Out of This World: An Oral History of ALF


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.



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.



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.



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.


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.



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.

Dan Witkowski
Oral History
Oral History: The Strangest Super Bowl Halftime Show Ever
Dan Witkowski
Dan Witkowski

January 22, 1989: The San Francisco 49ers edge out the Cincinnati Bengals 20-16 to become the National Football League champions at Super Bowl XXIII at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, Florida. It was a thrilling game, tied at the half—a Super Bowl first—and decided only in the closing moments with a successful pass from 49ers star quarterback Joe Montana. There was enough action to keep any football fan’s mind occupied for days.

But the next morning, all anyone wanted to talk about was Elvis Presto.

In one of the most unusual halftime presentations in the 50-year history of the event, the NFL commissioned a 1950s musical revue, led by a magician dressed as Elvis Presley who performed “the world’s largest card trick.” It was also, by the estimate of at least one soda company, the world’s largest eye exam: Coca-Cola and NBC presented the entire spectacle in 3-D, urging the show’s 54 million households to pick up a pair of disposable glasses at their local distributor. (They also cautioned that if the effect didn’t work, your lack of eye coordination meant you might need to see an optometrist.) The end result was a curious blend of retro-kitsch performance and a 1980s version of interactive television.

To understand how this uneven mix of magic, music, and carbonation came together, mental_floss spoke with several of the producers and creative partners behind “BeBop Bamboozled,” including the magician who created it, the man whose Elvis was heard but not seen, and the soda marketing genius who turned a 3-D glasses shortage into priceless publicity. As it turns out, Katy Perry's Left Shark has nothing on fire-eaters in poodle skirts.


The story of 1989’s Super Bowl begins in 1986, when the NFL started soliciting proposals from entertainment production companies to plan for halftime shows in the years ahead. In addition to fielding presentations from Disney, Paramount, and other massive entities, the league heard from a man in Minnesota named Dan Witkowski. A veteran stage illusionist, Witkowski owned MagicCom, a small business focused on increasing revenue for companies by being “disruptive" and encouraging them to think outside the box.  

Dan Witkowski (Founder, MagicCom): I was looking to sell some network specials, but I would get laughed off. I thought, “Well, what’s bigger than a special? What has a built-in audience?” By going after something big, it would put us on the map. So I went after the Super Bowl.

Jim Steeg (Senior Vice President of Special Events, NFL, 1979 to 2005): Basically, we had the same people producing the halftime show over the years. By the time we did Up with People for a second time in 1986, we decided we wanted to bring in different producers with ideas for the halftime show.

Witkowski: I have something I call the Pretty Girl Theory: Everybody thinks somebody else is calling the pretty blonde to go out on a Saturday night, yet there she sits at home. People are just intimidated to make calls. I wasn’t.

Steeg: We were looking to book people for the 1988, 1989, and 1990 shows. We brought in probably six or seven different producers, and Dan was one of them. He called us.

Witkowski: Obviously, he got a lot of calls. But what I did was put the problem ahead of the pitch. And the problem I presented to the NFL was this: How do they take something big and make it even bigger by attracting more people? Historically, the halftime show meant it was time to get up and get a sandwich.

Steeg: I agreed to meet him in New York and hear him out.

Witkowski: I think he was intrigued about the magic idea. I didn’t give him an idea for a specific type of show, but I told him we’d welcome the opportunity to give an official presentation.

Steeg: [NFL Commissioner] Pete Rozelle only sat through a couple of them. He sat through Dan’s.

Witkowski: What the NFL did that tripped us up was when they requested a written outline sent in advance. It’s like trying to describe a cartoon. You can’t do it. You need visuals and sound. I had one of those projectors for a slide show. But it was in their rules, so I sent everyone there a leather-bound folder with a padlock on it. I had the key. They couldn’t open it until I arrived. I got calls from secretaries saying, “They’re going nuts. They’re trying to pick the locks.” It caused a big stir.

Steeg: Dan kind of wowed everybody at the meeting. He made a bowling ball appear out of a suitcase. It got things rolling.

Witkowski: He remembered that? The funny thing is, I had to do a performance in Nebraska that same night. I couldn’t get out of it, so I had to carry the bowling ball and the suitcase through Kennedy Airport. I got in line at security, put the ball on the conveyor belt, and was immediately surrounded by guards who wanted to know where it had come from.

Steeg: What we decided to do was have him co-produce the 1988 pre-game show so he could get some experience and learn the math. It was important for him to understand the logistics and the magnitude of the Super Bowl.

Witkowski: What I basically presented was the idea of hooking the audience through their involvement. At the time, we had developed a technique that would have allowed us to distribute millions of game cards through McDonald’s with a mechanism that could be triggered by holding them up to the TV screen at a certain point. It would reveal an image. I can’t go into details on how it works, but that was the essence of it.

