Long before Andy Serkis mastered the art of motion capture, another performer thrived in the shadows. More than one of the men behind the mask, Kevin Peter Hall was “a kind of puppeteer from the inside” who brought two very different but equally indelible characters to life thirty years ago.
Harry and the Hendersons and Predator were released just one week apart in June 1987, but despite the brilliance of John Lithgow and star power of Arnold Schwarzenegger, it was Kevin Peter Hall who seared both films into our cinematic culture
The intricate suits designed by legendary creature creators Rick Baker and Stan Winston were only part of the equation. Though the physicality of the roles called for a performer of significant height, it would take far more than that prerequisite to pull off Harry and the Predator.
“It wasn’t just creating a creature where you went ‘Wow, that’s Bigfoot,’” director William Dear told Harry and the Hendersons: Finding the Missing Link. “This one had to be ‘Wow, that’s Bigfoot, but oh my God, there’s a being in there who’s thinking, who’s reasoning, who can make decisions, who has the ability to care.’”
A sentiment that was seconded by Baker in the same featurette.
“That was the emotion I wanted to convey the most, that there’s this gentle, intelligent soul inside this big beast.”
That took more than a suit and a concept, however. In order to create a figure that resonated with audiences, it called for an actor who was capable of connecting with moviegoers without saying a word.
The task of finding that actor who possessed the skill to be as endearing as Harry and as horrifying as the Predator would not have been an easy one.
That’s where Kevin Peter Hall came in.
“I’m not just somebody shuffling around in a monster suit,” Hall said. “When people want big and a performance to go along with that big, I’m the one they call.”
Hall stood seven-feet, two-inches tall, but anyone who’d ever seen Manute Bol on an NBA floor understood that height alone does not an imposing figure make. Much like John Carpenter noted with regard to Nick Castle’s portrayal of The Shape from the original Halloween, there was a grace and fluidity of movement which made Michael Myers more real, and more terrifying.
Hall made both a Sasquatch who befriended a Seattle-based family and an alien hunter who took out members of an elite military unit one-by-one feel very real.
On June 5, 1987 we witnessed a formidable figure display a brand of gentle kindness and loyalty that moved us to laugh and smile and finally to tears. One week later, we were frozen with fear by a behemoth that possessed athleticism and coordination that belied its size, maneuvered with confidence and demonstrated strength that not even Ah-nold could match.
A nemesis that outmatched Schwarzenegger was, in and of itself shocking, because audiences had never seen that before.
“When you look at Kevin Peter Hal in that wardrobe, makeup and with that size, and you see him against Arnold you believe ooh-ooh, Arnie’s in trouble,” Predator co-star Carl Weathers said in The Man Behind the Predator featurette. “He made it work. Kevin Peter Hall really made the thing work.”
Hall’s background in basketball, ballet and martial arts provided the physical structure for believability, but it was his Theatrical Arts training from George Washington University which provided authenticity to characters that were polar opposites.
Consider body language alone. As Harry, Hall lumbered about and spoke with sympathetic eyes and head movements that conveyed delight, love and understanding. When it came to the Predator, however, Hall was sleek and strode as a being in complete control of inhuman speed, power and dexterity that communicated a confidence that the outcome had already been determined; it was simply a question of when it would be carried out.
Characters formulated through an amalgamation of skill and discipline.
“With Harry, I (was) always in control of the expressions and the performance,” Hall said according to IMDB. “With the Predator, it is half performance and half dealing with the physical traps. There’s a balance you got to keep inside the suit. You’ve got to keep your character going while dealing with the fact that you’ve got all these wires and FX things coming out of you. It all boils down to concentration and being well-rehearsed.”
Truth be told, however, it was all about that interior puppeteer.
Within the Predator costume was, as Winston said in The Man Behind the Predator, a “wonderfully soft-hearted, intelligent, poetic giant of a man.” Who Hall was as a human being was what made Harry so touching and the Predator so mesmerizing. Without those believable portrayals, neither film would have worked.
When Baker won the 1988 Academy Award for Makeup for his work on Harry and the Hendersons, he thanked Hall for his “brilliant performance,” because Baker understood that without Hall, his creation would have been nothing more than an elaborate costume.
“I’m like the spark, the life that’s inside,” Hall said. “Without that, you just have a suit”
Next time you sit down to watch Harry and the Hendesons or Predator, watch the creatures more closely, and consciously consider the hours of preparation and precision it took to bring those characters to effective fruition. To say that anyone who stood seven feet tall could have filled those shoes is a complete falsehood, because without Kevin Peter Hall, Harry and the Hendersons and Predator simply would not be the classics they are today.
Kevin Peter Hall made them more than memorable, he made them magical.
Following a car accident that required a blood transfusion, Hall was given blood infected with HIV. Just four years after taking the cinematic world by storm, Kevin Peter Hall died on April 10, 1991 at the age of 35.