Out of This World: An Oral History of ALF

NBC
NBC

At any other time, NBC president Brandon Tartikoff might not have been inclined to meet with an unknown magician and puppeteer named Paul Fusco about a television series. Along with partner Tom Patchett (The Bob Newhart Show), Fusco was pitching ALF, a sitcom about an alien from the planet Melmac who crashes into the garage of the suburban Tanner family and proceeds to ingratiate himself into their lives.

On the surface, it was a primetime puppet series, a genre that had never been handled with any grace beyond Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show. But NBC had recently made history—all nine of their 1983-84 season pilots (including Manimal) had failed, a first for any network—and executives needed to prove their worth to their corporate parents at General Electric.

Fusco won their trust. Sort of. "I didn’t sell the show," he tells mental_floss. "ALF did.'

While ALF won over a conference room at NBC, critics had a mixed response: ALF was alternately referred to as "a Teddy Ruxpin bear that [looks like he] was horribly disfigured by a revolving door" and an "alien puppet dog." But viewers were captivated by Fusco’s performance and ALF became a cultural phenomenon. Dolls, backpacks, toothbrushes, and other licensed material rang up hundreds of millions in sales; the show reached the top 10 in the Nielsen ratings; the puppet took up a semi-permanent residence on Hollywood Squares.

But ALF’s ascension into sitcom history was not without its bumps. The cast was forced to navigate a set that contained trap doors for Fusco to work in while operating the puppet, turning the family’s living room into a war zone. NBC, which quickly understood ALF’s appeal to children, grew concerned that a beer-drinking, cat-eating alien might be a bad influence; Max Wright, a classically trained theater actor who portrayed the beleaguered Willie Tanner, became so disenchanted with the role that he was prone to storming off the set and later referred to his experience as "very grim."

Despite the difficult production, ALF continues to be a pop culture standard. In honor of the show’s 30th anniversary in 2016, mental_floss asked Fusco and other cast and crew members to discuss the show’s complicated logistics, the on-set rules for guest actors, and perhaps the greatest achievement of all: outselling Bon Jovi posters.

I: ALIEN LIFE FORM

NBC

A communications major, Paul Fusco worked his way through college by taking on engagements involving magic, puppetry, and ventriloquism. Believing television was made for puppetry—the screen acts as the stage, with the margins cutting off the illusion-breaking presence of human performers—Fusco made a deal with Showtime in the early 1980s for a series of specials. Coming out of their development was a character Fusco decided to set aside for later use—a rancorous, beady-eyed alien he dubbed ALF.

Paul Fusco (Co-Creator, ALF): I had the idea for the show and Disney wanted to buy it. If you worked for Disney, they owned everything. They owned you, lock, stock, and barrel. I couldn’t deal with something called Walt Disney’s ALF, so I turned them down.

Tom Patchett (Co-Creator, Writer, ALF): I had worked on a show called Buffalo Bill with Dabney Coleman. The lead character was like ALF in terms of being brazen. My manager told me a puppeteer named Paul Fusco wanted to meet me because he liked the show. I had worked on two Muppet movies already, and I thought, "Gosh, I don't know."

Fusco: Buffalo Bill was in line with my sense of humor. We partnered and formed Alien Productions. It really came down to: Do you want to bet on yourself or not?

Patchett: I remember meeting Paul in [manager] Bernie Brillstein's offices. Bernie didn't know Paul at the time. This was before. He got very upset. "What's this f*cking puppet doing here?" He represented Jim Henson and didn't want any other puppets around. Then he saw ALF and said to me, "Tom, I have one word for you: Merchandising." That's show biz.

Fusco: I would drag him out at parties for friends and family, working on him. Once I went to a comedy club in New Haven just to test him out. The response would be remarkable. I knew the character was working.

Patchett: The ALF I saw was very close to the one we wound up with. He nailed it right out of the box. I've worked with Henson and Frank Oz, who was particularly brilliant. I've seen the best, and I think Paul is right up there.

Fusco: ALF’s humor came out of him not knowing any better. He wasn’t politically correct, but he was like Sophia on The Golden Girls—the remarks came out of honesty. That was always the premise. He was never mean.

Steve Lamar (Associate Producer): Bernie managed Tom and also Jim Henson. Paul needed someone who was TV-savvy. I think if you knew Tom’s history in sitcoms, he knew where to take it. Paul knew what the puppet could and couldn’t do.  

Patchett: I would say Paul created the character and I created the show. I was fortunate enough to have worked with the Muppets and knew what it would take to make it believable.

Fusco: We pitched ALF to a lot of companies for two or three years. I was working in Los Angeles and went to meetings in my spare time. We didn’t want it to be saccharine. It had to have a certain sensibility.

After failing to arrive at a deal with other studios, Patchett, Brillstein, and Fusco took their idea to NBC, which was still smarting from a dire fall season and a string of failures. Thanks to Patchett, they got an audience with president Brandon Tartikoff, the man who brought Cheers, Family Ties, and other blue-chip programs to the station. It did not go as planned.

Patchett: I had a commitment for a pilot at NBC, so I took Paul over there with this idea for a series we had thrashed out.

Fusco: We set up a meeting with the VIPs at NBC. It was Brandon, Leslie Lurie, and Warren Littlefield. I walked in carrying a brown garbage bag with ALF in it, but I didn’t tell them that. I asked where I could do my laundry.

Lamar: It was probably a Hefty bag.

Patchett: You can't pitch a primetime show where the lead is a puppet unless you see it.

Fusco: We go into this conference room and sit at this long table. I threw the bag under it. Brandon was at the head and I was next to him, with Tom next to me. We go into the pitch—alien crashes into this house, lives with the family, it’s funny. And I could see in their eyes that we’re losing them. Bernie whispers to me, "Take him out."

Patchett: There's no way you can look at what Paul does with the character and not laugh.

Fusco: I pull him out and sit him next to me. People were just silent. They didn’t expect it. Bernie said, "Listen, before you guys pass on the show, we wanted you to meet ALF."

Patchett: That was absolutely the thing that put it over the top.

Fusco: So ALF is sitting there and not saying anything. He looks around the room, sizing everyone up. He looks at Brandon, picks his nose, and wipes it on Brandon’s jacket. The room went crazy.

Patchett: He just started raining insults at people.

Fusco: Brandon started talking to ALF and making eye contact. That's when I knew I had him. He was asking me, "Why should we put you on our network?" I said, "Your network is falling apart!" They had done Manimal, Supertrain—ALF just tore him a new one.

With a green light from Tartikoff, ALF shot its pilot episode in the spring of 1986.

Fusco: The premise was essentially the house guest who wouldn’t leave. He’s a lonely person who can’t go back home. You had to have some sort of feeling for him.

Patchett: We talked about a lot of different ideas. Should he be with a senator? You can't have him out in public. He'd be captured or killed.

Fusco: Tom got Max Wright from Buffalo Bill. He was the perfect choice. ALF and Max had great chemistry onscreen.

Patchett: Max absolutely made you forget ALF was a puppet.

Lamar: I sat in on a lot of the casting sessions. Paul would be there as ALF. One woman who came to read for Kate Tanner, he kind of verbally sparred with her. As an actor, you had to be able to give it back to him, and this woman couldn’t. Anne Schedeen [Kate Tanner] could, and that’s why she was cast.

Patchett: Casting is always about throwing things in the air. We talked about seeing if John Candy was available, but ultimately ALF was the show. He was the funniest one.

Lamar: I’m not sure if anyone else has said this, but Brandon Tartikoff was going to pass on the show after we shot the pilot. But his daughter, who was three or four at the time, loved it. That’s what made him say, "Okay, let’s give it a chance."

ABC/Alien Productions

Almost immediately, the logistical issues of a single-puppet, multi-camera sitcom began to present themselves. Fusco was fiercely protective of preserving ALF’s integrity as a real character.

Fusco: We tried to do one or two episodes in front of a live audience, and it just didn’t work. There was so much delay between set-ups that we just couldn’t do it.

Dean Cameron (Actor, "Robert Sherwood"): I did three episodes as the daughter’s boyfriend. When I got there, I got this little handout, this little sheet. At the top it said, "Call him ALF. Do not call him a puppet."

Lisa Bannick (Supervising Producer): It was old-school magician stuff. We were told, "ALF is from the planet Melmac." And that’s what we’d say to press.

Benji Gregory (Actor, "Brian Tanner"): He was super-protective of ALF’s image. If anyone in the cast was asked, he wanted us to seriously say, "He’s an alien.'

