It’s hard to imagine a world without E.T. – but, when you think about it, it’s remarkable that a movie about kids helping an alien return home has become such a cultural stalwart. Heartwarming and thrilling in equal measure, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial established Steven Spielberg as a legendary director in the making, showing off a new, gentler side to the filmmaker behind edge-of-your-seat movies like Duel and Jaws.
Plus, with a cast that included talents such as Dee Wallace and child stars Henry Thomas and – most memorably – Drew Barrymore, E.T. is a family flick that still holds up to this day. Here are some lesser-known facts about the out-of-this-world hit.
20. It became the highest-grossing film of all time in 1983
Alien movies today are pretty much a dime a dozen. In fact, in the 90s they were so common that they pretty much killed the whole genre for over a decade. Back when E.T. was released, however, the concept was new and exciting, so much so that it smashed every previous record as far as cinema was concerned. The idea of aliens in a normal Earth setting was so inspiring that it even knocked the first Star Wars movie off the top spot, with E.T. becoming the highest-grossing film of all time in 1983.
However, director Steven Spielberg was only getting warmed up, and the records set for highest-grossing movie following E.T prove it. The little bug-eyed alien that could was only knocked off his top spot a whole decade later in 1993, and that was by an even more successful Spielberg movie – Jurassic Park. E.T.’s global haul of $792.9 million was dwarfed by Jurassic Park’s takings of $912 million – but 1997’s Titanic ultimately sank them both (pun intended), as director James Cameron’s Oscar-winner became the first film to earn over $1 billion at the box office.
19. E.T. is actually a plant, like Marvel’s Groot
E.T. is a gentle alien with a caring, childlike personality. He can communicate with humans, but uses mostly gestures, since his grasp on the English language isn’t exactly perfect. People fall in love with him because of his huge, adorable eyes – and there is more merchandise of him than you could buy in a whole lifetime. Sound familiar? More recently, Guardian of the Galaxy’s Groot (or more specifically Baby Groot) has become the loveable alien that everyone wants on their walls, mugs or teddies – but that’s not the only similarity between him and E.T. Not much is revealed about E.T. himself in the movie – in fact we never even get a name – but some things are available if you go looking.
For example, E.T. has a huge lifespan, and is millions of years old before we even meet him in the movie. Since he is safely returned home by the end of the film, we can assume he will go on to live a million more. Not only that, but E.T is actually genderless, even if most people assume he’s a boy at first glance. Spielberg confirmed as much, saying that E.T.’s race were actually much closer to being plants than animals, which means that E.T. is basically an adorable tree alien – just like Groot.
18. Spielberg made Drew Barrymore cry on set
One of the oldest sayings in entertainment is “never work with children or animals”, and it applies to everything from TV and film to radio and theatre. Spielberg built his whole career on the back of creating engaging stories that put kids in the middle of the action, but that doesn’t mean it was always smooth sailing. The role of Elliot’s little sister Gertie was filled by Drew Barrymore, who would go on to be immensely successful as an adult. However, E.T. was one of her first professional jobs – and she was just seven years old. For the most part Barrymore did an awesome job, but one day on set things just weren’t going well. She kept getting confused and emotional, and kept forgetting her lines over and over again.
Spielberg, who was watching from the director’s chair, just assumed Barrymore was playing around. Eventually he lost his temper and snapped at her, leading to her getting emotional and crying. It was soon revealed that she was running a high fever and was actually pretty sick, leading to Spielberg apologising and giving her a hug. Hopefully he doubled her pay for that day too.
17. Spielberg regrets the 20th anniversary special edition of the film
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have had strangely similar careers. To name but a few similarities: they both created out-of-this-world blockbuster films that were dark enough for the adults but fun enough for the kids, and they both worked with the great composer John Williams. With that said, the two directors differ in one important way, and that’s their attitude towards digital enhancements. At the start of the 2000s, George Lucas started becoming more and more enamoured with CGI and other computer effects, leading him to go back to his earlier Star Wars films and change and add things using the new technology. Spielberg saw Lucas doing this and thought it must be the way to go, which pushed him to release a digitally altered version of E.T. to mark the film’s 20th anniversary in 2002. In so doing, Spielberg decided to remove some of the more threatening elements of the film which he no longer considered appropriate for a children’s film.
