E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial arrived in theaters on June 11, 1982, making it nearly 40 years since the Steven Spielberg movie dominated the box office and our living rooms for generations to come. If you’re anything like me, the first time you saw the movie, E.T. scared the bejesus out of you. But then, of course, you got older and realized that it’s just a mechanical puppet (…right?).
Anyway, the film about a boy and his alien friend really found its way into the hearts of everyone who saw it all those years ago. While it is a treasured family film, and nothing can really take away the warm fuzzy feeling you may get when you think about it, we’re here to shed some reality as we go behind the scenes of the classic ’80s movie.
Ring Ring… Hi, It’s Steven Spielberg
When it came to casting the film, the most difficult role for Spielberg to fill was that of Elliott, the main character. It was Spielberg’s friend Jack Fisk (Sissy Spacek’s husband, who is also the production designer of Badlands and Eraserhead) who suggested he test a young actor he had directed in his 1981 film, Raggedy Man.
Spielberg asked nine-year-old Henry Thomas to audition for him at Universal Studios, but he didn’t go about it in a typical way. Instead of giving the young boy the script to read, Spielberg asked Thomas to improvise a scene with a government agent (played by the casting director) who is trying to take E.T. away from him. Spielberg gave only one word of direction…
He Drew on a Real Tragic Memory
He told the kid to do whatever he needed to do to stop the agent from taking his alien friend away. Thomas took the idea and didn’t just roll with it; he gave it his all. In the heartbreaking audition, Thomas broke down in tears while pleading with the “agent” not to take his friend. By the end of the audition, Spielberg said, “Okay, kid, you got the job.”
Thomas later revealed that in that audition, he drew upon a traumatic experience he had had of seeing his dog attacked by his neighbor’s dog. Landing the role of Elliott forever changed Henry Thomas’s life. He had only done a couple of small movie parts in 1981, but now he was about to become one of the most famous kids in the world.
She Was Actually Trying for a Role in Poltergeist
It wasn’t just hard to find the perfect kid to play Elliott; casting the other two siblings was a problem, too. The first kid of the sibling trio to be cast was Drew Barrymore as Gertie. In an interview with Ellen, Barrymore revealed that she wasn’t even going to audition for E.T.
She explained that she was actually aiming for a part in Poltergeist, but the director wasn’t at the studio that day. Poltergeist’s producer, Steven Spielberg, was there in his place. During her audition for Poltergeist, the six-year-old told Spielberg that she wasn’t an actress. No sir. She told him that she was the drummer of a loud punk rock band called the Purple People Eaters.
It Was Her Wild Imagination That Landed Her the Part
She went on to tell him that her band paints their faces with makeup for every show and that they had just played to an arena with thousands of people the night before. Spielberg loved Barrymore’s vivid imagination.
“I was six, and I lied my face off. I told him I was in a rock ‘n’ roll band, that I was a drummer, that I was a cook,” Barrymore recalled. After the impressive audition, Spielberg told her that she wasn’t quite right for Poltergeist, but that he wanted her to read for another project he was working on. Soon enough, he gave her the part of Gertie in E.T.
From His Days “Growing Up” in Arizona
After the back-to-back smash hits Jaws (in 1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (in 1977), the young director wanted to switch gears and tell a more personal story for his next film. At first, the working title was “Growing Up,” and the idea for the movie was inspired by his parents’ divorce that took place when he was 15.
In his story, the alienation came from feeling like an outcast as being Jewish in a Christian neighborhood in Arizona. His story was also told from the perspective of three kids. The project was shelved, so Spielberg moved on to another big-budget film, 1941.
They Wanted a Sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Around that time, Columbia Pictures was demanding a sequel to Close Encounters. Spielberg wasn’t interested, though. He did, however, ponder a different idea. He wondered what would happen if an alien never went back to the mothership at the end of that movie.
In order to make sure the studio didn’t make the sequel without him, Spielberg went ahead and commissioned writer/director John Sayles to write the script for his pseudo-sequel called “Night Skies,” which was about a suburban family being terrorized by aliens. One alien befriended the family’s son. The tone of the film-in-progress was a little too dark for Spielberg, though.
Growing Up Plus Night Skies Equals E.T.
