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'E.T.' star Dee Wallace reflects on film 40 years later: 'It's changed people's lives for the better'

Young or old, no one can resist the charms of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

By Josh Weiss
(L-R) Dee Wallace and Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg wanted to do something a little different after the colossal cinematic triumphs of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Having delivered a pair of modern classics, the young filmmaker set out to make what actress Dee Wallace calls a "little film in between his big blockbusters," while speaking with SYFY WIRE. That little film, as we now know, turned out to be E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which turned out to be anything but little.

A perfect encapsulation of Spielberg's trademark narrative themes (the power of youthful innocence, awestruck wonder, broken families, unexplained magic lurking somewhere in the night sky), the film — written by the late Melissa Mathison — makes good on a premise that's about as simple as they come: A young boy coming to terms with the impending divorce of his parents forms a special bond with a stocky visitor from beyond the stars. Fast forward 40 years later, however, and we're still talking about the little alien with the glowing finger and a desire to get back home.

SYFY will host an E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial marathon tomorrow (Saturday, June 10), with the film running non-stop between 1 p.m. EST and 8:30 p.m. EST. Click here for the entire programming schedule. If you're not able to tune in, don't worry — the title is also available to stream on Peacock through the end of the month.

"They say never work with kids or dogs. Well, I wouldn’t have a career without [them]," says Wallace, half-jokingly, of her role as Mary, a single mother of three and one of the movie's few adult characters. Growing up, Wallace witnessed the experience of a lone parent firsthand — something that may have unconsciously informed her performance as the mother of Elliott (Henry Thomas), Mike (Robert MacNaughton), and Gertie (Drew Barrymore).

"My dad was a severe alcoholic, so for all practical purposes, my mother was a single mother who raised her three kids. And then [my father] committed suicide in my senior year of high school," she explains. "So, I was used to a family with a mother who ran things. I did not consciously base this [character] on my mom, but I knew what drove a single parent. I had witnessed her trying to get to work on a bus at 7 a.m. in the morning and my grandmother taking us to school and grandma picking us up from school and going to grandma's house for lunch. Then my mom would come home and make dinner. It was always hurried and rushed and loving. Incredibly loving. So I knew that mother's love, combined with the pull to her duties."

Upon landing the gig, Wallace, who was not accustomed to working on larger studio projects, made a significant character-based decision that initially caught Mr. Spielberg by surprise. "I know he was a little upset with me and in retrospect, I don't blame him," she says. "I had long hair at the time and I was used to doing a lot of independent films where I got my own look together. And so, when I started feeling into Mary, [I saw] she was a busy mom, she was a working mom. I thought, ‘Oh, I need short hair. I need something I don't have to worry with all the time.’ So I went to get my haircut and he walked out on [the first day of shooting] and he went, ‘Dee! You got your hair [cut]!’ I said, ‘Do you like it, Steven?! It's really Mary isn’t, it?’ I’m not so sure he did. I didn't mean to cross any lines or anything — it was just the way I had always worked up until then. But when I look at the film, I think it's perfect for her."

Beyond that minor misunderstanding between actor and director, the production, which mainly took place on soundstages at the Universal Pictures backlot, was a smooth ride. Even with a cast comprised mainly of kids who can sometimes get out of hand, the set maintained an organized and professional atmosphere.

"I don't remember it being chaotic at all," Wallace adds. "The kids were totally professional ... they weren't Hollywood kids. Most of them were just starting out. Robert, [who played] the eldest son, had had a lot more experience, especially onstage, and he was just amazing. Henry, had had a couple of films by that time underneath his belt, I think. And Drew was just, ‘HI! I’M DREW AND I’M GONNA TAKE OVER THE PLACE!’ So whenever they had breaks, if they weren't in school, they were out playing, shooting hoops, or in Steven's office, playing with the arcade games he had. It was very much a family feeling on the whole set and I think that really transfers to the the film."

Of course, a great deal of credit must be laid at the feet of the director, whom Wallace characterizes as "a kid at heart," a descriptor that has been attributed to Spielberg for decades. "He loves what he does. It's play for him. That being said, he's also a unique professional [and] knows exactly what he wants, but is also open to everybody else's input, which is what every really good director does. What I loved watching the most was watching Steven work with the kids … He was one of them. While he was telling them what he needed, he was bonding with him and having fun and playing with the toys. He got down on their level."

