When ALF debuted on NBC in 1986, I was nine years old. So of course I tuned in. How could a nine-year-old boy NOT watch a new sitcom about a furry alien that cracked jokes and ate cats? It was like the creators of the show had reached into my brain to come up with the idea.
I still remember watching the first episode and seeing ALF “discover” the concept of toilet paper, quickly unrolling a full roll of TP onto the bathroom floor. By the end of the scene, I was on the floor too–cracking up.
Whenever TV viewers (like me) laughed at ALF walking, running, scrambling or unrolling toilet paper on the show, that was Meszaros doing his performance art in the suit, sweating under the fake fur and the bright studio lights.
Like many viewers, I lost touch with ALF over the years. As the seasons went on, I tuned out. The schtick grew a bit tiresome. But I would still click over to it on occasion, when I needed a quick chuckle from one of the show’s unabashedly silly moments.
You gotta remember: ALF came onto the scene before CGI was a common filmmaking practice. Nowadays, of course, the character of ALF would be a computer creation. (Not unlike the Mary character in the upcoming ABC sitcom Imaginary Mary, which probably owes some inspiration to Alf.) But back in the ’80s, CGI was very limited and–how do I put this delicately?–looked like shit. So the character of ALF had to be played by a person. A very small person.
That very small person was Michu Meszaros, who died yesterday at 76. Born in Hungary, Meszaros grew to be only 33 inches tall (that’s 2 feet, 9 inches… or roughly half the height of Michael J. Fox). But what he lacked in size, Meszaros more than made up for in talent and charisma. As a youngster, he studied at a government-run school of circus arts.
Then in 1973, at 34, he was discovered by a couple of producers and joined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. Billed as the “Smallest Man in the World,” Meszaros entertained audiences around the world as a featured performer. In one bit, he presented a dog act with poodles, who were much taller than him when they stood on their hind legs. In another spectacle, he portrayed the “Marshal of Marshmallow Gulch,” resplendent in a well-tailored, rhinestone-encrusted costume. By today’s standards, the gig was pretty demeaning. But hey, it was a job and he put a smile on thousands of faces.
Meszaros went on to perform for two U.S. presidents, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and became friends with Michael Jackson after the King of Pop saw one of his performances. He also appeared in Look Who’s Talking, Big Top Pee-wee and Dear John. The city of Hawthorne, California, even named a street after him, Michu Lane. (It was the shortest street in town, naturally.)
But Mieszaros was best known for playing ALF. For four seasons, he wore a full-body costume to portray the alien loudmouth whenever a full-body shot of the furry creature was needed. (In tighter shots, ALF was portrayed by a puppet.) Whenever TV viewers (like me) laughed at ALF walking, running, scrambling or unrolling toilet paper on the show, that was Meszaros doing his performance art in the suit, sweating under the fake fur and the bright studio lights. And although he didn’t voice the character, in many ways he WAS ALF. Those movements that made you chuckle, the timing of the gestures, that was all him.
So here’s to you, Michu. Thanks for burning up in that alien costume day in and day out, under those hot lights. I definitely appreciated it. Even if I didn’t know your name until today.