Fusco: It goes back to my magic background, not to give away secrets. It’s not rocket science, but people didn’t always know how it was done. I’d get mail saying, "Hi, ALF, my dad says you’re not real, but I know you are." They want to believe, so I did it for the kids.

Victor Fresco (Staff Writer): I think it’s the same way you don’t talk about the existence or non-existence of Santa Claus. You don’t want to burst a childhood bubble. 

Lamar: Early on, we had an actor, Michu Meszaros, who was a little person in an ALF suit. He was just in the pilot and in a couple of other episodes, but not as much as people seem to remember.

Cameron: Watching them do it was pretty amazing. There were three people—one did the head and arm, the other did the other arm, and then there was a guy who did the remote control for the eyebrows. They were just masters.

Lamar: A lot of times, his feet would be propped up on the coffee table, and sometimes I would be the one controlling them, making them wiggle via radio control. It gave you the impression of a full body.

Gregory: Paul’s wife, Linda, her job was to look at all the monitors and make sure you couldn’t see anyone’s arms.

Lamar: Lisa Buckley and Bob Fappiano were the other two. They were amazing. We once did a Risky Business take-off with ALF sliding in frame in a white T-shirt. It’s really, really hard to do that with two people right next to one another.

Tom Fichter (Art Director): They had to be like Siamese twins. I think Lisa and Bob wound up getting married. 

Paul Miller (Director): The set was full of trenches. You’d have to open and close them so Paul could get underneath. Every time the script said, "ALF crosses the room," you’d go, "Oh, god, there’s an hour."

Lamar: There were certain places where the trenches lived, like behind the couch, but you’re always adding and subtracting. We eventually just wore the stage out.

Gregory: One time, Anne came out of the kitchen and fell right into one of the holes. She got pissed.

Fichter: People fell in them all the time. We’d name a hole after every person who fell into it.

Miller: We actually shot it in a converted warehouse in Culver City because of the fact they had to build the floor up four or five feet for the trenches.

Bannick: We shot right next door to The Wonder Years.

Lamar: There was a whole world under that stage. The stagehands had everything under there except a 7-Eleven. Snacks, mini-fridges, little beds.

Fusco: It was uncomfortable, but there were no repetitive injuries. There was no Chronic ALF Syndrome.

Patchett: I do remember getting a message from Steven Spielberg after we shot the pilot. He wanted to see it to make sure there wasn't any big resemblance to E.T. Apparently, he was satisfied.

II: OUT OF THIS WORLD

NBC

Airing opposite MacGyver and Kate & Allie, ALF premiered on September 22, 1986 and was immediately singled out for its distinctive approach to the sitcom—one in which the lead character was literally not of this earth.

Fusco: Critics were rough on it because we were on at 8 o’clock. It was kind of, "What’s NBC thinking, putting on a puppet show at 8?" After four or five episodes, a few of them started to say, "Listen to what this thing is saying. It’s pretty funny."

Patchett: It was like, "Is this a joke?" It's a big primetime slot. But it got its own following. Thanksgiving, Monday Night Football, whatever it was, it held its own.

Fusco: I was very against anything sci-fi in the show. I didn’t want people to buy into anything other than ALF being real.

Al Jean (Staff Writer): That was a rule I thought worked. [It] makes ALF unique.

Fusco: Those episodes were constantly being pitched. One time, someone floated the idea of ALF finding a ray gun, zapping Willie, and ending up in another dimension.

Fusco: "La Cucaracha" was as far as we pushed it. It was kind of believable—this bug hidden away in a bag of food.

Lamar: The giant cockroach episode, right. That was one Jerry Stahl wrote.

Bannick: We can figure out where that one came from.

Fusco: We did an episode, "I’m Your Puppet," which gave ALF a puppet of his own. That was written by Al Jean and Mike Reiss [The Simpsons], and their original script was very dark, almost Twilight Zone-ish. It kind of creeped people out.

Mike Reiss (Staff Writer):The dummy was made to look just like Paul Fusco.

Jean: The puppet was certainly intended to be self-referential. 

Reiss: Everyone seemed to realize this except Paul. He kept saying, "This looks like someone. Jamie Farr?"

Fusco: I think people are reading into things a little. We did an episode about ALF’s addiction to cotton. It wasn’t a reference to anyone having an addiction on the show.

Lamar: We were not a huge hit, but we were winning our time slot. It was different, and it was getting a lot of attention.

Fusco: Once we finished the first season, we got on a roll.

With ALF appealing to multiple demographics, it became apparent that some of the character’s habits—ALF enjoyed a cold beer every so often, and considered cats to be a delicacy—would have to be softened.

Fusco: In the pilot, ALF drinks a beer. He’s 200-something years old. We got flak about that. "He’s a role model. He can’t be drinking beer."

Fresco: ALF was kind of your raunchy uncle.

Fusco: We did an episode where ALF was electrocuted when he tried to turn the bathtub into a Jacuzzi. The following week, they made us do a disclaimer. "Last week, we did a show … don’t try this at home." They were just worried about liability.

Lamar: He was blow-drying his hair in the tub or something. We re-shot it with an egg beater.

Fusco: Kids were duplicating what ALF was doing. It was kind of sad in a way. Some kid put his cat in a microwave because ALF tried to do that once. We had to be real careful.

Bannick: NBC left us alone for the most part. They had other problems. But occasionally we’d get notes whenever we had an act break where ALF was in some kind of peril. They’d say, "Kids will think ALF is dead. You can’t do that." Look, he’s in TV Guide next week. They’re not going to think he’s dead!

Fusco: The worst note I ever got was from Warren Littlefield, who wanted ALF to be more Webster-like. What does that even mean?

Bannick: We shot one scene on the stage where ALF and Willie are driving home in the car. And I got a phone call from someone at NBC saying, "You can’t use that. We can see Jesus’s face in the folds of Willie’s jacket." You could see something, but whether it was a beaver or Groucho Marx—we did not reshoot it.

To help with the tedium of long shooting days, Fusco would often ad-lib between takes while in character as ALF.

Fusco: I enjoyed doing it. It made him real in the moment.

Fresco: It takes about 30 seconds to fall into the idea that this creature is real.

Gregory: Paul had everyone rolling all the time. He was hilarious.

Miller: You get used to the idea of directing a puppet.

Lamar: People would talk to ALF. "ALF, turn this way, turn that way."

Miller: Whenever he had the puppet, he was the character.

Fichter: The most difficult thing was when ALF had to reach across the table for something, because there was no length of arm.

Lamar: Paul had a puppet just for rehearsal we called RALF, or Repulsive Alien Life Form. He was kind of old and wrinkly.

Fichter: No one really brushed his fur. He was kind of wild-looking. He really had a different personality. He’d look up actresses’ dresses and get this shocked look on his face.

Jean: Paul would cut loose and the tattered puppet seemed like a burned-out celebrity. It would make a great show now.

RALF wouldn't have cut it for the character's lucrative licensing ventures. His poster outsold one featuring the rock band Bon Jovi, a heady accomplishment in the mid-1980s. All told, ALF-related merchandise rang up well over $250 million in sales in 1987; Coleco sold $85 million dollars’ worth of plush ALFs alone.

Fusco: I turned down any kind of endorsement where ALF would be telling someone to go out and buy beer or hamburgers. I turned down General Mills, which wanted to do an ALF cereal.

Al Kahn (Then-Executive Vice President, Coleco): We did a billboard on Sunset Boulevard to help raise awareness for the show.

Fusco: Budweiser wanted ALF. This was prior to Spuds MacKenzie.

Kahn: We had other categories besides plush—swimming pools, ride-ons. He was a wise-ass with a sense of humor and it appealed to kids.

Cameron: They had an ALF pinball machine on the set. That was actually a lot of fun.

gizmorf via eBay

Patchett: You can say it was a $100 million or whatever number, but we got a fraction of that. Part of the advance for the merchandising helped pay to produce the show.

Fusco: I turned down a lot of things, but there were some oversights in the international market. Someone made an ALF wind sock. In Germany, there was an imitation mayonnaise. Sometimes things slip through the cracks.

With success came demands for ALF to appear as a guest for a variety of shows and appearances, many of which proved problematic for Fusco and his insistence on preserving the illusion.

Fresco: I do remember Paul doing phone calls for Make-a-Wish. He’d call them at the hospital and talk to them as ALF.

