It’s been almost forty years since E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was first released, but this 1982 Steven Spielberg-directed gem is still going strong to this day with audiences of all ages. This wonderful film about a boy and his friend alien melted the hearts of all those who first watched it back in the early 1980s, and it still remains a most treasured family film. Its legacy is seen in every aspect of our pop culture, and it is regularly cited as people’s favorite film of all time. Only a director as visionary as Spielberg could take such a simple concept and transform it into a lasting cinematic treasure.
E.T. also helped transform the lives of those who participated in its making, sending a young Drew Barrymore into stratospheric fame and solidifying Henry Thomas as one of the most famous child actors of all time. There’s no doubt that E.T. will continue to leave its mark on future generations, and we can only hope that its perfection is respected without Hollywood grasping for a remake or an ill-advised, modern-day sequel.
If you’re a fan of this classic film or if you’re a Steven Spielberg aficionado wanting to know his tricks of the trade, you’ll be fascinated by the secrets that went on behind the scenes during the movie’s making. From the movie’s conception based on Spielberg’s life to the inspiration behind E.T.’s famous face, we have all the facts you’ll want to know about this iconic film.
With that in mind, here are 20 Crazy Details Behind the Making of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
20 Henry Thomas Brought Up His Tragic Past For His Audition
Landing the role of Elliott in E.T. unquestionably changed child actor Henry Thomas’ life. Having only previously done a couple of small movie parts in 1981, Thomas all of a sudden became the most famous kid in the world thanks to his on-screen adventures with his alien co-star.
According to the Mirror, Thomas was only nine years old when he landed this role of a lifetime. In order to secure himself the part, during the audition the young actor drew upon the traumatic experience of seeing his pet dog attacked by his neighbor’s dog, which brought on real tears. Spielberg and the casting directors were immediately impressed. Being able to call upon real emotion showed the director that he could definitely act, and solidified Thomas as a genuine child talent.
19 Drew Barrymore’s Vivid Imagination Got Her Her Role
Drew Barrymore has been on the Hollywood scene for a long time, but her first big start on screen was in E.T. playing the part of Gertie. According to an interview on Ellen, Barrymore revealed that she wasn’t originally even going to audition for E.T. During her interview, Barrymore explained how she was actually trying to get a part in Poltergeist, but the director wasn’t there that day. Instead, Poltergeist’s producer, Steven Spielberg was there in his place.
She told Ellen: “I was six, and I lied my face off. I told him I was in a rock 'n' roll band, that I was a drummer, that I was a cook.”
After her audition, Spielberg said she wasn’t quite right for Poltergeist, but that he’d love to have her come in and audition for another project he was working on. Sure enough, he called her up soon after and gave her the part of Gertie in E.T.
18 It had a very boring title at first
When a movie becomes a huge hit, especially one that continues to garner success decades and generations after its first release, it’s hard to imagine it separately from its title. Indeed, the title of a movie becomes its first point of cultural consciousness, and there are those that last the test of time, and those that don’t.
Mention E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial to anyone and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s not only a memorable film title, it’s also become so deeply ingrained in our collective pop culture that we all know what it is even if we haven’t seen it. Well, E.T. might have faded away in the land of forgotten films, had they gone with the original title, A Boy’s Life, as noted by The New Yorker. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with A Boy’s Life, it’s not half as memorable as E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
17 Harrison Ford Shot a Cameo
While Spielberg was working on getting things ready to begin filming E.T., he was still in the process of filming Raiders of the Lost Ark, which, of course, starred Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. Ford dating Melissa Mathison, who was the scriptwriter for E.T., at the time.
Because of his friendship with Spielberg and his relationship with Mathison, Ford agreed to make a cameo appearance in the film.
According to Entertainment Weekly, Ford’s bit part was supposed to be a kind of a joke as he was going to play against his usual type, here as an uptight school principal who would scold Elliott after the frog-releasing scene. In the final edit, the decision was made to cut the Ford scene as it didn't fit in with the rest of the movie and it was thought Ford’s presence would be too distracting from the story line.
16 M&M’s Were Supposed To Be E.T.'s favorite candy
Reese's Pieces surged in popularity after the release of E.T.. The candy was featured in the scene where Elliott tries lays a trail of candy to lure E.T. back to his house. Many people back then, and now for that matter, might have thought it strange that Elliott used Reese's Pieces.
Well, according to Business Insider, the reason for the choice of sweet was down to the fact that M&Ms had refused the production permission to use its brand in the film. Culinary Lore also states that Mars Inc., which owned M&Ms, refused the filmmakers the right to use the candy because it didn’t want to be associated with aliens. This was clearly a bad call, as after the release of E.T., sales of Reese's rose exponentially, topping the numbers sold of M&Ms for the first time ever.
15 E.T.’s Face Was Modeled On Some Famous People
E.T. is one of the most recognizable movie characters in history and one of the cutest, albeit weirdest, examples of an on-screen alien. No character had, or has since, looked like like this singular creature, and its aesthetic is all thanks to Spielberg and his incredible designer Carlo Rambaldi.
