Star Ship Trouper For the 20th anniversary of E.T., the filmmakers and stars recall their incredible journey
Seven months after it opened in the summer of 1982, E.T. TheExtra-Terrestrial outgrossed Star Wars to become the all-time boxoffice champion. (At least temporarily — its domestic gross came toabout $400 million after all its rereleases, placing it fourth onthe list.) It seemed there wasn’t a corner of the country or theglobe left unmoved by the fairy-tale story of Elliott, abike-riding suburban kid who reunites an alien orphan with itsmother ship. Speaking of reunions, as the 20th-anniversaryedition opens in theaters, we’ve asked the cast and crew to tellus how they launched E.T. into orbit.
I. DESERT BRAINSTORM
STEVEN SPIELBERG (now 55, director) E.T. began to happen aroundthe time of Close Encounters of the Third Kind . I had onemoment [in the film] where an extraterrestrial, whom weaffectionately referred to as Puck, walks over to FrancoisTruffaut and they make hand signs. I thought, could he be anexchange student?
MELISSA MATHISON (51, screenwriter, then-girlfriend and futurewife of Harrison Ford) The shoot for Raiders of the Lost Arkstarted in London [in early 1980]. Steven asked me one day if Iwanted to come up and see his E.T.’s. I thought, What the hell isan E.T.? He showed me these violent E.T.’s — ferocious guys he wasdeveloping a movie about called Night Skies.
SPIELBERG Rick Baker had designed alien creatures more likegremlins than like E.T. And we had a script by John Sayles beforeI pulled the plug on the whole endeavor and said, ”This is notthe story I want to tell.”
MATHISON I wasn’t anyplace as a writer at that point. I had beenthrown into [writing on] The Black Stallion and it worked. Butscreenwriting wasn’t really something I knew how to do.
SPIELBERG [Melissa] was down on herself as a writer. And I keptreminding her what a brilliant job Black Stallion had been. Iremember a walk I took with her in the Tunisian desert betweensetups on Raiders, where I told her the story of E.T. And I think[producer] Kathy Kennedy, Harrison, and I got Melissa to agree towrite it after a couple of days of resistance.
MATHISON [We were] driving through the Sahara in the middle ofthe night. It was Steven and me and Harrison, talking about theboy and the family and E.T. It was dark and there was a moon. Itwas just one of those dreamy, Little Prince kind of moments.
II. WRITE OF PASSAGE
MATHISON When Steven was editing Raiders, once a week I’d takepages to him. We’d work on 3-by-5 cards and look at our outline.
SPIELBERG I said, ”E.T. should be young.” Melissa said, ”No, Ithink he’s old.” I compromised by saying ”Let’s make him 600years old out of a possible life span of 20,000 years.”
MATHISON I remember typing scenes where E.T. is getting sick….This was December 1980, and I told Steven he’d have the script bythe end of the year…. Harrison was watching TV in the den acrossfrom the bedroom where I was working, and I heard, ”Beatle shot!”Like a teaser. I remember saying to Harrison, ”Oh, I hope it’snot John.” And then it was John. A horrible moment. I rememberjust sitting there for hours and then going back to thetypewriter. I had to because I was a week from deadline. That’swhen I started the part with E.T. dying.
CAROL LITTLETON (film editor) It was a beautiful script. Thesechildren really seemed to be siblings. And there was such asolidarity between them for a broken home. The kids reallyunderstood each other’s problems and stuck together. That’s whatstruck me — it’s not a fabricated TV family.
SPIELBERG I didn’t think anybody was going to see E.T. exceptkids. Certainly Columbia [Pictures] felt that way. They put it inturnaround. So I brought it to [studio chief] Sid Sheinberg atUniversal. He instantly committed to the production money, but Itold him, ”I don’t want to make this movie for over $10 million.”
III. WANTED: CHILDREN OF ALL AGES
DEE WALLACE STONE (52, cast as Mary, the mom) I’ve heard [Steven]say the reason he cast me was, he never considered me an adult.In a way he was right. Even in my early 30s, I was an extremelynaive, Midwestern Cornhusker girl.
ROBERT MacNAUGHTON (35, cast as Michael, the older brother) Myfirst meeting with Steven was the day Reagan was shot, so Iremember there was a lot of activity and people giving [Steven]updates on what was happening. I was real keyed up because Iworshiped Close Encounters. A lot of auditions I’ve been on, Ifelt I was being scrutinized. With him I didn’t get that.