He decided to have Columbia simply re-release a special edition of Close Encounters that would feature additional scenes. Again, his idea was shelved, but he didn’t forget about it. He still recognized the potential of these stories and didn’t want them to fall between the cracks.
So, he and screenwriter Melissa Mathison combined Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical story (Growing Up) with the kind alien visiting a boy on earth (Night Skies) to create E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The idea of the terrorized family? That was rewrapped and made into another Spielberg production: Poltergeist.
It Was the Best First Draft He Had Ever Read
Most films go through multiple drafts before a final script is accepted and put into action. In this case, however, Melissa Mathison’s first draft was what Spielberg used when they started shooting. Rather than constantly revising individual drafts, what Spielberg did was give Mathison the general plot, and she rounded it out.
She wrote for five days straight and then collaborated with him for five more days. The process lasted eight weeks, and the result? He called the screenplay “the best first draft I’ve ever read.” To create a spontaneous and streamlined shoot, he didn’t storyboard any of E.T.’s shots. He kept the script on 3 x 5-inch notecards in his shirt pocket.
Fun fact: The production name was titled “A Boy’s Life.”
His Bad Audition Worked Out in the End
Peter Coyote (aka Keys, the sympathetic government agent) auditioned for the role of Indiana Jones during a 1980 casting session held by Spielberg and George Lucas. Coyote was given bits of the Raiders of the Lost Ark script as well as a character outline of Indiana Jones.
Alt Peter Coyote, as Agent Keys, wears a hazmat suit in a still from E.T.
Coyote decided to wear a fedora in hopes of wowing the two Hollywood heavyweights. But the poor guy tripped over the wiring of the lights in the room. His stumbling was the furthest thing from the suave, tough-guy character they wanted. Of course, the part went to Harrison Ford, but Spielberg thought Coyote’s clumsiness was endearing. When it came time to cast Keys — a grown-up with childlike wonderment — the choice was obvious.
The Mission: A Loveable Alien
Spielberg had worked with production illustrator Ed Verreaux on Raiders of the Lost Ark, and so he had him draft the initial designs of the film’s main alien. Eventually, Spielberg went with a different set of design ideas by special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi.
Rambaldi had designed the mechanical head effects for Ridley Scott’s Alien and Spielberg’s own Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg asked Rambaldi to come up with the kind of alien form that audiences would be able to sympathize with (because no one wants to hug that thing from Alien).
Part “Women of Delta,” Part Einstein
The main inspiration for the look of E.T. was one of Rambaldi’s own paintings from the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, “Women of Delta.” The painting was of this shriveled character with a long neck, an oblong head, stumpy legs, and huge eyes. When it came to making the alien lovable, Spielberg had Rambaldi studied photos of elderly people from the Great Depression.
The alien’s facial design combined photos of Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Carl Sandburg. Artist Ralph McQuarrie, who created the famous concept art for Star Wars, designed E.T.’s spaceship, which was meant to resemble a hot air balloon created by Dr. Seuss.
He Told Her that E.T. Was a Real Alien
When they needed to shoot the animatronic E.T. puppet, the production designers built the sets (Elliott’s room and the family living room) on stilts. The heavy robot was bolted down, with all the wires hidden under the floor. The puppeteers were then able to manage the puppet’s performance via monitors located in another room.
Spielberg wanted the crew on set to act as if E.T. were a real actor, you know, for maximum believability. Spielberg went so far as to tell the young Drew Barrymore that the puppet was an actual alien. That scene where E.T. dies? Well, those were Barrymore’s true-to-life tears. The little girl truly believed that E.T. had died.
Those Were Real Human Arms
Spielberg had professional mime Caprice Rothe provide a fluid and natural hand motions to the alien puppet. Every time the puppet had to interact with Elliott or pick anything up during a scene, Rothe had to lie underneath the puppet and extend her hands up, take after take.
She wore sleeve-length gloves that looked like E.T.’s leathery skin, and she mimicked his long, four-fingered hands with her last two fingers tucked away in the fourth digit. In the final cut of the film, Rothe was credited as the “E.T. Movement Coordinator.”
