When it comes to protecting the legacy of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Robert MacNaughton never phones it in.
The actor who played older brother Michael in Steven Spielberg's 1982 phenomenon is acutely aware of the film's place in the Hollywood pantheon. More importantly, he understands how deep the affection for the film runs with millions of fans. Which is why he has been happy to take part in celebrating the picture over the years, from DVD reunion interviews to attending the occasional screening.
Fathom Events is bringing E.T. back to theaters for a special 35th anniversary two-night engagement on Sunday, Sept. 17 and Wednesday, Sept. 20. To mark the occasion, SYFY WIRE caught up with MacNaughton. During our half-hour interview, we found him to be a treasure trove of great E.T. insight and anecdotes.
As you can read below, MacNaughton shared memories of talking with Spielberg on set and hearing about pranks the director used to pull as a movie-crazed teenager. Then there are the jokes MacNaughton and onscreen sibling Henry Thomas (Elliott) played on little Drew Barrymore. This guy has stories tell, including how the first time he met Harrison Ford, Han Solo happened to be in a towel (that sounds weirder than it actually was). And if you're wondering if MacNaughton was prescient enough to hang on to any souvenirs from the movie, wonder no more. We have your answer in our lengthy Q&A below.
You almost didn't do this interview. What happened? I know you don't really mind talking about E.T.
Robert MacNaughton: I did another interview and I made the mistake of reading the comments. So I won’t read the comments for this one.
Rule #1 on the Internet: never read the comments.
Yeah, when I did interviews for E.T. for the most part, there were no comments. Maybe someone would write a letter, but they really had to hate you to write a letter. But the majority of it [back then] was love. Now, it’s too easy to just comment on something.
But I think E.T. is one of the rare exceptions in pop culture which doesn’t have “haters.” There’s never been a backlash against the movie, there are no think-pieces about ‘How E.T. ruined my childhood’ or a ‘Here are 50 reasons why E.T. sucks’ article. Everybody loves this movie. It’s very unique in that regard.
Yeah, there’s always a backlash against anything that’s too much, when they feel it’s being shoved down their throat. And E.T. experienced that a little bit. I remember the Village Voice had an article that kind of accused Steven of ripping off elements from other movies. They found all these similarities with [other films] and pointed them out.
That’s interesting you remember that. How old were you when the film came out?
I was 14 when I filmed it, 15 when it came out.
Were you peppering Spielberg with questions about the business in between takes, or were you just listening very closely?
It wasn’t quite like that. On the set with Spielberg, it was kind of a jokey type atmosphere. He was sort of like a teenager. So if I had moments where I was talking with him, we would talk about Phoenix, where my grandparents lived at the time. I had spent a lot of time there, and he spent part of his childhood there. He told me about going to this movie theater, he asked me if this theater was still around in downtown Phoenix, the Capitol Movie Theater. He told me he used to go to see horror movies there and sit up in the balcony and like, he’d bring a paper bag full of fake puke and dump it on the people below during the gory parts of the movie!
That’s what he told me anyway (laughs). So when I spent time with him I wasn’t grilling him for information. I mean, I was a big fan, but I didn’t want… it felt weird and I didn’t want to take it to that level of a fan, rather than working with him. And that’s what it was about. He was constantly asking us [the young actors in the film] for our ideas on what we would do in this situation or that. Between him and Melissa Matheson, who wrote the script, we were always asked for our input.
She had an unusually large amount of influence on the making of the film, for a screenwriter, didn’t she?
She was on the set every day. Every day. She had a lot of input into it. She was really the heart and soul of the kid characters in the movie. In large part, she based the characters on Harrison Ford’s kids [Matheson and Ford were married for over 20 years]. His oldest, Ben and Willard, were the same age as the two brothers me and Henry Thomas played in the movie. She gleaned a lot of information from them, and also from their friends. In fact, the character of Michael is largely based on... not on Ben, but one of his friends, who I just saw again for the first time rather recently. I went to Melissa’s memorial service last year in Los Angeles. And this guy came up to me and I hadn’t seen him since we had done an audition at Harrison Ford’s house and this kid was playing Dungeons & Dragons with us. But I hadn’t seen him since. I talked with him quite a bit, and from talking to him, I realized that he was who Melissa had based my character on.
