Max Wright, Who Went From Theater Roles to ‘ALF,’ Dies at 75


Max Wright, an actor who relished his time onstage but was best known for his role as a stern father who forms an unlikely friendship with a furry extraterrestrial on the offbeat NBC sitcom “ALF,” died on June 26 at the Lillian Booth Actors Home of the Actors Fund in Englewood, N.J. He was 75.

His daughter, Daisy Wright, said the cause was complications of cancer.

On “ALF” (the initials stood for Alien Life Form), a back-talking, pointy-eared alien from the planet Melmac crash-lands at the house of Willie Tanner, Mr. Wright’s character. Before Alf’s arrival, Tanner had lived a rather mundane life in a quiet suburban household. His children persuade him to let Alf stay, but the creature’s presence causes constant conflict. Tanner prefers predictability; Alf frequently disrupts it. Though Tanner rarely approves of Alf’s mischievous tendencies, the two eventually become friends.

The series was a hit and has remained popular in reruns, but Mr. Wright said he never liked playing a supporting role to a puppet that had all the good lines. (Alf was voiced by the puppeteer Paul Fusco, a creator of the show.) And it took three people to handle Alf’s mechanics, which led to many extra hours on the set for each episode.

By the time the show’s four-year run ended in 1990, Mr. Wright told People magazine in 2000, “I was hugely eager to have it over with.” In fact, on the last day of filming, his colleagues told People, he grabbed his things and got into his car without even saying goodbye.

Though Mr. Wright did not enjoy working on the show, he admitted to People: “It doesn’t matter what I felt or what the days were like. ‘ALF’ brought people a lot of joy. They adored it.”

George Edward Wright was born on Aug. 2, 1943, in Detroit, one of three sons of George Herman Wright, a mechanic, and Donna Mae (Angell) Wright, a grocery store cashier.

He attended Wayne State University in Detroit but left to move to Montreal, where he studied drama at the National Theater School of Canada. He moved often, living in Maryland, New York, California and elsewhere. He took Max as a stage name when he learned there was another George Wright in the actors’ union.

Earlier in his career, Mr. Wright was a versatile theater actor who, he once said, would take any role offered him “as long as it moves and inspires me.”

On Broadway he was the Second Murderer in “Richard III,” starring Al Pacino, in 1979; a neurotic landlord in Jean Kerr’s “Lunch Hour” in 1980; and an accident-prone clerk in an Andrei Serban production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” in 1977.

“I love to play small parts,” he told The New York Times in 1978. “Sometimes, in fact, I feel I’m at a disadvantage in longer roles, because of all the detail work I do. I may be a miniaturist, in that I’d much prefer to play Polonius than Hamlet.”

He made his Broadway debut in 1968 in the original production of “The Great White Hope,” Howard Sackler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play based on the life of the heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson, which starred James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander. He earned a Tony nomination for best performance by a featured actor in a play for his role as Pavel Lebedev in the Chekhov play “Ivanov” in 1998, a performance that also earned him a nomination for a Drama Desk Award.

He performed Shakespeare regularly; one of his most noted roles was Sir Andrew Aguecheek in the Lincoln Center Theater production of “Twelfth Night” in 1998.

His other television credits include appearances on “Murphy Brown,” “Quantum Leap,” “Misfits of Science,” “Cheers,” “Buffalo Bill,” “Taxi” and “The Drew Carey Show.”

He also appeared in early episodes of “Friends” as the manager of Central Perk, the coffee shop where the show’s main characters hung out, and played Norm Macdonald’s boss on the ABC sitcom “Norm.” His film credits include “All That Jazz,” “Snow Falling on Cedars,” “Reds,” “The Sting II,” “Soul Man” and “The Shadow.”

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by a son, Ben, and a brother, Terry. His wife, Linda Y. Wright, died in 2017.

“Someone asked him recently, ‘Don’t you ever get tired of playing the same part and reading the same lines night after night?’ ” his daughter said in a phone interview. “He was weeping, and he said: ‘No. To be able to put on someone else’s shoes and walk through their life was the most incredible gift that you could be given.’ I thought that was a really beautiful way of looking at his craft.”

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