Greetings From Melmac: ALF Creator Paul Fusco on His Star Alien and Potential Comeback
Paul Fusco is the creator, he is the puppeteer, he is the voice, and he is the guy who cashes the syndication checks. But Paul Fusco is not ALF -- at least not entirely, anyway.
He’ll admit to having developed, controlled and even played party tricks with him, but Fusco never uses the word “it” when referring to the wise-cracking, trouble-making and insatiably hungry alien from the planet Melmac. That would imply that the furry sitcom star and cultural touchstone is inanimate and fictional, and that just isn’t fully accurate.
“When I used to write an episode and couldn’t come up with a line for ALF, I needed something really funny, I would actually ask ALF," Fusco explains during a wide-ranging conversation with The Hollywood Reporter. "I would actually put the character on, and the character would just tell me what the line was."
Think of it as serious method acting. He isn’t crazy, and at the end of the day, he doesn’t really think ALF is an actual living, carbon-based organism; he’s more an untapped, polar-opposite extension of Fusco’s mild-mannered self. But after 30 years with the puppet -- and nearly 26 since their sitcom ALF launched on NBC -- ALF is as much friend as he is career-maker, and that dedication soon might pay off once again.
Back in the mid- to late-'80s, ALF was everywhere. Not only was he on his own primetime NBC series, from 1986-90, but in guest spots on other shows and even in his own two-season animated series. His likeness -- think of an anteater from Brooklyn, if that’s possible -- was emblazoned on lunch boxes, T-shirts, video games, plush dolls, even air fresheners. Today, we make movies out of toys (see: Transformers, G.I. Joe and Battleship), but back then, it was the ole ALFer’s character that sprung an empire.
So, with '80s nostalgia (and property recycling) at its height -- Transformers will continue to substitute CGI for plot, while The Muppets have been rebooted, Jonah Hill made 21 Jump Street a comedy, TNT thinks we need more Dallas, and Alvin and the Chipmunks and The Smurfs are big-money children’s film franchises -- where is ALF?
Fusco has worked for years to re-launch the brand -- with varying levels of success -- and he’s spent months fine-tuning his latest effort: In a few weeks, Fusco will be pitching an ALF feature film to a major studio. Should it get the greenlight, it will cap one of the more circuitous pop culture stories of the past 30 years.
** First Landing **
In 1985, after doing some work for Showtime and hooking up with producer Bernie Brillstein and writer (and eventual show co-creator) Tom Patchett, Fusco found himself sitting next to Brandon Tartikoff, the man who made NBC in the Must See TV '80s. In an era of safe (and some truly awful) television, he was proposing a twist on the standard nuclear family sitcom: a caustic, belching, destructive uncle from hell that came in the form of a wise-cracking alien who lived in the garage and tried to eat the family cat.
With the pitch falling on deaf ears -- it was a hard concept to sell, especially without imagery -- out came ALF, from a plastic bag stashed beneath the table, ready to save the day.
“It looked like he was sitting at the table right next to Tartikoff, and it was just silence -- they didn’t expect that,” Fusco recalls. “And everyone was waiting for you to say something incredibly funny or something in the moment. And ALF didn’t really say anything. ALF just kind of looked around the room and picked his nose and wiped it on Tartikoff.”
The network was sold.
Ultimately, the show would feature ALF, of the recently exploded planet Melmac, as the permanent houseguest of the Tanners, a mild-mannered California family of four whose garage just so happened to catch his crash-falling UFO. The show’s main relationship was between the fun-loving, belching alien and the geeky, straitlaced patriarch Willie (played by Max Wright), a sort of odd couple of extraterrestrial relations. Wright had an extraordinary ability to deadpan -- and sometimes scream -- frustration at a puppet.
The rest of the family -- the unusually cheery teenage daughter Lynn (Andrea Elson), the patient mother Kate (Anne Schedeen) and the young son Brian (Benji Gregory) -- all took turns having their social lives and the things they held dear endangered by their furry visitor’s massive appetite and earnest misunderstanding of earthly customs. Forgiveness, of course, always came by the 24th minute of the episode.
