‘E.T.’s Big Brother Remembers Making A Classic [OBXE Interview]
In the early 1980s, an alien became stranded on Earth, where he was befriended by three young siblings, who took him in and called him “E.T.”, the extra-terrestrial. They were the first to fall in love with this strange visitor from another world, but far from the last.
E.T. was an instant box office blockbuster, a new kind of family adventure from one of America’s most treasured filmmakers, and for the oldest of those three young siblings who first met the alien, it was beyond a dream come true.
We recently got to sit down with actor Robert Macnaughton, who played Elliot’s big brother Michael in Steven Spielberg’s classic E.T., for an interview following the Blood at the Beach III Convention in Virginia Beach, where we talked about getting the role, making the film, and Macnaughton’s life since.
Recalling his audition for the film, Macnaughton says it was on the same day that President Ronald Reagan was shot in an attempted assassination.
“I was 14,” said Macnaughton. “I read for it in early 1981. It was right after Raiders of the Lost Ark had come out, and it was actually the day that President Reagan was shot. It was my first meeting with Spielberg. I went in and interviewed with him, and it went really well but it was kind of chaotic because everyone was rushing in going ‘Reagan’s not going to make it’ or ‘James Brady just died’ and all this stuff.”
While no one knew what Spielberg had in store with E.T., Robert was already a huge fan of the director.
“I worshipped Spielberg,” he said. “Close Encounters was my favorite movie, I was a huge science fiction fan, and Raiders had just come out, so I was like really in awe, and then all that went away in the first five minutes of talking to him. He makes you feel comfortable. That’s how he gets such good performances out of people.”
Macnaughton told us how the director found similarities in the actor and the character he was auditioning for.
“He asked what I liked doing,” said Robert, “and I said ‘Dungeons and Dragons’. He said ‘Well that’s in the movie. What else do you like doing?’ I said, ‘Bike riding’, and he said ‘Well that’s in the movie too’. It worked. Everything worked. I said the right things.”
If the experience of meeting his idol wasn’t enough, Robert then got visit the home of Han Solo.
“I came back for another audition,” he said, “and it was at Harrison Ford’s house. They did sort of an impromptu Dungeons & Dragons game with his kids and the other actor who was (originally) cast in the Elliot role. It was all fun. They really made it an enjoyable working experience.”
Macnoughton says it was evident that E.T. was a passion project for Spielberg, though no one could have predicted its ultimate cultural significance.
“When we were filming it,” he said, “it just felt like a labor of love. It felt like for him (Spielberg) particularly it was a very important movie to him personally – just a labor of love from the heart. And for us, we picked up on that and we just wanted to not mess it up. That’s what I was thinking the whole time was I didn’t want to mess this up.”
The cast was freely encouraged to try new things and improvise, as they worked together to discover new aspects of their characters beyond even what was written.
“We came in prepared,” said Macnaughton, “but then we were also prepared for anything impromptu to happen. A lot of Drew’s (Barrymore) lines in the movie were spur-of-the-moment, improvised, and just stuff that she said that was cute and he left it in.
“I would do this Yoda impression on the set for people just to crack them up, and Sean Frye, who played one of my friends (Steve), he said ‘You should say the line like that’ or I would tell him ‘You should do this line like that’. There was a spirit of comradery and creative spurring each other on that really existed, and that always makes it better.”
Of Spielberg’s directing style, Robert recalls, “At the time it seemed like he wasn’t really doing anything, but he really was doing a lot. He knew what he was doing.
“He put Henry (Thomas, who plays Elliot) and I together for a week of rehearsals before the movie ever started, just the two of us, so it would seem more like we were brothers. That’s rare that they take that much care, and it made the relationship stronger. We hung out. We were friends.”
Speaking of his on-screen little brother in the film, Robert adds, “Henry was really a great kid. The way he is in the movie, he was genuinely a shy, nice kid, and so I felt very protective of him also, because he wasn’t an actor kid and he wasn’t jaded. He was a nice kid from Texas, so that comes across too in the movie I think, because I felt really protective of him.
“It was very insular. The whole thing of we’re hiding E.T., that’s the way it felt also about our relationship and us. He was 10 and I was 14.”
While no one can see anyone but Henry Thomas in the role of Elliot, he was almost not even in the movie. Macnaughton won’t say who was originally cast in the role, but he does say that the right decision was made to bring in Thomas instead.
“I remember the kid they initially cast to play Elliot, I didn’t like so much,” said Robert. “He was a very annoying kid from Hollywood. Jack Fisk, the production designer, was the director of a movie called Raggedy Man (1981) with Sissy Spacek, and that was Henry’s first movie. I think that Jack Fisk is friends with Spielberg and told him ‘You’ve got to see this kid in this movie’.
“So what I like to think happened is that he (Spielberg) just saw Henry and fell in love with him and decided he had to start over.”
The alien itself seemed to take on a life of its own on the set, as some actually believed it was alive and all respected that it was – in one way or another – real.
