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How 'E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial' began with a game of 'Dungeons & Dragons' at Harrison Ford's house

Imagine breathing the same rarefied air as Han Solo.

By Josh Weiss
Sean Frye

One of the multitude of reasons that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial works so well is its unadorned representation of childhood. The kids in director Steven Spielberg's coming-of-age sci-fi classic genuinely feel like kids. They goof around, make fun of each other, gobble up pizza pies with no concern for their waistlines, swear when they shouldn't, stay out way past curfew, and ride their bikes around the neighborhood (until they can pass their driving exams, of course). 

This timeless, slice-of-life approach to the material grounds the narrative in a relatable way that makes the fantastical elements easier to swallow. Even after four decades, the sight of a croaky-voiced spaceman perched in the basket of a boy's bicycle could be happening on any street in suburbia where boys and girls dare to dream — not yet tainted by the cynicism of maturity.

And that's what Spielberg wanted to achieve while casting the project: an ensemble of young actors who could embody that nearly-impossible-to-capture-on-camera youthful legitimacy. Like actor Sean Frye, who tells SYFY WIRE he "jumped for joy in the backyard and almost broke [his] ankle" upon learning that he'd be in the movie as Steve (a best friend of Elliott's older brother, Mike).

While no one could have anticipated just how massive the film would become (both financially and culturally) upon its theatrical release in that fateful summer of 1982, Frye and his cohorts had a nagging suspicion that they were part of something unique. "We all thought it was a sweet family film involving a spaceman," he says. "The first or second or both auditions was us sort of side-by-side-by-side-by-side in chairs, pretending that we are on a trip to see a spaceman or on the way to the moon with the spaceman or something like that. Right away, you knew something was special and unusual."

He continues: "Steven [Spielberg] was like, what — 34 At the time? Thirty-four was less than 20 years older than I was. He still could have been my father, but it was just youth-driven and he was so focused on us," Frye adds. "[And] not to the expense of anything else, of Dee [Wallace] and the other wonderful characters and elements to the story, but he was so focused on us kids, that he was really kind of like a sixth or seventh kid in the group, just unseen."

But first, the director needed to make sure his adolescent recruits could bring an authentic sense of camaraderie to the big screen. To do that, "they had a Dungeons & Dragons night at Harrison Ford's house, where all of the actors .... gathered and played the game and and we were watched by Steven, [screenwriter Melissa Mathison] and [producer Kathleen Kennedy]. That was sort of a relationship developer," Frye recalls. At the time, Ford was dating Mathison, who had been convinced by Spielberg to write the script for E.T. while on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Ford did not join in on the tabletop RPG festivities, and as for the actors...well, they didn't get much of a chance to geek out over the fact that they were getting to breathe the same rarefied air as Han Solo and Indiana Jones. "Harrison stayed a bit in the background at his home with Melissa [while] Steven and Kathleen much more engaged in the foreground," Frye adds. "I think the tension, even in the midst of the game, was at a point where there was little room for geeking out over Harrison. For the kids, being observed was much more pressing than observing. Kids are smart."

It is worth noting that Ford did make a brief cameo in E.T. as Elliott's principal, though the moment — meant to follow the frog dissection sequence — ended up on the cutting room floor. 

A game of Dungeons & Dragons ultimately made its way into the finished film. Just after E.T. is marooned on Earth and outruns the government operatives, the story cuts to the Taylor household where Mike (Robert MacNaughton) plays the game with his pals — Steve, Greg (K.C. Martel), and Tyler (C. Thomas Howell) — while Elliott (Henry Thomas) impatiently waits to join. Frye, whose character serves as Dungeon Master, admits he wasn't super familiar with D&D at the time.

"I was just learning it on the fly. I think Tom and K.C. may have been more familiar with it. I'm not quite sure. But it was just a big learning curve. It was fun and it was creative and it was interesting. [It was also] a little distracting  to play it for the first time right there and then on-camera." Having recently watched the movie at TCM's 40th anniversary red carpet event back in late April, Frye noticed a great deal of improvised "ad-libbing" that lends a natural and almost documentary feel to the proceedings. "There's no way that that was scripted. It was like Howard Hawks. We were talking and on top [of each other]."

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Steven Spielberg

Aside from a handful of exterior shots filmed around Los Angeles and Northern California, most of E.T.'s production took place at Laird International Studios in Los Angeles. 