In addition to causing trouble, ALF would introduce wacky Melmacian games (Bouilabaseball, aka baseball played with fish guts, and the subject of a real Topps card series), fly planes and enter into various ill-advised business ventures, all while operating with a certain crudeness that may have been off-putting for a human but was charming coming from a hairy alien puppet. Until it wasn't, at least -- by the end of the first season, NBC had a hit, but had a few concerns, as well.
“If you remember, toward the first season and second season, ALF used to drink, he was a party animal,” Fusco says. “He drank beer and everything, and once the kids and families started watching it, they said, ‘ALF’s not really a great role model if he’s drinking beer; maybe you should pull that back a little bit.’ And our response was ‘He’s 225 years old; he can drink beer, he can do whatever he wants to do.’”
ALF would soon be sober. It'd have been harder to sell instructional computer typing games with an alcoholic alien.
Tapings, by Fusco’s own admission, were long and grueling. Trap doors had to be set up all around the set, so that ALF could appear almost anywhere; Fusco operated him from underneath, so the unoccupied holes all over the floor were deep and treacherous. It would sometimes take two days to shoot one 25-minute episode. Rumors of tension on the set were rife -- after the show was canceled, Schedeen was quoted saying that the cast couldn’t have dealt with one more season.
Not so fast, Fusco says.
“It was just the nature of the beast. There was no way we could have made it go any further or any faster,” he insists. “So no, I think it was frustrating that it would take so long, but people got paid for what they did. Despite what people thought, that there was a lot of tension on set, there really wasn’t.” He adds that he has been in touch with Wright and Schedeen over the past year, and still talks with Patchett.
Meanwhile, the empire only grew. Production difficulties were irrelevant during the 1987-89 run of ALF: The Animated Series, while he made guest appearances on Matlock, the 1988 Emmy Awards and NBC’s star-studded birthday tribute to Bob Hope.
One of the highlights was the season three clip show in which ALF subbed in for Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show -- and, typically, destroyed the set and integrity of the late-night icon.
“Johnny Carson had to OK it ... and gave it his blessing. He was actually an ALF fan, I was told,” Fusco recalls (later adding that Robert De Niro and Jackie Gleason were said to be ALF enthusiasts, as well). “The original story, the original script that we had, had Carson coming on at the end and throwing him off the set, because he just completely ruined everything. He broke the cup, he stole his bits, and we kind of were told maybe he’d do it, we’re not sure; you’ll just have to wait until taping comes closer.”
Ultimately, Carson declined to appear on camera, but Ed McMahon, the legend’s longtime wingman, spent the entire episode with ALF, which would years later provide some coincidental symmetry.
Fusco also supervised editing on the show, which provided a strange experience: He'd watch episodes up to 25 times before they even aired but rarely felt that he was seeing himself, given that he never actually appeared onscreen -- and that, when ALF riffed, it was like an out-of-body experience. He'll go back and watch episodes from time to time, with favorites including one in which ALF tries to become a monk and another featuring ALF seeking out an alien he read about in the National Enquirer, thinking it's his cousin Blinky.
"These people ended up being farcical, they were phonies and frauds, and he ends up being very disappointed that there is no alien at their house, and there’s a very sad scene in his way home in the car where ALF is just so depressed," he remembers. "You kind of feel for the character."
In the finale of the show’s fourth season, the world finally caught up to the alien-in-hiding, as he was captured and brought to a military base. That was where the fifth season was to start off (“ALF would have been the new Sgt. Bilko; he would have been this captive driving everybody crazy,” Fusco offers), but regulations on network-owned shows were reversed, meaning that NBC suddenly had new plans: It could develop its own programs, a much more lucrative proposition.
The legal about-face would end up making ALF the answer to a trivia question: Which show got bumped in favor of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?
** ALF in Space **
Fusco was promised a TV movie by NBC in order to tie up ALF’s storyline, a consolation for not getting a fifth season. But when Tartikoff went to run Paramount Pictures, he lost a major ally, and with him went any chance of making the film.
“I remember having breakfast with Tartikoff, and he actually told me he regretted it,” Fusco remembers. “He said, ‘I gotta tell you something: It was a big mistake that we canceled your show, because you guys had at least one or two more seasons left.’”
Ultimately, ABC came calling, aware that the Peacock hadn’t lived up to its promise. They had a Movie of the Week slot to offer, which would become Project: ALF; it acted as the repository for those military base storylines, including Martin Sheen as a decorated officer working to incinerate the Melmacian interloper.
