E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is one of the most beloved movies ever made. Directed by Steven Spielberg, it tells the story of a young boy named Elliott (memorably played by Henry Thomas) who is struggling to cope after his parents get divorced. He lives with his single mother (Dee Wallace), older brother (Robert MacNaughton), and little sister (Drew Barrymore). Elliott’s life suddenly gets a lot less boring when he discovers an alien creature who has been left behind after coming to Earth to study our plant life. Attempts to hide the creature from his family prove unsuccessful, and eventually, the government discovers the space visitor’s existence, too. The only way to save E.T. is to assist him in building a gizmo so that he can “phone home.” The film ends with a rousing race to get him to an extraction point before the Feds catch up. Bikes go flying across the moon in the process, and wonderous times are had by all.
The reason why E.T. works so well is that it slingshots you across every inch of the emotional spectrum over the course of just two hours. You feel awe and wonder at the friendship that develops between boy and alien, fear when the government agents come calling, anger when they nearly kill E.T., excitement during the chase, and a touch of sadness when Elliott and E.T. have to say goodbye. The film is dramatic, exciting, funny, and heart-warming. There was never a movie quite like it, and there hasn’t been one since.
In honor of this landmark work, we’ve complied some trivia and behind-the-scenes facts that you may not have known. We hope it helps you to appreciate the depth of this incredible movie even more.
Here are 16 Things You Didn’t Know About E.T.
16. It was inspired by the divorce of Steven Spielberg’s parents
E.T. was an amalgam of ideas that Steven Spielberg had. At one point in his career, he had planned to make a movie called Growing Up that was semi-autobiographical, based on childhood memories of disappearing into his imagination as a way of dealing with his parents’ divorce. That particular effort never got made. Neither did Night Skies, a more intense alien-themed project he worked on with writer John Sayles. It dealt with a family coming face-to-face with hostile beings from another planet.
These disparate ideas merged when Spielberg talked to screenwriter Melissa Mathison. He told her about the Night Skies alien concept, as well as some of his recollections of feeling lonely and adrift after his parents split. His idea was to meld the space creature idea to the very personal story of a young boy reeling from parental separation. Under his guidance, Mathison went on to write the screenplay. If E.T. often feels heartbreaking, that’s because it’s meant to. Spielberg made sure to infuse his own experiences into both the story itself and the overall atmosphere of the film.
Incidentally, as for Night Skies, the aliens got turned into ghosts as the project morphed into the Spielberg-produced Poltergeist.
15. Spielberg got revenge against the studio executive who turned it down
Steven Spielberg initially tried to set up E.T. at Columbia Pictures. He’d provided them with a big success with his film Close Encounters of the Third Kind a few years prior, and he felt that the studio would make a good home for his newest sci-fi adventure. He was wrong. Columbia’s marketing department, which assessed the financial viability of in-development projects by studying market demographics and the theatrical performance of similar films, didn’t see much potential in the concept. They forecast that E.T. would only appeal to young children, making it a gamble not necessarily worth taking.
Studio president Frank Price reportedly viewed the story as being akin to the cheesy Disney live-action movies that littered the cinematic landscape during the 1970s. Taking the advice of his marketing team, he put the script into “turnaround” — a process that allows other studios to pursue a project. Universal Pictures, feeling more bullish on E.T.‘s possibilities, stepped in and made the movie. Spielberg remained miffed that Price lacked faith in this very personal story. Price later left Columbia and went to Universal. The director, whose Amblin Entertainment company was based at Universal, insisted that he never be required to deal with the executive.
14. Drew Barrymore lied through her teeth to get cast
Drew Barrymore won America’s collective hearts with her performance as Gertie, Elliott’s little sister who is afraid of E.T. At first, but later grows to love him. She initially came to Spielberg’s attention when she auditioned for the role of Carol Ann, the young girl at the center of Poltergeist. That role, of course, ended up being filled by Heather O’Rourke. Still, Barrymore made an impression on Spielberg, especially when she fibbed to him, claiming that she was in a rock band called the Purple People Eaters and had world-class culinary skills.
In her autobiography Wildflower, Barrymore writes that she continued her humorous lies when meeting with the director and his team for E.T. Of entering the casting session and speaking to a group of adults, she says, “I was a dry-witted, lying, thieving six-year-old, and I just wanted to win the job and go on an adventure. And I wanted to make the most of it. So after my made-up tales and small talk that was larger than life, I was mostly directing it to Steven because I knew that he was buying it.” That the filmmaker would respond so strongly to an adorable child with an imagination that worked overtime is no surprise. He knew that he’d discovered a true star.
