‘ET’ at 40: Secrets of Spielberg’s beloved classic revealed

This Saturday, “ET the extra-terrestrial” celebrates its 40th anniversary. But the iconic alien doesn’t look much older than 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 backyard, was an instant classic. This 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 film ran in theaters for an unprecedented full year, until June 1983.

Check out these insider facts about Spielberg’s epic childhood drama, then watch it again: We to dare you don’t have to cry.

The concept of “ET” started much darker

ET was originally supposed to be about an alien invasion.

When Spielberg began thinking about making an alien-themed sequel to his 1977 film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” he hired writer-director John Sayles to pen a screenplay called “Night Skies,” in which a farming community was being terrorized by alien invaders. As the Guardian reported, “‘Night Skies’ tone was set for horror and violence.” Fortunately, the director changed his mind.

Henry Thomas, 9, crashed his audition

Thomas, who previously had a role in the Sissy Spacek drama “Raggedy Man,” did an impromptu audition with Spielberg in which he cried as he begged a government agent not to take ET “The improv was so heartfelt and honest that I gave him the part right there,” Spielberg said.

Ralph Macchio was almost in the movie

“Cobra Kai” star Macchio told People he had the opportunity to play Tyler, one of Elliott’s older brother’s friends. “C. Thomas Howell — my ‘Outsiders’ greaser buddy, Ponyboy — actually played that role,” he said in an interview on Drew Barrymore’s show. It was Howell’s first film; “The Outsiders” was released the following year.

Spielberg drew inspiration from famous faces for his alien hero

ET and Steven Spielberg.
ET was supposed to have “frivolous” eyes.
Getty Images

In “The Making of ET the Extra-Terrestrial” special, the director shared that he wanted ET’s face to evoke several legends. “I remember saying to [special effects artist] Carl [Rambaldi], here are some pictures of Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway and Carl Sandburg. I love their eyes, can we make ET’s eyes as frivolous and as shriveled and as sad as these three icons.

Special effects artist Ben Burtt used many sources for ET’s voice – including a chain smoker

Elliot and ET
Burtt got creative with ET’s voice.
Courtesy of Everett Collection

Burtt found ET’s vocal inflections unusual in many places, he told the BBC. “There’s raccoons in there, there’s sea otters, there’s horses, there’s a burp from my old USC film teacher. There’s my wife’s labored breathing asleep at night with a cold. But the lead voice came from actress Pat Welsh, a chain smoker. According to IMDb.com, she won $380.

Harrison Ford originally had a share

The three original cast members of ET
Another actor was almost part of the film.

Ford was dating “ET” screenwriter Melissa Mathison at the time — and had just filmed Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” He shot a cameo as the school principal, berating Elliott for releasing dissection-related frogs. The scene was cut but, as Spielberg said, “that’s where [Henry] had the chance to meet Harrison.

A legless actor gave ET his signature walk

Elliot and ET kiss.
ET’s walk was unique.
Courtesy of Everett Collection

In many scenes, ET is controlled by puppeteers. But Matthew De Meritt was 11 when he was hired to be inside the costume in the scene in which ET raids the fridge; born without legs, he walked on his hands, which gave the alien a unique waddle.

Spielberg gave several nods to “Star Wars”

The director had fun saluting 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 leaf at ET to smuggle him into the woods, they see a child wearing a Yoda mask as they sneak past the tricksters.

The doctors in the movie are really doctors

For the chilling sequence in which the house is taken over by scientists and medical teams, Spielberg enlisted real doctors to play the roles: “The whole team of doctors that worked on ET was made up of real emergency doctors and various specialists from all over California, and it was entirely improvised. He just wanted them to do it like a real code blue situation,” McNaughton said.

Spielberg pistols digitally erased in a single version

The guns were erased from the film.
©Universal/Courtesy Everett Col

As Elliott and ET are pursued by federal authorities, there is an FBI agent armed with a rifle in their ranks. In a re-release, the director replaced the gun with a less threatening walkie-talkie. He said he received a lot of negative feedback on the film’s review: “I learned a big lesson and that’s the last time I decided to play with the past.”

Spielberg was accused of plagiarism

Steven Spielberg in front of an ET poster.
The concept of “ET” was similar to “The Alien”.

Indian author Satyajit Ray thought the concept of “ET” was strikingly similar to a screenplay he wrote in the 1960s titled “The Alien,” about “an alien landing in a village in Bengal and bonding with friendship with a boy. Ray was warned by American science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, after Clarke saw a screening of Spielberg’s film. Spielberg denied the allegations and ultimately Ray decided not to sue.

John Williams’ score made the film an opera

The director said the emotional ending to “ET” was “as close to an opera… as anything I’ve ever done before in my life” due to the musical styles of Williams, a longtime Spielberg, and of Lucas, a collaborator.

The Atari “ET” Video Game Was Legendarily Bad

The ET video game.
The ET video game was released in 1982.

Shortly after the film’s release, a game was developed for the Atari 2600 system. The lead time for a game was usually several months, but this one was produced in five weeks. Looper.com noted, “Reviewers at the time found the game confusing, clunky, and difficult to learn, with poor graphics even for the time. Apparently, children had an easier time playing than adults, but people didn’t like constantly falling into pits.

There could have been a disturbing sequel

Gertie and ET kiss.
Spielberg realized that a sequel to “ET” would ruin his reputation.
©Universal/courtesy Everett/E

Spielberg reunited with screenwriter Mathison for a treatment for “ET 2: Nocturnal Fears,” in which ET would return to earth amid an invasion of aliens who “were carnivorous and emitted a ‘hypnotic hum’ with paralyzing effects on surrounding fauna. In the end, he wisely concluded that it could tarnish the legacy of the original film.

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