SPIELBERG I’d seen a number of 6-year-olds [for Gertie’s role].When Drew [Barrymore] came in, she wiped my memory clean. She wasuncensored, undiplomatic, and a total liar. Perfect qualities ina child actor.
DREW BARRYMORE (27, cast as Gertie, the youngest child) I wouldtell these big elaborate stories about how I was the drummer in apunk band and we were going on tour. He really enjoyed it. All ofthem — Steven, Kathleen, Melissa — were truly interested. When you’rea kid, a lot of adults shove you off, ”Yeah, kid, whatever.” Theydidn’t. I can’t tell you how wonderful that was.
MIKE FENTON (casting director) We lost our first choice [forElliott], a boy in Los Angeles we liked very much. No actors oragents [were allowed to] see the script. And this boy’s mother,who was his manager, said, ”Gee, since you won’t give us anythingto read, I’m going to have my son do an ABC pilot.” And ofcourse, he’s never been heard from again.
KATHLEEN KENNEDY (48, producer) Jack Fisk [Sissy Spacek’shusband, who was making his directorial debut on Raggedy Man] hadhis cutting room next to our offices on the old MGM lot. I’dgotten to know his editor and we got to talking about how we’dbeen frustrated looking for the boy for E.T. And he offhandedlysaid to me, ”We have an extraordinary child in this movie.”
FENTON We attempted to test Henry [Thomas] with script pages.[Then] Steven sent Henry to a room to play videogames and told meto improvise a scene, to tell Henry I was going to do experimentson E.T. So we bring Henry back, and I say, ”Elliott, I representthe United States government. We’re taking E.T. to Washington.”Henry’s eyes got enormous and he started to cry.
KENNEDY He had us all in tears. When you watch the audition tapeyou hear people saying ”Stop! This is going on too long! We’reall a wreck!”
HENRY THOMAS (30, cast as Elliott) I don’t think it’s aparticularly great audition tape. It’s kind of hard for me to sitthrough, actually. It’s embarrassing.
SPIELBERG I cast him right there. Sometimes that’s the greatestway a director can be Santa Claus. There’s nothing better thanthe expression on someone’s face when you can say,unconditionally, ”You have the job.”
IV. DOCTORS IN THE HOUSE
THOMAS The film was constantly changing. There were new pagesevery day. A lot of my interaction and rehearsal was withMelissa. I would sit with her in the morning and we’d go overwhat she had rewritten.
BARRYMORE Steven would ask, ”What do you want to say here?” Helet us come up with our own stuff a lot.
WALLACE STONE [Steven] would run the camera and throw [thechildren] lines. He would say, ”Okay, now, Drew, say the linelike this but take a bite of hamburger first.” He would catch usoff guard. I don’t think Henry ever saw E.T. with all the doctorsuntil they were just about to shoot that scene.
MacNAUGHTON A lot of them were real emergency-room doctors. Itwas impressive to watch them treat E.T. dying like a real codeblue. Drew was really upset. It wasn’t hard to be emotionalwatching that, ’cause it was so real.
SPIELBERG Herb Stein, my internist in the ’80s, he’s in there.Other doctors I got from some of the hospitals around L.A.
MATHISON Somebody asked me, ”Did you write all that medicaldialogue?” I said, ”No, are you kidding?” I started to write it,but then we thought, Hell, let’s let them do it. They were sointo it — all like little movie stars.
V. TURN ON THAT HEARTLIGHT
MacNAUGHTON This incredible, exuberant kid, Matthew De Merritt,did the most athletic scenes with the E.T. suits. He was bornwithout legs. He’d go around on a skateboard. He’s just a greatguy, fun to be around.
WALLACE STONE The scene in the kitchen, when I’m putting away thegroceries and E.T. is walking around behind me, was done by thelittle boy [Matthew]. He was turned upside down [in the suit],walking on his hands.
MacNAUGHTON Pat Bilon was the main little person inside E.T. Hedied shortly after filming. But he certainly enjoyed life. Everyweekend he’d fly to Vegas. He was funny — quite the guy.
THOMAS [It] was easier to act with the mechanical E.T., becausethe eyes were detailed. I could imagine that thing being alive.On the E.T. suits, the eyes looked ridiculously fake. When you’relooking at a little plastic head on a dwarf, and you can hearsomebody breathing inside and cursing, it’s a little bit moredifficult to believe.
BARRYMORE Steven was always very protective of us not seeing toomuch of the mechanics. On some intelligent level — as intelligentas you can be at 6 — I knew this was not real. But I treated E.T.like he was alive and had a soul. I brought him lunch. I’d putcovers around him if I thought he was cold.