The filmmaker also "went to great lengths" to ensure that the radio-operated E.T. animatronic (famously designed by the late Carlo Rambaldi) felt like another living member of the cast. "[Carlo] captured a soul in this little rubber being that he made," Wallace says. "At first, E..T. was put away in a corner and then we found Drew over there, talking to him. So then Steven had two or three guys appointed to run E.T. all the time and keep him somewhat alive. So Drew...because  at that age, reality and fantasy are very overlapping, and she would just be over there, talking to E.T."

Speaking of Barrymore's character, Wallace's favorite scene to shoot was the one in which she reads Peter Pan as a bedtime story to Gertie while E.T. watches through the slats in the bedroom closet. "I just loved the sweetness and the intimacy. I didn't have a daughter yet, but I wanted a daughter. It reminded me a lot of sitting with my mom and my grandma, reading stories. It's such a simple little scene, but it meant a lot to me."

While every last second of the movie is iconic, there is no denying the emotional gut-punch of those final moments when Elliott and E.T. share a tender goodbye before the spaceship lifts off, which would reduce even the toughest of individuals to a blubbering puddle of tears and snot. What you may not know is that most of the crew members' stomachs were probably growling something fierce as it was being filmed.

"I had been sitting in my dressing room ... and the AD came in and said, ‘Come on, Dee! We have to get the scene before lunch!’ I said, ‘Okay!’ We're running to the set [and I ask] ‘What scene are we doing?!’ He said that we're doing the very end scene, where you see E.T. take off. So I get to the set, I'm taking my mark, and I said, ‘Steven, what am I seeing?’ [He says] ‘Well, you know, we've had the big goodbye scene with E.T. and you've got Gertie in your arms, and you're watching E.T. take off, and it turns into a rainbow. Alright, roll it!’ Thank God for the technique that I have, because I was just there and when I saw it in my imagination, turn into the rainbow, it just hit my heart so much that the tears came and the emotion came...and then we went to lunch."

E.T. biked across the Moon and into the hearts of audience members the world over on June 11, 1982. The film was an instant box office and critical smash and went on to become the highest-grossing movie of the year with more than $359 million in global ticket sales. Everyone, including then-POTUS Ronald Reagan, succumbed to its irresistible charms. Even so, no one — not even the executives at Universal — could have guessed just how big it would be.

"I saw it the first time at the studio with a bunch of executives and I came home and I said to my husband, ‘I think my career's over. There wasn't one reaction,'" Wallace recalls. "He took my hand and he said, ‘You're going to come with me, and we're going to see it at a theater next week when it opens.’ We stood in line with everybody else and it was amazing. People were laughing, they were crying, they were cheering, they were standing up, they were holding each other. Everybody at Universal didn't want to react in case their boss didn’t react the same way. I don't know. But it was magical to see it with that first audience."

Thanks to a number of theatrical re-releases over the years, E.T.'s worldwide box office draw now stands at almost $800 million. More important, however, is the film's timelessness and universality that transcend generational boundaries and continue to be reinterpreted by modern day filmmakers like the Duffer brothers. While Spielberg didn't have a direct hand in crafting Stranger Things, his creative influence can be sensed throughout Netflix's smash nostalgia hit. Six years before Eleven, Mike Wheeler, and the rest of the Hawkins gang rode their bikes onto the streaming scene, J.J. Abrams homaged certain facets of E.T. in his own coming-of-age adventure — 2011's Super 8 — which Spielberg executive produced.

"It has affected so many creative people, that it's not surprising that they work in homages in their own work as they go along, too," Wallace says, before concluding: "I feel very blessed to have been a part of this film [and] still being a part of this film. I have so many stories of how it's changed people's lives for the better. When I went over to the studio behind locked doors and read it, I called my agents and I said, ‘You know, I don't think this is going to do a lot for me, but I think this is going to do a lot for the world and I want to be a part of it.' I knew that from the minute I read Melissa Matheson’s amazing script. And I was right, wasn’t I?"

SYFY will host an E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial marathon tomorrow (Saturday, June 10), with the film running non-stop between 1 p.m. EST and 8:30 p.m. EST. Click here for the entire programming schedule. If you're not able to tune in, don't worry — the title is also available to stream on Peacock through the end of the month.

Wallace has published a number of books on her work as a clairaudience channel. They are available to purchase on her website and via Amazon. Wallace says the most recent of her books — Born: Giving Birth to a New You — "contains the formula for creating everything in your life."