Fusco: NBC wanted ALF to host Saturday Night Live. The home audience wouldn’t have seen me, but the studio audience would have. They couldn’t hide me, so I turned them down.

Patchett: People would be baffled. "Why can't you just bring him in and do it?" Because it's more complicated than that. It would've been great for ALF to do Saturday Night Live, but there's no way he could have.

Fusco: I turned down David Letterman because I didn’t think he was going to go along with it. He’d have magicians on his show and kind of egg them on.

Patchett: It was best for him to be behind things, like a desk.

Fusco: Jim Henson was a big fan of ALF and wanted him to do a Muppet Show—the John Denver Christmas Special. He wanted to do something with Kermit and Miss Piggy. It would’ve given me an opportunity to perform with Jim and Frank Oz, but I turned it down because I didn’t want ALF to be perceived as a Muppet.

Bannick: Paul hated Muppets. ALF was a little raggedy, and his worst fear was people thinking he was part of Fraggle Rock.

Fusco: NBC was always after us to do these fall preview shows, these awful specials. ALF Loves a Mystery. They were just tedious. I did do a Matlock.

Patchett: ALF got invited to the White House by Nancy Reagan for the 1987 Christmas party. We set it all up so there was a special podium. Afterward, Paul told me President Reagan said ALF was his favorite show, which of course made me worry more about him.

III: ALIENATED

NBC

As ALF matured into a ratings success, it became increasingly difficult to open up his limited world. He was an alien in hiding, which meant minimal interaction with anyone outside of the Tanner family.

Fusco: It was very much a contained show. We would bring in characters like Jody, who was blind, or a relative to try and expand it.

Fresco: It’s a very hard show to do. Your lead cannot interact with anyone in the world but the four regulars.

Fusco: We were constantly looking for ways to not violate the rules of the show but still meet other people. So one time, he met someone who was drunk. And maybe they just hallucinated him. I think we got some kind of award for that as a Very Special Episode.

Jean: I thought the biggest hurdle was that no one new could see ALF. So once we did a Gilligan’s Island dream show and a show with a blind person befriending him. We were already desperate for ideas.

Bannick: Paul and I co-wrote an episode featuring Willie’s brother with the idea that might be a direction for a spin-off or another season.

Fusco: He was housebound, if you really think about it.

Gregory: How many scripts can you write with ALF stuck in the Tanners’s house?

Bannick: When Anne Schedeen got pregnant, I got bombarded with ideas. "What if ALF has to drive Kate to the hospital? What if ALF has to babysit?" No, that’s ridiculous. Kate is not going to let an alien who can’t walk across a room without breaking a lamp take care of her child.

With a tedious production and few opportunities to explore their characters outside of reacting to ALF’s antics, the cast was reportedly not the happiest on television. That was especially true of Max Wright, who found his tenure as a second banana to the furry lead character increasingly tiresome.

Cameron: By the time I got there, the cast was over it.

Jean: The cast, I later heard, found it a very difficult experience because of the danger of the open trenches that ALF moved around in.

Bannick: If they were unhappy, they sure were professional, because I never heard about it.

Lamar: I think there were a lot of laughs early on, and as things continued, it became more tedious.

Cameron: Max was this theater guy who probably thought, "Sure, I’ll do this pilot and I’ll be back on stage in three weeks." Four years later, he’s still the dad on ALF.

Miller: Max’s character was exasperated with ALF, and that was real.

Bannick: Let me tell you about Max: Writing for Max was like playing a synthesizer. He would play every single comma, ellipsis, or dash you put in. You type it in and he gives you exactly what you wanted.

Miller: I might get a note from Paul asking me to ask Max to pick up the pace. I would dread that because it would usually cause a problem.

NBC

Gregory: We were rehearsing a script where Max makes kind of a cage for ALF and I get locked up in it. And I flubbed a line and Max flipped out on me. I’m nine years old and he’s screaming. I’m bawling.

Fusco: He was a classically trained theater actor. I think maybe he would’ve rather been doing theater instead of television, but you take the jobs that come along. I can’t speak for him, but it’s possible he might have felt trapped the longer the series went on.

Patchett: When it came down to doing year three or four, I'm sure he had had enough. Max is brilliant on the stage. Working in television might be anathema to his instincts.

Cameron: This is one of my favorite show biz stories: They’re blocking a scene and Anne Schedeen says, "Do I really need to be in this scene?" And then someone else asks the same thing. Max was a very hard worker trying to do the show. He started saying, "I’m here to work. Are you here to work?"

Pretty soon they’re all screaming at each other and the set clears. As he’s walking off, Max starts screaming. "Put us all on sticks! We’re the puppets here! We’re the puppets!"

Fusco: Max is a complicated man.

Cameron: I respected Max. He worked hard. I felt for him.

Miller: Paul was a very driven guy and a perfectionist who could get impatient with people.

Bannick: Paul was also a guy who was in a trench for five or six hours with his arm up in the air and then he’d go into his office, shut the door, and make calls to Make-a-Wish kids. He was completely drained.

Fusco: It absolutely was a tough, grueling schedule. But no one was manhandled or terribly treated. And the actors were paid significant amounts of money.

Miller: Paul wanted scenes to move along. And sometimes they’d say, "I don’t see it that way." I don’t recall Paul ever yelling at anyone as ALF, no. He could be sarcastic, but that was the character.

Cameron: I did a sitcom once that ran 20-odd episodes and cannot imagine being on a show every single week where all the best lines are given to a f*cking puppet.

IV: THE PUPPET MASTER

NBC

With the show's ratings in decline, NBC decided to move the show to Saturday evenings—television's version of a hospice. On March 24, 1990, viewers were left hanging when ALF appeared to have been discovered by military forces. It was a cliffhanger that would take six years to resolve.

Fusco: We were going to go another season. If not, NBC said we could at least finish up with an hour finale or a movie.

Miller: We knew fairly soon after the last episode. I asked someone from NBC if the rumors were true and they said, "Yeah, it’s not coming back.'

Fresco: I thought there was a 50-50 chance we were coming back. If we knew for sure we weren’t, we would’ve wrapped it up definitively.

Bannick: ALF does not have the same kind of shelf life as Cheers or Taxi. The premise gets tired easily.

Fusco: If we had gone a fifth season, the idea was going to be ALF on a military base. He’s incarcerated there in some kind of detainment camp. The family would be allowed to visit him. It would’ve opened up his world more. He would’ve been like Sergeant Bilko, essentially. Selling bootleg items, gambling.

Lamar: If it did come back, it needed to be something different.

Fresco: We had exhausted the family dynamic already. It would’ve given us something new.

Bannick: My idea for a series finale would have been to have ALF be discovered and become a celebrity. And he becomes so famous he has to go back into hiding.

Fusco: By that point, Brandon had left and Warren Littlefield had taken over, and he did not make good on Brandon’s promise.

But ABC did. In 1996, the network aired Project: ALF, which pursued Fusco’s idea of ALF on a military base. Intended to be a backdoor pilot for a new series, it failed to gain any traction. Instead, Fusco pursued a short-lived chat session on TV Land—2004's ALF’s Hit Talk Show—and resurrected the character in a series of unexpected cameos. Most recently, he appeared in the Emmy-winning USA series Mr. Robot.

Fusco: I like when ALF shows up in unlikely places. Bill O’Reilly, The Love Boat, Meet the Press. Who expects that?

Patchett: Right now we're in the final stages of a script for a movie. We're determined not to do a kids' movie. Kids will like the character anyway. We want to do the movie for the 35- to 40-year-olds who remember watching it.

Fusco: We were actually going to do a movie in 1987. We had a script ready to go, but the studio saw it as a low-budget matinee movie for kids. It never took off. But I think it would’ve been great. It took place in space and explained ALF’s journey to Earth. It was a prequel, basically. But the budget we needed and what we were offered were so far apart it would’ve been horrendous.

Patchett: It would be a mixture of Paul and CGI. We showed ALF's full body a few times in the series, but we were never happy with it.

Fusco: We’re just waiting for the right moment to come back.

Whether or not ALF makes it back to the screen in some kind of hybrid CGI epic is probably beside the point. For a generation of viewers, he was a very simple but very effective visual effect. To this day, Fusco is reluctant to talk too much about ALF as an object.

Fusco: I don’t want people to think he’s sitting in a box somewhere, or living in an efficiency apartment with Scott Baio.

Lamar: ALF could come back at any time. He’s like KISS.

