'E.T.' at 40: Henry Thomas and Dee Wallace Reflect on Working With Steven Spielberg and an Animatronic Alien

'E.T.' was supposed to be Steven's 'little' film in between blockbusters, Dee Wallace recalls. Forty years later, she and Henry Thomas reflect on filming and its staying power.
by Scott Huver — 

'E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial'

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It may have first premiered in theaters 40 years ago, but filmmaker Steven Spielberg's beloved film E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial still evokes a powerful sense of childhood warmth and wonder — including in the hearts of two of its leading actors, Henry Thomas and Dee Wallace

Thomas was just 10 years old when he appeared the film's starring (non-alien) role as lonely, imaginative middle child Elliott Taylor, who found an unlikely connection with the eponymous extra-terrestrial, which proved to be the escape he needed from struggles with his parents' divorce. The film would earn the young actor a slew of accolades, catapult him into international fame, and turn him into both an enduring pop culture icon and, ultimately, an accomplished adult actor.  

"It's a part of my childhood," Thomas tells Metacritic. "I mean, a lot of people's childhoods, too! But I have very visceral memories of being on set and just day-to-day stuff. It was 40 years ago, and I was a kid, so it's like a childhood memory." 

Now 50 and still an active working actor, Thomas is pleased to revisit his early Hollywood experience every decade or so and celebrate its significance in the moviegoing pantheon. 

"I don't know if I've had any new revelations about the film, but I am in constant awe of the success of the film and the place that it occupies in people's hearts," he says. "I never in a million years would have thought I would be, 40 years later, talking about this." 

Wallace, then 34, had an increasingly vibrant film and television résumé already when Spielberg cast her as Elliott's single mom Mary, who wrestles first with her kids' adjustment to her parenting them solo, but then must stretch the limits of her own beliefs when E.T. enters their lives. She, too, would work steadily over the decades, in such films as Cujo and Critters and an astonishing array of TV hits, as well as a second career as an author of motivational and self-improvement books. 

"I talk to so many people whose lives have been affected by this film," Wallace tells Metacritic. "It just goes beyond regular filmmaking; it just reaches into people's hearts and reminds him of the truth of love and friendship and working together — all the things we need to remember these days so greatly. And I know that's why it's lasted this long, and they're going to be playing this film for the next 40, 50, 60 years, just like we're playing The Wizard of Oz." 

Here, Thomas and Wallace reflect on their experiences making E.T. and the journey on which the film has taken them over the passage of time.  

It was apparent to both early on that something felt magical about the project, both in the story told in Melissa Mathison's screenplay and in the directorial approach of Spielberg, then still in the thick of an industry-revolutionizing hot streak of creative and box office success that included Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark

Dee Wallace: It's by no happenstance that I was cast in this film. I did not audition for this film. I had auditioned for Used Cars [produced by Spielberg], and when E.T. came along, Steven always thought I had that childlike vulnerability — which I do — and so, he called to offer me E.T. [I knew it was special] the minute I read the script. I had to go over to the studio, behind a closed door, to read the script, because it was very secretive. And I remember exactly what I said to my agent: I called him from the room and I said, "I don't think this is going to probably do a lot for my career, but I think it's gonna do a lot for the world. And I definitely want to be a part of it." 

Henry Thomas: [Steven] was instrumental in getting that performance out of me. We would run takes long and go back and do them over again and keep the cameras rolling, and he would throw new ideas at me. I had to adjust and implement the notes quickly, and it became sort of a dance. But it helped me out a lot in my work because he was throwing things at me in the scene, in the middle of things, and it was forcing me to be very open and really just present. And I think it's that presence in the character that makes it resonate with people. 