The re-release was mostly the same, but digitally replaced the guard’s guns with walkie-talkies (note the difference between the two images above), and replaced a number of shots of the original E.T. puppet with a new CGI version of the alien. Also, some dialogue was re-recorded, removing a single use of the word ‘terrorist,’ which was considered too sensitive a subject after 9/11. The E.T. special edition left many fans and critics unhappy. Spielberg soon came to regret making these changes, and vowed never to edit or alter his movies after they were released again. Today, the version of E.T. available on home entertainment is the original theatrical cut.
16. The E.T. voice actor smoked cigarettes to make her voice raspier
E.T. was created in an era before advanced digital effects, and before many sound techniques had been developed yet. This meant that everyone on set had to get creative to bring the story to life, especially where E.T. himself was concerned. In order to get E.T.’s signature voice, Spielberg cast Pat Welsh, a then-67-year-old actress who had only one film credit (1940’s Waterloo Bridge), but who had worked extensively in radio. Welsh had a distinctive, raspy voice. In order to push this even further, she started smoking two packs of cigarettes a day whilst recording E.T.’s dialogue.
The sound department then mixed in noises from animals such as raccoons, sea otters and horses to give E.T. an organic sound. Welsh’s vocal talents were later featured in Return of the Jedi: she voiced Boushh, the bounty hunter later revealed to be Princess Leia in disguise.
15. E.T. was brought to life through a combination of puppeteering and small actors in suits
Filming E.T. himself presented unique problems for the filmmakers, which they got around in pretty ingenious ways. The primary performer responsible for bringing E.T. to life was actually a puppeteer, who was able to conceal himself easily in the scene thanks to only being around three feet tall himself. When the puppeteering method wasn’t viable, such as in the film’s kitchen scenes, an actual E.T. costume was used. Costumes were worn by three different little people throughout production, one of whom was born without legs but who could walk comfortably on his hands, ideal for E.T.’s signature body movements.
As for the noises E.T. makes as he walked, these were achieved by filling a wet t-shirt with jello and squishing it around. Gross. On top of all this, Spielberg made a point of shooting the bulk of the film from low angles, to better convey the story from the point of view of the diminutive E.T. and the children.
14. Henry Thomas won the role by breaking down thinking about his dead dog in his audition
Casting child actors is a difficult process that can be hard to get right, but it’s also the thing that could make or break your movie. This wasn’t a problem for E.T., as both Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore delivered pitch-perfect performances, with just the right blend of adorableness and serious, mature emotion. Emotional maturity was particularly essential for the central role of Elliot, and Spielberg was able to find this in Thomas. Although Thomas (who showed up for his audition dressed as Indiana Jones) didn’t do so well in the initial test scene, he won everyone over with a spot of improvisation.
After some direction from Spielberg, Thomas ad-libbed an emotional outburst, drawing on the experience of his pet dog dying as inspiration. The result was so moving that several people in the room started crying, including Spielberg, who hired Thomas on the spot. The director can be heard enthusiastically declaring at the end of the screen test, “OK kid, you got the job!”
13. Drew Barrymore was cast after Spielberg turned her down for Poltergeist
While Henry Thomas nailed his audition for Elliot, Spielberg and company had a bit more difficulty casting Gertie. Many young child actresses were considered, among them future stars Juliette Lewis and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Drew Barrymore had one film role to her name at the time, having played William Hurt’s daughter in 1980’s Altered States. Barrymore had some history with Spielberg, as she had previously auditioned for the key role of Carol Anne in Poltergeist.
This role would instead go to Heather O’Rourke – but it seems Barrymore made an impression on Spielberg nonetheless. When Spielberg met Barrymore for E.T., he recalled her Poltergeist audition, at which the imaginative youngster lied about being the drummer in a band because “drummers are the coolest.” Spielberg found her charming, and decided she would be a good fit for Gertie. Later, when Barrymore was in her teens (having survived an infamously troubled childhood), the director became her godfather.
