'E.T.' at 40: Henry Thomas explains the movie magic behind the beloved film's famous flying bike scene

·5-min read

It's a scene that every child of the ’80s knows by heart: Riding through the California wilderness with his extra-terrestrial pal, E.T., riding shotgun — or, more accurately, riding shot-basket — young Elliott's bicycle lifts off from the forest floor and ascends into the sky until the two are silhouetted against the full moon. That image didn't just define Steven Spielberg's 1982 blockbuster — it also became the signature logo for his production company, Amblin Entertainment, gracing hundreds of beloved films and TV series. While that scene defines movie magic for audiences in the theater, for the film's young star, Henry Thomas, it was just another day on the job.

"That was me on a bike on a crane arm on a soundstage with a blue screen behind me," the now-50-year-old actor tells Yahoo Entertainment ahead of E.T.'s fortieth anniversary. "I was just up and doing going 'Woo-hoo! Wow! Amazing!' Of course, in the theaters, you see it with the rear projection and it's this beautiful Redwood forest floating beneath you." (Watch our interview above.)

While he didn't get to experience the magic in the moment, Thomas does understand why that scene in particular captured moviegoers's imaginations. "That was probably the most favorite fan question for at least 10 years: How did they make the bikes fly?" he recalls. "Back then, special effects weren't as publicized as they are now. A lot people didn't have a clue about how they were done. It was just movie magic, which is kind of interesting because it wrapped the whole industry in a little bit of an enigmatic thing, and that was part of the fun of seeing films."

E.T. and Elliott take flight in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. (Photo: ©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection)
E.T. and Elliott take flight in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. (Photo: ©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Thomas was 9 years old when he first auditioned for the role that would define his career, and famously moved Spielberg to tears. "Honestly, I think I had the part before I went into the audition," he says now. "They created a scenario, and I did an improvisation and I got very emotional. And then at the end of the audition, you hear someone say: 'OK kid, you got the job.' That was Spielberg."

E.T. was a passion project for the filmmaker, who rocketed to fame with action-heavy blockbusters like Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Released on June 11, 1982, the modestly-budgeted film ended up outgrossing all of Spielberg's other movies at the time, and it remains his second-most successful release behind 1993's Jurassic Park. Thomas remembers the director being a whirlwind of activity on set as he translated the personal story he had in his head to the big screen.

"He wanted to be able to do every job on set," the actor recalls. "That was the impression I got. If he could have done the whole thing by himself, he would have. He had that kind of energy, like, 'Let's do this!' or 'That's an interesting idea, let's go with that.'"

One of the things that Spielberg insisted upon was that the movie present an authentic depiction of childhood, which meant including scenes and language that weren't sanitized for young viewers. Case in point: In one early scene, Elliott angrily calls his older brother, Michael (Robert MacNaughton), "penis breath" — a scene that you probably wouldn't see today. Ditto for another moment where E.T. chugs a beer while Elliott's at school, and their psychic link renders the kid slightly tipsy.

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

"I remember that was a priority of Steven's and [screenwriter] and Melissa Mathison," Thomas says now. "To try to infuse the dialogue with as much modern and topical slang as possible. Whatever your personal opinion about whether kids should be saying this or doing this, these moments were referenced from real interactions with kids. If Steven liked it, it made it in the movie. It was a different time — it was 1981. I worry about this, 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 E.T. and while Spielberg has made sequels to some of his other blockbusters, that film remains a singular story. (A sequel book, E.T.: The Book of the Green Planet was published in 1985, and mainly focuses on E.T. with only brief appearances from Elliott.) Three years ago, though, Thomas did reunite with his old friend in a holiday commercial for the Xfinity cable company.

Asked whether that ad was the first step towards a second film, Thomas — who has gone on to a successful career in film and television — says that viewers shouldn't get their hopes up. "I think that commercial is probably as close as we're ever gonna get to an E.T. reboot," he notes. "I don't think Spielberg wants to tarnish E.T. in any way for anybody. It's an iconic standalone film."

"What would a sequel even be about?" Thomas continues, laughing. "It would be so contrived. It'd just be them catching up, going 'How you been? 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

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is currently streaming on Hulu