Reiss: At the time it was considered a silly family show, but its reputation has rightfully risen over the years. Al and I got to write the show just the way we later wrote The Simpsons—silly, smart, and subversive.

Bannick: I’d love to have a new generation discover it. There was such a personality to the way Paul played the role. ALF’s facial expressions were many times funnier than the lines.

Patchett: It's huge in Germany. I'm doing a play there and it's all anyone wants to talk about. They seem to appreciate the critique of the Americans.

Gregory: Every now and again, I’ll throw in the DVD. The puppet still holds up. I’m not sure about some of the lines.

Reiss: One of the most famous Homer lines, "What's the number for 911?" was actually first uttered by ALF. [Writer] Steve Pepoon came up with the line years before [Simpsons writer] George Meyer thought of it independently.

Fusco: He’s probably a little more tainted, a little angrier. The world is a different place. It’s gotten a lot crazier since 1990. We might need ALF more than ever.

Gregory: I’m still kind of pissed at Max for yelling at me.

Your Friend 'Til the End: An Oral History of Child's Play

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

As a film student at UCLA in the mid-1980s, Don Mancini was amused by the hysteria surrounding the Cabbage Patch Kids, those ubiquitous, slightly homely dolls that were disappearing from toy shelves and prompting physical fights between parents. Mancini’s father had worked in the advertising industry all his life, and his son knew how effective marketing could pull strings, resulting in consumer bedlam.

“I wanted to write a dark satire about how marketing affected children,” Mancini tells Mental Floss. “Cabbage Patch was really popular. I put the two impulses together.”

Out of Mancini’s efforts came Child’s Play, the 1988 film written by a college student, directed by a horror veteran, and produced by a man who had just finished an animated family film for Steven Spielberg. Like 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, the movie was a well-received, effects-heavy twist on the slasher genre. And like that film, it birthed one of the great horror icons of the 20th century: Chucky, the carrot-topped doll possessed with the soul of a serial killer.

The portable monster—or, as Mancini puts it, an “innocent-looking child’s doll that spouted filth”—went on to star in five sequels, a Universal Studios horror attraction, and a comic book, launching Mancini’s career and providing horror fans with another antihero to root for. Mental Floss spoke with the cast and crew members who endured an uncooperative puppet, freezing weather, and setting an actor on fire to break new territory in creating a highly animated, expressive, and iconic tiny terror.

I: Batteries Not Included

Brad Dourif in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

After two years as an English major at Columbia University, Don Mancini transferred to UCLA with an eye on becoming a filmmaker. A teacher was impressed with his first script, Split Screen, about a small town overtaken by a horror production. Riding on that enthusiasm, Mancini tackled his second script by exploring the idea that a doll could be a child’s violent alter ego.

Don Mancini (Writer): Being a horror fan all of my life, I had seen Trilogy of Terror, I had seen the Talky Tina episode of The Twilight Zone, and I knew the killer doll trope. But what I realized was that it had never been done as a feature-length film in the age of animatronics.

Howard Berger (Special Effects Artist, KNB): Animatronics were not exactly booming, but we were doing what we could with them. At the time, they were not nearly as advanced as what would eventually be required for Chucky.

David Kirschner (Executive Producer): I had just done my first film for Steven Spielberg, An American Tail, and was in London where I bought a book called The Dollhouse Murders. I read it, got back home, and told my development person that I’d love to do something with dolls.

Mancini: This was shortly after Gremlins, and effects had progressed to the point where you could create a puppet that was extremely articulated.

Kirschner: Talky Tina terrified me as a kid. My sister’s dolls did, too. They had a night light under them, like when you hold a flashlight up to your chin.

Mancini: Before, the doll jaws in movies had been kind of floppy or Muppet-like, but there was a new level of nuance I thought I could take advantage of.

Kirschner: I later co-wrote a movie with Richard Matheson, The Dreamer of Oz, which we did with John Ritter. He was a paternal figure in my life, and strangely, I never did ask him about [co-writing the 1975 TV movie] Trilogy of Terror.

Tom Holland (Co-Writer, Director): I quoted Trilogy of Terror to everyone. I basically got involved with this movie due to the sequence, “Prey,” and how they put a camera on a skateboard for a doll to terrorize Karen Black, shaking it from side to side. It looked terrific.

Mancini: This was shortly after A Nightmare on Elm Street, which was really important in the development of the slasher genre. Freddy was a villain with a very distinct sense of humor, someone who could taunt victims verbally. I was quite consciously influenced by that with Chucky, the idea of an innocent-looking child’s doll that spouted filth.

Kirschner: It was in many ways what Spielberg had done with Poltergeist, which was about suburbia and bringing the terror home.

Mancini: It was originally titled Batteries Not Included. I was living in a house off-campus with three other film students, one of whom had graduated and was working as an assistant to a producer at Orion Pictures. She passed it on to his boss, who read it and passed it on to an agent. He got wind Steven Spielberg was doing a movie with the same title and suggested I change it. So it went out as Blood Buddy.

Brad Dourif and Alex Vincent in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Kirschner: The development person said, “Actually, there’s a script that’s been making the rounds called Blood Buddy, but everyone’s passed on it.” I read it and loved Don’s idea.

Mancini: It's not completely true [that everyone passed]. I did get some bites. Charles Band was one producer who saw it and liked it. He had a studio that turned out really low-budget horror and exploitation films. I don’t remember why he didn’t buy it, but he did end up doing movies called Dolls and Puppet Master. And he hired me to write a movie called Cellar Dwellers, which I used a pseudonym on.

Holland: In Don’s original script, there needed to be a way to sympathize with the son and mother.

Mancini: In my script, the doll was not possessed by a killer. The doll was a manifestation of a little boy’s unconscious rage, his id.

Kirschner: The idea of what brought the doll to life wasn’t there yet.

Mancini: If you played too rough with him, his latex skin would break and he’d bleed this red substance so you’d have to buy special bandages. So the boy, Andy, in a rite of brotherhood, cuts his thumb and mixes it with the doll’s blood, and that’s the catalyst that brings the doll to life.

Kirschner: At that point, I was a relatively new father and wasn’t sure anybody would buy a doll with blood in it. It didn’t make sense to me, but there were a lot of cool things in there, some cool deaths.

Mancini: He starts acting out against the boy’s enemies, which he might not even be able to express. Like a babysitter who tells him to go to bed, or a teacher who gives him a bad grade.

Holland: What Don wrote originally felt more like a Twilight Zone episode. The little boy fell asleep and the doll came to life. It didn’t emotionally involve you.

Mancini: Ultimately, the mother was a target, too. The kid had an unconscious resentment toward her. She was an ambitious single mother who wasn’t around, so she got him the hot toy.

In my script, the doll wasn’t really seen until the third act, where he's spouting one-liners and killing the kid’s dentist. I should really bring that back at some point.

Kirschner: I did two drawings of the character and went out to studios. A guy I had never heard of named Tony Thomopoulos from United Artists came to my office and said, “We want to make this movie.” He was wonderful and he lived up to everything he ever promised.

Brad Dourif in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

With Kirschner attracting interest in Blood Buddy, he began the process of revising the script on the belief that audiences needed a more sympathetic character than a boy with a murderous alter ego.

Kirschner: The studio did not want Don, so we brought in John Lafia.

John Lafia (Co-Writer): I believe David and I were at the same agency at the time and got introduced that way. He showed me Don’s draft and that’s how I got involved. He told me his take on it and I did two drafts. This was after Tom had come on for the first time.

Holland: I had come on the project once before and couldn’t solve it. In horror, the audience is involved in direct proportion to how much you care about the people. And that wasn’t the situation here. So I left to go do Fatal Beauty with Whoopi Goldberg.

Lafia: I went to a toy store and looked around. I remember picking up a Bugs Bunny, pulling the string, and hearing a scratchy voice. There was also a freaky Woody Woodpecker that talked.

Holland: You had to set up a situation where you can believe in a possessed doll, which sounds silly in the light of day, but that was the job.

Lafia: I was thinking of The Terminator, actually, but in micro form. Just this thing that keeps coming.

Kirschner: John got us to a point where we could go to directors. I met with William Friedkin, who I was terrified of, but he was a wonderful man. And I talked to Irvin Kershner, who did The Empire Strikes Back.

Lafia: I think the biggest contribution I made was to give the character a back story so it was a human who somehow became a doll. In my draft, it became Charles Lee Ray. I coined the name Chucky.