WALLACE STONE There was this [subplot] about E.T. having thisinfatuation with Mary. He comes into my room at night after I’m asleep and lays some Reese’s Pieces as a little present on mybedstand.
ALLEN DAVIAU (cinematographer) As I recall, E.T. comes in wearinga checkered sport jacket, and Dee’s asleep under the sheet.
WALLACE STONE Steven and I had quite a conversation because hewanted the sheet down a lot lower than I wanted it.
MATHISON That was hysterical in the dailies. Steven had her behalf-naked! She had to take her top off. It was the most bizarrescene. It was like E.T. the voyeur. [Dee] is lying there[facedown], and E.T. like pulls the sheet off of her and he’sgoing ”Hunnnh, hunnnh, hunnnh.” I certainly had nothing to dowith this [scene]. This was a boys’ moment. We couldn’t use it.
VI. NEVER ACT WITH CHILDREN OR ALIENS
SPIELBERG What helped the kids emotionally is I shot the film incontinuity…as much as possible. [They] understood every secondwhere they were, because yesterday actually happened yesterday,and tomorrow was going to happen the next day. So their emotionsbuilt as the story progressed and became more semitragic.
DAVIAU We shot it in 61 days. People find that hard to believe.
MATHISON There were days when the kids, bless their hearts, werenot emoting. And that was always hard on everybody. Because youcan’t get mad at them.
THOMAS I remember being utterly scared throughout most of theproduction. Not because they were vile, harsh taskmasters oranything. It was just a tremendous amount of responsibility.Whether they ever said it or not, I felt it. I knew that most ofthe film was riding on my performance.
PETER COYOTE (59, cast as Keys, the kindly government agent) Whata pressure for a 9- or 10-year-old! It didn’t show. To me,anyway.
THOMAS If I told somebody I was scared, I was sure they’d fire meand the acting police would come take me away. [In a robot voice]”He’s expressing doubts! Delete him! Eradicate him!”
MacNAUGHTON Everybody under 18 could only work four hours a day.Four hours of work, three hours of school, an hour of lunch. Sofor the adults there was a lot of waiting around.
WALLACE STONE Actors are like racehorses. Pick us up, transportus to the track, groom us, and we’re ready to race. If we don’tget out of the gate, we wanna break the place down. We go nutty.There was one point where I literally went to the set everysingle day and didn’t work for three weeks. I learned tomeditate. And I made the largest needlepoint pillow anybody hasever seen.
VII. WHAT DOES AN ALIEN SOUND LIKE?
SPIELBERG Debra [Winger] was my friend, and I always loved hersmoky voice. One day when she was visiting me on the set, I said,”Hey, can you come into the trailer? I’ll bring a [tape recorder]in. Will you open the script and do every single E.T. line for mytemporary [sound] track?” She said, ”Great!” [We] didn’t use hervoice in the final mix, but the first 20 or 30 people who eversaw E.T. heard her voice in the rough cut.
WALLACE STONE Well, now you’ve really thrown me for a loop,because I thought Debra Winger did the [final] voice.
BEN BURTT (Oscar winner, with Charles L. Campbell, for E.T.’ssound effects editing) Some of the breathing sounds DebraWinger made wound up in the film. There were 18 different soundsources altogether, some people and some animals, from otters toraccoons. But the woman who provided E.T.’s words was Pat Welsh.I found her in line at a camera store. She had this deep,resonant sort of monotonic voice. She was the wife of a retiredMarin County banker, in her mid- to late 60s. She’d chain-smokedsince the 1930s, and sadly enough, that was the reason her voicewas that way. I cornered her on the sidewalk and basically said,”Would you like to be an alien in a movie?”
VIII. ”HOUSTON, WE HAVE LIFTOFF”
MATHISON There was a preview screening in Houston. It was all ofus going down, including Universal people. In those days, you goton a regular plane.
KENNEDY Until that preview, we weren’t going to have aparticularly wide release. E.T. was being compared to a Disneyfilm, which at the time was not great.
MATHISON I’d never seen anything like the emotional reaction thataudience had. Whole families, laughing and sobbing and hugging.To see it the first time — the euphoria! There was this trueendorphin rush.
SPIELBERG When that audience responded the way they did for 1hour and 52 minutes, I considered retiring. The vocal reactionwas unprecedented in my experience, including Jaws.
MATHISON I was sitting next to Steven. He kept alternatelysqueezing and pounding on my thigh. It hurt.
