ALF, "Night Train"

Reflections on Max Wright’s Passing

Here’s a fact: Max Wright hated being alive.

Can I say that with confidence? Yes. Do it mean it unilaterally? No; of course I don’t. But at some point, early in the production of ALF, he stopped enjoying what he did for a living. He had a few roles after the show, but nothing major. He stopped doing interviews. He stopped acting in general. He retreated from public life, living most of his final years alone, behind a door that rarely opened. He stopped talking to his friends and family.

I shouldn’t have the right to say “he stopped talking to his friends and family” and mean it, and yet, I do. For the past few years, people claiming to know him, to miss him, to want messages passed on to him, seeking assurance that he was still alive and hadn’t died in his apartment without anyone knowing, reached out to me. I won’t provide any names — or their relationships to him, which would just as easily give them away — but please take a moment to consider something with me:

Max Wright was so difficult to get a hold of, so impossible to reach even by those who loved and cared about him personally, for decades, that these people reached out to me for help.

Me.

The asshole who chronicled the worst experiences of Max Wright’s life and made a crack joke every few sentences. I refuse to believe any of them reached out to me because they expected I knew him. I do believe they reached out to me because they’d tried everything else and were desperate.

Here’s another fact: I never met the guy. I never spoke with him, or corresponded with him in any way. Now I never will. He passed away last week. Whenever his old friends and estranged family members wrote to me, I replied politely. I let them know that I meant no offense by my jokes, and that I wished them luck in finding him.

I’d be surprised if any of them did manage to get in touch. He made a conscious effort to be left alone. In 2015 the National Enquirer located and tried to speak with him. He refused to open the door and provided only a two-word quote: “Please leave.”

If he knew it was the National Enquirer, I have to say I can’t blame him. They were the ones in 2001 who ran the photos of Max Wright at a gay hobo crack orgy.

Here’s a fact: The words hobo, crack, and orgy are funny.

Here’s another fact: On April 18, someone (anonymous aside from the letter J.) left a comment on this blog saying, “Max Wright’s crack addiction is not funny,” and J. is right.

Addiction isn’t funny. I grew up with an alcoholic father who was distant, abusive, and cruel. The fact that I struggle with mental health issues is unlikely to be his fault. The fact that I feel guilty about them and have had so much trouble addressing them in healthy ways is almost certainly his fault.

In terms of drug addiction, I’ve seen it ruin — and sometimes take — the lives of many people I cared about. Classmates. Friends. Colleagues. My brother.

Joking about a topic or enjoying jokes about a topic doesn’t necessarily mean you find that topic funny. You find the joke funny. Perhaps it’s well told. Perhaps it’s just shocking. Perhaps it’s sarcastic or knowingly inaccurate.

I’ve laughed at jokes about many terrible topics. It’s one way of coping with them. With processing them. Depending on the context, people getting shot, robbed, stabbed, falling off of buildings, and getting eaten by monsters have all made me chuckle.

Because they’re jokes. And laughing at one doesn’t imply in any way that you’d find the same thing happening in real life funny at all.

If you were to ask me how many times I’ve laughed at addiction — real, actual addiction, in the real world — I could answer with an honest zero.

Or can I? Because I’ve laughed at Max Wright.

Here’s a fact: Max Wright had crack-fueled gay sex with homeless people, on video.

Here’s a related fact: True or not, that always felt so far detached from reality that humor was the only way I could even vaguely understand it.

I didn’t know the guy. I didn’t watch his life fall apart. I wasn’t there with his wife, fretting through the night that he wasn’t coming home. I wasn’t one of his kids coping with the rumors. I wasn’t a friend trying to hold him together, encouraging him to get help, praying that he would be okay.

For them, it wasn’t detached from reality. They understood it in ways that humor would never have possibly entered into.

For me, Max Wright was the stupid dad from ALF.

The stupid dad from ALF smoked crack and gathered homeless people for orgies.