The Trio That Brought E.T. to Life
There were scenes where Spielberg opted for full-body shots of E.T. moving around. Those scenes were performed by three different actors: two little people, Tamara de Treaux and Pat Bilon, and a 12-year-old named Matthew DeMeritt.
The two little people wore special suits for the wide shots of E.T. walking around. They could see through well-hidden slits cut into the chest. Other scenes, such as when E.T. falls on his face from drinking all those beers, were performed by DeMeritt, an actor born without legs. His custom-made suit allowed the kid to walk with his arms where the E.T.’s feet would be.
Spielberg Was the On-Set Voice of E.T.
During shooting, Spielberg voiced E.T. by positioning himself next to the camera, uttering “E.T. phone home” and other famous lines. In the rough cut, he was replaced with the voice of actress Debra Winger (who also had an uncredited appearance in the Halloween scene as the zombie nurse).
For the final cut, a non-actor named Pat Welsh was the voice of E.T. Sound designer Ben Burtt had heard Welsh’s deep and raspy smoker’s voice at a local camera store. Burtt then lowered the pitch of Welsh’s voice and mixed it with animal breathing sounds. Welsh allegedly received only $380 for her contribution to the film. All in all, there were 18 different contributors to the voice of E.T.
The Unknown Harrison Ford Cameo
While Spielberg was working on E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark was still in the making. At the time, Harrison Ford was dating Melissa Mathison, the scriptwriter for E.T. Because of his ties to both Spielberg and Mathison, Ford agreed to make a cameo in the film.
Ford’s bit part was supposed to be something of a joke – a role unlike any of his others – as the uptight school principal who scolds Elliott for releasing frogs into the school. In the final edit, though, the scene was cut as it didn’t fit in with the rest of the movie. They also thought Ford’s presence might distract from the storyline.
Ford Was His Hero
Henry Thomas performed a scene with Ford that became famous for not existing at all. In the frog escape scene, Elliott gets to kiss a girl who would grow up to be a babe on Baywatch. But in reality, Thomas was way more into Harrison Ford than Erika Eleniak.
In 2012, Thomas told E.W. during an E.T. reunion that when he was cast in E.T, his hero was Harrison Ford. “I basically was just excited to meet Steven in hopes that I would meet Harrison.” The scene they ultimately cut out was the one that brought Thomas and Ford tother. “That was a very big day for me,” Thomas recalled.
They Were Supposed to Be M&Ms
Spielberg asked Mars Incorporated (the company that owns M&Ms) if he could use their little candies in a scene where Elliott lures the alien back to his house. Universal Studios barred the company from seeing the script, so Mars passed on the opportunity. Spielberg then approached the Hershey Company about using their famous Hershey Kisses, but the company was trying to get more exposure for their newest creation, Reese’s Pieces.
Hershey agreed to spend $1 million to promote the use of their product in E.T., which paid off for the company, which reported a 65 percent increase in profits on Reese’s Pieces only two weeks after the film premiere.
L.A.’s Airport Served as Inspiration
In the original script, Elliott and E.T. are taken to a hospital when the government captures them, but the production designer and cinematographer were having trouble finding the right hospital. One day, Spielberg flew to Los Angeles International Airport on an overseas flight, which was severely delayed by the airport’s construction.
There was massive scaffolding, plastic sheets, and cylindrical tubes everywhere, which sparked Spielberg’s imagination. So, rather than a hospital, they created a temporary structure to shroud the family’s house. The exterior of the house was in the Northridge neighborhood of L.A., and the interiors were done on soundstages.
The Ending Was Supposed to Be Very Different
Robert MacNaughton (who played Elliott’s older brother) told Express about the original ending for E.T.: “The last scene was going to be all of us playing Dungeons & Dragons again, except this time, Elliott’s the dungeon master.”
He continued to explain how the camera would then pan up to the roof, and you’d see the “communicator.” In other words, Elliott was still in touch with E.T. Then, they did the score of the film and saw the spaceship taking off. “How can you follow that? I mean, it was a wise choice,” MacNaughton said.
A Dark Sequel Was in the Works
Why wasn’t there a sequel to E.T.? Well, as it turns out, there was one in the making. According to Syfy, a story for an E.T. sequel was proposed, but it was apparently so bad that it never got made. Reportedly, it had a very dark undertone.
