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30th Anniversary: 5 Things You Might Not Know About Steven Spielberg’s Classic ‘E.T.’

30th Anniversary: 5 Things You Might Not Know About Steven Spielberg's Classic 'E.T.'

Thirty is a tricky birthday for anyone – your twenties are in the rear-view mirror, and your forties start to sneak up (can you tell this writer is getting closer to the magic 3-0?…). But it’s also the point at which you can reach a certain respectability, start to push towards (whisper it) adulthood, and make it clear that you’re here to stay. All of which is a long-winded and possibly over-sharing way of saying that thirty years ago today, on June 11, 1982, “E.T: The Extra Terrestrial” was released in theaters.

Despite Steven Spielberg‘s track record, it wasn’t necessarily expected to be a major blockbuster — one major studio had already turned it down. But a major blockbuster is exactly what it turned out to be — it was the biggest of all time, in fact, holding the worldwide position until “Jurassic Park” in 1993, and the domestic crown until “Star Wars” was re-released in 1997 (the film is still number eight in the all-time U.S. charts). And furthermore, it’s an enduring classic, one of the greatest family films ever made,and  one of Spielberg’s finest accomplishments. To mark the occasion, we’ve assembled five facts that even the most hardcore Reeses’ Pieces eater might not know about the film.

1. The film was partially cannibalized from an unmade Spielberg project called “Growing Up.”
Almost anyone who can vaguely call themselves a film fan are probably aware “E.T.” came out of a much darker script that the director was developing after “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Called “Night Skies,” and penned by “Piranha” writer John Sayles (who would go on to become a beloved auteur in his own right), it involved a group of aliens terrorizing a family of farmers, but with one of them (named Buddy in the script) befriending the young autistic son of their victims, and helping to save them. Buddy famously became the inspiration for E.T. (while Spielberg would also recycle elements for “Poltergeist,” and M. Night Shyamalan would later borrow the premise for “Signs“), but what’s less well known is that the director also incorporated another unmade project into the final film. Back in 1978, during production on “1941,” the director announced that his next movie would be a small-scale, autobiographical tale called “Growing Up,” that would shoot in a mere 28 days. As “1941” overran, and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” entered the equation, the project fell off the radar. But when he and writer Melissa Mathison started work on the script known as “E.T. And Me,” inspired by “Night Skies,” the director incorporated much of what he was going to use in “Growing Up” (including how he made up his own imaginary alien friend after his parents’ divorce) into the new script.

2. Henry Thomas auditioned for the film in an Indiana Jones costume.
As important as E.T. was to the film, this was one case where the human cast were equally crucial. After “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Spielberg felt confident working with children, and auditioned thousands of young actors for the major parts (Juliette Lewis, for instance, was said to have auditioned to play Gertie). In the end, it came down to young Henry Thomas for the lead role of Elliott. The young actor (who’d previously appeared in 1981’s “Raggedy Man,” directed by Terrence Malick’s long-time production designer Jack Fisk, and starring his wife Sissy Spacek) actually didn’t give the best audition, but impressed in an improvised scene, using the memory of his late pet dog to cry in front of the casting directors. And Spielberg probably would have been impressed anyway — Thomas was a fan of the director, and wore an Indiana Jones costume to his reading. Another actor who might have appeared at one stage: future “Cheers” star Shelley Long, who was offered the role of Mary, Elliott’s mother, but had to turn it down after signing on to Ron Howard‘s “Night Shift.” Dee Williams bagged the part instead. And keep an eye out for C. Thomas Howell, who plays Elliott’s friend Tyler, and future “Under Siege” star Erika Eleniak, who plays the girl Elliott kisses while drunk. And while reports that Debra Winger voiced E.T. aren’t quite accurate (actress Pat Welsh, and her two-packs-a-day larynx delivers most of the lines, but Winger was one of a number of people, including Spielberg, incorporated into Ben Burtt‘s mix), the actress does make a live-action cameo in the Halloween sequence, carrying a poodle.