I’m not going to say there’s something wrong with you if you don’t find that inherently absurd. But I will say that that’s the only way it ever registered to me.

Me. A nobody on the internet, who liked to say bad words about a puppet show he used to love.

Here’s another fact: I was always worried that Max Wright would die while I was writing my ALF reviews, and I wouldn’t be able to make jokes about him anymore.

Because when someone dies, things get more real.

He’s not the stupid dad from ALF. He’s an old man who died without anyone who wanted to help being able to reach him. It’s too late now. He’s dead. It’s too late, whatever you wanted to do. It’s too late for everything now. His life is over.

Here’s a fact: Max Wright has never read my reviews. I know some of ALF‘s writers have. I know Anne Schedeen at least knows about it, because a few months ago she started following me on Facebook. (Here’s a fact: My heart flutters just thinking about that.) I have been given reason to believe two other people associated with the show have read it.

But Max Wright never read my reviews, and he never will. He had no interest in speaking about ALF. He had very little interest in speaking about it even when he was on the show, with the most significant interview I ever found taking place over the course of a few minutes during a smoke break.

He hated the show. He never made any secret of that, and we don’t need interviews to come to that conclusion. Whether he was beating the shit out of the ALF puppet in front of guest star Dean Cameron or getting in his car the moment his final scene for “Consider Me Gone” ended, without even saying goodbye or sticking around for any necessary reshoots, it was obvious.

Max Wright hated his job.

After the National Enquirer story broke, he hated his life.

After dealing with the fallout, he hated that his friends and family were reaching out to him, and he stopped letting them do that. Max Wright hated the world enough that he did exactly what I do and what you do when we hate something: He took active steps to stay away from it whenever possible.

Here’s a fact I don’t think I ever mentioned in my reviews. I meant to mention it in my farewell post, but I didn’t. If you ever wondered why that post is so short, that’s why. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Because of this related fact: It still really fucking hurts.

Years ago, I entered into a relationship that turned toxic quickly. I expected it could get better if I worked hard at it, so I did. It never got better. I felt trapped and inadequate. I tried everything. As hard as I worked at keeping it together, she worked at tearing me down.

Thanks to my upbringing, I didn’t know what love was supposed to feel like. Also, I was fully prepared to accept any shortcomings as my own. Things were my fault. Why wouldn’t they be? They always had been in the past.

She bled me dry, emotionally and financially. She spent my money quickly and eagerly enough that — deliberately or not — I wasn’t able to get away. Genuinely. I had nowhere I could go. I could move out, but I’d have nowhere to stay. Now I know I had many friends who would have taken me in, but then, at the time, in the situation, I could not see that. In fact, the one friend I would have turned to is the one she singled out, telling me that she’d spoken to that friend, and that that friend was appalled with me and didn’t want to hear from me.

I believed her. Why wouldn’t I? I was a terrible person who deserved to be treated like that and shut off from contact with my friends.

She never spoke to that friend. At all. It wasn’t an exaggeration, it wasn’t misleading, and it wasn’t a misinterpretation. It was a complete and total lie. She made it up so that I would feel trapped. So that I would have nowhere to go. And it worked.

At one point, finally, I left. I’d love to say I was strong enough to do so in that moment, and maybe I was, but I felt like I was at my weakest. I had nothing to my name. I found a cheap room to rent with someone who was — thankfully — a sweet and understanding human being who became a dear friend and helped me get back on my feet.

But I’m jumping ahead there. I was alone in a room on an air mattress. I had nothing. I had no money. Every single day I thought about suicide, not because I was in despair, but because…well, why not? What was I hanging around for, exactly? Why was this life, this particular life, worth living?

I needed a distraction, and, historically, I had always found that distraction in writing. But writing about anything that had happened to me — or that I was going through — did not seem appealing. I didn’t want to relive any of it. Shit, I still don’t, and it’s hard enough just glossing over it here.

But I needed to write. I knew that. That was my therapy.