Holland: By the time I came around a second time, Lafia had done a rewrite and I think they had spoken with Joe Ruben, who had done The Stepfather. In the year or so I spent away from it, I figured out how to involve the killer.

Kirschner: I had seen Fright Night, which I loved. Tom seemed nice. I called Spielberg because Tom had done an Amazing Stories for him. He said Tom was an arrogant guy, but talented.

Mancini: I was still just a kid in school. It was just sort of this unspoken thing—pushing you out the door. Let the adults take over.

Lafia: My take on it, and I don’t think Don’s was that far off, was more like Poltergeist, with a family threatened by supernatural forces. I remember David and I watching that movie to refresh our memory.

Mancini: I was excited. I was a fan of Fright Night, of Psycho II.

Holland: I learned so much by writing Psycho II about moving movies forward visually. I had to study Alfred Hitchcock.

Mancini: It was Tom or David or John who brought in the voodoo, which I was never thrilled with and a mythology we got stuck with for six movies.

Lafia: My device was not voodoo. It was more of a Frankenstein-type of moment at a toy factory. A prisoner was being electrocuted on death row and his spirit got into the doll. We would cross-cut with his execution and the doll being manufactured.

Mancini: Tom has said over the years that it’s an original screenplay even though the credits say it isn’t, which is complete bullsh*t.

Holland: The Guild is set up to protect the writer. It is what it is. Failure has no fathers, success has many.

Securing Holland gave Blood Buddy—now titled Child’s Play—a strong anchor, but the film would succeed or fail based on whether the movie could convince audiences a malevolent doll could go on a killing spree. To make that happen, Kirschner enlisted Kevin Yagher, a 24-year-old effects expert who had worked on A Nightmare on Elm Street 3. Yagher and a team of effects artists, including Howard Berger, would spend months perfecting ways to bring the puppet to life.

Kirschner: I drew Chucky in graphite, and Kevin brought him to life incredibly.

Berger: David’s drawings were a great jumping-off point. We had so many versions of Chucky. The one we used most was from the waist-up.

Mancini: I was so involved with school that it was all just moving along without me. I had no involvement with the doll's development.

Berger: He really couldn’t walk. We tried putting him on a six-foot dolly, but it just sort of dragged itself along.

Kirschner: If you’ve got someone controlling the eyes, someone else the mouth, someone else the hands, something will go wrong. It’s going to take a very long time. But Kevin and his team were amazing.

Berger: We made the doll heads to look increasingly more human as the movie goes on. The hairline begins to match Brad Dourif’s.

Mancini: Over the course of the movie, his hairline is receding. At the top of the movie, he’s got a full mop of hair. Visually, it was cool, but I was never down with the story logic. Why would that happen? What does it mean? Does it mean he’d ultimately be a human thing?

Berger: We had different expressions. A neutral one, angry, one that was screaming. One Chucky we literally just hooked up to a Nikita drill motor. When you turn him on, he’d just spin and flail around, kicking.

Mancini: While I was still writing the script, a lawyer had encouraged me to describe the doll in great detail—in as much detail as I could think up. Because if the movie became a hit and if there was merchandise, there would be a scramble over who was legally the creator of the character. And sure enough, there was.

Berger: Chucky went through a few iterations. Originally his head was more football-shaped, like a Zeppelin.

Mancini: I was very distinct in the script: red hair, two feet tall, blue eyes, freckles, striped shirt. David designed the doll, but didn’t deviate from those details.

Kirschner: After American Tail, I wanted to do something different. My agent was not happy about it. My mother was not happy about it. My wife thought it was great.

II: The Assembly Line

Brad Dourif, Jack Colvin, Tommy Swerdlow, and Alex Vincent in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Child’s Play began production in the winter of 1988 in Chicago and Los Angeles—the former during the coldest time of the year. Holland’s cast included Catherine Hicks as Karen Barclay, Chris Sarandon as Detective Mike Norris, and Brad Dourif as Charles Lee Ray, the killer fated to become trapped in the plastic prison of a retail toy.

For shots beyond the ability of the puppet to perform, Holland enlisted actor Ed Gale, a three-foot, six-inch tall performer who had made his film debut as the title character in 1986’s Howard the Duck.

Ed Gale (“Chucky”): I knew Howard Berger from other projects. I met with Tom having just done Spaceballs. I wound up doing Child’s Play and Phantasm II at the same time. I don't take credit for being Chucky. It's Brad [Dourif], the puppeteers, and me.

Holland: Brad is wonderful, a genuine actor.

Alex Vincent (“Andy Barclay”): Brad’s voice was on playback on the set. The puppeteers would synch the movement to his voice, sometimes at half-speed.

Mancini: There was a Writers Guild strike and I wasn’t legally allowed to be on the set, so I didn’t rejoin the process until after shooting was over. But I don’t think I would’ve been welcome anyway.

Holland: I don’t remember ever meeting Don. I thought the writer’s strike was toward the end of shooting.

Mancini: My understanding through David is that Tom was the auteur and wouldn’t want anyone else around.

Holland: He certainly would have been welcome to come to the set.

Chris Sarandon in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Although a few of Holland’s leads struggled—Sarandon’s vocal cords once froze during a sub-zero exterior shot—nothing caused more trouble with the production than Chucky, a complex mechanism requiring multiple puppeteers. His presence led to differing opinions over how best to approach the tone of the film.

Kirschner: This was my first live-action film project. I was a real quiet, shy person, and Tom was a real presence.

Gale: Tom was very driven and focused. I very distinctly remember a scene where Alex needed to cry and Tom was spitballing how he could get him to react. He was asking the social worker, “Can I blow smoke in his face? Can I pinch him?”

Holland: I was very sensitive to Alex’s feelings. He was not an actor with experience. I hugged him after reach take.

Vincent: Tom was very passionate about getting specific things from me and being really happy when he got them.

Gale: I think he wound up telling him scary stories.

Holland: I don’t remember any scary stories. I just kept having him do the scene.

Vincent: I don’t remember anything specific he said. I do remember that they ran out of film when I was doing it and I told them, “Don’t worry, I’ll keep crying.”

Gale: When you look at the crying scene, it’s pretty convincing. Tom is a genius director. As a person, I won’t comment.

Kirschner: I felt he kept showing too much of the doll. I wanted to be gentlemanly about it and kept whispering in his ear, and he was getting fed up with me.

Berger: The doll was a pain in the ass. Everything was a hassle. I remember the scene where Chucky was in a mental hospital electrocuting a doctor. It took 27 takes to get him to press a button.

Vincent: I was aware of the puppet [being slow] because I’d be standing there for 43 takes. Having him flip his middle finger was this whole process.

Kirschner: The doll was not working great. Jaws had come out and I had seen how great that worked. You were postponing the fear. Tom wanted to show the doll.

Brad Dourif and Alex Vincent in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Holland: The studio was applying pressure because of costs. It became more tension-filled.

Berger: Chucky made a horrible noise when he moved because of the servos—like scree, scree. He was very noisy.

Kirschner: I felt it should be more like Jaws or Alien where you don’t see anything for a long time.

Holland: There was a disagreement as to tone. David made movies for children.

Vincent: I remember being taken off set a couple of times when there was a fight or disagreement. I’d have some big production assistant put me on his shoulders and carry me out.

Berger: What you have to remember is, it took quite a few of us to make the doll work. Someone was doing the hands, then someone else the eyebrows, and someone else the mouth. It was like we all had to become one brain.

Gale: It didn’t really involve me, but I do remember David calling me up at 3 or 4 in the morning just to talk. I told him, “You’re the producer. Put your foot down.”

Kirschner: I won’t go into the near-bloody details of the fight we had.

Holland: David was a skinny kid then. It never got physical. There was just a difference in temperament.

Brad Dourif in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

A difficult performer, Chucky would go on to become the catalyst for strained working relationships on the set.

Kirschner: Kevin Yagher was brilliant at what he did, but he didn’t have a ton of experience. And Tom is screaming and shouting at him.

Holland: It was no knock on Kevin, but it was all the doll could do to take a step.

Berger: Chucky’s fingers would get worn out quickly. The aluminum fingers would begin to poke right through the latex skin. I had this big bag of Chucky hands and changed them three times a day.

Holland: I had a terrible time with the eyeline of the doll. He couldn’t look at actors. The puppeteers were under the set and for reasons I could never figure out, the monitors they had were reversed. He'd look left instead of right.

