Retrospective: 35 Years Since ‘ALF’ Crash-Landed into our Living Rooms

By: Jesse Striewski

It cannot be expressed enough how special being a kid in the mid to late 1980’s (and even early ’90s) truly was. With literally out-of-this-world cartoons, toy lines, and video games geared at children in the form of Star Wars, Masters of the Universe, and Transformers (among many others), it felt like nearly anything and everything was possible.

But it wasn’t just the Saturday morning cartoon shows that caught on to marketing to younger audiences as far as television was concerned; prime time shows such as Growing Pains, Charles in Charge, and Head of the Class, were aiming more and more focus towards its younger viewers. And when ALF first premiered on NBC on September 22, 1986, network executives clearly scored a hit that was “out of this world.”

I remember watching it in New Jersey with my entire family that very same night (back when something as simple as a TV show’s premiere still felt like an event – something that sadly seems light years away these days), and being completely invested in it. I instantly feel in love, and, like many of the previously-mentioned franchises, ALF merchandise soon became sought-after items in our household.

The plot was simple enough in it’s own E.T.-type way; Gordan Shumway (a.k.a. “ALF”) crash-lands into the garage of a suburban California family, the Tanners, after his home planet Melmac is destroyed. Rather than report this to any authorities, the Tanners decide to keep him hidden, and ALF becomes a reluctant house guest, much to the jargon of the parents, Willie (Max Wright), and Kate (Anne Schedeen). All this was the creation of Tom Patchett and Paul Fusco (who also voiced ALF, as well as performed head puppeteer duties). An animated series also landed on Saturday mornings the following year, and ran until 1989.

This still shot of actor Benji Gregory (who played Brian Tanner on the show) during the show’s opening credits, clearly shows a missed (or possibly just overlooked) light in the background.

Over the course of his four years on television, ALF managed to drive a Ferrari, make a music video (where he played all of the instruments, of course), blow up a kitchen, and get Willie detained by the FBI, all the while plotting to eat the family cat, Lucky (albeit never succeeding). This would go on until March 24, 1990 (my ninth birthday), when the series was unexpectedly given the axe and aired its last episode.

Dean Cameron, who had a recurring role as Lynn Tanner’s boyfriend Robert Sherwood in the show’s final season, painted a vivid behind the scenes picture of the show. (Cameron had corresponded with me several times via email; though a full interview never did transpire in time, he did send me a link to a piece he penned called “I Was on ALF” on his personal website.) “I received a sort of “rule sheet” with my script. The main one being, ‘Don’t refer to ALF as a puppet. ALF is ALF.’ Yep. When talking about ALF (a puppet), you don’t say, The Puppet, you say “ALF.” He also described a tense moment on set when Wright lost his cool and uttered one of the “greatest lines” he has ever heard, “PUT US ON STICKS!!! WE’RE THE PUPPETS! WE’RE THE PUPPETS!!!”

Actor Dean Cameron (with ALF cast member Andrea Elson) in a 1990 episode of the show.

But things did not end there entirely for ALF. In 1996, a TV movie, Project: ALF, helped wrap up the character’s journey a little better than it’s original anti-climatic finale (though none of the Tanner family appeared). Sadly, Max Wright passed away in 2019 at the age of 75. Michu Meszaros, who also portrayed the costumed ALF in the none-puppet scenes, also passed away in 2016. But thirty-five years later, we’re still here talking about the show they helped make so memorable, and propel us all into another orbit. Not too shabby, guys.

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