3. Indian director Satyajit Ray claimed that the film was ripped off an unmade script of his.
Whenever a film becomes a big hit, someone normally comes out of the woodwork to claim that it was stolen from a spec script of theirs. But to have that accusation come from a filmmaking legend like the great Satyajit Ray has got to sting a bit. Ray told the Indian press at the time that Spielberg’s film “would not have been possible without my script of ‘The Alien’ being available throughout America in mimeographed copies.” ‘The Alien’ was a project by Ray, based on a science-fiction short story he wrote in 1962, revolving around an alien making contact with a young boy in a Bengal village. The film attracted the attentions of Peter Sellers, who would have played the alien, with Marlon Brando also on board, with Columbia Pictures coming on to co-finance what would have been Ray’s Hollywood debut. But he discovered that his U.S. agent Mike Wilson had filed a copyright claim with himself as a co-writer, and Ray became disillusioned, returning to Calcutta. While the fact that Columbia Pictures were the original studio for “E.T.” is a little suspicious, Spielberg has always denied any knowledge of Ray’s script, saying he was still in high school when it was doing the rounds. And in fairness to the Bearded One, it’s likely that, as with most so-called plagiarism cases, that it’s simply a case of two people coming up with the same idea; the similarities are mostly cosmetic.  

4. The film was a huge hit, but plenty of people lost huge amounts of money on it.
Originally, “Night Skies” was set up at Columbia Pictures, and as such, the studio had first dibs on Melissa Mathison’s script inspired by the earlier one. But when they handed in “E.T. And Me,” the studio turned it down, allegedly calling it “a wimpy Disney movie,” and Spielberg took it to Universal instead. The film went on to make $619 million worldwide, replacing “Star Wars” as the biggest film of all time, and still stands as the all-time fourth biggest grosser when adjusted for inflation. Oops. Meanwhile, candy company Mars also turned down involvement in the project — Spielberg wanted Elliott to lure E.T. with a trail of M&Ms, but the company thought the alien was “ugly,” and refused to have anything to do with it. Hershey stepped in, hoping to give their four-year-old product Reese’s Pieces a boost, and it certainly worked: the company’s profits rose 65% in the wake of the film. Hit much harder were video game company Atari. In those days, video games based on movies were a rarity, and no one had snapped up the rights to the film in advance. Once it became a monster hit, Atari negotiated to make a game for their Atari 2600 console, but in order to be ready for that Christmas, were left with only five weeks to make the game. Unsurprisingly, the adaptation turned out to be famously terrible, and after selling well intially, it dropped off sharply: millions of unsold copies were later buried in a New Mexico landfill, the company losing as much as $100 million on the game. It contributed in part to the crash in the video game business in 1983, and by July 1984, the company had been split up and sold off.

5. There is a sequel to “E.T.,” but not on film.
With the film a giant success, talk inevitably turned to a sequel, and Spielberg and Mathison actually wrote a treatment for a follow-up, entitled “E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears.” Leaning closer to “Night Skies” than the original, the film would involve Elliott and his pals being kidnapped by more malevolent extraterrestrials, with E.T. coming to their rescue. Thankfully, Spielberg came to his senses, and the film was never made. There is, however, a sequel in existence. The excellently-named sci-fi author William Kotzwinkle had been responsible for the novelization of the original film, and in 1985, came out with a sequel, “E.T: The Book Of The Green Planet.” The plot involves E.T. returning to his home planet of Brodo Asogi, where he then tries to break all the laws of the world in order to be exiled back to Earth, and reunited with Elliott. It sounds completely mental, and we’d love to take a look at some point. Those desperate for another look at E.T. on screen can get their pause button ready for “The Phantom Menace,” where some of his fellow countrymen can be seen in the background of the Galactic Senate scenes.

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Comments

Marci Liroff

As the casting director, it was my job to audition the "thousands" of kids for this movie. We brought only the final contenders to Mr. Spielberg which were well under 100 at most.
In terms of Henry Thomas wearing an Indiana Jones costume to his audition – where are you getting this from? It was a long time ago, but I sure don't remember that!

Jimbo

Surprised to see my two favourite bits of E.T. folklore not included here, but then maybe that's because they're too well documented by now. Nonetheless:

1) The last 15 minutes of the film were cut to the music – something unprecedented even in today's movies. You really feel it in the very final lingering face shots which last much longer than they would in any other movie. The effect of that last sequence – from the moment the boys escape the house – is absolutely thrilling and, to this fan, still John Williams' very best work.

2) The real source material is the Bible. E.T. is Jesus. Rather than spell out the parallels, the fun is in seeing them for yourself. So keep this in mind next time you see the movie.

Fred

Dee Wallace was the mom.

JWFan

And it features John Williams' tremendous unforgettable score. Perhaps the greatest score ever written.

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