'E.T.' at 35: Older bro Robert MacNaughton tells what 'D&D' at Harrison Ford's, 'Weird Al,' Elvis Costello had to do with it

Gwynne Watkins
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
From left: Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, and Robert MacNaughton in E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, 1982. (Photo: Everett Collection)

Robert MacNaughton has seen E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial many times, in many ways, in the 35 years since he starred as Elliott’s older brother Michael in Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi family classic. He’s seen it with composer John Williams conducting the score live; he’s seen it in Germany, with his role dubbed by an actor who stepped on all his punchlines; he’s watched it at home with his wife, actress Bianca Hunter (who always starts crying before he does); he’s taken his son at to an outdoor screening at Brooklyn Bridge Park; and when the movie returns to theaters courtesy of Fathom Events on Sept. 17 and 20 (the same week a 35th anniversary Blu-ray gift set arrives), he plans on taking his stepsons. “I know everybody’s seen it a million times, but it’s different when you see it in the theater with other people, and they’re all losing it too,” MacNaughton tells Yahoo Movies of the emotional film, about a lost alien who brings a family together.

MacNaughton left acting in his 30s and has been happily employed by the U.S. Postal Service for 15 years. But just as the 1982 film has remained a part of pop culture (as an obvious inspiration for Netflix hit Stranger Things, for example), it has always remained a part of his life. At 14, the actor won the coveted role of Michael, a teenager struggling for independence while caring for his younger siblings Elliott (Henry Thomas, 10) and Gertie (Drew Barrymore, 6), in a memorable series of auditions, one of which consisted of a Dungeons & Dragons game at Harrison Ford’s house.

Spielberg shot the film chronologically so that the actors’ real-life bonding, both with each other and the incredibly lifelike alien (whose operators were kept hidden from the children to further the illusion), was captured on film. The set was a place of compassion and creative freedom, where MacNaughton could improvise a line in Yoda’s voice (actually Thomas’s idea, inspired by a Weird Al song) and E.T. “talked” to Barrymore when the cameras weren’t rolling, because the puppeteers knew he was real to her.

When he wasn’t filming, MacNaughton attended school with Thomas, Barrymore, and Matthew DeMerritt, an 11-year-old boy born without legs who did E.T.’s stunts (including the famous drunk scene) inside a rubber costume. By the time they shot the harrowing third-act scenes of E.T.’s death and resurrection, the cast and crew were genuinely devastated that their time together was ending.

Robert MacNaughton today. (Photo: Robert MacNaughton)

And yet, in a way, it never did end. MacNaughton has stayed in touch with his E.T. family (he recently ribbed Thomas about his tear-filled audition video going viral). In a strange twist of fate, the film brought him and his wife together — with an assist from Drew Barrymore — decades later.

In a wide-ranging interview, MacNaughton spoke with Yahoo Movies about the once-in-a-lifetime experience of making E.T., returning to his high school with the nickname “penis breath” and deciding to leave show business — though he says he’d make an exception for Stranger Things.

E.T. is the rare movie that has never gone away. It’s remained very present in pop culture for the past 35 years.
Yeah, I can’t believe it. It’s been on Netflix for like a year now, and I attribute that to Stranger Things. My wife and I watched Stranger Things, and it was like, “Wait a minute — that’s straight out of E.T.!” And they’re playing Dungeons & Dragons! It was funny because Dungeons & Dragons was even in the audition process [for E.T.]. One of the auditions was at Harrison Ford’s house because he and Melissa Mathison, who wrote the script, were together, and his kids Ben and Willard played Dungeons & Dragons. So one of the auditions was at Harrison Ford’s house with all of us playing Dungeons & Dragons. So it was always a part of the whole, of the script, an integral part.