Kirschner: It took like 11 people to make the puppet work.

Berger: This was a puppet that was radio-controlled who was in half the movie. It was brand-new territory.

Brad Dourif in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Holland leaned on Ed Gale to perform broader movements. Because he was significantly larger than Chucky, the production built sets 30 percent larger than normal to maintain a forced perspective.

Holland: That was something I learned from Darby O’Gill and the Little People. You use forced perspective with overbuilt sets.

Mancini: I thought that was really cool. I love those sleight of hand things.

Gale: Facially, nothing can beat a puppet. But to make it actually work full body, running, or jumping, they needed me.

Mancini: Tom had directed him to walk in a sort of mechanical way, almost like a clockwork. He just marches.

Gale: The puppet would move more smoothly and I’d walk a little more like a robot and we’d meet in the middle. The problem was that I had zero visibility. I’d rehearse and walk through a scene with my eyes closed. It’s like taking a drink while blindfolded. You look like an idiot. I was also set on fire.

Holland: Ed is a very brave guy.

Gale: I got weaned into it. They set one arm on fire first, then my chest, then both arms. You wear an oxygen mask.

Vincent: I did not want to see that. Ed was my friend and I didn’t want to see him spinning around on fire.

Gale: I did the scene in segments. First I was on fire in the fireplace, cut. Kicking the gate open, cut. Walk out on fire, cut. Each was only about 45 seconds, which is a little less than a lifetime when you’re on fire.

The only close call was when they wanted to drop me into the fireplace. They could see the assistant’s shadow, so they wound up hoisting me up further and I dropped six or eight feet, hurting my back. It put me out of work for a few days. I also got burns on my wrists. Nothing bad.

III: Chucky Unleashed

After filming on Child's Play was completed in spring 1988, Kirschner wanted to separate himself from Holland, with whom he had developed an acrimonious working relationship.

Kirschner: The film did not screen well. It tested horribly. Tom had a right to his cut. After that, we took him off the film.

Mancini: David invited me to watch the original cut, which was much longer. It was about two hours.

Kirschner: We invited Don in at certain times to bring him back into the process.

Mancini: At that point, David needed a relatively objective opinion of where the movie was. For him to have me voice mine was very gracious. Not all producers would do that.

Kirschner: We cut about a half-hour out of the movie.

Mancini: Seeing the edit was my first time seeing Chucky, which was thrilling. But the voice in the cut was not Brad. It was Jessica Walter [of Arrested Development].

Holland: I tried to use an electronic overlay to the voice, like a Robbie the Robot kind of thing, because that’s how the toys with sound chips worked. Then I tried Jessica Walter, who had been in Play Misty for Me. She could make the threats work, but not the humor. So we went back to Brad.

Mancini: Tom’s logic was that the voice of the devil was done by a woman in The Exorcist. But her voice, while being creepy, just didn’t fit.

Child’s Play premiered on November 11, 1988. Mancini and Kirschner had already gone to test screenings to gauge the reaction of an audience.

Mancini: The scene where the mom finds out that the batteries are included and still in the box was like a cattle prod. The audience just roared.

Holland: I kept building up to that moment where Chucky comes alive in her hands. The doll does a 180 with his head, which is a nod to The Exorcist.

Kirschner: Brad Dourif ad-libbed the line where he’s in an elevator with an older couple and the wife says, “That’s the ugliest doll I’ve ever seen.” Chucky says, “F*ck you.” The audience loved it.

Vincent: My grandfather rented out an entire theater in our hometown for a screening. I wore a tuxedo.

Lafia: I actually didn’t like when they had a little person in the Chucky outfit, only because he looked thicker and bigger. No matter how well a human being moves, your brain just knows it’s not the puppet.

Mancini: There’s a good shot of Ed climbing on the bed with a knife. I thought most of his shots were very successful.

Earning $33 million, Child’s Play became the second-highest grossing horror film of the year, behind the fourth installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street series. But United Artists, which had supported the production, made the decision not to be involved in a sequel for a reason almost unfathomable in Hollywood: moral grounds.

Kirschner: It was the second highest-grossing film for United Artists that year after Rain Man.

Mancini: The studio initiated a sequel immediately. I was set to work on writing the script by Christmas 1988. John Lafia, who did a draft of the first, was going to direct it. By summer of 1989, the script was done and going into production. Then United Artists was sold to Qintex Group, and they had a reputation for family entertainment. And it wasn’t a project they were interested in pursuing.

Kirschner: I got a call from the head of the studio, Richard Berger. He said, “David, I’m embarrassed to tell you this, but the company buying UA doesn’t want it. They want to be more like Disney.”

Lafia: We were green-lit and all of a sudden they make this ridiculous pronouncement.

Mancini: Because David was under an overall deal there and they wanted to maintain that relationship, they literally just gave it back to him. And he went out and made a deal with Universal, where we’ve done all the subsequent movies.

Lafia: They basically gave him the franchise for next to nothing. It was an unbelievably stupid thing for them to do.

Kirschner: They were decent guys. I got a call from Spielberg who said, “I know you’re getting calls about this from all over the place, but do me a favor and give Universal the first shot.” Well, of course, Steven.

Child’s Play 2 opened at number one in November 1990.; Child’s Play 3 arrived less than a year later. In 1998, the franchise took a turn into dark comedy with Bride of Chucky, where the maniac finds a love interest.

Vincent: I did the second [movie]. We shot it on the same lot as Back to the Future Part III. I had lunch with Michael J. Fox. It was awesome.

Mancini: John wanted to shoot with a puppet 100 percent of the time, but Ed was around for the whole production.

Gale: Lafia was a complete idiot to me. He did an interview with Fangoria where they asked him if he used me like Holland did, and he said, “No, I hired a midget but never used it.” That’s an offensive word. When Child’s Play 3 came along, I hung up the phone.

Lafia: Ed did a great job, but I wanted to avoid it. He moved too much like a person.

Gale: On Bride of Chucky, they begged and begged, and I finally did it. And then they used the word “midget” [in the movie]. So I refused Seed of Chucky. They filmed in Romania, too, and I don’t fly.

Mancini: It [the line] was wrong, and it's my responsibility.

Gale: One of the reasons they credited me as Chucky’s stunt double was so they could pay me fewer residuals.

Mancini: One reason we used fewer little actors as the series went on is because it’s expensive to build sets 30 percent larger. Each successive movie, we have less and less money. On Curse of Chucky, I used Debbie Carrington to double Chucky—partly because she’s a good friend of mine, and partly because bodies change as people age. Ed physically became too large to play Chucky. It’s just the reality we were facing.

In 2013, Mancini wrote and directed Curse of Chucky, a critically-praised return to Chucky’s more sinister roots.

Mancini: To this day I prefer my concept of the doll being a product of the little kid’s subconscious, but the concept used ended up being gangbusters. Tom was a seasoned writer who made improvements.

Vincent: Starting with the second one, the movies really became Don’s. He came into the forefront.

Mancini: We start production on the next Chucky in Winnipeg in January. It continues the story of Nica, who was introduced in Curse of Chucky. At the end of that movie, she’s taken the rap for the murder of her family and has been institutionalized in an asylum. That’s the basic premise and setting.

Vincent: What’s interesting is that you can tell different types of stories with Chucky. There’s a balance between playfulness and that anger.

Mancini: Even in the movies that aren’t overt comedies, there’s an amusement factor of a doll coming to life. It’s disturbing on a primal level. Dolls are distortions of the human form. They’re humanoid. There’s something inherently off and creepy about them.

Kirschner: Chucky’s become so iconic. When you refer to a kid being awful, you refer to him as Chucky.

Lafia: Chucky has a very unique skill set for a villain, which is that he can be sitting in a room and you don’t think he’s a threat at all. He’s hiding in plain sight.

Mancini: He’s an ambassador for the horror genre, for Halloween, for why we as a culture enjoy this stuff. It’s celebrating the fun of being scared.

Gale: I have the screen-used Chucky hands. No one else does. So if you buy a pair that claim to be worn in the film, you got ripped off.

This story originally ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2019.

The Dark Side: An Oral History of The Star Wars Holiday Special

Larry Heider
Larry Heider

Summer 1978: Over a year after its debut, Star Wars wasn’t through smashing box office records. Ushered back into theaters for a return engagement that July, it made $10 million in just three days. George Lucas had welded mythological structure, pioneering special effects, and a spectacular production design to create a cinematic phenomenon that redefined how studios selected and marketed big-budget spectacles. Movies would never be the same again.