And I decided to write about ALF. I could take out my frustrations. I could focus on something thoroughly worthless. I could act like an idiot and tell stupid jokes and give myself a god-damned reason to get the fuck out of bed.

I’d forgotten that the mom on ALF was named Kate. That was my ex’s name.

If I’d remembered that, I wouldn’t have committed to reviewing ALF. Kate was not a name I wanted to hear. In fact, those first few episodes were rough going for me.

But the Kate on ALF was…great, actually. She was funny. She was by leaps and bounds the best actor. She was the most stable and reliable character in the entire thing. I quickly came to dissociate the name from what I had learned it meant.

The writing helped me. The readers and their laughter helped me. And Kate — this Kate — helped me, because she took the most traumatic experience of my life and let me see that it was over, and I could find new things and make new associations now.

Here’s a fact: I was having fun. I was doing something I enjoyed. If you read my reviews now and hear misery and disdain and agony, it’s an act. It’s a lie. I loved every fucking minute of it. Of watching the show, of writing about the show, of reading your comments.

It was everything I needed to get back on my feet again. To be myself again. To learn that I had value.

I’ve laughed at toxic relationships and jokes about them. By no means do I find toxic relationships funny. I can sure as hell promise you that. But by taking my real-life sadness and anger and frustration and playing it up for the purposes of reviewing one of the worst sitcoms in American history, I was able to cope with it. I faced it through humor. Instead of being overcome by my emotions, I chose to wear them like a costume, and I did a little dance, and I made people laugh, and then when I was done, I was able to take that costume off.

Forever.

There’s an entire story you were never told.

Here’s a fact: Max Wright gave me the most enjoyment on the show, by far.

He wasn’t the best actor and he didn’t get the best lines, but watching him was fascinating. He almost never seemed to try, but he did the bare minimum. He hated his job, but he showed up every day. He hated the show, but he never quit. He sped away from the set the moment he had nothing left to shoot in the final episode, but he showed up for work that day and did his damned job.

That’s admirable, in its own way, and also so interesting. Watching Max Wright in the show, it’s less like somebody is playing Willie and more like a ghost is loosely inhabiting him. In the strictest, most technical sense of the word, he’s acting. But mainly he’s just a presence, moving his lips and his body without having any particular interest in anything that’s happening around him.

It’s bizarre. There were times I genuinely couldn’t understand what he was saying. I still don’t know if he referred to a woman named Julie or a man named Patchouli. He called himself “Wooly Tanner” in one scene and it wasn’t reshot. It’s just part of the show. Max Wright half-assing his way through the least ambitious sci-fi comedy in history is part of what gives it its charm.

He wasn’t happy. Neither was I. But ALF gave us both a reason to get out of bed.

Here’s a fact: When the Max Wright crack hobo scandal broke, none of his previous colleagues or costars came out in support of the guy.

Nobody, at any point, said, “I know Max and that’s not Max.” Nobody said, “This is a lie made up to sell magazines.” Nobody said, “The photos may look like him, but that’s not him.”

Max Wright was tried in the court of public opinion, and nobody took his side.

But his wife stayed with him.

He had several other drug-related scandals that decade, and she stayed with him.

Here’s a fact: I’ve always wondered why.

Well, okay…it was love. The last thing I want to do to this poor dead guy is introduce the idea that his wife couldn’t have possibly loved him.

But I wondered what those conversations must have been like.

Relationships end over lies. Over infidelity. Over destructive behavior. And that’s okay. Those are understandable stopping points.

What did he have to say to her to keep their marriage together after videotaped evidence of his hobo crack orgies surfaced? What did she say to him? What kind of balance could they have possibly achieved?

We’ll never know. She died two years ago. And now he is dead, too.

By 2015, they were no longer together. They stayed married until her death, but they didn’t live together. He was alone. I don’t know if she was.

And I still wonder what those conversations must have been like. To not get divorced, but also not be together. To not split up over the scandal, but also to never see each other. To stay in each other’s lives, but to live completely separate lives in two different places.