13. Another director accused the movie of plagiarizing his work
In Hollywood, it’s pretty common for shouts of plagiarism to pop up whenever a movie becomes a smash hit. There’s always someone out there who once conceived or wrote something that was kind-of, sort-of similar, and they see a chance to possibly cash in. (Every once in a while, there’s even some basis for this, but it’s rare.) What you don’t see often is a director leveling such an accusation at another director. That’s just what happened with E.T.
In the late 1960s, noted Indian director Satyajit Ray tried to launch a movie called The Alien that would have starred Peter Sellers and Marlon Brando. His script told the story of an extraterrestrial visitor who lands in Bengal and befriends a young boy. The project never got made, but when Ray saw E.T., he noted some similarities, commenting that mimeographed copies of his screenplay floating around could possibly have influenced Spielberg. For his part, Spielberg denied the charge, pointing out that he was still a high school student when Ray’s script was making its way through the studios.
12. The frog scene came from real life
There are many scenes in this movie that stand out. Ask ten different people for their favorite moment, and you could well wind up with ten different answers. Still, most people would agree that the frog scene is a highlight. Elliott decides that it’s his duty to free all the frogs from his science class before they can be dissected. He lets his frog loose, then runs through the classroom, letting everyone else’s go, too. The sequence ends in total chaos, with kids and frogs running and jumping everywhere. While all this is going on, Elliott grabs the girl he has a crush on and gives her a kiss.
According to Spielberg biographer Joseph McBride, this was inspired by an incident from Spielberg’s own past. The book Steven Spielberg: A Biography reports that the budding filmmaker’s father repeatedly insisted he take science and math classes that could set him on the path to becoming a doctor or electrical engineer. Such classes didn’t really go too well. Aside from not wanting to take them, he had other troubles. On the day that he was required to cut open a frog, young Mr. Spielberg got sick, fled the classroom, and vomited. He returned shortly thereafter, making certain to release several of the frogs before class was over.
11. There are multiple connections between E.T. and Star Wars
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are longtime friends. They are also friendly professional rivals, with Spielberg once having helmed the highest-grossing movie of all time (Jaws), until Lucas’s Star Wars stole that honor away from it. Then E.T. came along and bumped Star Wars to second place. Lucas took out an ad in the Hollywood trade publications, congratulating Spielberg on snatching the top spot, just as Spielberg had done before. Because their creators have a relationship, the two movies share a few connections between them. Spielberg inserted some shout-outs to Lucas’s hit in E.T., such as the scene where Elliott has some Star Wars toys sitting around his room. During the Halloween scene, E.T. (disguised as a ghost) sees a child trick-or-treating in a Yoda costume. He elicits squeals that seem to be a sign of recognition.
Lucas, meanwhile, returned the favor years later, paying tribute to his pal’s beloved alien creature in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Look very closely during the scene set in the Senate — where Amidala calls for the chancellor to be removed — and you will see several E.T.s sitting among all the other races. It was Lucas’s playful way of saying that Spielberg’s little hero and his brethren exist within the same galaxy as his own characters.
10. Harrison Ford shot a cameo that wasn’t used
Here’s another Star Wars connection: Han Solo himself, Harrison Ford, shot a cameo for E.T. in which he played a school principal who lectures Elliott after some concerns arise about his behavior in school. (Ford was also dating screenwriter Melissa Mathison at the time, and of course, he previously worked with Spielberg on Raiders of the Lost Ark.) In keeping with Spielberg’s desire to have all adults except for Elliott’s mother remain unseen until about half an hour into the film, the principal is in shadow as he swivels around on a chair in his dark office. During the sequence, Elliott briefly levitates while the school leader has his back turned. The boy’s concerned mom comes in to speak briefly to the principal at the end.
Ultimately, Spielberg felt the scene didn’t add anything important — and he worried that Ford’s presence would be a distraction from the story — so he cut it. This was a wise move, as Ford’s distinct voice does indeed draw attention to itself, making it easy to forget what the moment is supposed to be about. If you want to get a glimpse of how everything played, a very grainy version of the scene is available on YouTube.
9. It put Reese’s Pieces on the map
Wanting to draw the frightened, nervous alien out of hiding, Elliott offers a tantalizing treat, setting out Reese’s Pieces candies for the little creature to munch on. It works. E.T. is intrigued, and once he samples the peanut buttery goodness, he’s hooked. Spreading them throughout his house, Elliott lures the alien inside and up to the bedroom. While it may seem like mere product placement, the idea works because it connects E.T. and Elliott. The creature is like a child in the sense that he can’t get enough candy.
