Henry Thomas Looks Back on the Classic



  • Henry Thomas talked to Insider about what it’s been like to live in the shadow of “E.T.” for 40 years.
  • He hasn’t worked with Steven Spielberg since, but auditioned for “Saving Private Ryan.”
  • The 40th anniversary Blu-ray of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” is available now.

It’s certainly not lost on Henry Thomas that he’s been talking about the movie “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” for practically his entire life.

“I’m just here on the longest press tour in history,” Thomas said with a grin after I linked up with him on a Zoom call. “I’ve been on this thing since 1982.”

He’s not joking.

When Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece hit the big screen in June 1982 and became a box-office sensation, it literally changed the lives of everyone involved — especially Thomas.

Then a 10-year-old actor who had been in one small movie before blowing Spielberg away with a tearful audition to land the lead role of Elliott in “E.T.” (that audition has since gone viral), Thomas, 51, has been forever known as the young boy who had a special bond with a being from another planet who is accidentally left behind on Earth.

That’s led to good things, like forever being a part of cinematic history, but also some less good things. Thomas admits it was hard fitting in during high school and though he’s landed some roles in memorable movies since like “Legends of the Fall,” opposite Brad Pitt, and alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” Thomas knows he’ll never do anything that will match playing Elliott.

In fact, to this date, he hasn’t been directed by Spielberg again, even though he said he has auditioned for some of his movies over the years, including “Saving Private Ryan.”

Here, Thomas talked to Insider about what it’s been like over the past 40 years to live in the shadow of “E.T.”

The interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Was there a moment in ’82 when you realized, nothing is going to be the same for me ever again? Can you pinpoint a moment?

I think it really started to hit me two weeks after the release when it was still No. 1 at the box office and people were talking about the lines to get into the theaters stretching around the block. It became a worldwide sensation. That’s when I kind of thought, “Wow, this isn’t going to go away.”

Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Robert MacNaughton holding a People's Choice Award

(L-R) “E.T.” costars Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, and Robert MacNaughton accepting a People’s Choice Award in 1983.

Bettmann/Getty



And you were going back-to-back making movies, so was there a pause when you were going to school and realizing you couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized?

That all happened that summer in ’82 and the following summer in ’83. The movie was still out. Even when I got into high school people were still talking about “E.T.” because it was being released again in theaters. Back then there was no DVD, they just kept rereleasing it.

It was difficult for a time as a teenager kind of wanting to distance myself from being a boy and always being associated with being 10 years old. So that was tough as a young guy. But if it wasn’t that it would have been some other insecurity I’d be going through at school, like my ears. [Laughs.]

But as an actor, was there a point where you were searching for a role that would top Elliott or be so shocking that people would recognize you more for that role?

I think as a kid I was trying to do artistically viable things. I was doing serious roles after “E.T.” I did a film with Gene Hackman called “Misunderstood,” so the career path that my agent at the time was trying to cultivate for me was that of a dramatic arc, basically. Award-worthy projects.

As a kid, I gravitated more toward adventure stuff and my parents were pretty protective of me so I wasn’t looking for anything that would top Elliott.

Henry Thomas sitting next to Dabney Coleman

(L-R) Henry Thomas and Dabney Coleman in “Cloak & Dagger.”

Universal



Now you mention wanting to do stories with adventure, I’m a big fan of another movie of yours that came out right after “E.T.,” “Cloak & Dagger” with Dabney Coleman.

That’s great to hear. Yes, that’s where my 12-year-old head was at.

Do you have a good Dabney Coleman story?

Not really, I feel Dabney didn’t really want to be there. He was like, “I gotta act across from the ‘E.T.’ kid?” But he was great. It was a lot of fun.

Have you ever gotten close again to working with Spielberg?

I auditioned for him a few times over the years —

Wait, he made you audition for him? Your audition for Elliot is one of the best ever! He didn’t know what he was getting?

Well, I guess it didn’t last. I auditioned for “Saving Private Ryan” and a few other films but we haven’t worked together since.

Brad Pitt sitting next to Henry Thomas

(L-R) Brad Pitt and Henry Thomas in “Legends of the Fall.”

Sony



Looking back, was it more fun hanging out with Brad Pitt after filming would wrap on a day for “Legends of the Fall,” or Leonardo DiCaprio when a day was over on “Gangs of New York”?

Brad Pitt. Much more fun. I didn’t really hang out with Leo. But I hung out with Brad. We got along pretty well so we had fun. And we were out in the mountains in the middle of nowhere so maybe that had something to do with it.

Also, “Legends of the Fall” was one of my favorite films that I’ve been a part of. I think it’s a beautiful film. 

The current generation of young performers is very open to talking about their mental health. For you back in the ’80s at 10, 11, 12 years old, how did you navigate the industry?

I’m Generation X so we sort of did everything. You get hurt you put a band-aid on it and you did it. And that was the approach to life and to work. I didn’t really look for a lot of outside help. Maybe I would be mentally more healthy if I had, but I’m doing OK I think. 

I mean, we weren’t mollycoddled growing up. You were left to navigate on your own, as long as you were safe, everything was okay. 

henry thomas

Henry Thomas.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images



If you came up in the industry now as a young kid could you even imagine going through it all in the era of social media?

I have a hard time adjusting to it as an adult. When you’ve worked in film in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s even, I mean we would all be arrested now for our conduct. I mean, that’s bottom line. It’s an attitude more than anything.

I’m not saying it was better then, I’m just saying it’s strange to navigate the waters right now. I just worked with a guy who is in his 80s who got fired and it was an HR thing. So, nobody’s safe. [Laughs.]

So when was the last time you watched “E.T.” all the way through?

Twenty years ago at the 20th-anniversary screening, with John Williams conducting the orchestra doing the score live. And to be honest, I was watching the orchestra and John Williams and not really watching the film. 

I mean, you know how the movie ends.

Yeah. I was there.

The 40th-anniversary Blu-ray of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” is available now.



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