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'E.T.': Where'd you get those eyes?

Friday, March 22, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A recent NBC special, reuniting Steven Spielberg, producer Kathleen Kennedy and stars Dee Wallace Stone, Peter Coyote, Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore and Robert MacNaughton, provided a rare window into the making of the movie. So does the press kit issued for the 20th anniversary.

Ever since his parents divorced, Steven Spielberg had been kicking around the idea of a boy who finds an imaginary friend -- in this case, an extraterrestrial -- who fills the void left by his missing father. The story crystallized when Spielberg was filming "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Melissa Mathison, then Harrison Ford's girlfriend and "The Black Stallion" screenwriter, was on the set. Spielberg asked her to write "a children's movie about a man from outer space." He called her first draft, originally titled "A Boy's Life," the best he had ever read.

E.T.'s eyes were inspired by those belonging to Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway and Carl Sandburg. Spielberg also wanted E.T. to have a long neck, so moviegoers wouldn't think there was a person inside the costume; he reneged on using diminutive actors inside the suit when he realized they would be needed to make E.T. walk.

As many as 15 puppeteers operated E.T., controlling everything from his blinking eyes to his beating heart.

Drew Barrymore went to a casting call for "Poltergeist" and didn't get that movie but eventually won the "E.T." role. It was Henry Thomas' exemplary work on "Raggedy Man," starring Sissy Spacek and directed by her husband Jack Fisk, that got him an audition. The boy didn't do well on the reading, but wowed them with an emotional, teary improv. Spielberg personally identified with the older brother Michael, played by MacNaughton, who is put in the position of being the man of the house.

The little girl who Elliott kisses was Erika Eleniak, later a Playboy playmate and "Baywatch" babe. When Henry was reluctant to buss the girl, Spielberg told him to close his eyes, hold his breath and he'd never know what happened. He did, though, because the youngsters' teeth collided.

For the Halloween scene, Spielberg decided to surprise his young cast by dressing up -- as a female school teacher, complete with veiled hat, lipstick and orthopedic shoes.

The cast became internationally famous, and a pint-size Drew found herself curtsying and giving Princess Diana an E.T. doll.

The making of this movie convinced Spielberg he wanted to have a family. Three years later, girlfriend turned wife Amy Irving gave birth to his first child, Max. He later married actress Kate Capshaw and expanded his family by a half-dozen children.


Talk about the sweet smell of success.

Hershey Foods Corp. introduced Reese's Pieces in 1978 but they took off like Elliott on his bicycle after they played a crucial role in the movie. Sales shot up 60 percent, says Hershey spokeswoman Christine Dugan. "I think people fell in love, not only with E.T., but Reese's Pieces."

And to think little Elliott nearly laid a trail of M&Ms, but Mars Inc. said no thanks. The production turned to Hershey and its almost lookalike candy, Reese's Pieces, stuffed with peanut butter. "And the rest is kind of history," Dugan says.

"I think the partnership with 'E.T.' significantly built the brand and created a tremendous amount of recognition with consumers," she adds. The Pennsylvania candymaker hopes the re-release will prove a boon for all of the items in the Reese's line.

If you go to the company's Web site at www.hersheys.com you can find information about getting a movie ticket in exchange for symbols from packaged candy or bars. And you can download screensavers and games.

E.T., phone for a recount

"E.T." competed for Oscar's top prize against "Gandhi," "Missing," "The Verdict" and "Tootsie." The winner was the Ben Kingsley picture about the man in the loincloth who took on the British Empire and won.

As recounted in the book "Inside Oscar" by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona, The New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote this after the ceremony: " 'E.T.' and 'Tootsie' are films. 'Gandhi' is a laboriously illustrated textbook." Fellow Times critic Janet Maslin suggested: "Someday, the sweep that brought 'Gandhi' eight Academy Awards may be known as one of the great injustices in the annals of Oscardom."

Spielberg told the Los Angeles Times, "We were almost precluded from awards because people feel we've already been amply rewarded. ... The tendency is for important films to win over popcorn entertainment. History is more weighty than popcorn."

Where are they now?

E.T. -- The little guy is starring in a Toys R Us commercial and enjoying his cinematic comeback. In his glory days, he inspired dolls, bedspreads, Atari video games, lunch boxes, T-shirts, candy, buttons, posters, gift wrap, bath towels and kitchen textiles, some of which you can now buy on eBay. The big-eyed alien also became the star of his own Universal Studios attraction in Florida, California and Japan. Since the Orlando park opened, an estimated 40 million visitors have climbed aboard bicycles and been transported to E.T.'s planet.

