For as long as there have been stories, there have been legends…
That’s pretty much the premise to do with everything Harry and the Hendersons and mankind’s love of BigFoot, or the Yeti, or sasquatch, or whatever the hell you like to call it that has kept us enthralled.
Harry and the Hendersons was a live-action comedy movie from 1987 about a giant sasquatch that ends up living with the Henderson family. It was a moderate success and would lead to a TV show that lasted three seasons.
Legends have existed for ages and then the Patterson-Gimlin film happened. You know what one I’m talking about. The one that looks like a guy in a gorilla costume walking through the forest. It’s been perfectly spoofed from the Simpsons (hold on Bob we can see your wristwatch…) to the movie Elf.
That “movie” was filmed in 1967 in California, 38 miles south of Oregon. Standing at over 7 feet tall, Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin saw this gigantic creature by a river and then walking upright through the forest in the video you now know. Fun fact: The was apparently a lady bigfoot and was nicknamed “Patty”.
Whether the video was real or not (Patterson had just published a book on BigFoot prior to this video so maybe it served as a trailer for it?) BigFoot captured the interest of the public even more so than it had previously.
BigFoot would remain in the public conscious and then George Henderson would hit one with his car. And that’s where our story about Harry and the Hendersons: from movie to TV show begins.
Setting The Stage For Harry And The Hendersons
I was kind of enamored with this movie. I’m not sure what it was, but it came out in 1987 so I was about 10 years old and at the right age to appreciate it. Kids will always be fascinated by things like BigFoot and the way he was depicted in this movie made it more approachable and even seemed desirable. Who wouldn’t want a sasquatch in their own home?
The movie would be produced and directed by William Dear and would be set in the Pacific Northwest, where most sightings of Big Feet tend to happen. The movie was filmed in the Cascade Range in Washington State and also in areas around Seattle.
The movie would require very high-end makeup to bring a sasquatch to life and they actually won an Oscar for best makeup.
The Plot Of Harry And The Hendersons
George Henderson is a good ol’ family man and after taking his family on a camping trip he hits what he believes is a man in the good ol’ family station wagon aka a Ford Country Squire. The man turns out to be a sasquatch and fearing they have killed it they take it home by strapping it to the roof of their car like Clark Griswald with a Christmas tree.
George then finds out that this Chewbacca look-alike is NOT dead and that instead of wanting to kill him (which is probably should have for running it over) ends up being a very friendly sasquatch indeed.
They name him “Harry” but let him back into the wild. They then see more reports on the news of BigFoot sightings and a hunter who is trying to bag Harry as his prize catch. George tries to get back out there and find Harry.
George tracks him down and saves him from the hunter who is then arrested. The hunter eventually gets out of jail and the Hendersons take Harry to re-release back into the woods. The hunter tracks them down, but the hunter has a change of mind after an interaction with Harry and decides he should live in peace. They all say goodbye to Harry who has somehow learned to speak English and is able to say “okay” when they tell him to take care of themselves.
It’s like a late Planet of the Apes sequel.
Harry then ventures into the woods where a bunch of other Sasquatches (Sasquatchi?) emerge to continue on with him. If you’ve ever seen the Star Wars Holiday Special, it’s like all the Wookies converging on Life Day.
Harry And The Hendersons Cast
- John Lithgow plays George Henderson
- Melinda Dillon plays Nancy Henderson (also in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and a cameo in the Muppet Movie
- Margaret Langrick plays Sarah Henderson (she’s a fellow Canuck)
- Josh Rudoy plays Ernie Henderson (he was in the movie Flatliners and appeared on another puppet driven production: ALF. He’s now an investment advisor in Los Angeles.
- Dom Ameche plays Dr. Wallace Wrightwood (he was also on the Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and won an Oscar for Cocoon)
- David Suchet plays the evil Jaques Lafluer (did anyone nicknamed him the flower? That’s a huge missed opportunity if not…)
Bringing Harry To Life
So like any giant puppet (Jabba the Hutt, ALF…) it took a whole team to operate Harry. Physically he was played by Kevin Peter Hall who was 7 foot 2. You may remember him from other in suit performances such as Predator in the first two of those movies.
Fun Fact: Jean-Claude Van Damme was originally cast to play the Predator and actually played him in the first few scenes.
Hall was also on shows like The Dukes of Hazzard, Night Court, and appeared in Big Top Pee-Wee. The rest of the team included Rich Baker, Tom Hester, Tim Lawrence as puppeteers, and Fred Newman as the voice of Harry.
Newman has also done voices and sound effects in Gremlins, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Muppets and you may remember him as one of the hosts on the New Mickey Mouse Club. He was the one in the golden age the launched Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake etc
Harry’s head was basically a radio-controlled mask and all the radio-controlled motors sat in the forehead. A joystick would be used off-camera that could control every function of Harry from his expression, to mouth movements, and eyebrows. Two puppeteers would be needed to control the lips and one just for the eyebrows – sounds like my glam squad.
Rich Baker was behind the whole design of Harry and as important as the physical performance as it’s what brought Harry to life. Baker was instrumental in the development of Harry coming off of An American Werewolf in Paris, he was seen as the only person who would be able to create a creature like this.
The first sketch that Baker design would be the one that would be the basis for Harry. It was also used in the movie when George has to submit an image of what a sasquatch really looked like.
