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Out of This World: An Oral History of ALF

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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, 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.

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The Night the Brat Pack Was Born
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Columbia/TriStar

If Emilio Estevez had opted to pay for his movie ticket, the Brat Pack might never have been born. It was spring 1985, and Estevez—then the 23-year-old co-star of St. Elmo’s Fire—was being profiled in New York Magazine. The angle was that Estevez had just signed a deal to write, direct, and star in his own feature, That Was Then... This is Now, an opportunity that was rarely afforded to young Hollywood talent. Estevez was two years younger than Orson Welles was when he performed similar duties for 1941’s Citizen Kane.

That youthful exuberance was on display as New York writer David Blum followed Estevez in and around Los Angeles for several days gathering material for the story. With Blum in tow, Estevez decided that he wanted to catch a screening of Ladyhawke, a fantasy film starring Matthew Broderick. For reasons not made entirely clear, he preferred not to have to pay for a ticket. According to Blum, Estevez called the theater and politely asked for free admission before entering an 8 p.m. screening.

It's likely Estevez was just having a little fun with his celebrity. But to Blum, it was indicative of a mischievous, slightly grating sense of entitlement. Blum’s assessment was that Estevez was acting “bratty,” an impression he felt was reinforced when he witnessed a gathering of other young actors at LA’s Hard Rock Cafe for the same story.

What was supposed to be a modest profile of Estevez turned into a cover story declaration: Hollywood’s “Brat Pack” was here, and they had decided to forego the earnest acting study preferred by their predecessors to spend their nights partying instead.

The day the story hit newsstands, Blum received a call from Estevez. “You’ve ruined my life,” he said.

The June 1985 cover of New York magazine
New York, Google Books

Blum’s label had its roots in the Rat Pack of the 1960s, so named for the carousing boys' club led by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. Whether it was accurate or not, the performers developed reputations for squeezing every last drink, perk, and joke they could out of their celebrity well into middle age.

That dynamic was on Blum’s mind when New York dispatched him to cover Estevez. After he arrived in California, Blum took note of the fact that a tight cluster of actors seemed to have formed a group, both on- and off-screen. Estevez was close friends with Rob Lowe and Tom Cruise, and all of them appeared in 1983’s The Outsiders; Lowe and Estevez were co-starring in St. Elmo’s Fire, a coming-of-age drama that also featured Andrew McCarthy and Judd Nelson; Estevez and Nelson gained a lot of attention for 1984’s The Breakfast Club.

To Blum, Estevez was more than just a multi-hyphenate; he appeared to be the nucleus of a group that spent a lot of time working and playing together. And in fairness to Blum, Estevez didn’t dissuade the writer from that take: Fearing he was coming off as too serious in the profile, Estevez asked Lowe and Nelson to hang out with him at Los Angeles’s Hard Rock Cafe so Blum could see the actor's lighter side.

Nelson would later recall that he felt uneasy around Blum. “Why is this guy having dinner with us?” he asked Estevez. Lowe, meanwhile, was busy flirting with women approaching their table. The group later went to a "punk rock" club, with a Playboy Playmate tagging along.

As celebrity hedonism goes, it was a tame evening. But Blum walked away with the idea that Estevez was the unofficial president of an exclusive club—attractive actors who were soaking up success while idling late into the night.

Blum returned to New York with a different angle for his editors. He wanted to capture this “Brat Pack,” a “roving band” of performers “on the prowl” for good times. Although the magazine had just run a cover story about a teenage gang dubbed “the wolf pack” and feared repetition, they agreed.

As far as Estevez and the others were concerned, Blum was busy executing a piece on Estevez’s ambitions as a writer and director. When Estevez, Nelson, and Lowe appeared on the cover—taken from a publicity still for St. Elmo’s Fire—with his newly-coined phrase, they were horrified.

Blum began getting calls from angry publicists from each of the actors mentioned in the article—and there had been a lot of them. In addition to Estevez, the de facto leader, and lieutenants Lowe and Nelson, Blum had dubbed go-to John Hughes geek Anthony Michael Hall the “mascot”; Timothy Hutton was said to be on the verge of excommunication for his film “bombs”; Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage, and Matt Dillon were also mentioned.

To the actors, the effect was devastating. Independent of how they spent their free time, all of them were pursuing serious careers as performers, with producers, directors, and casting agents mindful of their portrayal in the media. Being a Brat Packer was synonymous with being listless, or not taking their craft seriously.

Nelson recalled the blowback was immediate: Managers told him to stop socializing with his friends for fear he’d be stigmatized as unreliable. “These were people I worked with, who I really liked as people, funny, smart, committed to the work,” he said in 2013. “I mean, no one was professionally irresponsible. And after that article, not only [were] we strongly encouraged not to work with each other again, and for the most part we haven’t, but it was insinuated we might not want to be hanging out with these people.”

Universal Pictures

Some of the actors went on The Phil Donahue Show to criticize the profile, asserting that their remarks to Blum had been off-the-record. (Blum denied this.) Lowe told the media that Blum had “burned bridges” and that he was “no Hunter S. Thompson.” Andrew McCarthy called Blum a “lazy … journalist” and found the idea of an actor “tribe” absurd—he had never even met Anthony Michael Hall.

Unfortunately, the name stuck. “Brat Pack” was infectious—a catch-all for the kind of young performer emerging in the ‘80s who could be seen in multiple ensemble movies. While Blum would later express regret over the label, it’s never quite left the public consciousness. In 2005, Universal released a DVD boxed set—The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Sixteen Candles—as The Brat Pack Collection.