You just discovered this a year ago?
Yeah, just by talking with him at the funeral. He came up to me and he remembered me from when we were playing Dungeons & Dragons all those years ago.
I think a lot of people want more information about this D & D game at Indiana Jones’ house that you mentioned in another interview. Because at the time, Harrison Ford was maybe the biggest movie star on the planet. Did he even know what you guys were there for?
I think he did. He was filming Blade Runner at the time, I think. When we were shooting E.T., he was busy doing Blade Runner or in pre-production, around that time. So he kind of had his own thing going on. Like, he wasn’t around our set a lot. He was in a scene in the movie, but I wasn’t in that scene so I wasn’t on set when he filmed it.
Right. He played a teacher in that scene, didn't he?
He played the principal at our school, and the scene was cut.
And you weren’t there that day he filmed it?
No I wasn’t... well, I was there on set, but I was in school. Generally, if I wasn’t in a scene I was in school. That day, Henry came back and joined me at school and said, "I just shot a scene with Harrison Ford!" So I was asking him all about it.
(Laughs) Yeah, right? But as I recall, the night we were at his place playing Dungeons & Dragons, he had just come out of the shower and was in a towel, and he had this look like, "OK, all these kids are over at my house." (Laughs) I said hello and I was thrilled to meet him, and he was nice enough to say hello to all of us, but he was kind of in a towel and was just like, "OK kid, go ahead and do what you’re doing, whatever." So it wasn’t like a real meeting. But I did see him a lot afterwards when we did the awards shows, and at the Oscars and all that.
E.T. also had an alternate ending, where the movie ended showing the communicator was still working, indicating that Elliott was still in contact with E.T. Did they film that scene?
They filmed our part in it. We were playing another game of Dungeons & Dragons. This time, Henry is sort of in charge and like, calling the shots. Elliott is sort of becoming empowered. They did film that. I don’t know about the actual shot of the rooftop communicator. I think they did [film it]. I don’t... that might have been done that in post-production. But at a certain point when they added the music, they decided that... with the music, it’s just an incredible ending with Elliott waving goodbye to the ship. It’s like, how do you go on from there?
That is true. But one of the things I like about that alternate ending – and I come at this from the point of view of being a little brother, like Elliott; my brother and I were close to the same ages as Elliott and Michael were when we saw the movie – is that it drives home how the relationship between the brothers had come full circle.
I agree. I think Steven did a great job with the relationships of the brothers. He relates to Elliott the most, I think. He’s said he relates more to [my character], because he’s a big brother to his sisters. But I really think... I don’t know. I just think he’s more like Elliott. He’s kind of a product of divorce and kind of a lonely kid. A lot of elements of Elliott are Steven, but maybe that was a bit too personal for him to say, I don’t know. But he’s always said he was more like my character, and he was in a way, because he picked on his little sisters, and stuff like that. In fact there’s a scene in the movie where I’m torturing Drew’s doll, and Steven said that was drawn directly from his childhood. He’s like, "Yeah, this is what I used to do. They had dolls and I'd torture them."
And I had a sister and I used to do that too (laughs).
Describe your role on the set in between takes with Henry and Drew, since you were the oldest of the sibling actors.
With Henry, we hit it off. To this day, we remain friends. Drew, off camera she was just like she was in the movie. She was just like, always the center of attention and always, making up stuff, making up stories. She was very outspoken. We didn’t ignore her but we sort of... played with her. One time we did like the worst thing we could possibly do to her, pretend she was invisible. That drove her nuts, it made her crazy.
That is so mean! She was only seven!
It was so mean, but we were just messing with her. We didn’t do it all day, but we would be like, "Oh, who’s talking?" She used to pretend one of us was her boyfriend. She had a different boyfriend each day. One day it would be Tommy Howell [actor C. Thomas Howell], one day it was me, another day it was Henry; I think she kind of really had a crush on Henry. It's funny. One day I saw her talking with Steven, and it was when we were on location in the neighborhood, and she was saying, "Oh, this is so neat. The houses are covered in all this plastic [for the scene]!"