The filmmakers initially wanted M&Ms for the movie, but the Mars company said no. The reasons for the denial vary, largely depending on whom you ask. Some say executives thought E.T. was too ugly and would scare children, so they didn’t want their product associated with it. Others claim they didn’t think the film had much commercial appeal. Regardless, they turned the offer down, so the producers approached Hershey, whose Reese’s Pieces were a very similar candy to M&Ms. They said yes, of course, and ended up with their relatively-new product prominently featured in the biggest hit movie of the era. Sales of the candy went through the roof afterward, and Reese’s Pieces have become a mainstay of Hershey’s product lineup ever since. For the 2002 re-release, there was even a tie-in TV commercial featuring the film’s hero.
8. It played in theaters for a full year
E.T. opened in 1,103 theaters on June 11, 1982 to an $11.8 million weekend. From there, it did something that almost never happens: it increased its take on several consecutive weekends. (These days, movies often drop by more than 50% in their second frames.) That signified two things: phenomenal word-of-mouth, and people going back for repeat viewings. The movie stayed at or near the top of the box office charts all summer long. But that was far from the end of things. E.T.‘s initial theatrical run ended a year later, in June of 1983. You read that right – the movie played for 52 straight weeks, winding up with a total North American box office take of over $350 million. That would be more than a billion dollars in today’s terms.
Because of its immense popularity, E.T. was re-released to cinemas not once, but twice. Both times, people flocked to see it again. The first time was in July of 1985 when, according to the website Box Office Mojo, it ran for five weeks and made another $40 million. A 20th anniversary re-release came in 2002. This time, the film played for two full months and earned an additional $35 million.
7. Spielberg abandoned his plans for a sequel
Given that it broke box office records, it may seem a bit surprising that there was never a sequel to E.T. Spielberg claimed that, for years, one of the questions he was most frequently asked was when he would make a follow-up to his biggest hit. There was great pressure from inside the industry, as well. Universal, suspecting that there was a lot more money to be made from the property, also pushed for a second installment.
The truth is that, for a while, the director strongly considered capitulating to the overwhelming demand. Spielberg worked with Mathison to come up with a treatment for a sequel that would have been called E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears. They devised a story in which Elliott and his friends are abducted by malevolent aliens and need to find a way to contact E.T. so that he can save them. In some ways, it was a reversal of the original, which found E.T. under threat and Elliott working to aid his escape. The director eventually decided (wisely) that any kind of sequel would just detract from the impact and unique magic of the movie so many people had fallen so deeply in love with, and he abandoned these plans.
6. There was a print sequel about E.T. on his home planet
While Spielberg may have scrapped his plans for a cinematic sequel, there is one that exists in another format. It came courtesy of author William Kotzwinkle. The Scranton, Pennsylvania native, World Fantasy Award winner, and eventual A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master story writer had been entrusted to write the official novelization of E.T., a book that sold quite well. This put him in a position to continue carrying on the character’s legacy in print.
Kotzwinkle wrote a follow-up book that was published in 1985. E.T.: The Book of the Green Planet finds the alien returning to his home world, where he is punished for getting left behind on Earth. The planet’s inhabitants are happy gardeners, growing all kinds of plant life in their massive gardens. E.T. is most interested in something else that’s growing: Elliott. He monitors his friend from light years away, as he hits adolescence, takes an interest in girls, and starts to forget the lessons of peace that he learned from his extra-terrestrial pal. Afraid of what he’s seeing, E.T. tries to find a way to return to Earth once more. Nothing could ever match the sheer power of the movie, but Kotzwinkle did take the clever step of telling the story from E.T.’s point of view, making The Book of the Green Planet a rather intriguing print sequel.
5. It inspired a hit song from Neil Diamond
Neil Diamond has been a popular singer for decades. In the early 1980s, he was still routinely logging hits on the pop charts. He had an especially big one in 1982, called “Heartlight.” The song’s life began when Diamond went to see E.T. with his friends Carole Bayer-Sager and Burt Bacharach, two of the most legendary songwriters in the history of pop music. All three of them were deeply touched by the movie, and that got the inspiration flowing. Together, they wrote “Heartlight,” which got its name from the way E.T.’s heart glows red as he prepares to bid Elliott goodbye before leaving Earth.
America responded warmly to the song, whose lyrics include obvious references like “Turn on your heartlight/In the middle of a young boy’s dream/Don’t wake me up too soon/Gonna take a ride across the moon.” (The writers had to pay Universal a fee for the right to refer to specific elements from the film.) “Heartlight” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, while ascending all the way to #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart. It ranked as one of the biggest hits of Neil Diamond’s already illustrious career.
4. Spielberg resisted bringing it to home video for years
Home video was a different beast in the 1980s. It typically took at least a year for a movie to arrive on VHS, if it arrived at all. The cost to purchase a movie for viewing in your own home was as high as $100. There certainly seemed to be a market, yet no one was sure how big that market was or how long it would remain feasible.