12. A Star Wars Easter egg has fuelled fan theories that E.T. might be a Jedi
E.T. is full of iconic scenes, from E.T. inadvertently getting Elliot drunk during class, to the iconic pan across the toys in the wardrobe, to the bicycle basket flight in the climax. However, one scene that has become beloved in recent years is the Halloween scene, where E.T. goes trick-or-treating with a simple sheet over his head – and encounters a character familiar to film fans. Yes, E.T. features a brief appearance from Yoda, the Jedi Master made legendary by his introduction in The Empire Strikes Back.
This cheeky little nod to the work of Spielberg’s friend George Lucas eventually led to Lucas nodding back, by briefly featuring a race of E.T.-looking aliens in some Senate scenes in the Star Wars prequels. Because E.T. appears to recognise Yoda, and later demonstrates such remarkable super-powers as spontaneous healing and levitation, this has led to fan theories that E.T. himself is in fact a Jedi! We’ll leave you to decide whether that’s the case – but know there is another tie between the movies, as John Williams (who provided the score for the Star Wars movies before E.T.) adds in a snippet of Yoda’s theme to the music in this scene.
11. The movie was shot chronologically to get genuine emotional reactions from the child actors
Steven Spielberg wanted E.T. to be first and foremost a movie for kids, and he ensured that feeling in a bunch of different ways. For example, there’s the comparative absence of adult characters (aside from Dee Wallace as the mother, and their school teachers), and the aforementioned use of low camera work to convey a child’s perspective on the world. However, the most important part of making a movie for kids is the childlike wonder and emotion of every scene, and this was established in a pretty ingenious way on the set of E.T.
Even though it wasn’t standard studio practice because it often proved expensive, Spielberg committed to shooting all the scenes in the movie in chronological order. Because of this, the young actors were able to convey their emotional journey in a more natural manner than if the scenes had been shot out of sequence. This led to the emotional final scenes being the very last ones filmed, meaning that a lot of real tears were shed on-set, and not just by the child actors.
10. Poltergeist is E.T.’s dark sister movie
Aside from the fact that they have a common link in Steven Spielberg, it’s hard to imagine any similarities between Poltergeist and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. However, the two movies have more in common than you might think Steven Spielberg has said on numerous occasions that he wanted one to be a dark echo of the other. No prizes for guessing which of the two movies is supposed to be the dark echo, and which one is supposed to be the light. Both E.T. and Poltergeist grew out of an earlier, abandoned project that Spielberg had been working on after Close Encounters of the Third Kind: a dark sci-fi thriller entitled Night Skies.
Originally, Spielberg had considering directing both films, but a contractual issue made this impossible. Subsequently, Tobe Hooper was hired to direct Poltergeist, with Spielberg writing and producing. Both E.T. and Poltergeist show us remarkable things happening in a humdrum suburban setting – but where E.T. gives us a warm version of that, Poltergeist is of course a pure nightmare. Poltergeist opened in cinemas mere weeks after E.T. There have long been rumours that Spielberg may have been the true director of Poltergeist; reportedly he was an unusually hands-on producer, and the crew would usually look to him for instruction rather than Hooper.
9. Henry Thomas’ parents thought his success was a fluke
The success of a child star doesn’t always translate into the success of an actor when they’re all grown up – in fact, most of the time it doesn’t. That’s because even if a kid gives a stand-out performance in a movie, the name of the actor often goes forgotten. E.T. was a runaway success, and much of that was down to Henry Thomas’ acting skills, even though he wasn’t yet a teenager at the time. You’d think that would make his parents more supportive of his dream to go into acting full-time, but the film actually had the opposite effect.
Thomas’ parents actually thought him getting the part was a fluke, and refused to relocate to a neighbourhood closer to Los Angeles in case he got his hopes up and was disappointed. Instead, Thomas had to wait until he was old enough to move out on his own to pursue an acting career, which he did. Thomas’ commitment to his dream has paid off in the years since. Amongst other things, he recently starred in the hugely successful Netflix show The Haunting of Hill House, as the distraught and haunted father. The show even features a nod to his previous part, with one of his kids carrying a vintage E.T. lunchbox in several scenes.
