When ALF – the TV show about a furry, wisecracking alien that was a pop-culture phenomenon in the latter part of the ‘80s – aired its final episode on March 24, 1990, viewers were left confused.
The show’s massive success was unexpected. When co-creator’s Paul Fusco and Tom Patchett pitched NBC executives their idea about an alien life form (ALF) living with a suburban American family, the suits were initially unimpressed. “I could see in their eyes that we’re losing them,” recalled Fusco – who was also ALF’s puppeteer and voice – of the meeting. At that moment, he pulled the show’s star out of his bag.
Over the next few minutes, Fusco impressed the NBC heads by improvising with the ALF character. The alien joked about the network, roasted several of the executives and even wiped a booger on network president Brandon Tartikoff. The room was in hysterics. “That was absolutely the thing that put it over the top,” Patchett later declared.
ALF would get the green light, premiering in the fall of 1986. At the time, NBC was going through a rough patch. The network had failed spectacularly with its recent programming, including such forgettable shows as Fathers and Sons, Baby Boom and Manimal. To onlookers, the new series about a sarcastic alien was seemingly another misguided effort by the floundering network. Early reviews were scathing, but the show found an audience. By the second season, it was a full-fledged phenomenon.
Suddenly, the ALF boom was real. The furry alien’s likeness was plastered all over every kind of merchandising imaginable: lunch boxes, skateboards, wristwatches, trading cards, plush dolls, comic books – the list seemed endless. ALF released several albums, with the synth-pop single “Stuck on Earth” charting in Belgium, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and Germany. The character even took up residency on the game show Hollywood Squares, where he was a regular celebrity guest.
Amazingly, the ALF saturation could have gone to further extremes. In a conversation with Mental Floss, Fusco admitted to nixing a slew of major endorsements. “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,” the show creator recalled, adding that beer giant Budweiser had even tried to get the alien in its commercials.
Even as he enjoyed success, Fusco was determined to keep up the appearance that ALF was his own living, breathing entity. “NBC wanted ALF to host Saturday Night Live,” he said. “The home audience wouldn’t have seen me, but the studio audience would have. They couldn’t hide me, so I turned them down.” Requests to appear on Late Night With David Letterman and a Muppets television special were also declined. However, Patchett recalled one invitation that Fusco accepted.
“ALF got invited to the White House by Nancy Reagan for the 1987 Christmas party,” he noted. “We set it all up so there was a special podium [to hide the puppeteer]. Afterward, Paul told me President Reagan said ALF was his favorite show, which of course made me worry more about him.”
Watch ALF With Nancy Reagan
While ALF’s popularity was stratospheric, it was also short-lived. By 1989 the show’s ratings were declining. And as its fourth season was coming to a close, network execs pondered whether the series would even continue.
With its future undefined, ALF’s writers concocted a cliffhanger for the season’s final episode. While using a ham radio in a failed attempt to contact Australia, the alien intercepted a coded message sent by his old extraterrestrial friends. The lifeforms invite ALF to join them on New Melmac, an offer he grapples with but ultimately accepts. ALF’s surrogate Earthling family, the Tanners, take him to a secluded field and say their heartfelt goodbyes.
But, just as the spaceship’s lights approach, the U.S. Military Alien Task Force arrives, capturing ALF and scaring off the approaching alien ship. The episode ended with a title card that read “To be continued.” But it never was.
Watch the Original Ending of ‘ALF’
Fusco had been given a verbal agreement that ALF would receive a fifth season. He envisioned a new direction for the series, with the titular alien now housed at a military base. “ALF would have been the new Sgt. Bilko; he would have been this captive driving everybody crazy,” the creator explained in a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter. However, the network changed its mind and abruptly canceled the show. That fall, a different notable program would debut in ALF’s old time slot: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Producers of the alien sitcom felt slighted by the reversal and, in an effort to mend bruised egos while also bringing the story to a more natural close, NBC offered Fusco an ALF television movie. This too would eventually be rescinded, after network head honcho Tartikoff exited NBC.
In 1996, ALF was finally given a proper goodbye platform, when ABC aired the made-for-TV-movie Project: ALF. The plot, as Fusco had envisioned, revolved around the alien’s antics while being held captive by a government agency. ALF was the only character from the original series to appear in the film, a fact that contributed to its many negative reviews. The more-than-five-year gap between series finale and TV movie also bred a lack of interest. Project: ALF has largely become a forgotten footnote in television history.
Despite his inauspicious farewell, ALF managed to regularly appear on TV even after his series ended. Guest spots on everything from Blossom to Love Boat: The Next Wave and even The O’Reilly Factor kept the alien on screen. And Simpsons fans will always remember ALF for his brief animated appearance in pog form.
In 2004, the wisecracking Melmacian was given another series when ALF’s Hit Talk Show debuted on the TV Land cable network. The show featured ALF in a late-night host role, with Ed McMahon as his sidekick. Guests included Drew Carey, Joan Rivers, Bryan Cranston and Tom Arnold. The show lasted seven episodes before being canceled.
Despite failed attempts to reclaim ALF’s glory, Fusco still believes the alien is ready for a renaissance. An ALF feature film and rebooted TV series have each been discussed in recent years, though neither has come to fruition. Still, three decades after his unexpected goodbye, it’s clear ALF continues to have an audience – so it’s unlikely we’ve seen the last of the sarcastic, cat-eating alien.