In fact, the last scene in the movie wasn’t supposed to be the scene that ends up in the movie. The last scene was going to be all of us playing Dungeons & Dragons again, except this time, Elliott’s the dungeon master. Because he was the one that found E.T., he sort of got in with the group. And so that was supposed to be the final scene, it was in the script and everything, and then they would pan up to the roof and you’d see the communicator and it’s still working — in other words, Elliott is still in touch with E.T. But after they did the score, the music, and they saw what they had with the spaceship taking off and everything [laughs] — how can you follow that? I mean, it was a wise choice.

But it was funny because the script was top secret so [the producers] sent just a few pages of the script to the creator of Dungeons & Dragons. And he said, I absolutely will not allow the name D&D to be used because they’re gambling on the game. I guess he misunderstood; there was a script note that we had money for pizza on the table, and he thought we were gambling on Dungeons & Dragons. [Laughs] So I think that was kind of a costly mistake. He could have had all that high-end E.T. marketing.

Did you already know how to play D&D or did you learn for the film?
Oh yeah, that was partly what got me the role. Because they didn’t show anybody the script, and I missed all the preliminary auditions. I just lucked out because I had auditioned for another movie called The Entity, with Barbara Hershey, and the casting director for that, she had seen a play I did in New York, and so she flew me out there for the audition. And it fell through; I didn’t get the part. So she said, You know what, I feel bad because you came all this way to L.A., so I’ll make a call. I hear they’re casting something over at Spielberg’s and I’m not casting it, but I’ll call [E.T. casting director] Mike Fenton and see if I can get you in. So I lucked out.

My first audition was just a meeting with Steven, and it was on the day that President Reagan was shot. I’ll never forget, it was really crazy that morning, because I’m talking to Steven — who was my idol — and people are running in saying, “James Brady just died!” and all this stuff. But one of the things he asked me was, “What do you like to do?” I said, “Well, I ride bikes a lot.” He goes, “Yeah, that’s in the movie.” And I said, “I play Dungeons & Dragons.” And he goes, “That’s in the movie, too.” [Laughs] So it was just I said all the right things, I guess.

Robert MacNaughton, Henry Thomas, and Drew Barrymore in E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, 1982. (Photo: Everett Collection)

Henry Thomas’s audition tape was posted online a couple years ago and went viral.
Yeah, he wasn’t real happy about that. [Laughs] I’ve stayed friends with Henry all through the years. He’s the person I was closest to on the set. I talked to him yesterday, in fact. My wife, Bianca, has been the go-between; she’s the one who contacted everyone about Carlo Rambaldi, the guy who created the mechanical E.T., his daughter is having a 35th anniversary memoriam for her father, and so she wanted us to record little videos for his memorial, so my wife contacted Peter Coyote and Henry. Drew’s the only one we’re sort of out of contact with.

So yeah, Henry Thomas wasn’t real happy with the video. Because you know, it was an audition and you don’t expect your auditions to be public. I told Henry, “Really, everybody loves that video because of Mike Fenton’s acting.” He’s the guy reading the other lines off camera. [Laughs]

I never thought about how strange it would be to see some lost thing from your childhood like that, all of a sudden become public.
I mean, I thought it was great. He really bought into it, you could tell he was really heartfelt. He’s just a real genuine person.

That’s awesome that you’re still in touch.
It’s funny because now one of my stepkids is named Henry. I mean, I had nothing to do with it. So when we’re in the park or something, I think people think I named him after him.

I want to talk about the very unusual process of shooting this film, which I understand was filmed chronologically?
All of the interiors, pretty much, they did chronologically. The scenes where we say goodbye were filmed toward the end.

And there was a fair amount of improvisation?
Yes. For one thing Melissa, the writer of the script, was on the set every day, which is rare for movies. Usually they don’t let the writer anywhere near the set. [Laughs] But she was a really big part of E.T. and the heart of E.T., and because she was always there and she was always asking us for ideas, we all felt perfectly enabled to come up with different lines that might be saying the same thing but felt more natural to us. And Steven also encouraged a lot of that. Everybody could sort of chime in. It was Henry’s idea that I use the Yoda voice when I say, “You have absolute power.” Because we used to listen to this show Dr. Demento that played novelty songs, and at that time ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic had a song called “Yoda” that was like the Kinks song “Lola.” And so I used to play that for Henry and I used to do a Yoda impression, just between us. But then when we were doing the movie he said, “’You have absolute power’ sounds like something Yoda would say.”