Here’s a fact: For whatever reason, I believe she loved him. I believe she thought he could change, or get the help he needed. Maybe she was right. Maybe she was delusional. But he was the one seeking (very dangerous) sexual action on the side. And she stayed with him.

After she died, he went to Germany.

Here’s a fact: Max Wright had a happy ending.

ALF remains popular in Germany, but he still didn’t want to talk about the show. In fact, he refused to even speak of it to his new German boyfriend.

For the final few years of his life, he was in a committed relationship with a German man. Photos exist. They look happy. You can find them, if you want to. They aren’t as easy to find as the National Enquirer photos of a disheveled old man taking out his trash, but they’re out there.

And that’s a part of his life — the final part of his life — that the English-language reports omit. They’re happy to remember him as a has-been. A washed-up actor with a legacy of scandals. The stupid dad from ALF.

The German stories are where you’ll learn of his relationship. Of the positivity he found very late in his life. Of the happiness he wanted and never had before.

I don’t know what he felt or didn’t feel for his wife, but I do think it says something that she stayed married to him until the day she died, and he entered into a relationship with a man as soon as she was gone. She waited for something that never came. He left for something else the moment he could.

But he found it.

According to reports, Max Wright died in the same little apartment he’d occupied alone for so many years, out of the public eye. But I don’t know if that’s true. The details seem to all be traced back to a single TMZ story, which Max Wright’s son is said to have corroborated. TMZ is hardly a reliable primary source, and I have no clue what his son did or didn’t actually say to them.

He could have died in Germany, for all I know. He could have died happy, somewhere far from his own past, somewhere nobody he used to know would be able to find or reach him. I wouldn’t put it past TMZ to make something up, and they don’t seem to have picked up on the news of his German exploits at all. Maybe they just assumed he died in the last place they saw him.

Because that’s the lens through which they viewed him. Max Wright didn’t exist until he had a camera on him, be it ALF‘s, the orgy guy’s, or the National Enquirer‘s. We see him from a distance, welcome or not. We draw our conclusions. We move along to the next thing. We’ll come back if anything else embarrassing happens to the guy, because that fits our idea of who he is, was, and must be.

They weren’t there for the conversations with his wife. They weren’t there for the talks with his kids. They didn’t experience the desperation of his friends and family who tried to reach him and tried to help.

His isn’t a redemption story. He’s the stupid dad from ALF. We know how that one is supposed to end. It’s a joke, so it ends with a punchline.

I’ve done my part cementing Max Wright as a washed-up nobody, best known for smoking crack in his underpants in an abandoned warehouse. I did it with this blog, these reviews, right here, with all of you.

So here’s the fact I’ll leave you with: He found love with a man who cared about him. That’s evidence that his failures weren’t all he was. That’s not all he had. That’s not where he ended up.

There’s an entire story we were never told.

Probably because we wouldn’t have listened.

Rest in peace, Max.

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9 thoughts on “Reflections on Max Wright’s Passing”

  1. It’s telling, too, that Alf’s best episode is focused on Max/Willie. The show hated Willie as much as, if not more than, anyone else did. So when Max got to do something he showed he really could.
    .
    I’m glad he found something, someone, that gave him some happiness, and hopefully some peace, eventually.
    .
    And fuck’s sake, Phil. You’ve had some real awful shit transpire in your life. If I ever get to the states I swear your short, nerdy self is getting a damn Aussie hug!

  2. Great writeup. I did not know the piece about him moving to Germany and finding a fleeting moment of happiness towards the end of his life. That makes me happy.

    So the articles saying he was found in his apartment in California are wrong?

    A couple of points:

    1) My source for the Max Wright beating up the ALF puppet story was Artie Lange on the Howard Stern Show (Artie and Max both worked on The Norm Show). So I like to pretend that, at the very least, Max got to derive some modicum of pleasure from ALF via telling a tale to Norm and the gang that made them crack up.

