ET: The little Alien that stole our hearts

Gail Collins 6 April 2022

Forty years ago childhoods the world over were changed forever with the arrival of ET to the big screen. We take a look back and see why this film has had such a lasting impact

What are your memories of the 80’s? The Iron Lady? Big hair? Shoulder pads? Live Aid? Wham? For me, it is all of those but perhaps even more, it is the decade’s biggest grossing movie and possibly the strangest little thing I ever fell in love withsome inexplicable childhood crushes excluded! Yes, I am talking about E.Tthe little, grey squidgy extra-terrestrial who made our hearts glow as much as the tip of his finger.

So, what exactly was the magical formula that made E.T become the most beloved alien for the past forty years? It first triumphed at our cinemas in 1982 and has enchanted generations ever since. Its conception began in the brilliant mind of lauded movie director, Steven Spielberg.

He has cited many moments in his life as the source of his inspiration, from watching a meteor shower with his father when he was just six years old to questioning what would happen if one of the aliens in his earlier movieClose Encounters of the Third Kinddidn’t make it back to the spaceship and was stranded on earth. And so, from this kaleidoscope of thoughts, the idea of E.T was born.

"So, what exactly was the magical formula that made E.T become the most beloved alien for the past forty years?"

From imagination to creation took the remarkable skills of the Italian special effects artist, Carlo Rambaldi, sadly now passed away, who in an interview admitted he actually cried when he saw the final movie.

His first muse for E.T was one of his own paintings (he was a student of the Accademia di Belle Arti di Bologna)Donne del Deltashowing women from his region with their long, elegant necks. This led to E.T’s extendable neck alongside 150 other movements that were meticulously built into the animatronic blueprint.

E.T’s facial design was a curious blend of characterful features from the faces of Carl Sanbury, Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway and a pug, giving E.T that unique mix of cuteness, wisdom and friendliness that we all adore.

Over three months, at a cost of approximately $1.5 million, three animatronic E.Ts were constructed. Not content with all the movements it could do, a costume was also made.

It was the job of two of Hollywood’s smallest actors, Pat Bilon and Tamara de Treaux, 86cms and 79cms tall respectively, alongside 12-year-old Matthew DeMeritt who was born without legs, to don the costume, which weighed more than 20kgs, for certain scenes. Incidentally, it was the minor who played the drunken E.T!

A team of talented puppeteers to work with the animatronic E.T, sometimes up to nine people on any one scene. One lady, Caprice Roth, was a professional mime artist and given the task of bringing E.T’s hands to life. She spent most of her time slipping on a pair of rubber arms and getting herself in some unusual positions to play scenes such as E.T picking up a trail of sweets towards the beginning of the movie and who can forget that little outstretched glowing finger and memorable line, “I’ll be right there” in the tear-jerking finale. Well, that was Caprice Roth too.

E.T’s voice was a mix recorded from the sounds of raccoons, sea otters and an accidental find. The movie’s sound effects creator, Ben Burtt, was wandering around a camera shop when he heard a rasping voice that he thought would be perfect for E.T. The voice belonged to Pat Welsh, a 2-pack-a-day smoker who ended up recording nine and a half hours of voiceover for the film.

She was uncredited but went on to do the voice of Boushh, in Star Wars Episode VIReturn of the Jedi. The final guttural little voice and sounds we hear coming from E.T even include Burtt’s wife and the sounds of her breathing when she had a nasty cold.

"E.T’s voice was a mix recorded from the sounds of raccoons, sea otters and an accidental find"

The first appearance of E.T on screen comes in a scene where he follows a trail of Reese’s Pieces, laid by the film’s human star, ten-year-old Henry Thomas who played the role of Elliott.

Director Steven Spielberg had originally approached Mars Inc to ask if they could use M&M’s, but the answer was no. It probably became a bit of an “ouch” moment, to quote E.T, for the team at Mars when The Hershey Company’s Reese’s Pieces sales shot up 65% within two weeks of the movie’s release!

Almost two decades after E.T’s first appearance on the silver screen, British Telecom still thought he had enough clout to be used in a major advertising promotion and contracted a multi-million deal with Universal Studios and Steven Spielberg. Our treasured little alien appeared in B.T’s campaign and fronted their new slogan, “Stay in touch.”

All the work, creativity, passion and dollars that went into the final concept of E.T has undoubtedly paid off, as 40 years on we are still watching him, loving him and remembering him.

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