There’s also a scene where you walk into a room and you’re singing “Accidents Will Happen” By Elvis Costello.
[Pause] Yes. Now that was Melissa all the way. Because on the audition at Harrison’s house when I first got there, they were listening to the Elvis Costello album Trust. It’s funny because I’ve seen him probably about 15 times in concert, and I’ve loved all his music all through the years. But at that time I wasn’t familiar with his music. I was 14, but the year I was 13 I did like five plays and a bunch of TV movies. So I was always working from the time I was about 12, and I was just devoted to the stage. So the only music I knew was like, show tunes. [Laughs] So I didn’t know Elvis Costello at all. I knew who he was but I didn’t know his music. They gave me a tape like, the night before with the song.

Elvis Costello had a book signing recently, and my wife arranged for me to meet him beforehand. And the first thing I did was apologize. [Laughs] “I’m so sorry, I butchered the song, it’s a great song, I can’t sing and I wasn’t real familiar with the song!” But I told him how big of fans Melissa and Harrison were, and to a lesser extent Steven, because he wasn’t real into popular music either. He said, “Yeah, I didn’t think Steven was a fan.” [Laughs] But I said, “But he was there and he was listening to it, so he obviously didn’t hate it!” But yeah, that’s my only regret, is that I wish I would have done it kind of better.

Tell me about the first time you saw the E.T. puppet.
That was crazy because it could basically do everything you see it do in the movie. It was really a combination of Carlo Rambaldi being a genius — you know, he designed the mechanical alien for Alien, he did the sandworms in Dune, and also he did the Close Encounters aliens. Anyway, he was really a genius, but [the effects team] really worked hard. I mean, E.T. was one-tenth of the budget. The budget of the movie was $11 million and E.T.’s budget was one-and-a-half million dollars. Anyway, so it could basically do everything you see it do in the movie: His face could react, he had like 85 muscles in his face he could move, his eyes looked exactly the same.

But they kept it secret from me. We had a week of rehearsal, and then about two weeks on the soundstage before I had a scene with E.T. So the first time I saw him was when I see him in the movie.

Robert MacNaughton and Henry Thomas in E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, 1982. (Photo: Everett Collection)

They used that shot?
It’s basically that shot — I mean, they had to set it all up and everything — but that was the first time I had seen him. Henry had already done scenes with E.T., so I was sort of pumping him for information, like, “What does it feel like? What does it look like? What does it do? “Because the only thing I had seen was the bicycle-basket E.T., because the first week of filming was the bicycle scenes and the scenes around the neighborhood. I don’t think that was an accurate representation of what E.T. could look like, that was just sort of a mockup E.T.

So when I first see it, it was incredible. I’d never seen anything like it. I mean, you say “puppet,” but puppet sounds so basic compared to what it could do. They used to pretend with Drew, because she believed he was real and she would have conversations with it. Sometimes when it wasn’t filming, the guys that operated it would actually make it react to what she was saying [laughs] just to confuse her even further. But yeah, it was not CGI or anything added afterwards. When I think of E.T. I think of Carlo, because he was kind of like Geppetto — he was such a kind man, he was a Sicilian guy and he was very expressive, and would talk about everything he wanted E.T. to do. And then I think of Caprice [Rothe] who’s a professional mime, and she did the hands. She was usually kind of perched under the mechanical wires and reaching her hands up and expressing his emotions with her hands. And then Steven, he always read all of E.T.’s dialogue. So some of the lines I still hear Steven’s voice when I watch the movie.