Spielberg was involved at first but grew against the idea of a sequel, saying: “Sequels can be very dangerous because they compromise your truth as an artist. I think a sequel to E.T. would do nothing but rob the original of its purity.” The man has a point. And we should listen to him.
E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears
Spielberg and Mathison wrote the potential sequel to E.T. Dated July 17, 1982, the story was titled “E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears,” and it took place the summer after the events which occurred in the first film. The story’s plot had Elliott and his friends abducted by a mutated race of aliens led by an evil entity named Korel.
Korel was looking for Zrek, another alien who got lost on Earth. Then, of course, E.T. saves the day and helps them get back to Earth. Ultimately, as we know now, Spielberg decided not to go through with the sequel.
They Shot Chronologically for the Kids
Most large-scale movies aren’t filmed in chronological order due to all the schedules, location requirements, and budget issues. E.T. is one of the few exceptions to this age-old Hollywood practice. Spielberg insisted that the scenes be shot chronologically, and it was for the kids.
According to TIME, Spielberg wanted to help his younger cast. “I insisted on shooting the film in complete continuity, so the kids knew, emotionally, where they had been the day before, and they pretty much didn’t have any idea of where they were going the next day,” the director explained. Like in real life, every day was a surprise for the child actors, who really believed that this was happening to them.
That Moon Shot Was Real
Well, everything except for Elliott and E.T. Dennis Muren, the visual effects supervisor, and his team at Industrial Light and Magic created organic special effects to accompany the inorganic looking E.T. The iconic shot of the two of them flying across the full moon was nearly “real.”
It took the team weeks to find the right location to film a low moon among the trees. They used maps and charts in order to coordinate the scene once they found the right spot. Puppets stood in for Elliott and E.T., and special effects were added in post-production, but the rest was photo-real.
A Little E.T./Star Wars Easter Egg
Spielberg and Lucas weren’t just collaborators but friends. The two would often give hidden nods to each other’s films, but when it came to E.T., Spielberg didn’t need to hide anything. Remember the scene where E.T. sees a child dressed up as Yoda for Halloween? He then shouted, “Home! Home!”
Spielberg didn’t tell Lucas until he held a personal screening at the Skywalker Ranch, which Lucas approved of with laughter. Then, when Lucas made The Phantom Menace, he returned the favor and made E.T.’s alien race part of the Galactic Senate.
A 15-Minute Standing Ovation
E.T. was publicly previewed several times, but when it was shown as a screening at the 1982 Cannes Film festival, the audience stood and applauded for an entire 15 minutes before the film ended. The standing ovation continued for yet another 15 minutes after the credits rolled.
Spielberg, who was worried his story wouldn’t resonate with people, knew he hit the mark. After Cannes, he received a message from fellow director François Truffaut, who was in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. His telegram read: “You belong here more than me.”
A Private Screening for the President and the Princess
The film was released in the United States on June 11, 1982, overtaking Star Wars as the highest-grossing film of all time. The record held until 1993, when another Spielberg film took over: Jurassic Park. Spielberg screened E.T. at the White House for then-President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy.
The director remembers sitting next to the President and believes he saw Reagan shed a tear or two. When the film was shown to newlyweds Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Spielberg and the others who were there were strangely ushered backstage as soon as the film ended. Apparently, Diana cried so much that her makeup was running. God forbid people see her with mascara running!
The Whole Plagiarism Scandal
The film faced a claim of plagiarism when Indian director Satyajit Ray accused Spielberg of stealing his idea from a script he wrote in 1967 called The Alien. Columbia Pictures had even considered the idea with Peter Sellers and Marlon Brando as the lead roles, but legal troubles pushed Ray to abandon the project.
When E.T. made a huge dent in 1982, Ray didn’t think it was a matter of coincidence. Ray told the press, “E.T. would not have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies.” Spielberg denied the claim, saying, “I was a kid in high school when his script was circulating in Hollywood.”
The Day Spielberg Dressed Up as a Woman on Set
Spielberg wanted to make the set fun and playful since kids were around. In 1996’s The Making of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, we saw that the director didn’t take himself too seriously on set. Around Halloween, he came to set as a female schoolteacher.