D.W: Steven represents all the best in what a director can be. He knows exactly what he wants. He is a master at casting. He is so secure in himself that he allows all the people that he has hired to bring in their best ideas, including the cast, and work together, and that's when the magic is made. And you have to understand [that] E.T. was supposed to be Steven's "little" film in between these blockbusters that he was doing. And sometimes, I think, that works a magic in a whole way that we don't give credit for. You're just doing it for the love, you're not doing it to make a blockbuster. And that's what this film is all about: It's all about love.  

The group of young, talented actors on set immediately gave the production a sense of warmth and family. 

H.T.: It was pretty fun being around all the other kids, and there's a thing where you feel like you won the lottery a bit: "I got this part in a movie, I'm making a movie and I'm working with other kids who are professionals and I'm learning from them." And it was a little bit like a summer camp in that sense. I've never been to summer camp, but I imagine it must have been like that. 

D.W.: I was sitting in my tall director's chair, and Drew [Barrymore] came up to me and looked at me and said, "Hi. I'm gonna sit in your lap now." And I said, "Well OK, come on up!" I always took a lot of responsibility for communicating with the kids, for taking care of the kids, for making sure they understood what we were doing. I certainly took good care of Drew, because she was so little. That's why I play moms: it's just built into me.

H.T.: Halloween was really fun because all the kids were there and we all dressed up on set. We would put on our Halloween costumes over our film costumes and take them off for shooting and then put them back on again. And people in the crew dressed up, Steven dressed up — it was hilarious and it was a fun day. Nobody had to do that, but they did it for the kids and they did it for themselves. And it's a memory that whenever someone asks me, "Does anything make you warm fuzzies or anything?" I think it's stuff like that.  

D.W.: You know the old saying "Never work with kids and dogs?" Well, I would never have had a career if I did that. And I love working with kids. Kids don't come in with a lot of agenda. They don't come in with a lot of ideas. They don't come in with any fears. They just come into play. And that's kind of the way I work. Yeah, they were kids, but they were extraordinary actors at very young ages, and I really treasured — and still do — the bonds that we have with each other. 

Even for those who knew better, E.T. sometimes seemed almost as real on set as he appeared on screen. 

H.T.: I was already through the veil of the illusion of youth — like, I could blur out the wires and cables and weird noises and stuff and get through the scene, so E.T. was never a real person to me. But for Drew it was a possibility, because Drew was 6 turning 7 [years old], and she used to wrap a scarf around E.T.'s neck on those stages when we went to lunch so he wouldn't get cold while we were eating. For her, it was still kind of real — and not real. It's that thing that you have as a young kid. 

D.W.: The first time I walked on the set on the first day, I turned right and there was E.T. standing there. Some of the guys were doing something with him, and I just stopped in my tracks and looked at that little sucker. And [visual effects artist] Carlo Rambaldi created such an amazing being that could hold a soul for so many people. You could literally connect with him, like a person. They weren't moving him, he wasn't talking. he wasn't doing anything but just standing. It's like I could walk onto the set today and turn right and have that moment again. It was so powerful for me. 

The first screenings of the finished film messed with their heads.  

H.T.: I was pretty moved by it, but it was strange because — just from working on it and Steven always talking to me through the shots — when I saw it for the first time I swore that I could hear his voice saying things to me. And I told Kathy Kennedy, the producer, "The film was great, but you have to take Steven's voice out!" And she looked at me very confusedly, and said, "His voice isn't in there, Henry. You didn't hear anything."

D.W.: The first time I saw it was at Universal with all the suits, and nobody reacted because of course they didn't want to react in a way that their boss wasn't going to. I came home and I said to my husband, "I think my career's over. I don't know. I think it's wonderful, but nobody [reacted]." He grabbed me by the hand and said, "Come on, we're going to the CineramaDome and we're going to watch it with an audience," which was an entirely different experience — [one] of crying and clapping and standing up and yelling. And when it was over, he looked at me and said, "Now what do you think, honey?" I said, "I think we have a hit film that's gonna last for a really long time." And I was right, wasn't I?  

Where to watch E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial:

, Google Play, iTunes,