Nelson, Estevez, and Lowe never again appeared in a movie together. “Personally, the biggest disappointment about it is that ‘Brat Pack’ will somehow figure in my obituary at [the] hands of every lazy and unoriginal journalist,” Estevez told a reporter in 2011. “Warning: My ghost will come back and haunt them.”

Nelson was slightly less forgiving. In a 2013 podcast, he chastised Blum for his mischaracterization of the group of young actors. “I would have been better served following my gut feeling and knocking him unconscious.”

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The Scariest 25 Minutes on U.S. Television
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ABC

On March 4, 1975, ABC affiliate Channel 10 in Miami announced to viewers that the network’s debut of a made-for-TV suspense film titled Trilogy of Terror would not be airing as scheduled. The reason, according to the station, was that the movie was too unsettling for the 8:30 p.m. hour. They would show another movie instead, and push Trilogy of Terror into the 11:30 p.m. time slot.

In West Palm Beach, Channel 12 aired it in primetime, but made sure to offer a disclaimer that it might be disturbing for younger viewers.

In a culture that had recently been shaken by the 1973 release of The Exorcist and a resulting glut of occult fiction, it seemed unlikely that a modestly-budgeted network Movie of the Week could rattle station managers to the point that they were concerned for their viewers' welfare. And for two-thirds of its modest 90-minute slot, Trilogy of Terror bordered on the forgettable. Actress Karen Black, who had earned an Oscar nomination for Five Easy Pieces, played multiple roles in the anthology, with the first two—about a seductive teacher and vengeful twin sister—little more than stock fare.

The third, “Amelia,” was very different. In essentially a one-woman play, Black portrays a character hoping to impress her anthropologist boyfriend by gifting him with an African “Zuni fetish doll,” a fearsome-looking warrior cast in wood and grasping a spear. Alone in her apartment, Black finds that the doll is more spirited than your typical toy. As he hacks and slashes at her feet and hides behind furniture, it’s not quite clear whether Black will conquer her tiny terror, go mad, or both.

In the more than 40 years since its original airing, “Amelia” has seared itself into the public consciousness, with viewers genuinely riveted by Black’s plight against the fanged terror. Prior to her death in 2013, Black said she was approached by fans to talk about her fight with a killer doll more than all of her other roles combined; when writer Richard Matheson went in for meetings, he was often approached by executives who admitted to wetting themselves watching the film as a child. Channels 10 and 12 may have been on to something.

The concept for “Amelia” had been hatched over a decade earlier, when Matheson was working on The Twilight Zone. Pitching a script titled “Devil Doll” to series creator Rod Serling, the draft was deemed too grim for 1960s broadcast standards. Matheson tweaked the idea slightly for “The Invaders,” about an isolated, mute woman (Agnes Moorehead) who is terrorized by a tiny fleet of miniature alien explorers. (Another classic episode, “Talky Tina,” about a doll who threatens her owner’s abusive stepfather, had no overt connection with Matheson.)

Years later, Matheson found himself in frequent collaboration with director Dan Curtis (The Night Stalker, Dark Shadows). The two came up with the idea for Trilogy of Terror and pitched it to ABC. Writer William F. Nolan scripted two Matheson stories; Matheson himself scripted the third installment based on “Prey,” a short story he had written based on his abandoned Twilight Zone idea, which first appeared in a 1969 issue of Playboy.

Matheson figured “Amelia” would be the standout, and admitted he was selfish to keep it for himself to script. But the network and Curtis felt the stunt of casting Black in all three stories—for a total of four roles, including the second installment’s twins—would be the hook. Black was not initially interested in the material, agreeing to star only when her manager was able to secure a role for her then-husband, Robert Burton.

Shooting “Amelia” necessitated three puppets, which proved problematic to operate. In interviews, Black said that the crew sometimes resorted to simply throwing the doll at her in order to simulate movement; its head or arm tended to fall off during simulated running.

Deprived of the production’s gaffes, viewers didn’t find a lot to laugh about. The final third of Trilogy of Terror is largely silent, with Black being browbeaten by her overbearing mother (appearing offscreen via telephone) and hoping to calm herself with a shower. With the doll springing to life, she uses everything within reach—a suitcase, an ice pick, an oven—to combat whatever evil force she has awakened in the creature. In the closing moments, it becomes clear that the seemingly-vanquished doll isn’t done claiming victims.

The VHS box art for an early video release of the Zuni doll segment
MPI Home Video

Trilogy of Terror was repeated on ABC over the years and came to the home videocassette market in the early 1980s under the title Terror of the Doll. A combination of its being difficult to screen and people's fleeting recollections of the violent little savage led the movie to develop a cult following.

Don Mancini, who wrote the Child’s Play series—a seventh entry, Cult of Chucky, is due in October—and Child’s Play director Tom Holland have spoken about the influence Trilogy of Terror had on their iconic killer doll; a 1996 Trilogy of Terror sequel brought the Zuni doll back for an encore, although it didn't generate nearly as much interest as the original.

When it finally received wide distribution with a 1999 home video re-release, Black bemoaned that people seemed to have remembered Trilogy of Terror at the expense of the rest of her career. “I wish they said, ‘That wonderful movie you did for Robert Altman,’ but they don’t,” she said. “They say, ‘That little doll.’”

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