8. Harrison Ford filmed a cameo that was cut
E.T. was notable for being a major studio blockbuster with no big-name actors in the cast. However, this wasn’t always the plan, as one well-known star did film a small role: Harrison Ford. Ford was cast in the film as the principal of Elliot’s school, who gives the boy a stern talking to after the incident with the frogs in Science class. It marked Ford’s second collaboration with Spielberg, following the previous year’s beloved blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark. At the time, Ford was also married to E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison.
Spielberg felt casting Ford as an uptight authority figure would be a fun contrast to the devil-may-care heroes Ford was best known for playing (the other, of course, being Han Solo of Star Wars). However, even though Ford’s face wasn’t shown, the director ultimately found the scene extraneous and worried that Ford’s presence would distract viewers. Because of this, the scene was cut. On a related note, the only other key adult to play a role in the movie is Peter Coyote, as Keys. Like Drew Barrymore, Coyote was cast in E.T. after blowing an audition for an earlier Spielberg role: in his case, Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
7. The film has been accused of plagiarising an unproduced script by Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray
Soon after E.T. became a smash hit, there were allegations that Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison had stolen ideas from an unproduced script by a well-known filmmaker. Satyajit Ray may not be a familiar name to most Western readers, but the late Indian writer and director is widely regarded one of the all-time great filmmakers. In 1967, Ray wrote a script entitled The Alien, in which a spacecraft lands in an isolated town, and an alien – described as having ‘a large head, spindly limbs [and] a lean torso’ – meets and befriends a local child. While The Alien was never filmed, the script was widely circulated in Hollywood around the time that Spielberg’s career was just taking off.
Many in Hollywood – even Spielberg’s friend Martin Scorsese – believe that E.T. was influenced by The Alien, but Spielberg has always denied it. Famed science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) urged Satyajit Ray to sue Spielberg, but Ray refused, insisting Spielberg was “a good director” whom he held in respect.
6. Richard Attenborough apologised to Spielberg for beating him to the Best Director Oscar
E.T. was a massive critical and commercial success, and it wound up getting nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for Steven Spielberg. However, E.T. was up against Richard Attenborough’s acclaimed biopic Gandhi – and, particularly back then, the Academy preferred fact-based drama over fantasy. While E.T. won Oscars for its music, sound and special effects, the big two of the night – Best Picture and Best Director – went to Attenborough’s film. However, even at the time, Attenborough himself considered this an injustice.
The late British actor and filmmaker recalled in 1997, “Steven and I were at opposite sides of the room, and when the winner’s name was announced after all the speeches and such, I literally had to be nudged. I couldn’t believe it.” Attenborough went on, “I didn’t go to the podium, I went over to Spielberg. He got up, I put my arms ’round him, and I said, ‘This isn’t right, this should be yours.’” The mutual respect and affection between the two filmmakers ultimately resulted in Spielberg casting Attenborough in the key role of John Hammond in his 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park.
5. Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore dated years later
Thanks to their indelible performances in E.T., it’s hard to think of Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore as anything other than siblings. In reality, of course, the two actors are not related – and in fact, they briefly enjoyed a romance many years later. Thomas and Barrymore are said to have dated for a short time in 1999, when she was 24 and he was around 28. The courtship didn’t last long, and soon thereafter both Thomas and Barrymore were wed to other people.
Thomas married first wife Kelly Hill in 2000, whilst Barrymore tied the knot with Tom Green in 2001; both couples wound up divorcing in 2002. Today, Thomas is married to Annalee Fery, whom he met in 2009. Barrymore, meanwhile, recently insisted after three failed marriages that she will never walk down the aisle again.
4. A bleak and scary sequel was planned, but never made
After E.T. became such a huge record-breaking box office success, there was of course talk of a follow-up film. This was a project that Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison were seriously working on whilst E.T. was still in cinemas – but considering what they came up with, it’s probably for the best that the film never got off the ground. Taking the story back to its dark roots in the abandoned project Night Skies, Spielberg and Mathison put together a treatment for a sequel they entitled E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears. This story would have seen Elliot and his family once again visited by aliens – but unlike their last extra-terrestrial visitor, these ones were not friendly at all, and had in fact been in a long war with E.T.’s race.