John Gonzalez (Director, NBC): I recall going to the NFL offices in Manhattan for the first presentation about the magic show. I was excited about it, realizing it would be a challenge in the middle of a huge football production to shoot live magic and not give any of the tricks away. To figure out the correct angles, we were going to have to do it in a very controlled, very planned-out manner.

That planning would eventually grow complicated by another influence over the halftime proceedings. With Witkowski pitching Steeg and the NFL on a magic-themed, participatory show for the 1989 game, the league was also being courted by a more established partner: Coca-Cola, who would wind up becoming the Super Bowl’s first sole sponsor that same year. The company had been working on a promotion involving 3-D glasses with a twist: a California company, Nuoptix, had developed a process where an image would be clear (not distorted or blurry) to a viewer not wearing the cellophane lenses.

Michael Beindorff (Vice President of Marketing, Coca-Cola, 1978-1992): Steve Koonin, who runs the Atlanta Hawks now but worked for Coke back then, came to me with the idea for 3-D glasses. He brought the whole Moonlighting idea to me.

Steve Koonin (Vice President of Sports and Entertainment Marketing, Coca-Cola, 1986-2000): I met Terry Beard from Nuoptix on an airplane. He was a sound guy, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and had invented what was called stereoscopic 3-D. He sent me a demo of it. Basically [by covering one eye with a dark lens, which you can do using sunglasses with the video below], it slows down one eye and tricks the brain. It’s the Pulfrich Effect. At the time, Moonlighting was the hottest show on TV, and I called the producer, Glenn Caron, and sold him on the idea of doing the season finale in 3-D. He loved it. We made 26 million pairs of glasses and wound up on the front page of over 200 newspapers.

Beindorff: They had actually written a script, but then the writer’s strike happened, and the whole deal fell apart.

Koonin: We’re sitting there paying rent on warehouses across the country full of glasses. We had taken over a Kleenex factory in Mexico to make them.

Beindorff: We were still excited by the idea of the 3-D. For its time, it was very well-done. We went to the NFL and NBC with the concept of doing the halftime show in 3-D.

Steeg: Coke was our partner at the time. We were always in constant communication.  

Beindorff: Really, the whole strategy behind the Super Bowl partnership was to launch a campaign around the fact that people were switching from sugary drinks like Pepsi to Diet Coke. It was intended for Diet Coke to surpass Pepsi as the number two drink.

Gonzalez: I first heard it as a rumor: “We might do it in 3-D.” I was excited about the idea, but wondered, “How would we do that?”


In the summer of 1988, Witkowski had no idea Coca-Cola would come in at virtually the last minute with their 3-D promotion. Instead, he and Steeg tried to hammer out what his stadium-sized magic show was going to look like.

Jack Barkla (Production Designer): I think Dan initially had the idea of a 1950s retro drive-in theater, with dancers carrying picnic baskets onto the field. They’d sit down and pull a ripcord in the basket that would turn them into inflatable cars.

Witkowski: We knew we were going to have a magic theme. Whether it was contemporary or Medieval was all flexible during the presentation. The whole 1950s thing was pretty big at the time. Baby Boomers were trying to relive their youth, so we hooked on that.

Steeg: These things evolve on a daily basis. Whatever we discussed at the pitch meeting wasn’t what wound up happening. There is no, “This is what it is.”

Barkla: There was also something to do with pizza, large colorful slices of pizza being moved around by various people.

Witkowski: There was another illusion where the concept was, as everyone came into the stadium, we were going to take a Polaroid picture that would be developed by the time they got to their seats. At random, one was going to be selected, brought down to the field, and asked to hold up their photo. Everyone else held up a card under their seat, and the whole audience would form a pictogram of the audience member selected. But we realized we didn’t have time to bring people down to the stadium floor for the pictures.    

Steeg: Everything about it was big. I remember we had a press conference at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York to announce it, which was unusual. No one had ever announced a halftime show before.  


Witkowski: For some reason, we had Oscar-Mayer around. They came forward and wanted to supply lunch for all of the dancers. As a kind of joke, I said, “Okay, but I want to ride shotgun in the Wienermobile.” Sure enough, it showed up.

Witkowski would eventually settle on a trick that involved the audience using an “Applause-o-Meter” to pick one of four giant cards in the stadium, with the selected card's edges made up of held-up seat cushions. What he needed now was a master of ceremonies—someone to guide the audience and lead the melody of classic pop songs.

Steeg: Elvis Presto, yes. We felt it was a novel thing that got a lot of play. Who is he? What is he?