Neither would television. That same month, filming began on The Star Wars Holiday Special, a 97-minute musical-variety show that featured Bea Arthur serenading a giant rat and Chewbacca’s father, Itchy, being seduced by a virtual reality image of Diahann Carroll. Originally, the show was intended to keep the property viable and licensed merchandise moving off shelves until the inevitable sequel. But with Lucas’s focus on The Empire Strikes Back and producers shrinking his galaxy for a television budget, the Holiday Special suffered. So did viewers.

Mental Floss spoke with many of the principal production team members to find out exactly how Lucas’s original intentions—a sentimental look at Chewbacca’s family during a galactic holiday celebration—turned to the Dark Side.

I. A VERY WOOKIEE CHRISTMAS


Thomas Searle via YouTube

According to onetime Lucasfilm marketing director Charles Lippincott, CBS approached Star Wars distributor 20th Century Fox in 1978 to propose a television special. Fox had seen a boost in box office returns after several aliens from the Cantina scene appeared on Donny and Marie Osmond’s variety show; CBS figured the success of the film would translate into a ratings win; Lucasfilm and Lippincott though it would be a good vehicle to push toys.

With all parties motivated to move forward, two writers—Leonard “Lenny” Ripps and Pat Proft—were brought on to write a script based on an original story by Lucas.

Leonard Ripps (Co-Writer): Pat and I spent the entire day with Lucas. He took out a legal pad and asked how many minutes were in a TV special. He wrote down numbers from one to 90. He was very methodical about it. He had at least a dozen stories he had already written, so we were just helping to fill in a world he knew everything about. His idea was basically for a Wookiee Rosh Hashanah. A furry Earth Day.

Pat Proft (Co-Writer): Wookiees played a big part of it. Stormtroopers were harassing them. I don't have the script. It sure as [hell] wasn't what it ended up being.

Ripps: Pat and I had written for mimes Shields and Yarnell, which is why we were brought on. We had written lots of non-verbal stuff. The challenge was how to get things across. Wookiees aren’t articulate. Even in silent movies, you had subtitles. Whatever we wrote, it wasn’t tongue-in-cheek.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Proft and Ripps delivered their script several weeks after the meeting. It focused on a galactic holiday celebrated by all species, with the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk selected to host the festivities that year. Chewbacca’s family—father Itchy, wife Malla, and son Lumpy—were introduced, with the writers leaving gaps for executive producers Dwight Hemion and Gary Smith to insert celebrity guest stars and musical acts. For the latter, Hemion and Smith turned to producers Ken and Mitzie Welch to arrange original songs and enlist talent.

Elle Puritz (Assistant to the Producer): I was working for the Welches at the time. I remember hearing, “OK, we’re going to do a Star Wars holiday special,” and everyone laughing about it. I thought it was a terrible idea.

Miki Herman (Lucasfilm Consultant): Lippincott requested I be involved with the special. I did a lot of ancillary projects. I knew all the props, all the actors. I hired Stan Winston to create the Wookiee family. [Sound effects artist] Ben Burtt and I were there to basically provide authenticity, to make sure everything was kept in context.

George Lucas (via Empire, 2009): Fox said, "You can promote the film by doing the TV special." So I kind of got talked into doing the special.

Ripps: Lucas told us Han Solo was married to a Wookiee but that we couldn’t mention that because it would be controversial.

Herman: I do remember Gary Smith saying they wanted to have Mikhail Baryshnikov and Ann-Margret involved, high-caliber people that were popular.

Puritz: Ken and Mitzie called Bea Arthur. They wrote a song with her in mind.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Ripps: It never occurred to us to get Bea Arthur. We spent just that one day with Lucas, then got put in touch with [director] David Acomba. Our notion was Acomba was very much Lucas’s guy, so he spoke for Lucas.

Acomba was a Canadian filmmaker who had coincidentally gone to the University of Southern California around the same time as Lucas, though the two never crossed paths at the time. Lippincott knew him, however, and hired him to direct the special in keeping with Lucas’s spirit of finding talent outside the Hollywood system.

Larry Heider (Camera Operator): David came out of a rock 'n' roll world, a documentary world. Smith and Hemion had three different projects going on at the same time, so I think they felt they wouldn’t have time to direct just this one thing.

Puritz: David wasn’t used to shooting television. Using five cameras, everything shooting at the same time. He was very indignant about his own lack of knowledge, and he did not get along with the Welches.

Ripps: I got the impression it was not what he wanted, and had turned into something he didn’t want to do. I don’t want to say he was overwhelmed, but it would’ve been overwhelming for anyone.

II. FORCING IT


Thomas Searle via YouTube

With a budget of roughly $1 million—the 1977 film cost $11 millionThe Star Wars Holiday Special began filming in Burbank, California in the summer of 1978 with a script that had been heavily revised by variety show veterans Bruce Vilanch, Rod Warren, and Mitzie Welch to reflect the Smith-Hemion style of bombastic musical numbers and kitsch. Chewbacca was now trying to race home in time for “Life Day,” with his family watching interstellar musical interludes and comedic sketches—like a four-armed Julia Child parody—on a video screen. 

Ripps: Lucas wanted a show about the holiday. Vilanch and everyone, they were wonderful writers, but they were Carol Burnett writers. In the litany of George’s work, there was never kitsch. Star Wars was always very sincere about Star Wars.

Herman: Personally, I was not a fan of Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur, or Art Carney. That wasn’t my generation. But they had relationships with Dwight Hemion and the Welches.

Heider: Bea Arthur was known for being a little cold and demanding. When she was asked to do something a second time, she wanted someone to explain what was wrong. When the script wasn’t making sense for her to say something, she had a hard time translating all of that. She was pretty much [her television character] Maude.

Bea Arthur [via The Portland Mercury, 2005]: I didn't know what that was about at all. I was asked to be in it by the composer of that song I sang—"Goodnight, But Not Goodbye." It was a wonderful time, but I had no idea it was even a part of the whole Star Wars thing … I just remember singing to a bunch of people with funny heads.

After shooting the Cantina scene, it became apparent that Acomba was an ill fit for the constraints of a television schedule.

Heider: David was used to a single camera—run and gun, keep it moving, a real rock 'n' roll pace. This show was anything but. There were huge sets, make-up, costumes. It was slow-paced, and it got to him.

Ripps: I didn’t go down for the filming, but Pat went down. He has a story.

Proft: Took my kid for the Cantina scene. All the characters from the bar were there. However, they forgot [to pump] oxygen into the masks. Characters were fainting left and right.

Heider: Characters would walk around onstage with just their shirts on to stay cool. We were shooting in a very warm part of the year in Los Angeles, and it was difficult, especially with the Wookiees. They took a lot more breaks than they had calculated.

Ripps: I knew how frustrated David was. It wasn’t his vision. He phoned me up and said, “I’m not going to be working on this anymore.”

Acomba left after only shooting a handful of scenes. A frantic Smith phoned Steve Binder, a director with extensive experience in television—he had overseen the famous Elvis ’68 Comeback Special—and told him he needed someone to report to the set the following Monday morning.

Steve Binder (Director): I was between projects and got a call from Gary basically saying they had completely shut down in Burbank and there was talk of shutting it down for good. The first thing I realized was, they had built this phenomenal Chewbacca home on a huge film stage, but it was a 360-degree set. There was no fourth wall to remove to bring multiple cameras into the home. I would think it would be impossible for a crew to even get into the set to shoot anything.

Puritz: I think David was part of that plan.

Heider: I remember when that happened. I don’t think it was David’s idea. It was the way it was conceived by producers on how to make this look really cool, but it didn’t work. You have no lighting control. Steve got it. He’s really a pro. There’s no ego.

Binder: They FedExed me the script. The first thing I looked at was, the first 10 minutes was done with basically no dialogue from the actors. It was strictly Chewbacca sounds. The sound effects people would use bear sounds for the voicing. It concerned me, but there was no time to start changing the script.

Ripps: We had concerns about that. But George said, "This is the story I want to tell."

Binder: The Chewbacca family could only be in the costumes for 45 minutes. Then they’d have the heads taken off, and be given oxygen. It slowed everything down. The suits were so physically cumbersome and heavy. The actress playing Lumpy [Patty Maloney], when she came in, I don’t think she was more than 80 or 90 pounds and she a lost tremendous amount of weight while filming.