In between takes, the young actors would attend school lessons, run lines together, ride their bikes across the soundstages, or admire the masterful artistry of the E.T. puppet designed by Carlo Rambaldi. Frye remembers seeing "a whole crew of people dedicated to the left eyebrow, and these two dedicated to the nostrils and this one dedicated to the left eyelid. The symbiosis of all of them working together with these levers, that's unheard of now. I mean, it's like Stone Age stuff."

The actor also formed close bond with young Drew Barrymore (who played Elliott and Mike's assertive baby sister, Gertie), as the two carpooled to the set every day from West Hollywood. "I would have my set sitter drive us or her mom would drive us, so we were really tight," he explains. "We got to know each other if she wasn't sleeping in the backseat, which she did, because some of those call times were pretty early."

Steve, Greg, and Tyler play a major role in the big climax as Elliott, Mike, and the rest of the boys evade the government and help return E.T. to his fellow aliens. Fans will recall the panning shot in which the trio gears up for the ride of their lives: Steve with his newsboy cap and sunglasses; Greg with his large headphones; and Tyler with his ski mask. Ironically, Frye wasn't exactly a proficient biker, which led to some light ribbing from Spielberg.

"I had to learn in short order how to ride fast. I remember the first scene, I tried to pull it off sitting on the bike and Steven said, ‘Sean, you're riding that like my grandma. You have to stand up and do it like the rest of the kids.’ So I wiped out a couple times, much to the chagrin of the wardrobe department. But they were well-prepared, of course, thank goodness. And so, there was that learning curve, which wore me to pieces by the end. We did a lot of our own biking in one day."

Some of the bicycle-related shots were actually done by professional stunt riders, which helps explain why each kid was given such a distinctive look. "They needed to be camouflaged in just the right way ... Of course, we were not riding over cop cars, as much as I would like to pretend that I was riding over a cop car. And when I see the trading cards and I see me riding over the cop car, I'd sure like to autograph that and be able to give that out as myself, but I don't know the gentleman's name. But thank you very much for a very convincing set of stunts there."

The famous sequence of the flying bikes was accomplished by the talented folks of Industrial Light & Magic (George Lucas's special effects studio was less than a decade old). "We were on these rigs. Again, this is Stone Age stuff, but it's so beautiful," Frye adds. "They're pulling the trees backwards, past us on tracks, so it looks like we're going through and up and through and over to create this illusion that we're going forward when we're going nowhere. Then the pushing and pulling of the things so that the bike is up and down, and we can get the ‘Whoaaaa’ effects. That was great."

For the most part, Spielberg shot the movie in sequential order so the kids would never have to keep track of what emotional beats they needed to be tapping into at any given time. As a result, the final scene where E.T. says his goodbyes and takes off (filmed back on the Universal lot) carried greater weight. "The end is the end for us," Frye says. "The moments of E.T.'s departure were really sort of a closure for all of us."

He began to suspect that the movie might be a bigger than anyone imagined after a special preview screening at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles, where he got a seal of approval from an unlikely source. "Olivia Newton-John was sitting right in front of me, and she turned around to me with this huge smile, and she goes [mimics the A-OK sign]. I was like, ‘Whoa!’ Then you go out in the gala reception and it was just so big. And there was Steven — I'm introducing him to my friends, to my family, to my extended family. And then I started to get a feeling that this was really going to be something, and then the crowds, and then the opening, and then the $400 million, or whatever it was. Then you knew that it was a phenomenon. It really gave you butterflies."

Decades later, E.T.'s most iconic narrative elements — kids playing D&D, kids escaping the government on their bikes, kids shining flashlights into the foggy night air, kids solving supernatural mysteries while the grown-ups remain largely oblivious, etc. — would gain new life via nostalgia-fueled projects like J.J. Abrams' Super 8 and the Duffer brothers' Stranger Things. Frye also points to The Weeknd's "Die For You" music video (see below), which directly homages E.T. director of photography Allen Daviau's stunning cinematography on the '82 original. "This is a contemporary video 40 years later, still using that borrowed imagery."

Frye concludes: "The fans are what has really made it special over the years ... I had a screening at a school that fans came to, and sought me out afterwards, because I did a little intro. And just the questions that they have and how it's affected them; how it's affected their children; what they want you to know about how the film has affected them; and how you want to tell them how meaningful that is. That's just been the really gratifying rewarding part of it over the years."

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.