I always said I would never commit this story to anything permanent until all the parties involved were dead. I suppose this makes me a liar. I apologize to those involved later in this post. It was almost thirty years ago. I think we’re all okay.
Alf. aka Alien Life Form. A show about an alien who befriends an American family. Cute stuff. I never watched it. I’ve never watched the episodes. I believe it was one of the biggest shows of its time. Correct me. During its heyday, the merchandising was more profitable than Star Wars and, if memory serves, the cast later sued some folks because they weren’t getting their share of said astonishing merch royalties.
The beginning of 1990 was an omen for my 90’s in general. Bad. It involves the woman who broke me as well as the writing being on the wall for the impending collapse of my climb up the ladder of being in movies. Without getting too specific, I had been in a tumultuous relationship with a girl for several years. We’d broken up for quite a while, then gotten back together and moved into an amazing rental up in Laurel Canyon. It was, for me, idyllic. For her… not so much, I guess. More aboot that in a bit.
At this point, I was ignoring the advice of .38 Special and holding on to everything wayyy too tightly. My career, my relationship… my hairline…. They were all slipping away and I was trying to keep everything as it was. Never a good idea.
I was at ICM and they weren’t so much into sending me out for guest star stuff on t.v, even though I hadn’t been working. I had done Men At Work, but it was a supporting role. I’d gotten a great paycheck and billing because I kept turning it down (another story for a later date) but it was still a supporting role. Finally, they relented and much to my dismay, I auditioned for a recurring gig on ALF.
I went in, not giving a fuck, and made them laugh with the “aging mime” scenes. I don’t think the other stuff was so good, but the old man scenes (in the future) I was happy with. I don’t think they really wanted me BUT my agent was the daughter one of the executive producers. So… I booked three episodes on Alien Life Form. AKA Alf.
I received a sort of “rule sheet” with my script. The main one being “Don’t refer to ALF as a puppet. ALF is ALF.” Yep. When talking about ALF (a puppet) you don’t say, The Puppet, you say “ALF.” Are we clear?
Okay, that was funny and weird and I could deal with that. I made a sort of offhand joke about it to one of the crew guys and he said “They are super serious about that. It’s ALF.” Okay. Okay. Great. Good to know.
If I wasn’t so lazy, I’d look up the season I was on. It was either the last season or the penultimate season. Needless to say, the cast was over being on ALF. They were super duper way over being on ALF and here’s one reason why.
When you do a tv show, they have a reading of the script. The ALF weeks began on Monday and taping was Thursday & Friday instead of just one tape day in front of an audience on Friday because to control the pup… to control ALF, they had an elaborate series of trenches and remote controls. I liked doing live audience shows and was bummed that they didn’t tape in front of an audience. So… at the Monday reading, I swear to you, the ALF scripts were hilarious. Every character had funny, funny stuff. It was clever and sweet. But… by tape day, ALF had all of the funny lines and the rest of the script had been re-written to feature the title character: ALF. Makes sense in a way, but… oh well, it was their show and they could do what they wanted.
The point is, by time we started shooting the second episode, I was demoralized and bummed because all of the funny stuff I had was given to ALF or just cut to make ALF funnier.
While this was going on, the girlfriend went off to New York City to take an acting workshop. After a couple of days of not hearing from her, I began to get a bit worried as one does. I would call… get an answering machine. No reply.
Word came down that they were going to do some re-shoots on Men At Work. And those would be at night. So I would leave ALF and then spend nights at a landfill. It was only supposed to be a couple of days but it was January and it rains in January in Southern California. So… the couple days ended up being, if I remember correctly, about 10 days. I was getting no sleep. There was one point when we were taping an ALF scene when I could not remember a line. Not one line. I couldn’t remember who I was or what I was doing and the director and ALF (he was also the producer/show-runner) were super bummed at me. I went into my trailer and literally cried myself to sleep.
The girlfriend was MIA. This was bad. Very, very bad.
And now, the fun stuff: Max Wright was one of those classic, New York City, Broadway actors. He’d done all the classics. Shakespeare in the Park… All that cool stuff that one does as an actor in NYC. I figured that when he booked the pilot for ALF, he told his friends in NYC “I’m going to do this stupid show about an alien played by a puppet. It’ll never get picked up but it’ll pay my rent for the next two years. See you in a couple of weeks.” Cut to: several years later – Max Wright is now: “The Dad on ALF.” He was a good egg. Sweet to everyone. Really. Very cool to work with. Always trying to make the scene better. Maybe I saw a full bar on top of a piano in his dressing room. Maybe I didn’t. My memory is fuzzy about that. If I did, I couldn’t blame him for it.