SPIELBERG The most remarkable thing was the preview cards. E.T.had 98 percent in the top box, ”Excellent,” and 2 percent in”Very Good.” None were checked ”Good,” ”Fair,” or ”Poor.”
MATHISON We went to a Mexican restaurant after. Nobody had eaten,and I don’t drink. Two margaritas and I was literally on thefloor of the bathroom. Kathy Kennedy was hiding me in there till[Universal chief] Sid Sheinberg left.
SPIELBERG I watched Melissa celebrate in a way I’ve only seencharacter actors celebrate in John Ford films. She got drunk as askunk.
MATHISON On the ride back to the hotel, I was sitting by thewindow vomiting out of it. Steven had his arm around me. He keptsaying ”Melissa, just promise me you’ll never forget this night.”And I’m [going] ”Brwaaaaaa” out the window. He was just soworried that it would all become a big blur to me.
IX. BIGGER THAN STAR WARS
SPIELBERG There were box office reports in The Wall StreetJournal, not just the trades. The nightly news shows on all threenetworks were running stories for what seemed like weeks.
MATHISON TIME magazine did a big story, but they bumped us offthe cover for the Falkland Islands war. I say this with allhumility: Which do you really remember, the Falkland war, orE.T.?
COYOTE [My] character was named Keys in the script because that’sall you see of him at first. For the whole first half of themovie, you saw me from the crotch down. I got a postcard from anold girlfriend. It said, ”Went to see E.T. Recognized you theminute you came on screen.”
WALLACE STONE I don’t remember any firestorm in my life. I got agreat [television] series called Together We Stand with ElliottGould. And it did a lot of stuff for my career…a lot ofmovies-of-the-week and people knew who I was and it upped myprice. I think I did take a blowout trip to Hawaii. But I didn’tmake a whole lot of money on E.T.
COYOTE I was out of work for nine months after E.T. opened….[But] I was not the star. The stars are arguably the kids andE.T. and Steven. Steven Spielberg is the star of most StevenSpielberg movies.
SPIELBERG It was the most incredible year of my life. It was thesecond time I’d been involved in a cultural phenomenon, Jawsbeing the first. I kind of hid a bit from E.T., because it wasjust so overwhelming. I threw myself into…preproduction onIndiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in Sri Lanka, basically as away of escaping all the good news.
BARRYMORE It was up to me afterwards to destroy it or make it great, and I did both. I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for E.T.
THOMAS There is always a certain part of you that strives forrecognition, some ego thing. But no matter how much you entertainthe idea of being famous, I don’t think you can ever really beprepared for it. It’s never how you imagined it.
MacNAUGHTON Henry had some craziness right after where peoplewere following him. A lady nearly attacked him in thesupermarket.
THOMAS That happened quite a bit. I could go on and on aboutunsettling stories of strange fans and bad situations.
MacNAUGHTON I started to lose the joy of the work [after E.T.].It was getting to be discouraging, going up for a lot of thingsthat I didn’t want to do. I never dreamed I would be completelyout of the business by my 30s. I don’t get recognized a lot now.When I do, it’s people who think they went to school with me.
COYOTE It’s fun to have been in a classic. The fear you have isthat that’ll be the only thing in the parentheses after yourname.
BARRYMORE When I go into [Steven’s] office, he has my drawings upon his wall from when I was a kid. I don’t have a dad that has mystuff on his wall. Steven is that person for me. He was the firstconsistent, trustworthy, supportive male I ever had in life. Hedidn’t look at that like something scary or a burden.
SPIELBERG E.T. is a product of who I was in 1981, and A.I. andMinority Report are a reflection of who I am today. I’ve goneinto a darker period in my life. Not because of any personalloss, thank God, but simply because my antenna is a lot moretuned in to the way the world works. I think I know too much nowto be able to tell stories like E.T. in the same ways.
EW.COMThere’s much more to read about the making of E.T. TheExtra-Terrestrial. Please go to ew.com/et.
TIME CAPSULE MARCH 25, 1982
TIME CAPSULE MARCH 25, 1982
AT THE MOVIES, future Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall’s(right) vampy vixen rep is born howling in Porky’s. IN MUSIC,Joan Jett & the Blackhearts can afford to put a couple milliondimes in the jukebox, baby, as ”I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” hits No. 1on the Billboard chart. in BOOKSTORES, Shel Silverstein’s ALight in the Attic blazes near the top of the Publishers Weeklybest-seller list. AND IN THE NEWS, the fledgling space shuttleprogram gets a boost as NASA monitors the Columbia’s currentcosmic voyage while announcing plans for a space station calledSpacelab.