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ET at 40: Grief, divorce and the making of Michael Jackson’s favourite alien

Released on this day in 1982, ‘ET the Extra-Terrestrial’ quickly became the highest-grossing film of its time. Kevin E G Perry explores the history and legacy of a pop culture phenomenon with a big, glowing heart

Saturday 11 June 2022 06:30 BST
The eyes have it: Elliott (Henry Thomas) and ET
The eyes have it: Elliott (Henry Thomas) and ET (Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock)

In 1980, in a tent somewhere in the Tunisian desert, Steven Spielberg sat painfully alone. The director, just 34 and with hits like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind already under his belt, was in North Africa shooting Raiders of the Lost Ark, the blockbuster adventure that would launch the Indiana Jones franchise. At night, however, his mind kept returning to the loneliness of his own childhood, the imaginary friend he’d created to cope, and the pain he’d felt when his parents split while he was a teenager.

“It was a childhood fantasy to tell the story of a best friend,” Spielberg explained in a 1996 documentary. “A special friend who rescues a young boy from the sadness of a divorce.” That special friend would become the titular star of Spielberg’s next film, ET the Extra-Terrestrial. Released 40 years ago on 11 June 1982, it didn’t take long until the little alien with a big, glowing heart was everybody’s new best friend. The movie quickly rocketed past Star Wars to become the highest-grossing film of all time, a record that stood for more than a decade until Spielberg broke it himself with 1993’s Jurassic Park. The resourceful, peace-loving ET was adored by both critics and audiences alike, and became a true pop culture phenomenon, with his wise old eyes soon staring out from every conceivable type of merchandise. He had a ride at Universal Studios Florida, advertised for BT in the UK and even inspired his own playground joke: What’s ET short for? Because he’s got little legs.

It was an era when movies about space were everywhere. The release of both Close Encounters and Star Wars in 1977 marked the launch of a cultural movement so popular that even the usually earth-bound James Bond ventured into orbit in 1979’s Moonraker. Spielberg’s first idea for a follow-up to Close Encounters was a project called Night Skies. He commissioned writer John Sayles to produce a screenplay based on the reputed “Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter”, a 1955 incident in which a family in Kentucky claimed they had been terrorised by aliens that resembled gremlins. “When I read the script I didn’t feel that was a movie I wanted to direct,” Spielberg recalled later. “It was too violent. That’s when everything changed in my mind.”

Spielberg figured that intelligent life travelling across the universe from planet to planet wouldn’t necessarily be malevolent, and reimagined the aliens as a race of intergalactic botanists taking plant samples. However, there was an important element of Night Skies that Spielberg wanted to keep: the idea that one of the aliens would become stranded on Earth. He discussed the concept with screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who was on the set of Raiders as she was in a relationship with the film’s star, Harrison Ford. Mathison had co-written 1979’s The Black Stallion, about a boy’s friendship with a horse, and after thrashing out an outline with Spielberg she took just eight weeks to write a first draft titled ET and Me. The director took the film to Universal Studios only after Columbia Pictures, who’d made Close Encounters, passed. Columbia’s marketing and research department concluded the film had limited commercial potential, a blunder of “rejecting The Beatles” size proportions.

Spielberg turned to Close Encounters special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi to create a suitably lovable alien, supplying him with photographs of poet Carl Sandburg, physicist Albert Einstein and author Ernest Hemingway to inform ET’s oversized, intelligent eyes. Next came the challenge of putting together a cast of mostly child actors. Hundreds of actors auditioned for the lead role of Elliott, the sensitive stand-in for a young Spielberg. The part eventually went to Henry Thomas, who summoned real tears by thinking about a family dog who’d died. A famous clip from his audition, now watched more than 26 million times on YouTube, concludes with Spielberg telling the nine-year-old: “Ok kid, you got the job.”

Robert MacNaughton came back to audition eight times to play elder brother Michael, while six-year-old Drew Barrymore won the part of Gertie by telling Spielberg she intended to forgo her Hollywood family’s movie acting legacy and was instead already fronting a punk band. “I realised after a while that she didn’t really have a punk rock band,” the director recalled at a recent anniversary event in Los Angeles. “But if she could believe she did, then she could believe this mechanical creature could be a real extraterrestrial.”

The film was an intimate production by Spielberg’s standards, shot in Los Angeles County and the San Fernando Valley in just 61 days. For the soundtrack he turned to his regular collaborator John Williams, who produced a memorable score to rival his work on Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark. ET premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on 26 May 1982, where it was greeted not just with one of the festival’s customary lengthy standing ovations but floods of tears. After seeing the film for the first time Henry Thomas suggested they should hand out “crying towels” for the audience, while Drew Barrymore later said: “If the term ‘not a dry eye in the house’ wasn’t created then, it definitely applies.” Novelist Martin Amis wrote of seeing ET at the cinema: “Staggering out, through a tundra of sodden hankies, I felt drained, pooped, squeezed dry; I felt as though I had lived out a year-long love affair – complete with desire and despair, passion and prostration – in the space of 120 minutes.”

Spielberg directing Henry Thomas on the set of ‘ET the Extra-Terrestrial’ (Bruce Mc Broom/Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Of the film’s many celebrity fans, none were more devoted than Michael Jackson. He recorded an audiobook version of the film, which was released that November, the same month as his mammoth sixth album Thriller. In December he appeared alongside ET on the cover of Ebony, telling the magazine how much he related to the alien. “He gives love and wants love in return, which is me,” said Jackson. “And he has that super power which lets him lift off and fly whenever he wants to get away from things on Earth, and I can identify with that. He and I are alike in many ways.”

Four decades on, ET’s influence continues to linger. Netflix’s Stranger Things is openly indebted to the film, with its cast of children in the Eighties who play Dungeons and Dragons and escape from nefarious authority figures on bikes, just as Elliott once did with ET in his front basket. Meanwhile, thanks to a brief appearance at the Galactic Senate in 1999’s The Phantom Menace, ET’s species are now canonically a part of the Star Wars universe. Known as “Asogians”, they were represented at the Senate by one Senator Grebleips – that’s Spielberg spelled backwards.

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Drew Barrymore, as Gertie, lays eyes on ET for the first time (Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock)

For Spielberg himself, ET changed his life in a myriad ways. For a start, there is the not insignificant fact that – at the peak of the film’s popularity in 1982 – he was making half a million dollars a day from his share of the box office and merchandise sales. But it also affected him in subtler, more profound ways. Despite the old showbusiness adage about never working with children or animals, Spielberg found himself thrilled to direct his young cast. During the shooting of the Halloween sequence, Spielberg spent the whole day dressed up as an old lady, much to the child actors’ delight. “I didn’t have children back in the early Eighties,” he said in 1996. “Suddenly I was becoming a father… I think I have a big family now because it felt pretty good having three kids back then.” A film inspired by the dissolution of his parent’s marriage wound up inspiring Spielberg to have children of his own, a fitting personal legacy for the greatest family movie of all time.

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