The TV film would be ALF’s final feature performance for eight years. Fusco took him on special appearances -- he featured in a run of collect-call number 10-10-220 commercials, guested on an episode of The Love Boat, appeared in a spot on Good Morning America and another on The Cindy Margolis Show -- but it took until 2004 for ALF to get another series order.
It was a TV Land talker called, ironically, ALF’s Hit Talk Show, and featured the furry alien cracking jokes behind a desk with McMahon by his side, as co-host.
"We just thought it would be campy that ALF chose Ed McMahon because Ed did it for Johnny," Fusco laughs. "ALF’s just as good as Johnny, so he said, ‘You’re coming to work for me now.’ We thought it would be nostalgic at the same time, and Ed was like the nicest guy in the world."
From the start though, the concept got twisted.
“Originally the concept of it was, it’s TV Land, if you’re going to do a talk show, it would be great to bring on people from TV Land, not current stars, but people who were in shows over the years. And that’s how we pitched the story, pitched the idea,” he says.
The network wanted more current guests, against which Fusco protested -- “We tried to explain to them that it’s TV Land and it’s going to be very hard; you’re not going to get Brad Pitt” -- but the brass insisted. They ended up recruiting guests such as Tom Green, a pre-Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston, Tom Arnold, Drew Carey, Doris Roberts and Merv Griffin (with whom ALF got to sing a duet).
The show lasted only eight episodes, the minimum order from the golden oldies network.
And so it went, back to special appearances from time to time, most of which are pitched to Fusco. He's picky about where he brings the character -- most aren't the right fit, he says -- and ALF has popped up in recent years in some unlikely places, including Bill O'Reilly's Fox News program (which edited out the best bits of the interview, he says) and Larry King's show on CNN.
"I just love the idea of people flipping through the channels and seeing ALF on Larry King and saying, ‘What the hell is he doing on Larry King?’ " Fusco laughs, embracing the insanity of cable news. "You just never know where he’s going to show up, and I kind of like that. In the most unexpected place, you’ll see ALF. That to me is a lot of fun."
They're all treats for the serious ALF devotees, who have powered a series of fan sites that have cropped up over the past few years. Although rough in design, they evidence impressive dedication to the character, boasting the most minute trivia about the original series and full-on episode guides that offer the perfect example of the possibilities of an endless Internet and boundless niche enthusiasm.
Fusco has quite a bit of communication with a few of the sites, especially ALFtv.com, but not even he was aware of the fledgling viral campaign to have ALF win the presidential election this November.
He’s not surprised, though; he still receives fan letters to this day, including one that told the story of a fan who was risen from a coma after his family pressed play on a few taped episodes in his hospital room.
** ALF’s Comeback **
In the meantime, Fusco has worked on a series of TV specials and pilots, though none has taken off like his alien series; ALF is clearly his reason for being in Hollywood, his creative mission. And Fusco doesn't resent that, either; the experience and fan feedback clearly thrills him to this day, so much so that he's making another go at it.
After spending the better part of the past four years formulating ideas and trying to put together the right team, Fusco will be pitching an ALF feature film to a major studio, and he has high hopes for its potential.
“I think the timing is right. That’s a big important thing, timing,” he says, quite confident in his prediction. “There have been movies out there of characters that I didn’t think were on the same parallel as ALF that got movies made, so I think it’s time. I think it could be a home run on a lot of levels.”
As for the plot, it’s clear that the concept would need an update -- a multicamera, housebound sitcom doesn’t quite translate on the big screen, especially 25 years later -- but that’s the part that excites Fusco the most.
“ALF could be more outspoken now than ever, because the world is a whole different place than the '80s. And I think the character still stands up and certainly has more to say now than ever,” he says. “I think we would approach it in a fresh way. I don’t think we would duplicate the TV show, but I think we would maybe put it in a storyline where we would explain how ALF got here and put him with a new family and let the character speak for himself.”
In the mean time, those looking to relive the series can check it all out on Hulu, or on Hub TV, which just announced that it will run ALF four nights a week, Monday-Thursday at 8:30 p.m., starting June 4.
Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin