This Saturday, “ET the Extra-Terrestrial” turns 40. But the iconic alien doesn’t look a day over 10 million — his approximate age in a novelization of the 1982 film.
Steven Spielberg’s family drama, in which a young boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas) finds a lost alien in his yard, was an instant classic. It made “ET phone home” one of the most enduring catchphrases in all of cinema; it anointed Reese’s Pieces the It candy of the decade. It also introduced the world to 6-year-old Drew Barrymore, who played Elliott’s adorable younger sister Gertie.
The movie ran in theaters for an unheard-of full year, until June 1983.
Check out these insider facts about Spielberg’s epic childhood drama, then give it a rewatch: We dare you not to cry.
The concept for “ET” started out much darker
When Spielberg began to think about doing an alien-themed follow-up to his 1977 movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” he enlisted writer-director John Sayles to pen a screenplay called “Night Skies,” in which a farm community was terrorized by alien invaders. As the Guardian reported, “the tone of ‘Night Skies’ was set for horror and violence.” Fortunately, the director had a change of heart.
9-year-old Henry Thomas crushed his audition
Thomas, who had already had one role in the Sissy Spacek drama “Raggedy Man,” did an improvised audition with Spielberg in which he cried while pleading with a government agent not to take ET “The improvisation was so heartfelt and honest that I gave him the part right there,” Spielberg has said.
Ralph Macchio was almost in the movie
“Cobra Kai” star Macchio told People he had an opportunity to play Tyler, one of Elliott’s older brother’s friends. “Ç. Thomas Howell — my ‘Outsiders’ greaser buddy, Ponyboy — actually played that part,” he said in an interview on Drew Barrymore’s show. It was Howell’s film debut; “The Outsiders” came out the following year.
Spielberg drew on famous faces for his alien hero
In the special “The Making of ET the Extra-Terrestrial,” the director shared that he wanted ET’s face to evoke several legends. “I remember saying to [special effects artist] carlo [Rambaldi], here’s some pictures of Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway and Carl Sandburg. I love their eyes, can we make ET’s eyes as frivolous and also wizened and as sad as those three icons.”
Special effects artist Ben Burtt used many sources for ET’s voice — including a chainsmoker
Burtt sourced ET’s unusual vocal inflections from many places, he told the BBC. “There are raccoons in there, there are sea otters, there are some horses, there’s a burp from my old cinema professor from USC. There’s my wife’s labored breathing asleep at night with a cold.” But the main voice came from actress Pat Welsh, a chainsmoker. According to IMDb.com, she made $380.
Harrison Ford originally had a part
Ford was dating “ET” screenwriter Melissa Mathison at the time — and had just shot Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” He shot a cameo as the school principal, admonishing Elliott for setting dissection-bound frogs free. The scene was cut but, as Spielberg had said, “that’s where [Henry] got the chance to meet Harrison.”
An actor without legs gave ET his signature walk
In many scenes, ET is controlled by puppeteers. But Matthew De Meritt was 11 when he was hired to be inside the custom in the scene in which ET raids the refrigerator; born without legs, he walked on his hands, which gave the alien a unique waddle.
Spielberg gave multiple hat-tips to “Star Wars”
The director had fun giving shout-outs to the work of his friend George Lucas. In one scene, Elliott shows ET his “Star Wars” action figures; in another, his older brother Michael (Robert McNaughton) puts on a Yoda voice. And in the Halloween sequence, in which the brothers throw a sheet over ET to smuggle him out into the woods, they see a kid in a Yoda mask as they weave among the trick-or-treaters.
The doctors in the movie are really doctors
For the frightening sequence in which the house is taken over by scientists and medical teams, Spielberg enlisted real doctors to play the roles: “The entire team of doctors that was working on ET were real emergency room doctors and various specialists from around California, and that was entirely improvised. He just wanted them to do it like a real code blue situation,” McNaughton said.
Spielberg digitally erased guns in one version
As Elliott and ET are being chased by the feds, there’s a rifle-toting FBI agent among their ranks. In a rerelease, the director replaced the gun with a less menacing walkie-talkie. He’s said he got a lot of negative feedback about reviewing the film: “I learned a big lesson and that’s the last time I decided to ever mess with the past.”
Spielberg was accused of plagiarism
Indian author Satyajit Ray believed the concept for “ET” was strikingly similar to a script he’d written in the 1960s called “The Alien,” about “an alien landing in a village in Bengal and becoming friends with a boy.” Ray was tipped off by American sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, after Clarke saw a screening of Spielberg’s movie. Spielberg denied the allegations, and ultimately Ray decided not to pursue legal action.
John Williams’ score made the film operatic
The director has said the emotional ending of “ET” was “as close to an opera … as anything I’ve ever done before in my life” due to the musical stylings of Williams, a longtime Spielberg, and Lucas, collaborator.
The “ET” Atari video game was legendarily bad
Shortly after the movie came out, a game was developed for the Atari 2600 system. Turnaround time for a game was usually several months — but this one was churned out in five weeks. Looper.com noted, “Reviewers from the era found the game confusing, clunky, and hard to learn, with bad graphics even for the time. Apparently, children had an easier time playing than adults, but people did not like constantly falling into pits.”
There could have been a disturbing sequel
Spielberg reunited with screenwriter Mathison for a treatment for “ET 2: Nocturnal Fears,” in which ET would return to earth amidst an invasion of aliens who “were carnivorous and emitted a ‘hypnotic hum’ with paralyzing effects on the surrounding wildlife.” He wisely ultimately concluded this might tarnish the original film’s legacy.