9‑Year-Old Henry Thomas Delivers a Remarkable Screen Test for E.T.

I can guar­an­tee almost every day I get some­one going, ‘Hey, you’re the guy from E.T.’, usu­al­ly fol­lowed by, ‘What are you doing now?’ And not a day has gone by when some­one hasn’t shout­ed ‘E.T. phone home’ at me.” —  Actor Hen­ry Thomas

Should I ever bump into Hen­ry Thomas, I may exclaim, “Okay, kid, you got the job,” just like direc­tor Steven Spiel­berg does at the end of the remark­able screen test, above.

Thomas, now — brace your­self — 50, was just 9 when Spiel­berg flew him in from Texas to audi­tion for the role of Elliot in E.T. the Extra-Ter­res­tri­al on the strength of his sin­gle screen cred­it, play­ing Sis­sy Spacek’s son in Raggedy Man.

Before we go fur­ther, a cau­tion­ary tale.

Anoth­er young­ster had the part of Elliot all sewn up until screen­writer Melis­sa Math­i­son host­ed a Dun­geons and Drag­on game to get a feel for the chem­istry between the film’s child actors.

“In about three min­utes it became very clear that nobody liked this lit­tle boy,” cast­ing direc­tor Mar­ci Liroff recalls. Ouch.

That would be a heavy bur­den to car­ry through life, know­ing that youth­ful bossi­ness cost you the role of a life­time.

Enter Hen­ry Thomas.

Spielberg’s long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor, pro­duc­er Kath­leen Kennedy, recalled that he was no great shakes read­ing from pre­pared sides of the script, but then came an improv with leg­endary cast­ing direc­tor Mike Fen­ton.

If only every aspi­rant method actor shared Thomas’ knack for emo­tion­al recall. Dur­ing the improv, as the pres­sure to give up the beloved alien crea­ture hid­den in his clos­et mount­ed, he drew on mem­o­ries of his pet ­chi­huahua, Urso, who had been killed by a neighbour’s dog in front of him.

“Poor Urso, it may have won me the role but it was a sad price to pay,” Thomas told The Mir­ror some 30 years lat­er.

His per­for­mance reduced every adult in the room to tears.

It was also remark­able for its sub­tle­ty. As Spiel­berg remarked in a 1982 inter­view with Pre­miere mag­a­zine:

He’s a very con­trolled, method­i­cal per­former who mea­sures what he does and feels what he does and yet broad­casts it in a total­ly sub­tle way. His per­for­mance is so con­trolled, unlike most kid per­form­ers, who seem to be giv­ing you 150 per­cent on every shot. Henry’s per­for­mance is just a bread crumb at a time, but he takes you in a won­der­ful direc­tion to a very, very rous­ing cathar­sis. He’s just a “once in a life­time” kid.

The direc­tor likened Thomas’ tears in the final moments of E.T. to the arrival of the moth­er ship in Close Encoun­ters of the Third Kind — “a super-colos­sal spe­cial effect” root­ed in human emo­tion.

By then, Thomas no longer need­ed an assist from Urso:

I couldn’t stop cry­ing because I worked with E.T. every day and he was real to me.

The con­nec­tion was not imme­di­ate. Thomas’ laugh­ing response to his first gan­der at the alien reas­sured Spiel­berg that the child actor could han­dle com­e­dy but Thomas, a huge Raiders of the Lost Ark fan, had been hop­ing for some­thing a bit more swash­buck­ling. As he told Esquire’s Paul Schrodt:

When I saw this alien with the weird feet and the tele­scop­ic neck, I was like, ‘What the hell is this? Where is my lightsaber?’ But I guess I got a fly­ing ­bicy­cle, so I can’t com­plain.

It’s was­n’t exact­ly a Hol­ly­wood end­ing, per­haps because Thomas didn’t stay in Hol­ly­wood, but rather returned to school in San Anto­nio, where he fell prey to kids who resent­ed the overnight sen­sa­tion in their midst.

On the oth­er hand, he has worked steadi­ly as an actor since leav­ing home at 17, and abid­ed by his res­o­lu­tion to avoid drugs and oth­er pit­falls that plague some oth­er child stars. (“I nev­er want­ed to give any­one the sat­is­fac­tion of get­ting that pic­ture of me rob­bing a liquor store.”)

In his inter­view with The Mir­ror, tongue firm­ly in cheek, he spec­u­lat­ed about pos­si­ble E.T. sequels and admit­ted that he’d hate to see some­one oth­er than him­self play­ing Elliott:

It could be like an inter­galac­tic ­reunion with Elliott and E.T. at a beach resort… I don’t think Spiel­berg will touch it, although I’d love to see Elliott and E.T. ­sit­ting at the end of the bar: “How’s it been for you man?” “Good, man, anoth­er beer?”

A few years lat­er, the stars did indeed reunite for a hol­i­day advert that owes a large debt to Peter Pan, and puts its thumb on the scale with a clip of Bing Cros­by croon­ing “White Christ­mas.”

As if Hen­ry Thomas needs help mak­ing us cry.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Watch the Orig­i­nal Audi­tion Tapes for Break­ing Bad Before the Final Sea­son Debuts

Audrey Hepburn’s Mov­ing Screen Test for Roman Hol­i­day (1953)

Bruce Lee Audi­tions for The Green Hor­net (1964)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­maol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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