Before John Lithgow personified Winston Churchill in The Crown and steered Third Rock from the Sun’s inexplicable TV dominance, he engaged in a bromance with Bigfoot—their meet cute involves Lithgow mowing him down with his own station wagon. Channeling the mannerisms and authority of a historic world leader is one thing; making me believe in an emotional connection sustained while a creature trashes the interior of your pristine Wallingford Craftsman is a different level of acting prowess entirely.
Given the Bigfoot theme, Harry and the Hendersons pretty much had to happen in Seattle. Here’s what the 1987 movie negged—and what it nailed.
The Henderson family station wagon hits a mysterious forest creature on the way home from a weekend camping trip. It’s large, it's pungent, and the family believes that it’s dead. Paterfamilias George Henderson (Lithgow), an avid hunter with walls of taxidermy to prove it, wants to take this specimen home and see what fame and fortune it might bring. His rifle-loving son Ernie agrees.
But the next morning, the Hendersons awake to find their new acquisition very much alive, and storming their house in search of (plant-based) food. He pauses to mourn the deer head mounted on the wall that doesn’t seem to come with a back end—yet another clue this isn't the monster legend makes him out to be.
A big game hunter—the type with little regard for laws and permits—is hot on the trail of this Sasquatch’s whereabouts as the Henderson family conceals, then bonds with, the creature they eventually name Harry.
What Harry and the Hendersons Gets Right about Seattle
The film nails the part where one person’s job managing his father's outdoor store can comfortably support a family of four and pay the mortgage on a stately city Craftsman. The kind that has a skyline in the background no matter what direction you’re facing. Oh wait, that wasn't even true in 1987.
In all seriousness, props for the subtle inclusion of the old Food Giant sign (today a QFC) that scrolls by in the background as John Lithgow drives his car through the neighborhood. The production shot a surprising number of scenes in Seattle, everywhere from the Green Lake library to a panoramic West Seattle switchback. The actual house used in the movie is at 4214 Burke Avenue N, and the monorail and Space Needle make their inevitable appearances in a pivotal downtown manhunt (beasthunt?) scene.
The carved Bigfoot on Highway 2 in Index gets a cameo, but the movie’s truest Seattle moment might be when an attempt to get somewhere in a hurry gets foiled by northbound I-5 traffic.
What Harry and the Hendersons Gets Wrong about Seattle
Show me the Venn diagram of Wallingford residents and people who love taxidermy. While you’re at it, show me the one of Wallingford residents and people who own pools, a la the Hendersons’ nosy neighbor who fishes an inexplicable basketball-sized hairball out of hers.
I definitely winced when John Lithgow’s character told someone that his family lives in “the Wallingford section.” And wince-giggled at the Good Morning Seattle TV personality Jerry Seville, “your host, the toast of the Olympic coast.”
The Family Henderson makes an escape to the forest thanks to an I-5 highway ramp marked “Mt. Rainier National Park.” While that direct route would be a hit on weekends, that particular access point is, alas, as mythical as Sasquatch.
Also, young Ernie Henderson shoots his first bunny on the family camping trip; surely a dad who works at an outdoor store would know hunting in a national park is verboten? Still more egregious: This family lives in Wallingford, and yet the fast food they use to tempt Harry back into the station wagon for a return to the wild isn’t Dick’s??
Seattle Style Files
Lithgow inhabits a Seahawks T-shirt with the same aplomb he brings to a Churchillian top hat. Meanwhile, 15-year-old Sarah Henderson’s circa-1987 jeans are very much on trend again today.
Is Harry and the Hendersons a Seattle Movie?
This far-fetched family film does capture Seattle’s final few years as a quirky backwater town, back when Starbucks had only 17 stores, Microsoft was on its second version of Windows, and Jeff Bezos was just a recent Princeton grad with a full head of hair. There’s a Waldenbooks in the background of the downtown chase scene; today the Spheres are just two blocks away.
If you can set aside the late-1980s of it all, the legend of Bigfoot does entwine some essential Northwest themes: How to preserve our natural surroundings, and what kind of relationship we humans should have with the land.
Sure, it’s fun to teach a Bigfoot tricks and let him bond with your dog, but it’s far more responsible to let him roam safely in the wilderness from whence he came, and to check profit in favor of preservation. We don’t need a corny bounty hunter subplot to remind us that a respectful relationship with nature defines Seattle far more than teenage vampires, grunge-era angst, or even the warm and fuzzy spectacle of Tom Hanks on a houseboat.
The milquetoast female roles haven't aged well (not to mention a gratuitous helping of racism in a one-off joke about the guy who prunes the neighbor's rosebushes). But the prosthetics that transformed actor Kevin Peter Hall into Harry surely deserved the Oscar it won for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. And hey...they didn't film in Vancouver! Overall score: 3 out of 5 swimming pool hairballs.