Steven Spielberg -- They don't get much bigger (or better). Now 55, he has directed, produced or executive-produced seven of the 25 top-grossing movies of all time. Before "E.T." he stumbled across the formula for the perfect summer blockbuster in "Jaws." After, he won Oscars for directing "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" and received the Irving G. Thalberg Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 1994, he and two partners founded DreamWorks SKG and released "Shrek," "Gladiator" and "American Beauty."

Melissa Mathison -- In recent months, Mathison's name has been in the news because of her on-again, off-again marriage to Harrison Ford. Her best known screenplay may be "E.T.," but she also wrote "Kundun" and turned the novel "The Indian in the Cupboard" into a fine family film.

Drew Barrymore -- The 6-year-old who played Gertie found herself in rehab at an early age but she's become a popular leading lady -- and favorite David Letterman guest. She recently starred in "Riding in Cars with Boys," "Charlie's Angels," "Never Been Kissed" and the Cinderella story, "Ever After." When she posed for Playboy, Spielberg sent her a quilt with a suggestion: "Cover up." Her marriage to comedian Tom Green proved to be short-lived.

Henry Thomas -- Before he made "E.T." at age 10, young Henry was "The Kid" in the TV movie "The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid." Although Thomas has appeared in a string of independent movies, along with "All the Pretty Horses" and "Legends of the Fall," he has not enjoyed Barrymore-like success. He played a young Norman Bates in "Psycho IV:

The Beginning" but seems on the verge of a comeback with Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York." He will play Leonardo DiCaprio's best friend.

Robert MacNaughton -- After playing the older brother in "E.T." at age 14, he appeared in "I Am the Cheese," HBO's "Vietnam War Story," Dennis Potter's "Visitors" and episodes of "Newhart" and "Amen." His stage work included "Henry V" with Kevin Kline in Central Park but he's out of the movie business and living with his family in Arizona.

Dee Wallace Stone -- The mom in "E.T." was in Western Pennsylvania in summer 2000, making the independent drama "Out of the Black" about the ripple effects of a mining accident. She even dropped in on Pittsburgh's Labor Day Parade to chastise the ad industry for efforts to reduce residuals to actors who appear in commercials. This actress never seems to lack for work. She has a long list of theatrical and TV credits, along with two series, "The New Lassie" and "Together We Stand."

What we said then

When the movie was released in June 1982, Post-Gazette Magazine Editor George Anderson called it the most magical movie in a magical summer.

"Director Steven Spielberg, currently riding the hottest winning streak in movie history -- "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Poltergeist," and "E.T." in a 12-month span -- has created an enchanted fantasy.

"It lifts you into its make-believe in the wonderfully enriching way that only movies can do. ... I wouldn't be surprised if 'E.T.' eventually turned into the kind of durable classic that can be revived indefinitely for future generations, just as 'The Wizard of Oz' is."

After praising the principals, Anderson added, "But the movie really belongs to E.T., and to the little boy inside Steven Spielberg who can still believe in such wondrous stories."


Talk about magic. Spielberg took a movie with a $10 million budget and watched it make $704.8 million worldwide. So far.

When you examine the domestic box office, only three pictures have made more money than "E.T." Topping the list with almost $601 million is "Titanic," followed by "Star Wars" with $461 million, "Star Wars, Episode I -- The Phantom Menace" with $431 million. "E.T." earned nearly $400 million in North America alone.

E.T., talk to us

A housewife and sometime amateur photographer named Pat Welsh -- then in her mid-60s and living in Marin County, Calif. -- spoke for E.T.

Voice and sound designer Ben Burtt discovered her. She recorded the dialogue, which later was altered electronically and mixed with breathing sounds of animals. "I should mention that all told, there were 18 different contributors to the voice of E.T., including animals and various humans who might have provided a snort, a breath or a burp," he says.

E.T., come home

Oct. 27, 1988, was a red-letter day for "E.T." lovers.

That's when it arrived on videotape with the suggested price of $24.95, at that point the lowest price for a major movie. Some stores were selling the tapes for $10 less, and "E.T." was credited with getting consumers to think about buying rather than renting a movie. It also was credited (or blamed) with bringing mass merchants into the video picture and cutting into the business of video retailers.

Pepsi designed a $25 million ad campaign, including a commercial starring "E.T.," around the release. It didn't seem to matter that characters in the film guzzled Coke, not Pepsi.

By January 1989, MCA Home Video had sold a record 15 million units to retailers and distributors. That same month, religious groups outraged by MCA Universal's "The Last Temptation of Christ" suggested their members refuse to buy or rent "E.T."

When the DVD comes out, Spielberg says it will have both the original and the 20th anniversary versions of "E.T."

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