In addition to guest stars Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, and Art Carney, Lucasfilm approached most of the principals from the feature for cameo appearances. Feeling indebted to Lucas, they agreed to participate—reluctantly.

Puritz: They had made this big movie, and now they’re doing a TV special. Carrie Fisher did not want to be there.

Herman: They didn’t love doing TV. At that time, movie actors didn’t do TV. There was a stigma against it.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Heider: Harrison Ford was not happy to be there at all. Carrie Fisher, I think part of her deal was she got to sing a song, and that was her draw to it. Because Lucas was involved, and if another movie is coming out in two years, there’s pressure to keep going. So they showed up, on time. Mostly.

Binder: My recall with the whole cast was that there was a little mumbling going on with a few of the actors who felt they should’ve been compensated more for the movie. I think Lucas did do that after the special, giving them small percentages.

Heider: We were doing a scene where Ford was sitting in the Millennium Falcon and he just wanted to get his lines done and he made that very clear. “Can we just do this? How long is this going to take?”

Harrison Ford (via press tour, 2011): It was in my contract. There was no known way to get out of it.

Heider: Mark Hamill was a good guy. He just had that normal-guy-trying-to-work vibe.

Mark Hamill (via Reddit, 2014): I thought it was a mistake from the beginning. It was just unlike anything else in the Star Wars universe. And I initially said that I didn't want to do it, but George said it would help keep Star Wars in the consciousness and I wanted to be a team player, so I did it. And I also said that I didn't think Luke should sing, so they cut that number.

Herman: I worked with the actors on a lot of the ancillary stuff. Honestly, they were just all so dopey.

III. BUILDING BOBA FETT


TheSWHolidaySpecial via YouTube

 

Before Acomba departed the production, he and Lucas reached out to a Canadian animation company, Nelvana, to prepare a nine-minute cartoon that would formally introduce one of the characters from The Empire Strikes Back: Boba Fett. The bounty hunter originated from a design for an unused Stormtrooper by production designers Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie; he was intended to make public appearances in the interim between films, initially popping up at the San Anselmo County Fair parade in September of 1978.

Michael Hirsh (Nelvana Co-Founder): David knew me personally. Lucas watched a special of ours, A Cosmic Christmas, that was just coming on air at the time. He asked people on his crew, including David, who we were. David said, "Oh, I know these guys." We were not a well-known company at time.

Clive Smith (Nelvana Co-Founder, Animation Director): Lucas supplied a script that he wrote. I think I probably had about two weeks to storyboard, then start character designs.

Hirsh: Frankly, I think the cartoon was more along the lines of what Lucas wanted to do in the first place—if he did the special, there was a possibility Fox and CBS would fund Star Wars cartoons. The variety show itself wasn’t something he was particularly interested in.

Smith: We ended up shooting slides of each storyboard frame. There must’ve been 300 to 400 frames. I loaded them up, put myself on a plane, and went down to San Francisco and did a presentation with a slide projector. I was in this room of people who were absolutely silent. Things that were funny, not a whimper or murmur. But at the end, George clapped.

Hirsh: CBS wanted him to use one of the L.A. studios, like Hanna-Barbera, who did most of the Saturday morning cartoons. But Lucas, from the beginning of his career, had a thing for independent companies, people who weren’t in L.A. The style of animation was modeled after [French artist] Jean “Moebius” Geraud, at Lucas’s request.


TheSWHolidaySpecial via YouTube

Smith: A lot of the designs and characters were inspired by Moebius, who did a lot of work for Heavy Metal magazine. We thought it was a good direction to point ourselves in. At the time, there was no Star Wars animation to follow.

Hirsh: There was a big deal made about the introduction of Boba Fett.

Smith: We needed to design Boba Fett, and all we had was some black and white footage of a costumed actor who had been photographed in someone’s backyard moving around. We took what was there and turned it into a graphic idea.

Hirsh: I directed the voice sessions. Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) had the most dialogue, and the other actors came in for short sessions. Harrison Ford and the other performers generally came in and nailed lines, whereas Mark Hamill was anxious to try different things. [Hamill would go on to a successful career in voiceover work.]

Herman: Michael got upset when I told him Princess Leia wore a belt. It was part of her costume, and they didn’t have it. Redoing it was going to cost them a lot of money.

Hirsh: That’s possible. Lucas was happy with how it turned out. After the special, we stayed in touch and we were developing a project with Lucasfilm and the Bee Gees. Nothing ever came of it.

IV. SPACING OUT


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Nelvana had a relatively smooth journey to the finish line compared to the live-action production team. By the time Binder was prepared to shoot the climactic “Life Day” celebration with the entire cast and a group of robed Wookiees, there was virtually no money in the budget left for a large-scale spectacle.

Binder: No one ever mentioned there was no set for the closing. I was told by the art director we had no money for it in the budget. So I said, "No problem, just go out and buy every candle you can find in the store." We filled an empty stage with candles. I had experimented with this on another special, maybe a Victor Borge ice skating show. Candles in a dark environment give off an incredibly creative effect.

Herman: The sad truth is, everyone was so overwhelmed. Ken and Mitzie knew that last scene was a disaster. They came to me saying, "Help us." But George was out of the picture. It was a runaway production.

Ripps: Acomba and Lucas had walked away from it. They weren’t there to fight for anything.

Lucas: It just kept getting reworked and reworked, moving away into this bizarre land. They were trying to make one kind of thing and I was trying to make another, and it ended up being a weird hybrid between the two.

Heider: They were spending a lot of money for stage rental, lighting, a TV truck, and everyone was putting in really long hours. It translated into a big below-line budget problem. 

Herman: Honestly, a set wasn’t going to save that scene. All the Wookiees were wearing [consumer licensee] Don Post masks.

Premiering November 17, 1978, The Star Wars Holiday Special was seen by 13 million viewers, a significant but not overly impressive audience for the three-network television landscape of the era. It came in second to The Love Boat on ABC for its first hour, with a marked drop-off following the conclusion of the cartoon at the halfway point. Gurgling, apron-clad Wookiees, low-budget Imperial threats—they do nothing more sinister than trash Lumpy’s room—and an appearance by Jefferson Starship proved too bizarre for viewers.

Binder: I felt you have to open with a bang, really grab the audience, make it worth their time to sit and watch. The opening scene going on as long as it did was a killer for the TV audience.

Ripps: I had no idea what had happened to it. When it was broadcast, I had a party at my house and ordered catering. After the first commercial, I turned it off and said, "Let’s eat."

Binder: The day I finished shooting, I was on to other projects. It’s the only show I never edited or supervised the editing of. The Welches had the whole weight of the unedited special in their hands, and I questioned how much experience they had at that given they were songwriters.

Heider: Somebody made choices in terms of how long each scene would be on TV, and it's really painful.

Herman: I remember I was moving to Marin County the next day. I was staying at a friend’s house, and their son was a Star Wars fan. I had given him all the toys. Watching him watch it, he was really bored.

Binder: What I realized was, the public was not told this wasn’t going to be Star Wars. It was not the second movie. It was going to be a TV show to sell toys to kids. That was the real purpose of the show. It had nowhere near the budget of a feature film. [Lucasfilm and Kenner produced prototype action figures of Chewbacca’s family; they were never released.]

Heider: I didn’t watch it when it was on, but I do have a copy I bought several years ago on eBay. It’s not a great copy, but it’s enough to show how it was cut together. I haven’t been able to sit through whole thing at one time.

Herman: George hated it, but he knew there was nothing he could do about it.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Binder: I never met Lucas, never got a phone call, anything. Which was disappointing to me. It was his show, he developed it. To totally walk away from it and critique it negatively was, I felt, not cool.

Ripps: One of the reasons I took the job was I thought it would be an annuity. Every year, I’d get a check for Star Wars.

Hirsh: I did watch it. I was happy with our contribution. It was a phenomenal opportunity for our little company. We got to work on the Droids and Ewoks animated shows later on.

Ripps: I still go out to dinners on the stories. Once, at a dinner party, one of the waiters had Star Wars tattoos up and down both of his arms. When he found out I wrote the special, we got better service than anyone in the restaurant.

Lucas: I’m sort of amused by it, because it is so bizarre. It's definitely avant garde television. It's definitely bad enough to be a classic.

Herman: The interesting thing is, the day after the special aired was the day of the Jonestown Massacre. It was just a bad time for everyone.

Dwight Hemion (via NPR, 2002): It was the worst piece of crap I’ve ever done.

This article originally ran in 2015.

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