The character moves around the set so naturally in the film, but there must have been all kinds of crazy accommodations for the puppeteers, right?
When he moves around, primarily there was a different setup: a walking costume. And that was really just a kid named Matthew DeMeritt. He was our age, he was 12, and we went to school with him, but he was born without legs. But he didn’t like to use the prosthetic legs. He would get around on his hands, and he had a skateboard he would get around on. So E.T., the way he waddles, is totally because of Matthew, because that’s the way he walks on his hands.

So when he was interacting with you or the other kids, you had Caprice doing the hands and the animatronics people pressing buttons?
Yeah, it was hydraulics, and there was a team in the other room that we couldn’t see. They had a video camera on E.T. So they were doing it in another room, and we just had E.T. set up with all the wires leading to another room. I think it was 10 or 12 guys operating it in another room. And then Caprice would be sort of under it. So I felt so bad for her during the scenes where he’s eating or drinking the beer. She would get beer poured all over her head, or potato salad.

So whenever it’s one place, like in the closet, it was a really elaborate setup. But then when he had to move, it was a really realistic costume, but the face would be limited to only a few movements. The face could still move but it wasn’t like the whole setup.

Even when I was rewatching the film yesterday, I had a lot of trouble getting through the scenes where E.T.’s dying. Just like I did when I was a kid; I find them extremely stressful. Were they stressful for you to shoot?
Yeah. That was hard because it was exactly what you see in the movie: they sort of took us out of our comfort zone with covering the house in the plastic. And all the doctors were real — that’s something I don’t think Steven gets enough credit for. The entire team of doctors that was working on E.T. were real emergency room doctors and various specialists from around California, and that was entirely improvised. He just wanted them to do it like a real code blue situation.

Henry Thomas and Robert MacNaughton in E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, 1982. (Photo: Everett Collection)

That’s probably one of the reasons that scene is so hard to watch, too — it really feels like you’re sitting in the ER.
Especially with Drew. For her it was chaotic and she didn’t understand what was going on. The mood around the set was somber. There was not a lot of joking around when ET was dying. And plus, it was kind of close to the end of filming, and it was a great working environment and everybody knew that was going to come to a close, and nobody wanted it to end. So there was that too. The last week of filming was up in Crescent City in the redwoods — all the outdoor scenes in the redwoods — and so it was kind of like, this is the last stuff we’re doing in the studio. And so there was a feeling of regret and sadness. I mean, it’s very harsh, those scenes.

I’m serious, I still have trouble watching them. Especially as a mom now, I just want to swoop in and take Drew and Henry away, because they look like they’re in so much pain!
Dee [Wallace, who played Mary the mother] really did a good job of comforting Drew, and it comes across in the movie. Because Dee was a mom too, in real life, and she really took Drew, watched out for her. It was hard, because she really didn’t know what was going on. And to her, E.T. was real. To us, a lesser extent. But the mood was really somber. Henry is brilliant in that scene where he’s saying goodbye to him; that’s the one that gets me every time. When he’s talking about the hollow feeling he has, “I don’t know how to feel anymore” — that’s the part where I just lose it. My wife loses it when E.T.’s on the floor in the bathroom and he’s reaching up at Mary and she’s just panicking. I joke sometimes with my wife that of all the toys, they never had a sick E.T. toy, that white E.T.

It’s so scary when you first see him like that! And you’re the one who finds him.
Yeah, according to my wife, the movie’s all about me. [Laughs] I’m the hero that saves him. She has her own theory of E.T. because she was a fan — in fact, that’s how we met. My wife and I met on a blind date set up by Drew’s mother a long time ago. And then we both had separate lives, other relationships, and then we found each other about seven years ago on Facebook. And we’re married.

So you first met after E.T. came out?
We met back in 1985. I was doing a play in New York, and she had watched the movie and she was friends with Drew. And she had wanted to meet me a few years earlier, but Drew’s mom said, “No, you’re too young.” I think I was 16 and she was 13? Then I was doing a play in Central Park with Kevin Kline a few years later; I was 18 and she was 15. So she asked Drew’s mom, “Can you ask Robert’s mom for his number?” And so we talked on the phone and went out on a blind date. But it was just one date and then we didn’t see each other. There was the age difference, and I lived in California, and she lived in New York. So then we didn’t see each other again. [Laughs] And then I got a message on Facebook. And we’re married.

