Henry Thomas looks back on the classics

  • Henry Thomas spoke to Insider about what it was like living in the shadow of “ET” for 40 years.
  • He hasn’t worked with Steven Spielberg since, but he took the “Saving Private Ryan” audition.
  • Blu-ray’s 40th anniversary of “ET the Extra-Terrestrial” is now available.

It sure isn’t lost on Henry Thomas that he’s been talking about “ET the Extra-Terrestrial” for nearly his entire life.

“I’m here on the longest press tour in history,” Thomas said with a smile after I called him on a Zoom call. “I’ve been into this thing since 1982.”

He is not joking.

When Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece hit the big screen in June 1982 and became a box office sensation, it changed the lives of everyone involved – especially Thomas.

Then a 10-year-old actor who was in one small movie before beating Spielberg away with a horrific audition to land the lead role of Elliot in “ET” (Since then this test has gone viral), Thomas, 51, was forever known as the little boy who had a special relationship with a being from another planet accidentally left on Earth.

That led to good things, like forever being a part of cinema history, but also some less good things. Thomas admits it was tough during high school and although he’s had some memorable roles since then like “Legends of the Fall” opposite Brad Pitt, and alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” Thomas knows, “I would never do anything like playing Elliot.

In fact, to this date, Spielberg hasn’t directed it again, although he said he’s auditioned for some of his movies over the years, including “Saving Private Ryan.”

Here, Thomas talks to Insider about what it’s been like for the past 40 years to live in the shadow of “ET”

Interviews have been summarized and edited for clarity.

Was there a moment in ’82 when I realized that nothing would ever be the same for me again? Can you identify a moment?

I think it really started to hit me two weeks after release when it was still #1 at the box office and people were talking about lines to get to theaters stretched around the building. It became a sensation all over the world. Then I kind of thought, “Wow, this isn’t going to go away.”

Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Robert McNaughton hold the People's Choice Award

(LR) “ET” stars Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore and Robert McNaughton accept the 1983 People’s Choice Award.

Bateman/Getty Images

And you’d go back to making movies, so was there a pause when you’d go to school and realize you couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized?

It all happened in the summer of ’82 and the following summer in ’83. The movie was still out. Even when I went to high school, people were still talking about “ET” because it was thrown back into theaters. At that time there was no DVD, they just kept reissuing it.

It was hard for some time as a teenager to kind of want to distance myself from being a boy and always be attached to a 10 year old. So that was hard as a young man. But if it weren’t for that, there would have been another kind of insecurity I had in school, like my ear. [Laughs.]

But as an actor, has there ever been a point where you were looking for a role that would outshine Elliot or be so shocking that people would recognize you more for that role?

I think when I was a kid I was trying to do things that are artistically viable. I was taking on serious roles after I did a movie with Gene Hackman with Gene Hackman called Misunderstanding, so the career path my agent was trying to solidify for me was basically a dramatic one. Awards worthy projects.

When I was a kid I gravitated more towards adventure things and my parents were very protective of me so I wasn’t looking for anything that would beat Elliot.

Henry Thomas sitting next to Dabney Coleman

(LR) Henry Thomas and Dabney Coleman in “Cloak & Dagger”.


Now you mentioned that you want to do stories with adventure, I’m a huge fan of another movie of yours that came out after “ET” and “Cloak & Dagger” with Dabney Coleman.

It’s great to hear that. Yes, that’s where my 12-year-old head was.

Do you have a good story about Dabney Coleman?

Not really, I feel like Dabney didn’t really want to be there. He was like, “Should I act on the other side of the ET kid?” But it was great. It was so much fun.

Have you ever come close to working with Spielberg again?

I’ve auditioned for him several times over the years –

Wait, did you audition for him? Your quiz for Elliot is one of the best quizzes ever! He didn’t know what was going on?

Well, I guess it didn’t last. We’ve auditioned for “Saving Private Ryan” and some other movies but we haven’t worked together since then.

Brad Pitt sitting next to Henry Thomas

(LR) Brad Pitt and Henry Thomas in “Legends of Fall”.


Looking back, was hanging out with Brad Pitt more fun after filming for a day of “Legends of the Fall” or Leonardo DiCaprio when “Gangs of New York” day was over?

Brad Pitt. More fun. I didn’t really hang out with Leo. But I went out with Brad. We got along so well we had fun. We were in the mountains in the middle of an unknown place, so it may have something to do with it.

Also, “Legends of the Fall” was one of my favorite movies that I was a part of. I think it’s a nice movie.

The current generation of young artists is very open to talking about their mental health. For you in the ’80s at the age of 10, 11, and 12, how did you get around the industry?

I’m Generation X so we kind of did everything. She gets hurt if you put a bandage on her and you do that. This was the approach to life and work. I wasn’t really looking for much outside help. I would probably have been more mentally healthy if I had been, but I think I’m fine.

I mean, we weren’t spoiled growing up. You are left to navigate on your own, as long as you are safe, all is well.

Henry Thomas

Henry Thomas.

Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images

If you grew up in the industry now when you were a little kid, can you even imagine going through it all in the age of social media?

I find it hard to adapt to it as an adult. When I worked in cinema in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, I mean we’re all going to be arrested now for our behavior. I mean, that’s the bottom line. It is an attitude more than anything else.

I’m not saying it was the best of its time, I’m just saying it’s weird sailing the waters now. I just worked with a guy in his 80s who was fired and that was one of the areas of HR. So, no one is safe. [Laughs.]

So, when was the last time you saw “ET” all the way through?

Twenty years ago on the 20th Anniversary Show, John Williams was leading the orchestra doing the score live. To be honest, I was watching The Orchestra and John Williams and I hadn’t really seen the movie.

I mean, you know how the movie ends.

yes. I was there.

Blu-ray is now available for the 40th anniversary of “ET the Extra-Terrestrial”.

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