Henry Thomas on ‘E.T.’ Remaining So Beloved (and Sequel Free) After 40 Years

Eric Goldman
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In 1982, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial became a true cinematic and cultural event, finding success the likes of which few films could ever dream. For numerous years, in fact, E.T. was the highest grossing movie of all time and it has long been cemented as an iconic and beloved classic.

Now E.T. is celebrating its 40th anniversary, complete with a recent new 4K release of the movie, which includes new special features, along with the release of a ton of new merch commemorating the film. Recent months also saw a big 40th anniversary screening as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival — where Spielberg participated in a Q&A — and an IMAX theatrical re-release.

Fandom spoke to E.T.‘s star, Henry Thomas (“Elliott”), about the film’s amazing longevity, its rarity as a blockbuster of its size without a sequel, curiosity about E.T.’s alien race and how they function, and how E.T. observed the Dungeons & Dragons craze before many.

PHONE HOME FOREVER

Henry Thomas and E.T. in 'E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial'

Only 10 years old when E.T. opened, Henry Thomas not only got to see the massive lines around the block that greeted the movie the summer it debuted, but how it has continued to be popular ever since – with decades of kids now introduced to it who weren’t around at all in 1982.

Looking at this long term success, Thomas said Fandom, “It’s always amazing to me because I’ve been in the industry for a while and I see how infrequent it is to have any kind of success. Usually films, they come and go. But this one has stuck around. And it’s a testament to the film, but it’s also a testament to the fans.”

When it came to those fans, and how it’s now something parents who grew up loving it show to their own children, Thomas remarked, “It’s sort of become our generation’s Wizard of Oz, in a lot of ways. And it’s such an iconic film. A lot of individuals remember it with super, super fond memories. And they remember it as the first movie they went to the theater to see with their parents or their grandparents. So it has a special place in people’s hearts.”

BETTER LEFT UNSAID

A notable aspect of E.T. is that it doesn’t give you a ton of specifics about its title character or the alien race he’s a part of. The opening few minutes depict E.T. and his individuals collecting plant samples, before he’s left behind, but there’s really not much else made explicit, even as we see E.T. show off some rather amazing powers.

Thomas — who has been busy in recent years working with Mike Flanagan on projects like The Haunting of Hill House and Midnight Mass — said that as a kid working on the film, he did have questions about his alien co-star, recalling, “We were always talking about it. I was always asking, like, ‘Where does E.T. come from? And what’s his home world like? And why is he dying?’ and matters like this. Steven and Melissa Matheson, who was the screenwriter, they always had answers for me, which was a lot of fun.”

In terms of what exactly he was told, Thomas noted that some of it has been shown in other media since, such as the E.T. ride at Universal Studios, depicting more of E.T., his planet, and his individuals as botanists. One fact from Spielberg that made a particular impression on Thomas on set though stood out. “He said the reason [E.T.’s] neck went up and down was that they were meant to perhaps live kind of amphibiously; like halfway underwater. And that was their protection mechanism.”

Thomas did add that when it came to these on set conversations, “Ths wasn’t some type of canon. It was a few individuals bouncing ideas around.” He noted that as he got older, he came to appreciate how Matheson and Spielberg approached the movie and why they left out more specifics, saying, “By not addressing it, and by not saying ‘This is where he comes from and this is the species,’ by not doing those things, you allow the audience to fill in those voids.”

ONE AND DONE

When you look at the top grossing movies of all time, E.T. remains a big outlier, standing out alongside Titanic as a infrequent movie that reached the box office heights it did without either being a sequel itself or leading to a sequel or prequel.

After briefly batting around an idea for a sequel in the wake of the film’s release and massive success, Spielberg soon made it clear he didn’t think there should be another E.T. movie (though there was the follow-up book The Book of the Green Planet). Thomas felt Spielberg’s decision made sense, saying, “I think the reason that there was never a sequel for E.T. is because Steven immediately recognized upon the creation and release of this movie how special it was for individuals and how unique that is. Less is more in the sense that he was going to leave it alone and let it have its own life and not tarnish it by drawing it out further.” Thomas added, with a chuckle, “Because also, I don’t know, what would the sequel be? They meet again? Then what? Elliott gets abducted and he’s got to obtain home?”

E.T. & D&D

The Dungeons & Dragons scene in 'E.T' (note the cash on the table on the left that caused some concerns...)

Rewatching E.T. in 2022, something that now stands out is the early scene when Elliott, along with his big brother Michael, plus Michael friends (all of whom will factor into the film’s finale) are introduced, with the older boys all playing Dungeons & Dragons – even as Elliott desperately tries to obtain them to let him join the game.

D&D is arguably more mainstream and recognizable than ever these days, so it’s notable that it got such a spotlight much earlier on via E.T. Thomas agreed it was cool that the movie was a bit ahead of the curve as far as depicting the game’s popularity in such a mainstream studio film, though he recalled there was some trickiness behind the scenes at the time, explaining, “Gary Gygax, the creator of D&D, wouldn’t sign off on us using the name Dungeons and Dragons.”

In the film, Michael and his friends play D&D while getting ready to pay for a pizza delivery, and Thomas amusingly recounted Gygax having concerns. “Because – from a picture of us playing the game in that opening scene – he thought because there was money on the table, we were trying to say that there was gambling involved. He was like, ‘No, I don’t want to touch that!’”

Of course, that wasn’t the only issue E.T. had while it was being made from folks outside the production who certainly had no idea just how popular the movie would be. While Elliott and E.T. prominently eat Reese’s Pieces in the movie, rather famously, that’s only because another candy – which was the one written in the script – had turned them down. Said Thomas, regarding Gygax’s D&D concerns, “It was the same thing for M&M’S. They said, ‘We don’t want to be associated with an alien!’”

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial 40th Anniversary is now available on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and Digital, including  Limited Edition Gift Set and Steelbook editions.

Explore more about E.T. at Fandom’s E.T. Wiki!


Eric Goldman
Eric Goldman is Managing Editor for Fandom. He's a bit obsessed with Star Wars, Marvel, Disney, theme parks, and horror movies... and a few other things. Too many, TBH.