One such skeptic was Steven Spielberg who, for several years, refused to allow E.T. to be released on home video.The director was hounded by fans, demanding to know when they could watch his masterpiece at home. He described pressure from the public and Universal as “a war” to get his consent for a videocassette release. According to a New York Times story from 1988, the president of M.C.A. Home Entertainment (which owned Universal) said, “We finally wore Steven Spielberg down.” Part of what prompted Spielberg’s change of heart was the knowledge that people could watch a clean copy, as opposed to some grainy bootleg.
E.T. finally hit the home video scene in October of 1988 — six years after its theatrical debut — at a then-unheard-of sell-through price of $20. The tapes utilized an anti-piracy program to prevent copying and had a hologram sticker on them to assure authenticity. The release, of course, was wildly successful.
3. It spawned a legendarily awful video game
E.T. did a whole lot right, but it also spawned what may be the worst video game in history. And when we say “the worst,” we really mean it. Think of the worst video game you’ve ever played. This one is worse, we promise. Made for the Atari 2600 system, the game let you play as the title character. Your objective was to find the hidden pieces necessary to assemble a phone so that you could call home. They were all buried in pits, which E.T. had to drop down in order to grab them. Getting back up from those pits proved to be extremely challenging, thanks to some truly horrendous controls. Aside from eating a few occasional Reese’s Pieces, that’s about all there was to the game. This scenario simply repeated until E.T. was out of energy.
The fact that it was rushed into production didn’t help matters. The game was reportedly slapped together in just a few weeks’ time to capitalize on the movie’s success. Aside from being overly simplistic, the poor controls and atrocious graphics were a real turnoff. Whatever magic the film had, the game lacked. Word quickly spread that it sucked, leading to tons of unsold units. Allegedly, there were so many game cartridges left sitting around that Atari had them all dumped into a New Mexico landfill. We’ve played the game, and trust us – a landfill is exactly where it belongs.
2. The 20th Anniversary edition digitally replaced all the guns
E.T. really isn’t a violent movie at all, but it does have a few characters who are government agents, who of course carry guns. No one in the film gets shot, though. The weapons are just there to emphasize why Elliott and his family are as scared as they are when a bunch of gun-toting Feds storm their home, looking for the alien visitor. When Universal planned a 20th-anniversary re-release for 2002, Steven Spielberg had some second thoughts about those guns. There had been a number of mass shootings in America around that time, and many people were very concerned about the prevalence of guns in our society. He felt that perhaps they were out of place in the modern day, so he had them all digitally replaced. The agents now held walkie-talkies.
This decision was met with displeasure from both critics and fans alike, who deemed it a senseless act of political correctness. More importantly, they pointed out that a landmark film like E.T. should not be tampered with after the fact. People had been enjoying it “as is” for twenty years, guns and all. Some folks emphasized that movies are like time capsules, showing the attitudes and values of the era in which they were made. Altering them, therefore, is wrong. Spielberg eventually conceded that everyone else was right. He expressed regret over the decision and vowed that all future re-releases of E.T., in any format, would be unaltered from the original version.
1. It has been viewed as both a Christian allegory and a tool of the devil
As is the case with many great movies, people had their own interpretations of what E.T. was really about. Some critics and scholars identified a spiritual element in the film, even going so far as to suggest that the titular alien had similarities to Jesus Christ. The character wasn’t born in a stable, but he was found in a shed. He also possessed a healing touch, gathered “disciples” (in the form of Elliott and the other kids), went through a “death” and “resurrection,” and ascended into the heavens at the end. Universal fanned the flames of this idea with ads showing E.T.’s finger touching Elliott’s, not unlike the famous Michelangelo painting in the Sistine Chapel. Spielberg, who is Jewish, flatly denied the intent to put Christian overtones into the movie, although he did acknowledge understanding how people could think otherwise.
Then there was the flip side of the coin. L.A. Weekly reported that Jimmy Swaggart — a once-popular televangelist who got caught up in a sex scandal involving prostitutes — wasn’t a fan of the motion picture. He slammed the character of E.T. as being “a beast from Hell” and pegged Spielberg “an agent of Satan.” What, specifically, he objected to is unclear, but it’s worth noting that some Evangelical Christians object to the thought that there could be life on other planets, as the Bible gives no indication that this is a possibility.
Both readings are interesting, if not entirely convincing. However you look at it, there’s no doubt that E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial got people thinking in a profound way.
Do you know of any other fun facts surrounding Steven Spielberg’s beloved ’80s classic? Let us know in the comments.
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