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30th Anniversary: 5 Things You Might Not Know About Steven Spielberg's Classic 'E.T.'

by Oliver Lyttelton
June 11, 2012 2:48 PM
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Thirty is a tricky birthday for anyone - your twenties are in the rear-view mirror, and your forties start to sneak up (can you tell this writer is getting closer to the magic 3-0?...). But it's also the point at which you can reach a certain respectability, start to push towards (whisper it) adulthood, and make it clear that you're here to stay. All of which is a long-winded and possibly over-sharing way of saying that thirty years ago today, on June 11, 1982, "E.T: The Extra Terrestrial" was released in theaters.

Despite Steven Spielberg's track record, it wasn't necessarily expected to be a major blockbuster -- one major studio had already turned it down. But a major blockbuster is exactly what it turned out to be -- it was the biggest of all time, in fact, holding the worldwide position until "Jurassic Park" in 1993, and the domestic crown until "Star Wars" was re-released in 1997 (the film is still number eight in the all-time U.S. charts). And furthermore, it's an enduring classic, one of the greatest family films ever made,and  one of Spielberg's finest accomplishments. To mark the occasion, we've assembled five facts that even the most hardcore Reeses' Pieces eater might not know about the film.

1. The film was partially cannibalized from an unmade Spielberg project called "Growing Up."
Almost anyone who can vaguely call themselves a film fan are probably aware "E.T." came out of a much darker script that the director was developing after "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Called "Night Skies," and penned by "Piranha" writer John Sayles (who would go on to become a beloved auteur in his own right), it involved a group of aliens terrorizing a family of farmers, but with one of them (named Buddy in the script) befriending the young autistic son of their victims, and helping to save them. Buddy famously became the inspiration for E.T. (while Spielberg would also recycle elements for "Poltergeist," and M. Night Shyamalan would later borrow the premise for "Signs"), but what's less well known is that the director also incorporated another unmade project into the final film. Back in 1978, during production on "1941," the director announced that his next movie would be a small-scale, autobiographical tale called "Growing Up," that would shoot in a mere 28 days. As "1941" overran, and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" entered the equation, the project fell off the radar. But when he and writer Melissa Mathison started work on the script known as "E.T. And Me," inspired by "Night Skies," the director incorporated much of what he was going to use in "Growing Up" (including how he made up his own imaginary alien friend after his parents' divorce) into the new script.

2. Henry Thomas auditioned for the film in an Indiana Jones costume.
As important as E.T. was to the film, this was one case where the human cast were equally crucial. After "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," Spielberg felt confident working with children, and auditioned thousands of young actors for the major parts (Juliette Lewis, for instance, was said to have auditioned to play Gertie). In the end, it came down to young Henry Thomas for the lead role of Elliott. The young actor (who'd previously appeared in 1981's "Raggedy Man," directed by Terrence Malick's long-time production designer Jack Fisk, and starring his wife Sissy Spacek) actually didn't give the best audition, but impressed in an improvised scene, using the memory of his late pet dog to cry in front of the casting directors. And Spielberg probably would have been impressed anyway -- Thomas was a fan of the director, and wore an Indiana Jones costume to his reading. Another actor who might have appeared at one stage: future "Cheers" star Shelley Long, who was offered the role of Mary, Elliott's mother, but had to turn it down after signing on to Ron Howard's "Night Shift." Dee Williams bagged the part instead. And keep an eye out for C. Thomas Howell, who plays Elliott's friend Tyler, and future "Under Siege" star Erika Eleniak, who plays the girl Elliott kisses while drunk. And while reports that Debra Winger voiced E.T. aren't quite accurate (actress Pat Welsh, and her two-packs-a-day larynx delivers most of the lines, but Winger was one of a number of people, including Spielberg, incorporated into Ben Burtt's mix), the actress does make a live-action cameo in the Halloween sequence, carrying a poodle.

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  • Marci Liroff | June 15, 2012 12:44 PMReply

    As the casting director, it was my job to audition the "thousands" of kids for this movie. We brought only the final contenders to Mr. Spielberg which were well under 100 at most.
    In terms of Henry Thomas wearing an Indiana Jones costume to his audition - where are you getting this from? It was a long time ago, but I sure don't remember that!

  • Jimbo | June 11, 2012 5:19 PMReply

    Surprised to see my two favourite bits of E.T. folklore not included here, but then maybe that's because they're too well documented by now. Nonetheless:

    1) The last 15 minutes of the film were cut to the music - something unprecedented even in today's movies. You really feel it in the very final lingering face shots which last much longer than they would in any other movie. The effect of that last sequence - from the moment the boys escape the house - is absolutely thrilling and, to this fan, still John Williams' very best work.

    2) The real source material is the Bible. E.T. is Jesus. Rather than spell out the parallels, the fun is in seeing them for yourself. So keep this in mind next time you see the movie.

  • Fred | June 11, 2012 3:43 PMReply

    Dee Wallace was the mom.

  • JWFan | June 11, 2012 3:20 PMReply

    And it features John Williams' tremendous unforgettable score. Perhaps the greatest score ever written.

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