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That Moment In ‘Harry and the Hendersons’ When Wrightwood Meets His Bigfoot

Harry and the Hendersons is a 1987 comedy about a family who adopt a friendly Sasquatch but have a hard time trying to keep the legend of ‘Bigfoot’ a secret.

Bigfoot has, for most of its … um … ‘existence’, been relegated to tales of horror, with B-grade movies especially taken to giving the mysterious woodland creature a streak of bloodthirsty madness. That’s natural. Most fear the unknown, and what better nightmare fodder for such than a giant hairy beast skulking around in the forests hunting unaware teenage campers to spur up some frights.

That said, it’s kinda refreshing that someone came along and gave Bigfoot a twist (with all due respect to The Six Million Dollar Man, a television show that dressed up Andre the Giant as a Sasquatch and made him a furry robot built by aliens to protect their presence on Earth). That ‘someone’ was William Dear, the writer and director of 1987’s charming Harry and the Hendersons, a family adventure comedy that spun the lore all around in a fun and heartwarming way. You’ve gotta love Harry. Let’s take a look.

Harry and the Hendersons
Harry and the Hendersons, 1987 © Amblin Entertainment

The story centers on happy Seattle suburbanites George (John Lithgow) and Nancy (Melinda Dillon) Henderson and their two children Sarah (Margaret Langrick) and Ernie (Joshua Rudoy). Returning from a camping trip one sunny afternoon, George hits a large animal crossing the street, and to his immeasurable surprise, discovers that it might very well be an actual Bigfoot. Thinking they killed it and it being an incredible scientific find, they manage to strap it to the station wagon’s roof and lug it home. However, what they don’t realize is that (a) a hunter tracking Bigfoot has found their lost licence plate torn off by the impact and (b) that Bigfoot on their car ain’t dead.

Fortunately, the Hendersons eventually learn that their new friend is actually a kind, gentle, and intelligent animal who sort of takes to suburban living, in a home demolition kind of way. George had originally thought to capitalize on the find, but has a change of heart, deciding to hide Bigfoot and release him back into nature, this after a misunderstanding saw Bigfoot running off on his own, straight into town where bizarre sightings have the whole place in a tizzy.

Harry and the Hendersons
Harry and the Hendersons, 1987 © Amblin Entertainment

After George tries to contact Dr. Wallace Wrightwood (Don Ameche), an ‘expert’ on Bigfoot at the North American Museum of Anthropology (a rundown, nearly abandoned shack full of Bigfoot oddities), he’s able to find “Harry” and bring him home, narrowly rescuing him from the hunter, a man named Jacques LaFleur (David Suchet). Now all George has to do is keep a seven foot tall wild Bigfoot secret in his home. Not gonna be easy. He’s just not an indoor animal.

The thing about Harry and the Hendersons is really its warmth, a kid-friendly, family night at the movies with a believable yet lovable ‘monster’ and parental figures that make great role models. Lithgow especially is a terrific figure in the story and while the film never really aspires to be anything more than all this, it sure is fun to watch.

There are a number of good moments throughout where George and his family try to adjust their lives around their new hairy houseguest, as the creature silently wreaks havoc on the walls, floors, ceilings and just about everything else, but I’ve always liked this one particular moment when a dinner gets especially enlightening. Some spoilers ahead, so be wary.

George has invited Dr. Wrightwood to his home, who earlier had pretended to be only a clerk at the museum but is now revealed to be the actual doctor. He explains that he has been ridiculed in his professional life for his search of the elusive Bigfoot, reduced to nothing more than mockery. It’s ruined his life, in fact. At the dinner, along with George’s family, he recognizes the same ill-fated passion in George and so attempts to convince him to let go of this obsession, knowing it will eventually consume him and everything about him. Wrightwood confidently states that there are no abominable snowmen, no Sasquatches and absolutely no Bigfeet. Of course, what the good doctor doesn’t know is that right behind him … is Harry, a very real Bigfoot. When he finally does, well, it’s a moment of sheer joy. What a great little twist.

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Here’s a guy who’s spent most of his life in search of a thing he isn’t sure even exists, but is fairly sure he’s seen proof of, having once found a footprint in the forest. Unable to find any evidence since, he has surrounded himself with the legend and trinkets and loose artifacts in his ramshackle museum, lost in his pursuits of a creature he is now suspecting never was real. It could have ended with Wrightwood blaring out in terror, turning the scene into some pratfall-saddled comedy routine but instead, it’s a wonderfully emotional moment of absolute jubilance, and the film pulls it off perfectly.

It’s classic setup, of course, a spin on the “he/she’s right behind me” gag where a character is making a fool of someone (usually a superior) while unaware that they are right behind them … until it’s too late. Like the Hendersons, we see Harry enter the room, and know what is coming, while Wrightwood prattles on about the futility of finding a real Bigfoot. Sure it’s an old bit, but with a Sasquatch twist, is pretty funny. And dang if Ameche’s face doesn’t make you feel so happy when he finally sees Harry, an expression that tells us so much about Wrightwood’s years of suffering.

Ameche was experiencing a kind of comeback of sort in movies around this time, after his enormous success with Trading Places and Cocoon, and really well cast here and takes what could have been a stock clichéd ‘crazy’ character and turns him a man of real heart. The moment is crucial because it allows Wrightwood to feel vindicated for his life’s work but also because it treats this meeting with love rather than fear, and while it’s topped by comedy, is still emotional for both the way Wrightwood takes to the discovery and how Harry openly welcomes the attention.

Harry and the Hendersons is a children’s movie at heart, however there are larger themes at play, such as respect for nature and animals (Harry is not amused with mounted trophy heads in George’s house) and a vegetarian lifestyle (the family eats only vegetables once Harry moves in). It also, in a broader sense, advocates education and tolerance over violence and ignorance with George the principal character who desperately tries to shift the predominant thinking of the town (and particularly, his father, played by M. Emmet Walsh) who fear what they imagine a Bigfoot is – some trying to profit from it. It’s a surprisingly smart movie.

Harry and the Hendersons
Rick Baker (L) and Kevin Peter Hall (R) — Harry and the Hendersons, 1987 © Tim Lawrence

The film was a moderate box office success and left most critics mixed, though it’s sort of become a cult favorite since, even spawning a short-lived television series. Legendary makeup artist Rick Baker won his third  Academy Award (of seven so far) for his work, creating a live-action Harry (no CGI back then) with remarkable effects with actor Kevin Peter Hall under all the gadgets and costuming. No doubt, despite the great performances of the cast, it is Harry himself that makes this so entertaining and perfect for the target audience. A movie well worth seeking out again, Harry and the Hendersons is a terrific find and a dinner scene where a man realizes his life’s obsession was worth the wait makes for a great cinematic moment.

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