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10 Facts You Might Not Know About “E.T.”

Four decades ago, an unlikely character wove its way into film history with its glowing heart and desire to phone home. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial opened in theaters on July 11, 1982, and won over audiences with his penchant for Speak & Spells and Reese’s Pieces.

The film was another breakthrough for Steven Spielberg, who had been on a roll with Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). It also marked the star-making turn for Drew Barrymore, who was just 7 years old when she played Gertie, as well as Henry Thomas, who won the title (human) role at the age of 9 of Elliot, the boy who bridges worlds by forming a tight friendship with an alien. Here are 10 facts you may not know about the Academy Award-winning film, which grossed almost $800 million worldwide (roughly $2.3 billion today).

Spielberg Came up With the Idea While Directing “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”

Steven Spielberg behind the camera on set.
Credit: PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

While working on his 1977 sci-fi classic Close Encounters, the director wondered about another alien concept and played out what could happen if the creature didn’t go back to the mothership. Also around that time, he had been thinking of making a film exploring the impact of divorce on teens, since his own parents had gotten divorced when he was 15. Combining the two, he created “the most personal thing I’d done as a director,” he said.

Everything Was Filmed With Code Names for Fear of Plagiarism

Stack of paper bundles.
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Spielberg was worried that his innovative plot might be ripped off quickly, so he had the production go to great lengths to keep everything under wraps while they filmed from September to December 1981. Actors had to read the script behind closed doors and everyone on the set also had to wear an ID card to ensure no unauthorized people snuck in for a peek. And the entire project was filmed under the codename “A Boy’s Life.”

One of the Movie’s Posters Was Inspired by Michelangelo

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo close up of hands.
Credit: Lucas Schifres via Getty Images

If the movie’s poster of the universe with a human hand reaching out looked familiar, it’s because the late artist John Alvin was inspired by Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” the centerpiece of his Sistine Chapel fresco masterpiece. Alvin’s daughter was the hand model for the image that was used to promote the film. The original artwork hung on writer and producer Bob Bendetson’s office wall until it was auctioned off for $394,000 in 2016.

Another Actor Was Almost Cast as Elliot

Multiple role playing die on a gaming mat.
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The on-screen chemistry between the child actors was crucial to the film. So before casting director Marci Liroff finalized her choices, she invited the finalists — including a boy she had honed in on to play Elliot — over to screenwriter Melissa Mathison’s home to play the board game Dungeons and Dragons. “In about three minutes, it became very clear that nobody liked this little boy,” Liroff said. “I just think when you play a game sometimes, your true character comes out … He became very bossy. It just showed that he was not our kid. So I basically had to start over.”

Thomas Nailed the Role With a Teary Audition

Scene from E.T. with Henry Thomas, with E.T. in a basket, and others riding bikes.
Credit: ScreenProd/ Photononstop/ Alamy Stock Photo

Soon, they called in Thomas, who had just been in a film called Raggedy Man, and flew him in from Texas for the audition. Liroff said they set up an improv-like scenario about the NASA officials coming to take E.T. away. The young Thomas stepped into the character so deeply that he had tears in his eyes — which, in turn, led all the others in the room to bawl as well. “He just became this little boy. He used, I think, his fear and anxiety, to really push further in the role and he moved us so deeply and so fully,” she said and called it one of the most moving auditions she’d ever experienced.

Barrymore Was Cast After Being Turned Down for “Poltergeist”

Henry Thomas looking at Drew Barrymore and E.T.
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Although Barrymore and Spielberg ended up having such a close relationship that he later became her godfather, she had first auditioned for the role of clairvoyant Carol Anne (“they’re heeeere!”) in his 1982 horror classic Poltergeist. Heather O’Rourke got the role, but the director turned to Barrymore for his following project, E.T. Barrymore now remembers her time fondly with a souvenir she took from the set: the red cowboy hat. “It is in [my daughters’] room somewhere and reminds me that I was 6 years old wearing that hat," she told Domino. "I'm so glad I still have it."

Eighteen People Contributed to E.T.’s Voice

Retro microphone and pop filter for voice recording.
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The primary voice behind the alien was an older woman named Pat Welslh who smoked two packs of cigarettes a day to get that certain vocal timbre. But when it came to E.T.’s other sounds, like burping and snorting, they were sourced from all over, including from the film’s sound effect creator’s wife and Spielberg himself. Ultimately, there were a total of 18 people who took part in giving the fictional friend a voice, and at some points, even sea otters, raccoons, and horses were used.

Thomas Ate a Lot of Candy on Set

Reese's Pieces candies.
Credit: Kristoffer Tripplaar/ Alamy Stock Photo

E.T.’s on-screen favorite snack, Reese’s Pieces — which became the choice snack after Mars. Inc, forgoing an enormous branding opportunity, passed on the use of M&Ms — also became Thomas’ obsession. “I made myself sick from eating them because we always had those two-pound bags lying around,” Thomas told CNN. “They were set dressing in Elliott’s room, so in between takes, I was constantly eating those things."

The Movie Was Shot From a Kids’ Eye Level

Film camera in studio.
Credit: smutnypan/ iStock

To emphasize the story from Elliot’s point of view, the entire movie up until the final act was shot from the eye level of a child. In fact, no adult face was ever shown in the film with one big exception: Elliot’s mom, Mary. “She was like one of the kids,” Spielberg told Entertainment Weekly.

Harrison Ford Had a Cameo That Was Cut

Harrison Ford sitting on top of a wooden dining room table.
Credit: Paul Harris via Getty Images

Among the grown-ups who appeared without their faces shown was Harrison Ford — then at the peak of his Indiana Jones fame — playing the part of the school principal who scolds Elliot after the frog rescue scene. In the cut scene, Elliot’s chair starts to levitate until he hits the ceiling and crashes down with a perfect landing. Ford’s character was oblivious to it all since he was too busy reprimanding the child to notice.