ALF wasn’t in this scene. It was just the family, so I was standing next to the exec who played ALF who was also the showrunner watching a scene being camera blocked. (Camera Blocking: The actors have basically worked out the scene, but the director is now figuring out where the cameras go when they shoot the scene.) I was watching, I think because I wanted the producer to know that I wasn’t an idiot and I felt bad for the scene I couldn’t remember. So I’m standing next to him…
At one point, the woman who played the mother said to no one in particular “I don’t know if I should be in this scene. I really have nothing to do…” then Andrea, the girl who played the daughter, chimed in with a similar statement. “Yeah… what’s the deal with this scene?” Or something.
Max Wright blurts out. “THAT’S IT! THAT’S IT!!!”
And work stops. Everyone steps back because, we are about to get a performance.
(I’m going to stop for a second just to say this – She may have been right. There may have been no reason at all for her to be in the scene. After a little over a week of working on the show, I didn’t think anyone needed to be in any of the scenes, but we were there. Also… things get tense on t.v and movie sets. It’s like any job. People get upset with their co-workers and then everything is fine. I didn’t tell this story for a long time to protect the parties involved, but it’s been so long and they have all moved on and are doing well. Maybe the guy who played the mime is having girl trouble… who knows?)
“You always do this!” Says Max. “Do what?” She replies, confused. “You never want to be here! You never want to work!” “What are you talking about!?! I’m just trying to figure out why…” He cuts her off… “No you are trying to get out of this scene! I’m here. I’m at work. I’m here to work. I want to try and do this stupid scene, but you do not!” Then he points at Andrea (she later appeared on They Came From Outer Space if you care at all. She was very funny and sweet.) “You’re the same way!!” The two ladies began yelling at him. I glance over at the producer. He checks his watch. Max then yells out one of the greatest lines ever. The actual greatest line will follow… guaranteed. Max yells “I’M SICK OF WORKING WITH PEOPLE WHO WOULD RATHER BE SHOPPING!!!”
This pisses Andrea and the mom off so much that they walk off the set. I hear a sigh from the producer. Mr. Wright begins ranting. I’m not sure what about, but I attribute it to season after season of having your great lines stolen by a puppet. Sorry! ALF. So sorry… He continues on for maybe half a minute. Then he says the greatest thing I’ve ever heard.
“PUT US ON STICKS!!! WE’RE THE PUPPETS! WE’RE THE PUPPETS!!!”
And he storms off.
I want to laugh but I can’t. I feel so sad for everyone on the show. Not just the actors but obviously this producer who had a great idea several years ago and sold a show about a cat eating alien befriending a family on earth and just wants to get to syndication and then buy himself a small country or something.
The assistant director, whose job it is to keep things moving, calls in the stand-ins to finish camera blocking. It’s like the incident never happened. From the way it’s going, I deduce that something similar to this happens fairly regularly.
Remember: I’m punch drunk from no sleep and an impending breaking heart as well as the bitter realization that I’m recurring on ALF. I figure I’ll say something funny, clever and cute to the producer. He’ll “get me” and will come up with a great pitch for a show about a guy in his late 20’s with bushy eyebrows and weird hair.
I turn to him and say “Does ALF throw tantrums?”
Sidebar: A few years ago… We were cleaning out our garage and Maggie, my sister-in-law, was going through some old photographs of me during my heyday. After an hour or so of this she said to me “Dean you had a SWAGGER.”
And it’s true. I can’t imagine the booollz it took me to say that to him. But I did. Good for me.
Back to the matter at hand:
There’s a pause. He doesn’t look at me. He keeps looking forward. And very, very softly and simply, he says “No. No he doesn’t.” And continues to watch camera blocking.
I like to think that he was dreaming up his next show. At this point I’m positive it was not about a guy in his late 20s with big eyebrows and weird hair, but a show with absolutely no humans in it at all. No humans anywhere that can’t be shitcanned as fast as you can say “puppet.”
And from then on, when I work or think about working or see people working or watching movies or hear someone’s idea for a movie or a t.v show, I think of Max Fucking Wright and his brilliance.
PUT US ON STICKS. WE’RE THE PUPPETS! WE’RE THE PUPPETS!
POST SCRIPT: When I found the photos from the episode, it says that it was the fourth and final season. So disregard all my blathering about seven years… I was just wrong. It only seemed like seven years, maybe?