Rambaldi created the aliens for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and his talents were once again put to use in E.T.
In a special featurette called The Making of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Spielberg reveals: “I remember saying to Carlo, here’s some pictures of Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway and Carl Sandburg. I love their eyes, can we make E.T.’s eyes as frivolous and also wizened and as sad as those three icons.” Based on these famous celebrities, we have the E.T. we all know and recognize.
14 E.T. Was Played by Three Different Actors
With today’s technology, it would be a fairly easy task creating a CGI alien to act as the main part in a blockbuster film. However, when E.T. was being made in 1982, things were not so simple According to The Vintage News, creating a believable, friendly alien back then took three mechanical puppets as well as three actors, one of whom was a young 12-year-old boy who had been born without legs.
There wasn’t always someone wearing the suit in every scene, as often E.T. was being controlled by a team of mechanical operators. However, when the alien was required to walk or move about, a small person was often behind the movements. Watching E.T. today, the alien might seem like quite a basic piece of engineering, but back then, Spielberg and his team were making technological strides.
13 Drew Barrymore Thought E.T. Was Real
Drew Barrymore was only six years old when she played the part of Gertie in E.T., and even though she was already developing into a bright, young, talented actress, she was still very much at an age where imagination and make-believe can cloud reality. Barrymore’s acting is fantastic in the film, especially for someone so young, but her great reactions to things on screen could be down to the fact that she believed E.T. was a real alien.
The cast and crew encouraged her to believe E.T. was really alive, and she seems to have taken the bait completely.
In a behind-the-scenes featurette for the movie, Elliott actor Henry Thomas reveals: “Drew, she’s imaginative. She introduced E.T. to her mom and said ‘He’s just a little shy now. He doesn't want to talk to you right now but he’s just a little shy.’"
12 E.T.’s Voice Comes From Raccoons, Otters, Horses, and Burps
E.T. is one of the most imitated movie characters, with people of all ages having tried at one time or another to impersonate the alien’s singular speech patterns. If you listen closely, you’ll hear that there are a lot of different elements and sounds to the alien’s voice. This wasn’t achieved by employing one spectacularly gifted voice recording artist. Instead, as we learn from the BBC, it was a talented sound designer, Ben Burtt, who collected noises from an entire array of sources and put them together to create E.T.’s voice.
As Burtt tells the BBC: “I created the voice for E.T. out of many different things, about 18 different people and animals and sound effects. There are raccoons in there, there are sea otters, there are some horses, there's a burp from my old cinema professor from USC.” They also used the voice of a chain-smoking housewife.
11 Spielberg Dressed As A Woman On Set
Being around such a young cast, Spielberg had to ensure that there was enough fun and playfulness on set. In The Making of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial from 1996, we learn that the director definitely didn’t take himself too seriously while on set. Apparently, around Halloween, Spielberg came to set dressed up as a lady school teacher.
As Henry Thomas remembers: “Halloween was great. He directed the whole day like that, as an old lady.”
Spielberg adds: “I didn’t have children back then in the early 1980s, and you know suddenly I was becoming a father every single day, I felt like a father and it felt good.” Spielberg certainly knew how to keep spirits high on his set, and his kind, playful personality has left wonderful lasting memories on his cast and crew.
10 A Mime Was Hired To Move E.T.’s Arms
In The Making of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, we learn that it took a lot of work to create the alien we all know and love. Aside from having a whole team of mechanics working to ensure the creature looked real, Spielberg also hired a mime to help out E.T.’s gestures.
The director reveals: “When I saw the mechanical arms, they were really great but they were very jerky when they worked. The fingers would move, but almost too thoughtfully. And I felt E.T.’s got to have almost balletic arms, almost like the hands of a mime. So I just put it out there, can we hire a mime and we’ll put the E.T. hand makeup on a mime’s hand so the artist can really be artistic about picking things up and touching themselves and reaching out. So this is where this wonderful mime artist came to work with us.”
9 The Original Ending Was Very Different
When a movie is as beloved as E.T. is, it’s hard to imagine it being any different. Grown men and women still weep when thinking about the emotionally-charged final scene, but we could have ended up an alternative ending had Spielberg gone with his original idea.
According to actor Michael MacNaughton’s interview in Express, “The last scene was going to be all of us playing Dungeons & Dragons again, except this time, Elliott’s the dungeon master. Because he was the one that found ET, he sort of got in with the group. [...] And then they would pan up to the roof and you’d see the communicator and it’s still working — in other words, Elliott is still in touch with E.T. But after they did the score and they saw what they had with the spaceship taking off and everything... How can you follow that? I mean, it was a wise choice."
8 There Was A Dark Sequel Planned
Because E.T. did so unexpectedly well at the box-office, it’s a wonder why there was never a sequel released. Had the movie been made today, it’s almost certain that Hollywood would have tried to make it a franchise. Well, according to Syfy, there was actually a story treatment for an E.T. sequel, but it was so terrible that it never got made.
Apparently, its dark tone was done on purpose.