Witkowski: It was divine inspiration. [Laughs] I think once we settled on the 1950s music, it was natural to make Elvis Presley the lead magician. It was a nice play on words. We also had the Magic Wandas, who were his back-up singers.

Barkla: I had nothing to do with that.

Witkowski: We cast a guy who had played Elvis on Broadway. He had a very good look and had the moves down. Alex Cole, who had been a back-up dancer on Solid Gold, was his choreographer. And he wouldn’t have to sing. That was all prerecorded in New York.

Jody LoMedico (Vocal Performer, “Elvis Presto”): I had been performing since the 1970s, singing and doing commercial jingles. Someone once told me I sounded like Elvis, and it devastated me. I was never an impersonator.

Witkowski: We went to the Elvis estate. I felt that rather than it be a surprise for them, they would want the courtesy and an opportunity to respond. They couldn’t have been nicer and did it for minimal consideration.

LoMedico: A vocal contractor I knew said she had heard I did a pretty good Elvis. I had been trying to destroy any kind of resemblance to him. You want to be your own person. But it was the Super Bowl, so I was all in. We went in there and sang and sang and sang this seven-minute piece. "Devil in a Blue Dress," "Rock This Town," Stray Cats stuff, everything. I was there probably seven hours. When we were done, I couldn’t talk.

Witkowski: We had Donald Pippin, a Broadway legend, doing all the music.

LoMedico: When they saw me sing, they liked me so much they asked if I wanted to come to Florida and lip-sync my own voice. But I couldn’t be out of town for three weeks for rehearsal and everything else for $1500. They said, “Most people do this for free.” Well, your dancers, these kids from universities, they live to be on television. Great for them. No disrespect. Not for me.

While Witkowski tried to assemble a complete Elvis, Barkla and choreographers were thinking of how best to stage a production on something as volatile as a football field. Only cars made of plywood would be allowed on the grass.

Barkla: The grass in Florida is very different from the grass in Minnesota. It’s like moss. It doesn’t take much to destroy the surface.

Steeg: It’s about protecting the field, and also about what you can move on 100 yards of grass.

Barkla: They’d bring truckloads of dirt and grass seed on the field and dump it. I remember asking one of the NFL guys, “Doesn’t that change the height of the goalposts?” Because you keep raising the ground. He looked at me like no one had ever considered the question before.


As the clock wound down to perfect an elaborate show full of visual effects, dancers, and a stadium-sized card trick, Witkowski was dealt two of the worst hands possible: His in-person Elvis was about to split, and Coca-Cola was about to introduce a new dimension in frustration.

Witkowski: The guy playing Elvis suddenly had an opportunity to go shoot a commercial in Japan that was going to be very lucrative. We made a mutual decision to recast. My first thought was Alex, since he was essentially the other Elvis’s choreographer and knew a lot of the moves.

LoMedico: The guy who did Elvis—whoever you are, I wasn’t a fan, man. Doing Elvis at that time with anything was just hokey. Maybe in Middle America, but the East and West Coasts were done. It was Elvis and The National Enquirer. It was corny.

Alex Cole had roughly 10 days to learn a complex routine involving dancers and illusions with a hollowed-out jukebox and an electric guitar that materialized out of thin air. At the same time, NBC and Witkowski were struggling to cope with the late addition of 3-D.

Gonzalez: We both understood the sudden importance of the 3-D overlay and all the money it represented. The NFL and the executives at NBC didn’t interfere, but they did say, “This represents a whole lot of valuable promotion, so we need to make it work.” In the final week, the focus largely went away from the magic and onto re-blocking for 3-D.

Witkowski: We recorded the audio track before the 3-D element came into play, so we decided that because of time, we would edit what we had and work with it from that standpoint. We knew the magic would suffer, knew the event would be a bit corny, but felt people would watch.

Barkla: The input we got was way late in the game. That was very frustrating. If it hadn’t been so late, things would’ve been better than they were. It’s typical corporate stuff. The people making decisions didn’t have a clue as to how the whole thing worked.

Gonzalez: The choreographers had been planning their part of the show for months. To tell them two weeks before, “Throw it out, make everything counterclockwise rotational,” was not what they wanted to hear.

Witkowski: We thought of some effects where girls would appear to float outside the image of your TV set and had some other levitating effects. But with the 3-D process, things had to be in constant motion left to right to separate the field of vision for the effect to work. In many ways, the 3-D fought with the way to present magic, which was to keep a continuous camera on something so you’re not cutting away.

Steeg: To do the 3-D, everything had to move left to right. It was basically a mind trick.

Gonzalez: Fearing that the 3-D on the field would be less than what was expected, I went to my bosses at NBC with a request to spend additional funds on some animations. There are three or four spots in the show where we independently developed some effective use of the 3-D apart from the action on the field.