And Steven said, “I feel so sorry for you because you’re not going to remember any of this.” I thought about it, and it’s true. I don’t remember anything from when I was six or seven. We’ve done interviews together with her, including a reunion on one of the DVD releases. And they’re talking to Drew, and she’s remembering things, and you can see Henry and I looking at each other like, "What is she talking about?" (Laughs) She has sort of... made-up memories of what happened on set. We’re not going to tell her they didn’t happen. It must have been sort of a dreamlike experience for her, making the movie.
It must be weird to be a seven-year-old and be on the set shooting a film that would become a global phenomenon.
She was the focus of attention back then. It had to be a great experience for her while it was happening, but then it must have also been terrible when it ended, because we really were like a family, and she really thought E.T. was real. So when it ended it had to be horrible for her.
This was back in the day before most people realized how valuable movie props were. Elliott’s room had so many cool things in it. Is there one prop from there that, when you look at the movie now, you think, "Man, I should’ve kept that?"
Like a million things! But it was a top-secret set and all that, and I would never have taken anything. But, some of the costumes were my own shirts and stuff, so I kept those. And I kept one or two shirts that weren’t mine afterward, just because they were neat. But like, the Space Invaders shirt I wear in the movie, that was a shirt my dad bought for me in Times Square. Before we started shooting the movie the costume director met with us and we brought some of our own clothes and she decided if they would work in the movie. So that was one that she liked, she ran it by Steven and he said yes, so there was only one and it’s the one I had. I also kept the football jersey and the "No Nukes" shirt, which wasn’t mine. I think that was Melissa Matheson’s idea. She was into alternative music and Elvis Costello and there was the No Nukes concert that had just happened…
Springsteen and Jackson Browne also played at that concert.
That’s right. It was a big deal. So yeah, I kept those, and I know Drew’s mom kept the cowgirl outfit. I don’t know if that was hers to begin with, but she sold it at auction for a lot of money, though! You know, I went to an outdoor screening of E.T. in Brooklyn awhile back and met this kid Brian, who’s the biggest E.T. fan I’ve ever met. There’s a lot of them, but this guy made a re-creation of the communicator. He found the original record player, which was made of denim. He found the coffee can which was part of the communicator. It turns out that coffee is no longer made anymore. But he called the warehouse in New Jersey where they used to distribute the coffee, and got a guy on the phone to dig around and find a can of the coffee that was just lying around the warehouse, and he mailed it to him! One of the items he has from the movie that’s really cool is one of the mushrooms from the space ship. A few years ago, a guy from ILM who had a lot of the props started selling them on eBay, and this collector found it. Other guys collected toys from Elliott’s closet. There were so many props in the movie. There are 10 Star Wars toys in there alone. There are stories online pointing out everything in Elliott’s room.
It was such a great production design by James Bissell, who worked with Steven quite a bit. It’s just unfortunate I didn’t have a bedroom in the movie (laughs). People have watched E.T. and wondered where Michael’s room would have been? Because they’ve seen it, and there’s no place for it. They’ve seen the hallway, and seen the mom’s room, Gerty’s room and Henry’s are attached by the closet, but Michael doesn’t have a room. There’s literally no place for it to be. It’s like room 237 in The Shining.
Poor Michael got screwed out of a room!
Yeah, and then people have extrapolated that and thought that he slept in the room with his mother...
And that takes the film in a totally different direction.
(Laughs) Yeah... yes it does. There was a scene in Mary’s room that was cut out of the film. It’s a scene where Dee (Wallace) is lying in bed topless, and E.T. comes in and – she’s asleep – and he puts a Reese’s Pieces on her pillow. That scene, all the guys in the movie were in school when it was shot, we were all trying to find reasons to get out of school that morning to be on set (laughs)! Not so much Henry, but me, Tommy Howell, K.C. Martel, and Sean Frye were all trying to get out of school that day for the closeup.
What did you think of the change Spielberg made years ago when he digitally altered the original film to replace the FBI agents’ guns with walkie-talkies?