Spielberg was reportedly completely against the idea of a sequel to his 1982 film, saying: “Sequels can be very dangerous because they compromise your truth as an artist. I think a sequel to E.T. would do nothing but rob the original of its [purity]." Who knows, maybe someday someone will dust off the draft and attempt to make it, but Spielberg will certainly be the first to veto the project.
7 They shot the movie in chronological order for the kids
It’s a well known fact that most large-scale film projects aren’t filmed in chronological order. Due to shooting schedules, location requirements, and budget factors, it’s usually not possible to film in script-order. Well, E.T. is one of the very few exceptions to this usual Hollywood practice, as Steven Spielberg insisted that the scenes be shot chronologically.
According to TIME, Spielberg made this unorthodox decision in order to help his younger cast. The director explained: “I insisted on shooting the film in complete continuity so the kids knew, emotionally, where they had been the day before, and they pretty much didn’t have any idea of where they were going the next day. So, like real life, every day was a surprise - Drew, Henry Thomas and Robert really believed that this was happening to their lives.”
6 Robert MacNaughton’s Dungeons & Dragons love got him his part
Robert MacNaughton played Elliott's older brother Michael in the movie, and he revealed to Express that a childhood pastime of his helped land him the role. Apparently, E.T.’s screenwriter Melissa Mathison was a huge fan of Dungeons & Dragons and she was always playing it with her then husband Harrison Ford at their house.
This explains the game at the start of the film, where we see Elliott trying to join in playing D&D with Michael and his friends.
MacNaughton revealed that he too was an avid Dungeons & Dragons player, and when asked by Spielberg what his hobbies were, he told the director about his love of the game. Spielberg seemed pleased that MacNaughton’s hobbies fit with his character Michael’s pastimes, and the role became his shortly after.
5 The Film Was Shot From A Child’s Point-of-View
One of the things that you may not have noticed while watching E.T. is the fact that is is filmed from a child’s point of view. According to Filmsite, the movie was deliberately shot from a lower-angle in order to encourage younger audience members to identify more easily with the child characters on screen. It also helps adults put themselves back into the shoes of a child, encouraging them to remember how scary and threatening the taller, bigger world of adults can really be for a kid.
In fact, the only adult we ever see in full is the mother, Mary, who was played by Dee Wallace.
Otherwise, most of the other grown-ups in the movie are seen from the waist down, the way a child would see the world in front of them.
4 Real Doctors And Nurses Were Hired As Actors
E.T. is a very emotional movie. From the burgeoning friendship between Elliott and E.T. to the ending when we face the teary goodbyes between these unlikely friends, the movie is rife with sentiment. One of the most poignant, dramatic scenes is when E.T. and Elliott are lying side-by-side in the makeshift medical facility at their house, both fading away while doctors and nurses try to revive them.
According to People, the medical staff we see looking after these two friends were actually real-life medics. Spielberg contacted the UCLA Center for the Health Services in order to get information on cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and he was referred to a specialist. Wanting the scene to look as real as possible, Spielberg got real-life medical staff to play out the scene in order to simulate the chaos that really happens in emergencies.
3 E.T. was inspired by real children
E.T. is one of the most lovable incarnations of an alien to grace our screens.
Part of this androgynous creature’s charm is the fact that there’s so much goofiness and childlike innocence to it.
Well, this sweet naivete, as well as E.T.’s powers, were actually inspired by the screenwriter’s interactions with children. As Melissa Mathison tells us in The Making of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial: “Many of the scenes from the movie come from my own experience being with children. For instance, what children would like [E.T.’s] powers to be. A lot of the children would mention the obvious of telepathy or telekinetic powers but I was struck by the fact that several of them mentioned that they would like this magic creature to be able to heal. And I thought it was such an incredibly poignant idea to come from a child.”
2 Spielberg Didn’t think E.T. Would Make A Lot of Money
According to Business Insider, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is the fourth highest-grossing movie of all time-- not too shabby for a low-budget film about a boy and his alien pal. While the movie became a immense success and has been hailed as the most successful film to come out of the 1980s, Steven Spielberg didn’t think it was going to be a hit with audiences.
Speaking in The Making of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, the director said: “I think E.T.’s not going to make a lot of money, I think I’m making a movie that is only going to appeal to kids. I said I’m probably making a big mistake, I’m going to make an old-fashioned Walt Disney movie about an alien and a kid and that’s all it’s going to be.”
1 The Movie Was Inspired by Spielberg’s Lonely Childhood
It’s always interesting to find out how some of our favorite movies came about, but no one would ever expect that Spielberg’s tale of a boy and an alien would stem from his own childhood experiences. In an interview with director James Cameron for People, Spielberg admitted that E.T. was “never meant to be a movie about an extra-terrestrial,” but instead about something very personal.
“It was supposed to be a movie about my mom and dad getting a divorce,” he explains.
“So I started a story, not a script per say, but I started writing a story about what it was like when your parents divide the family up and they move to different states.” Eventually, the idea for a boy and an alien friend developed from this, and the rest is E.T. history.
Do you have any other trivia to share about E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial? Let us know in the comments!