Encore

THE LITTLE ALIEN THAT COULD

The story behind ''E.T. The Extra-Terrestial'' -- Thirteen years ago, the alien waddled into theaters and became a hit

When the curtain went up on June 11, 1982, in 1,100 U.S. theaters, the idea that E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial would make cinema history was itself rather alien. True, the film had some universally popular themes — friendship, innocence, abandonment, survival. But this tale of a boy and his new best friend from outer space wasn't your typical buddy movie, and few guessed the ending: that E.T. would go on to earn $700 million all told and become the biggest hit in history. Last year, Jurassic Park became the new top moneymaker worldwide, but in its native land, E.T. remains the most successful film ever made.

The idea came to Steven Spielberg in 1980 in Tunisia, where he was directing Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark. ''What I really need is a friend I can talk to — somebody who can give me all the answers,'' Spielberg was thinking. So during downtime in the desert, he cornered Ford and screenwriter Melissa Mathison (now Ford's wife) and poured out his idea: a fantastical adventure about a 10-year-old named Elliott and a cuddly little being left behind on Earth by fellow aliens. They were bowled over, and in December 1980, Mathison turned in a lovingly crafted first draft. Elliott (Henry Thomas) had become a boy whose father had walked out. Too young to hang with his bossy older brother and too old for his little sister (a 7-year-old Drew Barrymore), he finds kinship with someone just his size and in a similar fix: E.T., a waddling, abandoned alien fleeing scientists eager to get their instruments on him.

E.T. cost Universal $10.5 million to make — $1.5 million of it to create three E.T.'s (played variously by two dwarfs and a legless 12-year-old boy). By the end of 1982, it had grossed $322 million and spawned a billion-dollar industry in E.T. dolls, videogames, lunch boxes, ice cream, bedspreads, and bumper stickers bearing the luminous-fingered alien's famous line, ''E.T. phone home.'' The Hershey Foods Corp. saw sales of its Reese's Pieces triple after Elliott offered them to E.T. (Mars Inc. reportedly declined to let its M&M's be used). And Topps sold so many E.T. trading cards that it canceled planned layoffs and recalled 25 furloughed workers.

Yet behind it all remained a simple tale of friendship. Contemplating his hit, Spielberg said, ''The reason I became a moviemaker [was] to make stories about people and relationships. E.T. is the first movie I have ever made for myself.'' It turned out not to be the last.


Time Capsule
June 11, 1982
Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney struck a chord on ''Ebony and Ivory''; The Love Boat still made a splash on TV; Robert Ludlum's The Parsifal Mosaic had readers glued; and fitness freaks toned up to Jane Fonda's Workout Book.

Originally posted Jun 09, 1995 Published in issue #278 Jun 09, 1995 Order article reprints