Henry Thomas explains the movie magic behind the beloved movie’s famous flying bike scene

It’s a scene every ’80s kid knows by heart: riding through the California desert with his extraterrestrial friend ET, riding a shotgun – or, more accurately, riding a shotgun.basket — Young Elliott’s bike takes off from the forest floor and soars into the sky until the two are silhouetted against the full moon. Not only did that image define Steven Spielberg’s 1982 box office hit – it also became the logo of his production company, Amblin Entertainment, gracing hundreds of beloved movies and TV series. While this scene defines movie magic for moviegoers, for the film’s young star, Henry Thomas, it was just another day at work.

“That was me on a bike on a crane arm in a studio with a blue screen behind me,” the 50-year-old actor told Yahoo Entertainment before ETfortieth birthday. “I was standing up and going ‘Woo-hoo! Wow! Awesome!’ Of course, in theaters, you see it with the rear projection and it’s this beautiful redwood forest floating below you.” (Watch our interview above.)

While he didn’t experience magic at the time, Thomas understands why this particular scene captured viewers’ imaginations. “That was probably the most fan-favorite question for at least 10 years: how did they make bikes fly?” he remembers. “Back then, special effects weren’t as publicized as they are now. A lot of people had no idea how they were made. It was just the magic of the movie, which is interesting because it involved the whole industry in a little bit of a thing. enigmatic, and that was part of the fun of watching movies.”

ET and Elliott fly in ET the Extraterrestrial. (Photo: ©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Thomas was 9 years old when he first auditioned for the role that would define his career and brought Spielberg to tears. “Honestly, I think I had the part before I went in for the audition,” he says now. “They created a scenario, and I improvised and I got really emotional. And then at the end of the audition, you hear someone say, ‘Okay kid, you got the job.’ That was Spielberg.”

ET was a passion project for the filmmaker, who shot to fame with action blockbusters like jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Released on June 11, 1982, the modestly budgeted film ended up outperforming all of Spielberg’s other films at the time, and remains his second most successful release behind 1993. Jurassic Park. Thomas remembers the director being a whirlwind of on-set activity as he translated the personal story he had in his head to the big screen.

“He wanted to be able to do all the work on set,” recalls the actor. “That was the impression I got. If he could have done it all by himself, he would have. He had this kind of energy, like, ‘Let’s do this!’ or ‘That’s an interesting idea, let’s go with it.'”

One of the things Spielberg insisted on was that the film present an authentic representation of childhood, which meant including scenes and language that weren’t sanitized for young viewers. Case in point: In an early scene, Elliott angrily calls his older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) “penis breath” – a scene you probably wouldn’t see today. Ditto for another moment where ET drinks a beer while Elliott is at school, and his psychic link makes the kid a little tipsy.

Elliott and ET say goodbye in ET the Extra-Terrestrial.  (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Elliott and ET say goodbye in ET the Extraterrestrial. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

“I remember it was a priority for Steven and [screenwriter] and Melissa Mathison,” says Thomas now. “To try to infuse the dialogue with as much modern and current slang as possible. Whatever your personal opinion on whether children should say this or do this, these moments were referenced from real interactions with children. If Steven liked it, he got into the movie. It was a different time – it was 1981. I worry about that, because if artists are constantly worried about how they’re going to be perceived [later on]what kind of art are we going to have?”

Fortunately, after 40 years, we still have ET and while Spielberg has made sequels to some of his other blockbusters, this film remains a singular story. (A sequel book, ET: The Green Planet Book was published in 1985, and focuses primarily on ET with only brief appearances by Elliott.) Three years ago, though, Thomas reunited with his old friend in a holiday commercial for the cable company Xfinity.

Asked if this announcement was the first step towards a second film, Thomas – who has had a successful career in film and television – says viewers shouldn’t get their hopes up. “I think this commercial is probably the closest we’ll ever get to a ET reboot,” he notes. “I don’t think Spielberg wants to tarnish ET anyway for anyone. It’s an iconic standalone film.”

“What would a sequel be about?” Thomas continues, laughing. “It would be so contrived. It would just be them catching up, saying ‘How are you? Great! Yeah, me too!’ That’s why it’s a great commercial, but maybe not a feature.” Better put the bikes back in the garage, kids.

Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by Jimmie Rhee

ET the Extraterrestrial is currently streaming on Hulu

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