That’s a great story. What was it like for you after E.T.? You must have suddenly been very recognizable.
I was actually filming I Am the Cheese when it came out, so I was in a real small place, Barre, Vermont. I was reading about people lining up to see it but I wasn’t really exposed to the craziness when it initially came out. So then a few months later, I had to go back to high school. Which was crazy. Because I had been [to high school] one year before that, and I was sort of nondescript, I flew under the radar. But then of course, all of a sudden I was invited to all the football parties and everything. [Laughs] Plus I got to be “penis breath” in high school. But I really wasn’t there that much because I was still working a lot.

You stepped away from acting for a while and you’re getting back into it — is that accurate?
Not really. I was pursuing it in Los Angeles till I was about 30, and I found I’d kind of lost the joy for acting. I was auditioning for things I didn’t really want to do even if I got the part, just to keep my agent happy. I was really not happy. I was happy when I was doing theater, but it was infrequent. And so I visited Arizona during that time, and I just liked the pace and I liked it better than where I was living in California. So I decided I wanted to move there. And then I tried still going back for auditions and everything, and that didn’t work. It was too much, driving from Arizona to Los Angeles twice a week. So then I had to get a real job [laughs] and I started working for the postal service. I’ve worked for them since 1995. And I was able to get a transfer to the New York area when I married my wife.

So then what happened was, I didn’t really plan on getting back into acting, but my wife is an actress and she had the lead in a mob movie called Laugh Killer Laugh. And the director, Kamal Ahmed, asked if I wanted to work on the movie. He had a part for me but it was working one day, just a few scenes. And it was kind of a funny part and I said OK; he was a friend and I did it for no money. I didn’t plan on getting back into acting. In fact, it was the first time I picked up a script in 25 years. So I just did it sort of as a one-off. And then while I was doing that, this guy who was doing a horror movie asked if I wanted to do that. And I went, “Yeah, I never was in a horror movie!” [Laughs] So I did that. But it wasn’t any kind of planned comeback or anything.

So if the Stranger Things producers called and wanted you to show up in Season 3, what would you say?
Of course I’d say yes! I think they’re brilliant. It’s just that I’m not really keen on getting back into auditioning every day and putting myself out there. That’s the part I’m not interested in resuming.

Has anyone ever talked to you about doing an E.T. sequel or reboot?
There was talk of a sequel back around that time. They wrote a treatment for it. Henry Thomas had seen it and said he wasn’t real thrilled with it. I had never seen it until recently it surfaced on the internet, and I read it and kind of saw what he meant. I mean, the treatment was written by Melissa and Steven, and I’m sure it would have been good if they’d written the whole script. But I think Steven wasn’t thrilled with the idea of having to do a sequel. And I’m glad he wasn’t. I mean, for personal, selfish reasons, I would have liked to have gotten the work, but I think it would have cheapened the original. And I don’t know, I think a reboot would never happen. I think he wouldn’t allow that. That’s like his baby. [Laughs] It’s such a personal story for him.

At this time when everything seems to have a sequel, E.T. being a stand-alone movie makes it feel special.
It keeps it pure. And I mean, the marketing and everything was not something [Steven] was thrilled with doing either. He had said to us on the set that he wasn’t planning on having E.T. toys everywhere. But I think, I don’t know for sure, that was something that he had to concede in order to not do the sequel.

Tickets for the September screenings of E.T. are available at Fathom Events. The E.T. 35th Anniversary Gift Set, which includes the soundtrack and three hours of bonus features, arrives on Blu-ray and 4K on Sept. 12.

Henry Thomas remembers teary ‘E.T.’ audition, 7-year-old pro Drew Barrymore:

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