“I didn’t have children back then in the early 1980s, and you know, suddenly, I was becoming a father every single day, I felt like a father, and it felt good,” Spielberg recalled. It’s nice to hear that the directing genius is actually a decent guy! (It isn’t a given these days…)
His Love for Dungeons & Dragons Got Him the Part
Robert MacNaughton (Elliott’s older brother Michael) revealed that it was a childhood pastime of his that helped land the role. Screenwriter Melissa Mathison happened to be a huge fan of Dungeons & Dragons – she always played it with her then-husband, Harrison Ford, at their house.
It’s why we see the kids playing the game at the start of the film. MacNaughton was also an avid D & D player, and when Spielberg asked him what his hobbies were, he told the director about his love for the game. Spielberg seemed pleased, and before he knew it, MacNaughton was offered the role.
It Was From a Child’s Point of View
You may or may not have noticed that E.T. was shot from a child’s point of view. According to Filmsite, it was deliberately shot from a lower angle to encourage younger audience members to identify with the children more easily on screen.
As for the adult movie-goers, it helps put them back into the shoes of a kid, encouraging them to remember how scary and threatening adults can be for a kid. In fact, the only adult we see in full is the mom, Mary, played by Dee Wallace. The other grown-ups in the film are seen from the waist down, as a kid would see the world in front of them.
The Writer Used Her Experiences With Kids
Part of E.T.’s charm is his goofiness and childlike innocence. This sweet naivete, and E.T.’s powers, were inspired by the screenwriter’s experiences. Mathison said in The Making of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial that many of the scenes came from her own experience being with children.
She explained that children talked about what they would like E.T.’s powers to be. “A lot of the children would mention the obvious, of telepathy or telekinetic powers, but I was struck by the fact that several of them mentioned that they would like this magic creature to be able to heal.”
The Actors Were Real Doctors and Nurses
One of the most touching scenes is when E.T. and Elliott are lying in the makeshift medical facility in their house while doctors and nurses try to revive them. According to People, the medical staff looking after the two friends were real-life medics.
Spielberg got in touch with the UCLA Center for Health Services to get information on cardiopulmonary resuscitation, which is when he was referred to a specialist. Spielberg wanted the scene to look as authentic as possible, so he got actual medical staff to play out the scene.
He Didn’t Expect the Film to Break the Bank
According to Business Insider, E.T. is the fourth highest-grossing movie of all time. Although the movie became a huge success and was the most successful film to come out of the ‘80s, Spielberg wasn’t expecting it at all.
Speaking in The Making of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, he said he didn’t think E.T. was going to make a lot of money. He recalled thinking: “I’m making a movie that is only going to appeal to kids. I said I’m probably making a big mistake; I’m going to make an old-fashioned Walt Disney movie about an alien and a kid and that’s all it’s going to be.”
After playing Elliott, Thomas returned to his hometown of Texas to focus on school. He took on film and TV roles occasionally. In the ‘80s and ’90s, he went back to acting. His most notable roles were in Legends of the Fall (1994), Gangs of New York (2002), and The Last Ride (2011).
Besides acting, the 41-year-old is also big in the music scene. He used to sing and perform with the Texas-based band, The Blue Heelers. These days, he rocks out with the L.A. band Farspeaker. He reprised his role as Elliott in a 2020 Superbowl ad.
Before playing Michael, MacNaughton played in a few TV movies, most notably Angel City (1980), starring a young Jennifer Jason Leigh. He was also in Big Bend Country (1981) and The Electric Grandmother (1982).
After E.T., he focused on theater while doing a few TV appearances on Amen, Newhart and Vietnam War Story. MacNaughton, 46, eventually gave up acting to start a new life as a mail handler in Phoenix, Arizona. He now lives in Jersey City, New Jersey with his girlfriend and son.
After her battle with alcohol and drugs when she was younger, the actress bounced back dramatically. Aside from all the famous movies we’ve seen her act in, Barrymore has also found success behind the screen as a director, screenwriter, and producer.
in late 2020, Barrymore premiered a syndicated daytime talk show called The Drew Barrymore Show. As of March 11, 2021, she said she’s taking an indefinite hiatus from acting.
Fun Fact: Barrymore is the godmother of Frances Bean Cobain, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love’s daughter.