Production On Harry And The Hendersons
The cast apparently were not sure what Harry would actually look like until filming started and a few had mentioned in interviews that they found him frightening and in shock about how lifelike he seemed.
William Dear had the tough job of trying to create a ferocious creature but at the same time draw the humanity out of him. You had to be initially scared of Harry but then realize he could be like a house pet. This may be part of the reason why Harry has a bit of a cartoony looking face. Ultimately, you needed to feel sympathetic towards him and see him as more human than animal.
While shooting the movie it was important that they kept Harry from being seen as they wanted the full reveal of him to appear on screen and not beforehand in newspapers or magazines. This meant having to keep closely guarded sets. During the freeway chase scene, a large amount of the public had come out trying to catch a glimpse of what Harry would look like.
Some people were able to catch a glimpse but thankfully in a pre phone era, none of the images were leaked.
Harry and the Hendersons was originally going intended to be a sitcom as a 25-page script was written for it. William Dear believed it would work better as a movie as no one had taken the direction where BigFoot could be a likable character.
Releasing The Movie And Some Misunderstandings
Harry and the Hendersons was released on June 5th, 1987 on a budget of $10 million. It opened on a pretty big weekend at the same time as Beverly Hills Cop II and The Untouchables. It not surprisingly finished third to them pulling in $29.8 million. Overall it would make $50 million in its run. That’s around $113 million converted for today, so an ok hit, but nothing crazy.
It was thought that keeping Harry away from being seen beforehand or used in the trailer and promotional items hurt the success of the film. The producers wanted people to see how amazing the creature looked on the big screen and not spoil it prior. The public thought the creature either looked too hokey since they weren’t showing it, or he would barely be featured in the movie.
There was also the sentiment that people didn’t even really know this was a movie about BigFoot. Since nothing beforehand was showing there was a sasquatch in the movie, the title would be changed in other countries where it would go as Bigfoot and the Hendersons. This was done so people would realize that the BigFoot was the main character in the movie, something that was lost on American audiences.
Harry And The Hendersons TV Show
So this blog is mostly focused on the 80s movie but it’s worth making note of the TV series. I hate to admit it, but I loved this show. Since the movie was originally created around a sitcom, it makes sense that they turned it into one. The movie itself has a very sitcomy feel to it already and it could naturally translate over to the small screen.
What we’re basically dealing with here is another version of E.T. or ALF, as it’s the story of a creature living with a normal family that they have to keep secret. It starts with a whole new family and the only carryover from the movie is Harry being played by Hall until he passed away.
The show came out on January 13, 1991, and ran until June 18th, 1993. It was put out by Amblin Entertainment and would span 72 glorious episodes. The premise of this show follows the same concept of the movie with the Hendersons made up of George and Nancy with their kids Ernie and Sarah.
This time around the new cast included:
- George Henderson played by Bruce Davison (who was also in Willard)
- Nancy Henderson was played by Molly Cheek (she’s been on Family Ties, Murder, She Wrote, and was Jim’s mom in American Pie)
- Sarah Henderson was played by Carol Ann Plante
- Ernie Henderson was played by Zachary Bostram (he was in A Very Brady Christmas)
The difference in The Harry and the Hendersons TV show was that George and Nancy were pretty middle-class couple who both had jobs. George worked at a sporting goods store and then would eventually start a magazine. They had someone who would help with Harry named Walter Potter and they had the usual next-door neighbor.
This was a bit of a Harry being Steve Urkel situation if you asked me and even the theme song – “Your Feet’s Too Big” by Leon Redbone – had a very Family Matters feel to it. A lot of people were aware of Harry’s existence in the show, but you pretty much had to if you were going to crank out multiple storylines.
In the second season, they said to hell with it and let Harry’s existence be known to the world. Harry becomes famous and an overnight sensation, this is now basically Escape From The Planet Of The Apes.
But as I mentioned, I actually liked this show. I liked that we were seeing the real Harry costume and not a cheap knock off, and even the end credits of the show would often show various scenes from the original movie. And fun fact: Scott Baio was actually one of the directors of the series. And so was Frank Bonner who played Herb on WKRP Cincinnati and appeared on Who’s The Boss, Saved by the Bell, and Night Court. This completely changes the way I view this series now…
Harry And The Hendersons 2?
Probably safe to say a sequel to the movie will never happen. It’s even hard to find information regarding it but there were some links online talking about Harry and the Hendersons: Return To The Forest. I wouldn’t hold your breath on this.
I could see this being rebooted in some sort of Netflix series though. Netflix seems to take a crack at anything that had somewhat of a proven track record in the past and then they don’t have to create as much original programming. I feel it may have the ability to work – at least from a nostalgia standpoint. Hell, Fuller House is still going strong right now.
Wrapping It Up
I think Harry and the Hendersons is remembered fondly by everyone. It was a unique approach for a movie but one that was pretty heartwarming. They were able to capture a real personality to Harry and draw you into the world and the characters. It’s still jarring to think of that scene with George bitch-slapping Harry to get him to return to the woods for his own safety.
But Harry and the Hendersons worked. It could have been a disaster of a movie, and the only thing that prevented it from being more successful was the approach they took to promoting the movie which ended up backfiring on them. It would live on home video where I’m sure you got to see it at some point.