Harry and the Hendersons

January 11, 2013

harryandthehendersonsFor some reason a full-scale treatment of the legend of Bigfoot has eluded Hollywood, except for quickie horror films and sleazy “In Search Of” pseudo-documentaries. Harry and the Hendersons sets this right; it’s a grade-A production, set in the Northwest, all about one family’s close encounter with the big hairy beast.

I invoke Close Encounters purposely. Harry was produced by Steven Spielberg’s production company, and like his Close Encounters, it describes a supernatural meeting in which the alien presence is benign and friendly.

The Hendersons run into their hirsute friend quite literally—the family station wagon sideswipes a moving mound of fur during an outing in the Cascades. Dad (John Lithgow), a sportsman who runs a Seattle sporting goods store, packs the carcass home, envisioning fame and fortune and the Carson show thanks to the discovery. Mom (Melinda Dillon, also the mother in Close Encounters) and the kids (Margaret Langrick, Joshua Rudoy) just want the smelly beast put in isolation.

Upon returning, they find the sasquatch feeling quite frisky, which results in a very funny sequence of Harry (as the creature is dubbed) making himself at home: raiding the fridge, readjusting the ceilings, solemnly burying Lithgow’s mounted deer heads in the backyard.

Lithgow gets the help of a crusty Bigfootologist (Don Ameche), but also the attention of a crazed hunter (David Suchet) who wants to blow the sasquatch away. After an extended—perhaps overextended—chase sequence, Lithgow must secure the beast’s safety.

The first third and last third of the film are charming and sweet. The middle meanders rather shapelessly, as though unsure of just how to spring the various plot mechanics into motion. Except for this sag, Harry is full of wonderfully cartoonlike sight gags, and a sly sardonic wit that helps defuse some of the overly saccharine moments.

The big triumph is Harry himself, a terrific creation by make-up man Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London) and a 7-foot-2-inch actor named Kevin Peter Hall, who is inside the fur. Both men do outstanding work, and Harry is never less than endearing.

Director/co-writer William Dear (whose previous feature credit was Timerider) and producer Richard Vane were in town recently to promote the film, almost exactly a year after they filmed much of it here (in Seattle, Index, North Bend, and other sasquatch hangouts).

Dear originally hooked up with Spielberg to make a very funny episode of Spielberg’s TV series, “Amazing Stories,” called “Mummy Daddy.” A few days after delivering it, the phone rang; it was Spielberg, asking whether Dear had any ideas for a feature film.

Dear had been nursing the Bigfoot idea for a long time, and he jumped at the chance to do it with Spielberg. “Steven really challenged us to challenge ourselves,” says Dear. “He’s say, ‘Is this just a good gag, or also a good part of the story?'” Once filming started, however, Spielberg left the crew to their own devices. “He never even saw the dailies,” marvels Vane, referring to the in-progress film.

Perhaps the toughest production challenge was casting Harry. Dear always had Rick Baker pegged as the designer, but….”It was very, very important to find the right actor,” says Dear. “A mechanism, like E.T., wouldn’t have worked.” Says Vane, “We interviewed a lot of big people. But they weren’t actors. They were just big.”

Dear likes the basic normalcy of the set-up in Harry. “This is a real-life situation that has a bump in it,” he says. He still seems knocked out that his long-cherished project has actually been realized. “The phone call from Spielberg sounds very easy and very quick, but that’s after 25 years of being a filmmaker. I refer to it as my own ‘Amazing Story.’ It’s been a long time coming.”

First published in the Herald, June 4, 1987

It’s one of the many Seattle-themed titles included in “Celluloid Seattle: A City at the Movies,” now on exhibit at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle. And while I haven’t actually watched this movie since it came out, apparently I liked it well enough at the time. Big man Kevin Peter Hall, who also played the title role in the two Predator pictures, died at age 35 in 1991.