Koonin: Kevin Costner came up to me at a [pre-game] party in Miami. He said, “Hey, I hear you’re the 3-D glasses guy. Want to comp me a pair?”

With a pre-taped introduction by a wry Bob Costas (“This is the single proudest moment of my life”) and a 3-D Diet Coke commercial, “BeBop Bamboozled” got underway. Elvis Presto appears to materialize out of a jukebox; dancers defy gravity by leaning against parking meters horizontally; 102 custom-made Harley-Davidson bikes engulfed the margins of the field.

Gonzalez: Bob Costas was hesitant about pre-recording the opening. “Trust me,” I told him. “I need to do this to guarantee some effective 3-D effects.” We watched it together in the controlled environment of the studio and it looked quite good.

Barkla: Of course, we didn’t wind up using the inflatable cars. Those might have cost $3000 to $4000 each.

Witkowski: I remember in the planning stage, we had some early computer effects that showed how 2000 people would be moving on the field. That was unheard of back then. You could have 200 people fall over and it wouldn’t even be noticed.

Barkla: The question was, how do you get things on and off the field? You have to be able to set it up and dismantle it very quickly.

Presto's inciting of the crowd to "pick a card, concentrate real hard" left most viewers befuddled: the Applause-o-Meter led to the King of Hearts, one of four giant cards on the field and a choice Presto predicted. Because of the camera movements, it was also one of the few illusions actually picked up by the broadcast. 

Witkowski: I will say the card trick is not nearly as effective as what we had anticipated.

Steeg: I don’t think everyone got the card trick. You had to think about it.

Barkla: There was one master box for power, and it was at the 50-yard line. All the skyboxes would need wires running out of it. The place where we stored all the sets underneath wasn’t wired and it wasn’t lit at all. I found that really strange. We were running electric lines all over the place to get power.

Witkowski: We didn’t have theatrical lighting. In magic, you adjust it depending on how the performers are moving. Here, the lights were either on or off. We couldn’t rely on that. Everything was out in the open.

LoMedico: I think I made the right choice [not appearing on camera]. When I saw it, I thought, “Mmm. This isn’t working.”

Witkowski: I would say that Alex, as Elvis, didn’t have the right look. But he didn’t have the opportunity to practice, either. With magic and its complexities, it’s hard to just drop someone in.

LoMedico: The stuff sounded good in the studio. Everyone was really happy. But when it got on the air, whatever they did with the sound processing, somebody mixed that improperly.

Gonzalez: You get one rehearsal Friday night to try to put it all together, and the crew, the best in the business, was excited and cooperative. The next time the camera crew saw it was live at halftime.


With an estimated 120 million people tuning in, Super Bowl XXIII was a resounding success. Despite some complaints that the card trick made little sense, news media responded favorably to the 3-D effects. This was presuming the viewer had the glasses: Because Coke had only made 26 million pairs, many had to share or go without.

Koonin: There wasn’t time to make more. If it had cost the consumer money, yes, they probably would have been disappointed. But this was about getting past Pepsi. It was just a fun stunt.

Barkla: It was the beginning of a time when the shows got more inflated and slicker.

Witkowski: I remember being interviewed after. Apparently, I was dancing in the stands with the dancers.

Steeg: I think it was a good show. It was just so hyped. People were expecting this Pixar 3-D animation thing. It was just a halftime show.

Beindorff: We got a huge uptick in sales that month. And that went on for some period of time, though you can’t attribute it all to the Super Bowl. We also had George Michael.

Witkowski: Coke was kind enough to send us binders of all the press after the game. I think it was $60 million worth of promotion. It was confirmation that we were successful in creating something people were going to talk about.

Beindorff: I got a call a year or two ago that Diet Coke finally surpassed Pepsi as the number two drink. It took a while.

Steeg: The only one you’re concerned with is the Commissioner, and he [Rozelle] was happy.

Witkowski: Jim said to me, “You’ll reap the benefits of this for years.” And we have. MagicCom has been very successful. I appreciate that the NFL took a chance on the little guy.

Steeg: The next year was the 40th anniversary of Peanuts. They approached us and wanted to get involved, and we liked that.

Gonzalez: If you were to pick a halftime show that would be designed for the rotational 3-D effect, I don’t think it would be something that demands the precision and accuracy of a magic show.

Steeg: We experimented. We took chances. With the Super Bowl, it’s very easy to just say no. We rolled the dice.

LoMedico: At the time, I lived in the Poconos with no cable and had to watch it with rabbit ears. The whole thing was kind of a letdown.

Barkla: I didn’t watch it. I don’t like football.

All images courtesy of Dan Witkowski.

Larry Heider
Oral History
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.


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.


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.


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.


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.