I remembered Steven saying that he regretted having the guns in the movie because he thought, "They’re kids. What are they going to do, shoot them out of the sky?" I always went along with that. It is kind of weird, when you think about it. But when I saw the [altered] version, I didn’t like the scene in the bathtub. They used CGI to make E.T. very animated, and it was jarring because it wasn’t like that on the set or in the original movie. It detracted from the experience to me. I had no problem with the walkie-talkies. If your first time watching the movie was the one with the guys holding the walkie-talkies, I don’t know if you would have thought, "Hey, that’s weird."
I just showed the revised film to my daughters – I have a seven-year-old and a four-year-old – for the first time recently, and they loved it.
Was the four-year-old scared? Because at that age, parts of it could freak them out.
She was scared all the way until we see E.T. for the first time. Then, it was love at first sight. You have two nine-year-old kids. How did their first time seeing E.T. go?
Well, one of them, Henry, he doesn’t like watching anyone he knows in a movie. My wife is an actress too, she’s been in a bunch of movies. My wife’s godmother is Carol Kane and we’ve shown him several of her movies, and he gets weirded out by her, too.
Did you show him Scrooged?
I think we tried to show him Scrooged and several others, like The Princess Bride. He was OK with it until we got to the part where she [Kane] was in it. Same thing with his mom. She was in The Fighter, but we won’t show him that. But the kids love E.T., they just don’t like my parts (laughs).
My oldest, Noah, the first time he ever saw the movie was at a screening where John Williams conducted the orchestra live in 2002. He was around six, and I wanted his first time seeing the film to be in a theater. I took him to see it, and he was just amazed. Later on, he told his mom he wanted to see the movie where daddy is pretending to be a little boy!
I love that you have such a level of pride in your involvement in the movie.
The one thing age gives you is perspective. Throughout my twenties I tried to run away from E.T., which is kind of crazy because you’re never going to be able to outrun it. I think Henry Thomas did as well. You don’t want to be defined by a single work. But, now I see this is the greatest single work I’ll be involved with. Why try to run away from that? I had quite a stage career and did several things I was proud of. I think Henry’s been able to distance himself from E.T. with his other roles, he’s done that quite well. But I’m really proud of the work we all did on that movie.
It sounds to me that you’re glad they also never made a sequel.
Yeah, I am glad, because it would have cheapened the original. It’s funny, a week ago, I had a dream where I had these ideas for a sequel. As excited as I was, after I examined the ideas, I realized none of them would capture the magic of the original. They were all about visiting E.T.’s planet, they’re looking for plants, and E.T. is a botanist and that’s why they’re going around to all these different planets. But that’s not what the movie is about. It’s not a science fiction movie with a sci-fi premise. It’s a movie about divorce and loneliness, and that’s what impacts people. It’s not really about aliens. That’s what’s exciting to me about them bringing the movie back into theaters again. It’s a different experience seeing it with other people.
What was your craziest fan encounter during the height of E.T. mania back in the early '80s?
The most insane I saw it get was, I was staying at a hotel in New York City with Henry and Drew when we were doing publicity when the film was re-released in 1985. We were doing a press junket in a hotel, doing interview after interview, one after the other. They had the three of us together and Steven was in another room. At a certain point, Drew’s mom asked me to take her to go get McDonald’s because they were sick of the room service. I said, "OK." So I told Henry, and we always hung out together, so I asked him if he wanted to go and he said, "Yes." We were staying near Central Park, and there was a McDonald’s nearby, and it was crazy! It was three years after the movie first opened, and were all together and we’d experienced fame individually, but together... we were mobbed. We couldn’t get to the counter. People were coming in from outside when they saw the fuss, people were going and bringing people inside. The manager had to bring us out the back to get us out of there. It quickly got out of hand. I had never experienced that before, or since.
We didn’t think about it. Drew’s mom just asked us to take her to McDonald's. With me, I could go to McDonald's and one or two people would say something. Always nice. With Henry it was always more, because he was Elliott, and he was little, and he was shy. He would get chased around at supermarkets. I remember he told me he went on an audition at Universal once. The guy operating the tram tour pointed him out, "Look, on your left, there’s Elliott from E.T."
That was a level of fame I never wanted. I remember being in Central Park once after the movie came out with a friend and I got a hot dog. The guy recognized me and said, “It’s on me.” My friend said I should just get a shirt that says, "I was in E.T. Give me free stuff."
For more information on E.T.'s return to theaters, click here.