The children were to be kidnapped and brutalised by these evil aliens, until at last Elliot’s cries of despair call out across the galaxy to E.T. himself, who comes to the rescue. Happily, Spielberg quickly recognised that this violent and mean-spirited sequel would “rob the original of its virginity,” and the project was scrapped. However, those dark and cruel overtones would find their way into Spielberg’s next feature-length movie (and his first sequel), 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
3. The Reese’s Pieces were originally going to be M&Ms
Like a lot of 80s movies, E.T. sports at least one really glaring instance of utterly blatant product placement. This comes in the famous scene when, on realising there is an alien in the woods near his home, Elliot seeks to lure the creature into the open by leaving a trail of candies. Originally, Spielberg wanted to use M&Ms in this sequence, and approached parent company Mars Incorporated to ask for their permission. However, Mars insisted on seeing the script before agreeing, and studio Universal would not grant them permission for this, so talks fell apart.
Subsequently, Spielberg took the idea to the Hershey company instead, thinking that Hershey’s Kisses would be a good fit – but Hershey instead requested the film use Reese’s Pieces, a new brand at the time. This cross-promotional move boosted sales of Reese’s Pieces exponentially, and to this day the brand remains closely associated with E.T. (2011 sci-fi comedy Paul centres on an alien said to have been the basis for Spielberg’s character, who is himself a lover of Reese’s Pieces.)
2. Corey Feldman missed out on a role as Elliot’s best friend
At the heart of E.T. is the central relationship between lonely youngster Elliot and an earthbound extra-terrestrial explorer – but this wasn’t always the plan. Early on, Elliot and E.T. were going to be joined in their adventures by another child, who was poised to be played by an up-and-coming young actor named Corey Feldman. Feldman explained in 2013, “In the original script… Elliott, who was played by Henry Thomas, had a best friend, who was actually his partner in crime during all the adventures, so it was him and his best friend who found the alien.” However, whilst the script was being worked on, Spielberg and Melissa Mathison realised the real focus should be on Elliot and his family, and that Feldman’s character was not really needed.
Feldman says that Spielberg personally called him to break the news and apologise, which the actor says he admired him for: “Isn’t it nice to know that a man of Steven Spielberg’s power… is still a man of his word? He took the time to reach out to a young boy and say, ‘I know this is gonna break your heart…’ but personally gave me that call.” Spielberg made it up to Feldman afterwards by giving him roles in Gremlins and most famously The Goonies, which made the young actor one of the biggest child stars of the 80s.
1. The spin-off Atari video game was a notorious disaster whose unsold copies got buried in a landfill site
As much as E.T. is famed as one of the best and most popular movies of the 80s, it’s also infamous for the role it played in the downfall of pioneering video game company Atari. Thanks to their best-selling home video game console the Atari 2600, the company were at the height of their powers around the time E.T. opened in cinemas. Both Spielberg and studio Universal were keen on the idea of the video game giants launching a game based on the movie. However, time was short and Atari needed to get the game on shelves in time for Christmas 1982. Howard Scott Washaw, the designer behind hit games Yar’s Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Video Game, was tasked with conceiving and programming E.T. the Video Game in its entirety in a mere five weeks.
While the game was given the thumbs up by Atari and Spielberg himself, its release was a disaster. Players found it confusing and too difficult, and record numbers of people returned the game demanding their money back. Atari collapsed the following year, and – while there were of course many other business factors responsible for this – it has long been believed that E.T. the Video Game was directly responsible for killing the company. It also ended Warshaw’s career, leading to him eventually re-training as a therapist. All these years later, E.T. the Video Game has a cult status of its own. 2014 documentary Atari: Game Over examined the reality behind the game’s role in Atari’s demise, and delved into the fascinating urban legend that Atari literally buried the game by dumping all their unsold and returned copies in a landfill site.