy, after an old blooper tape was revealed, claiming to show the puppet making a series of offensive statements.
The now-deleted tape, reportedly an out-take, showed the ALF puppet, voiced by Paul Fusco, making sexual comments, and saying n****r three times.
"You're talking about 20 years ago when the world was not so ridiculously PC," Steve Lamar, an associate producer from ALF told TMZ at the time. "Anyone that's offended needs to lighten up already."
At the time, TMZ also approached John LaMotta, who had played the role of Trevor Ochmonek, the family's nosy neighbour. He didn't address the tape, or the offensive comments, but told TMZ he hated the show.
"I thought the show ALF was a piece of sh*t," LaMotta said. "Worst work I ever did."
SHOW FORCED INTO CENSORSHIP BATTLES
The show's creator, Paul Fusco, said censorship battles in the ALF writing room were one of his most fond memories, as he fought with NBC to include racy puns about the alien eating cats. Fusco said he also wanted ALF, who over the seasons became a family-friendly character, to be a beer guzzler.
He said he secured the pilot by charming NBC executives with the puppet, and claimed they were so enthralled by the character one of them ended up looking eye-to-eye with the doll in the meeting.
According to Fusco, the show was cancelled as NBC reshuffled its programming schedule following the creation of a new production house within NBC, at the beginning of the 1990s, and said their timeslot was handed to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. He said one executive regretted the decision, and wanted the show to have "two more seasons".
"Our last show was a cliffhanger where ALF got caught by the Alien Task Force," Fusco said, and he was promised they could have a movie of the week, to give the viewers closure.
The made-for-TV movie Project ALF was later released theatrically across Europe in 1996. The movie featured none of the original cast members, except for Fusco, and follows ALF's adventures after he is captured by the Alien Task Force.
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