“Matthew DeMeritt was the stunt double in E.T.,” said Macnaughton. “He was a 12-year-old boy that was born without legs. He didn’t like to use artificial legs, so he got around on his hands, and the way that E.T. moved had a lot to do with him. He had kind of a loping walk on his hands, and you see that in E.T.’s walk. That’s because of Matthew.
“They had two working models of E.T. One had the neck that would rise and one had face muscles that moved. It was amazing. The walking one was just a costume.”
Robert said he only ever touched a model E.T. during the scene when his character touches the alien’s head.
“I touched just his forehead,” he said. “It was like a snakeskin. It had moisture and latex. I didn’t ever want to touch it, because it was so expensive, and you don’t want to mess it up. It was always around and always there, but we weren’t encouraged to mess with it.
“Drew would talk to it. She thought it was real. The scene at the end when she’s crying and he’s dying, it’s the most heartrending scene for me, because she really did feel it. It wasn’t like Steven had to tell her anything.
“Seeing all the doctors gathered around him, it was very traumatic. It was very wrong, because we had him to ourselves for all this time, for like 60 days. The all of a sudden we’ve got all these people coming in and you’re not allowed to see him, and they’re working on him.”
Unlike many productions, most of E.T. was actually filmed in chronological order, which helped the child actors to more accurately access and express the appropriate emotions called for as the story progressed.
“The first week of filming was on location, so that wasn’t chronological,” remembers Robert, “but then after that everything was in the soundstage and all that was (shot) pretty much in the order that it is in the movie. It was to help the actors. It was really a novel way to make a movie.
“He (Spielberg) had the luxury of being able to do it in a soundstage, and that makes it easier to do it in order, and also he wanted to be able to bring us along and have us be invested in the characters and in E.T.
“It really was amazing at the end how jarring it was to have all these people there. They were real doctors too. All those people were real emergency room doctors, heart surgeons, and everybody really had a role that was pretty close to what they did in real life. It wasn’t in the script what they were saying, except for certain lines like ‘The boy’s coming back’ or ‘We’re losing E.T.’, but most of the other lines are impromptu.
“It was just what they really do in a real emergency room. Then you started seeing a lot of that in other shows, like ER, but that was the first to really show real emergency room action.”
More than 30 years after working with him, Macnaughton is still a huge fan of his favorite director.
“As much acclaim and attention as Spielberg gets,” said Robert, “I often think it’s not enough, because there’s a lot of things that people don’t know that go under the radar that he does that’s really smart.
“I see it going back to Jaws, when there’s a scene where everybody hates Roy Scheider and he’s sitting at home eating dinner and the kid is like mimicking everything he does. It’s just a little small moment and it’s so great, so human. Or I see it in the scene in Schindler’s List with the little girl with the boy in the outhouse. There are a lot of little touches that he has.”
In town for the first time with his wife and stepson, we found Robert to be extremely generous, humble, and highly respectful of the others who helped create E.T., recognizing and proud of its place in American pop culture today.
“The shooting schedule was 65 days,” Macnaughton remembers, “and he (Spielberg) actually brought it in one day early and under budget. It wrapped around November of 1981 and it came out in June (1982), so in between they did the special effects. The pre-production was what took so long on that.”
E.T. opened in theaters on June 11, 1982 and became an instant blockbuster and eventually a cultural icon.
“The movie comes out and then my life changes,” Robert remembers. “It was crazy, but I was little sheltered from the craziness right away because I was in Vermont filming a movie called I am the Cheese that nobody saw. I kind of missed out on the initial craze and then I came back to Irvine, California and I had to go back to high school right after it came out, so that was a little weird.
“Then after that, I just kept doing theater and stuff in New York. I was trying to get work in Los Angeles doing TV movies or a series and it just wasn’t working out for me, so I ended up moving back to Arizona in the early ‘90s. I did a play there and just sort of settled. I didn’t want to go back to L.A., so I just stayed in Arizona for 15 years. Then I just moved to the New York area two years ago to be with my wife, who is an actress. She was in The Fighter.”
So does E.T.‘s big brother have any interest in getting back into acting?
“I miss doing the work,” he said, “but I don’t miss the auditions. Some of the people I know go on auditions and they have the sides (script), and I’m just like, I’m so glad I don’t have to do this anymore. But I do miss the work when you’re actually working. It’s a nice experience. I just don’t miss the process.”
Robert Macnaughton has lived the Hollywood dream and was part of a classic piece of history, and somehow managed to keep it all in perspective by focusing on what is truly important – the love and support of family.
In wrapping up our interview, Robert recalls his favorite E.T. viewing experience was watching it with his family among a crowd of devoted fans, under the stars and moon that are so essential to the timeless story.
“The best place I saw it,” he said, “was when we took my son and we went to see it under the Brooklyn Bridge. That was awesome. That worked. It’s nice in a setting with a bunch of other people just sitting on a lawn.”
You can see E.T. outside on the big screen at Children at Play’s Movies on the Sound this Friday, June 28, at the Outer Banks Event Site in Nags Head! Showtime is after sunset.