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E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Image: Amblin Entertainment

Film

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial: 15 Things You May Not Know About Steven Spielberg’s Masterpiece 

The mystery. The suspense. The adventure. The call… that started it all.

ET: The Extra-Terrestrial turns 40!

In May of 1982, 40 years ago this week, E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Released the following month, it was one of the most important films of the 1980s, one that has continued to have influence in the four decades since. Roughly one-third of Stranger Things is but a direct homage to this specific movie. 

The story of the friendship between a young boy (Henry Thomas) and an alien visiting Earth, E.T. is probably the quintessential Steven Spielberg/Amblin Entertainment movie, for a few different reasons: It’s a sci-fi story that’s above all very human. It’s about, more than anything else, the wonder of childhood, against the backdrop of divorce and an absent father. 

There are about a half-dozen things in the film that are absolutely iconic and seared into the memories of anyone who watched it as a kid, starting with Reese’s Pieces, “E.T. phone home,” and the famous shot of E.T. and Eliot flying in front of the full moon. 

Here are 15 things you may not know about E.T. 

Image: Amblin Entertainment

E.T.: Spielberg’s imaginary friend. 

Spielberg has said in interviews over the years that E.T. was inspired by an imaginary friend he had as a child while dealing with his parent’s divorce. The friend was meant to stand in for both his absent father and the big brother he always wanted. 

E.T.’s voice was created by… cigarettes 

Pat Welsh, a two-pack-a-day smoker, provided the voice for E.T., and she got the part after the movie’s sound effects editor overheard her speaking in a camera store. 

Chronological filming 

Most movies are not shot in chronological order, but E.T. was. Spielberg did this to make things easier for the child actors. So the hugs goodbye to E.T. was, in fact, the last thing shot. 

M&M’s blew it 

The Mars company was at first offered the chance to include M&M candy in the film, but their loss was Reese’s Pieces’ gain, as that ended up being the candy that lured E.T. out of the woods. This led to a huge surge in sales for that candy brand. 

E.T. inspired Mac and Me 

If you’re familiar with the 1988 film Mac and Me, it’s almost certainly for the running bit Paul Rudd has been doing for years in Conan O’Brien’s talk shows in which he shows the same clip from the movie. But prior to the start of that, Mac and Me was mostly known as a particularly egregious knockoff of E.T., complete with even more egregious product placement for Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. 

Longtime box office champ 

E.T., helped by multiple re-releases, was the all-time box office champion for about a decade before it was overtaken in 1993 by another Spielberg-directed film, Jurassic Park. To this day, E.T. is the 24th hjghest-grossest film of all time at the domestic box office at over $435 million. It’s the second-oldest film in the top 25; only Star Wars is older. 

E.T.
Image: Amblin Entertainment

In another Top 25 

On the AFI 100 list in 1998, E.T. was ranked the 25th greatest film of all time by the American Film Institute. This was the second-highest among Spielberg’s films, behind only Schindler’s List, which ranked 9th. Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind also made the original list while Saving Private Ryan — released in 1998 — was ranked on the updated list in 2007. 

The E.T. video game was a debacle

The film, naturally, inspired a video game, one that’s widely considered among the worst games ever made. Made for Atari, the E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial video game was such a flop that unused copies of it were buried in a landfill in New Mexico in 1983. This was long suspected to be an urban legend, but the games were exhumed in 2014, a process depicted in that year’s documentary, Atari: Game Over. It did turn out, however, that many different unsold Atari games, and not just the E.T. one, had been buried there. 

Image: Amblin Entertainment

Not the Best Picture 

E.T. was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1982, but it lost to Gandhi. It did win four Oscars, however, for sound, sound effect editing, visual effects, and John Williams’ score. 

The “Special Edition” was very controversial 

In 2002, on the film’s 20th anniversary, a “Special Edition” of E.T. was released, featuring various tweaks, most notoriously the decision to replace guns in the hands of federal agents with walkie-talkies. Other changes were mostly effects shots that the director felt could be better rendered with the technology of the time. This caused major controversy at the time, with South Park mocking it.

Spielberg did include both the original and special editions on the DVD release that year, although subsequent home media releases have only featured the original. 

Never a sequel 

Unlike so many of the box office hits of the time, there was never a sequel to E.T., nor a remake or reboot. There’s been no attempt at a built-out of the film’s world. Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison did consider a sequel in the early 1980s, with a script called E.T. 2: Nocturnal Fears even being written, but the film was never made. 

E.T.: Male or female?

It’s sometimes been debated whether E.T. is male, female, or perhaps of a species in which no gender exists. The original draft of the script did not specify a gender for E.T., although later drafts listed E.T. as male. This all came up again in 2017 when actress Elizabeth Banks accused Spielberg of never having made a movie with a female protagonist (it turns out she had forgotten The Color Purple, although some claimed E.T. qualified as female.) 

The kids stayed in the picture 

Drew Barrymore, of course, appeared in E.T. when she was just 6 years old and went on to a long and multifaceted career in which she’s been everything from an A-list movie star to a popular TV talk show host. 

The now 50-year-old Henry Thomas has continued to act since E.T., appearing in everything from Gangs of New York to last year’s To All the Boys: Always and Forever. And Erika Eleniak, who made her movie debut in E.T. as “Pretty Girl,” later starred in Baywatch, and has continued to appear in movies. 

E.T.
Image: Amblin Entertainment

What’s a Speak & Spell? 

The toy E.T. plays with may look unfamiliar to younger people today, but the Texas Instruments product was a pretty ubiquitous educational toy starting with its introduction in 1978 and was at the height of popularity at the time of E.T., four years later.

E.T., and The Phantom Menace 

Fans of the Star Wars prequels likely remember the scene in which several aliens of E.T.’s species appear in the Galactic Senate scenes, in 1999’s Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace. The implication is that E.T. and Star Wars are therefore set in the same universe, and also that E.T. traveled to Earth from “a galaxy far, far away.” Although since Star Wars is also set “a long time ago,” perhaps the alien Senators are ancestors of E.T. (In E.T., a kid is seen wearing a Yoda costume.) 

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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