    2) No comment or show of sympathy from Paul Fusco following the news. All the stories on Wright’s passing feature old, recycled quotes from Fusco. What a total, classless asshole. Proof positive once and for all that anything besides him and his puppet was totally disposable.

    1. It’s possible the articles are wrong, though it’s also possible that he’d returned to California to attend to some kind of final business knowing the end was near.

  3. With how isolated Max was, I was honestly surprised at the scale of press his passing received. When John LaMotta died (coincidentally, also at the age of 75) it seemed to pass everyone by. I wouldn’t have known if not for a post on his IMDb board from a relative informing people of his death. I suppose it’s not that surprising; outside of him calling ALF a horrible show to TMZ, he appears to have laid low after the turn of the century.

  4. I teared up in the middle of this. Max is what brought us together, as was shaggy alien ALF. Max may not have liked the colleague made of cloth, but he had to work with him. And in a way it’s admirable.

    I hope Reiner, his boyfriend, is okay. I hope Max’s kids are making it. It’s going to be hard knowing he’s no longer around. I believe Max would have had more time if he didn’t fall into the void he did. It’s such a shame he’s shrouded in mystery, mystery we may never find out about.

    Max is on the banner for my music page. He was on the cover art for an early album I made. He was, and has been an unofficial mascot of mine since 2015 when we met. All because of one long, silly night, when I decided to look up ALF and found out about Max’s gay crack shenanigans. I truly loved the man, as much as a girl can love a recovering addict/retired actor living alone talking to a German nurse on his telephone, anyways.

    Godspeed, George Edward Maxwell Wright. We miss you.

  5. yeah, what a sad life it must of been of max wright, to the peak of his career being a role on a mediocre sitcom from the 80s he hated working on and then to spent most of his live alone wanting to be isolated from society. but it is good to hear he found a little bit of happiness with someone who loved him at the end of his life. it is admirable that despite he hated ALF and the situation he was in, he made the best out of it anyway. also kind of ironic the show he hated the most working on is the one he is most know for. he was not the best actor or the most interesting character of the show, still he was part of what gave the show it’s charm.

    and holy shit, I had no idea you had such a rough life too, but glad to hear you did not take the big leap in the void and overcame it with getting mindful therapy from something you enjoy doing and now slowly regaining a life you never thought was possible. if it wasn’t for you , I would have not read the funniest ALF reviews from a grumpy middle aged man and connect with someone that did have a love for ALF as well.

  6. His best work was on “Norm” as Max Denby. Such a great escalation of character from his work on “Buffalo Bill” -> “ALF” -> “Norm.”

    He was the best.

  7. This was a GREAT piece. Was happy you included the happiness he found later in life. Why his wife stayed with him, I don’t know but I did read some of the condolences to the family after she passed that made it sound like perhaps he had a partner even before she passed away and that she accepted his sexuality for what it was. I hope that’s the case. His son Ben got married a few years ago and there’s some happy, smiling pictures of Max at the wedding.

    The one thing I don’t think is quite fair is to say that his career essentially “ended” after ALF. He was a series regular on The Norm Show, where people seemed to genuinely like working with him. Norm McDonald had a pretty lovely tweet about him after his passing. He was nominated for a Tony Award in ’98, as the stage was truly his medium. He was excellent in Shakespeare in the Park with Jesse Tyler Ferguson and a host of other broadway luminaries just a few years ago.

    Dean Cameron said it best. Max was a well-regarded, well-trained theater actor who probably took a bunch of money to do this silly pilot with a puppet that nobody thought would go anywhere. Four years later he’s still the dad on ALF. For a guy who’s used to Othello and Ivanov, that’s a pretty sizable demotion. At least on Norm the writing was better and he had a real character to play, which is why his performance seems so much more full of life.

    I’ve not watched his earlier work, but on the AV Club I was surprised that so many people knew him from All That Jazz or as, shockingly, Dr. Mengele. Tells you how memorable he could be (in a good way) when he tried.

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