Are the Kids Alright? is Yahoo Entertainment's video interview series exploring the impact of show business on the development and well-being of former child entertainers, from triumphs to traumas.
When Henry Thomas phones home today, he's calling his family on a picturesque farm in Oregon. "It's about a half-hour between Portland and the coast," the now-grown child star of E.T. the Extraterrestrial tells Yahoo Entertainment. "We're in a very rural area, and it's very nice. It rains a lot, but there are no snakes, which coming from South Texas, I really appreciate!" (Watch our video interview above.)
Thomas's move from Hollywood to Oregon was a long time coming. For decades after rocketing to fame in Steven Spielberg's beloved 1982 blockbuster, he lived at the center of the entertainment industry's beating heart in Los Angeles. But at a certain point, Thomas realized that having an L.A. zip code "didn't make any sense" to him anymore.
"I liked L.A., but I wasn't working there," he notes, adding that his recent acting gigs have regularly taken him to other cities for extended periods of time. "So you're spending a lot of money keeping a household going, but you're not a part of it. I just said, 'I'm not gonna do this anymore.' I grew up on a farm and I wanted to have that for my kids." (Thomas has two children with his wife Annalee Fery, and a daughter from a previous marriage.)
Thomas's childhood farm was located in a small town near San Antonio, where he was born in 1971. Growing up, he found his way into acting via local community theater productions. "That was my first sort of realization that I was having fun being an actor," he remembers. "My parents were into agriculture and stuff, so by all rights I should never have decided to be an actor. It didn't make any sense!"
The budding thespian wound up not having to go to Hollywood to make his first onscreen appearance; instead, Hollywood came to him. In 1980, Thomas made a breakout appearance in Raggedy Man, directed by Jack Fisk and starring Sissy Spacek, which was filmed on location in Texas. Released the following year, the movie didn't set the box office on fire, but it did help Thomas secure the role that has defined his career for forty years.
"E.T. was a Universal [Studios] film, and Raggedy Man was a Universal film," Thomas explains. "So by getting the part for Raggedy Man, I was on the radar for people who were working at Universal. And one of those people was Mr. Steven Spielberg." The Jaws director was in the middle of editing Poltergeist — the 1982 horror favorite he co-wrote and produced — while Raggedy Men was in the editing room across the hall. "They said, 'We understand you're looking for a kid [for E.T.],'" Thomas remembers. "'Well, look at this kid.'" (E.T. will have a 40th anniversary screening at the TCM Classic Film Festival, which kicks off April 21 in Los Angeles.)
Thomas's audition to play Elliott in E.T. has long since entered Hollywood legend for reportedly moving Spielberg to tears. And the surviving footage of Thomas's audition reveals the then-9-year-old actor cried as well. "Honestly, I think I had the part before I went into the audition," he admits. "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.
"That's the only time that I've ever gone into an audition and known that I had it before I left the room," Thomas continues. "It kind of spoiled me because the first three auditions I ever went on, I got! Which was not something that I should have banked on happening for the rest of my career."
Thomas filmed E.T. in the fall of 1981 just after he turned 10 years old, and remembers the entire shoot as a "cool experience" where he bonded with the other child actors, including Drew Barrymore, who played Elliott's younger sister, Gertie. "We had no idea that the film would be a success in the way it ended up being, but it did feel like we were making something special," he says now. "Steven [knew] everything he wanted ... and he could have done the whole thing by himself. He had that kind of energy: 'Let's do this' and 'Let's go with that.'"
When E.T. premiered in theaters in the summer of 1982, it had audiences immediately enraptured. During that initial theatrical run, it shattered box office records, eventually grossing over $350 million in the U.S. alone. But Thomas says that with that success came a loss of anonymity that was extra difficult to deal with as a child. "Really, I couldn't go anywhere," he recalls. "I became super-recognizable and people were excited to see me. I was famous and that was strange because I had never considered that as part of the deal. That wasn't why I got into it, and it was strange being treated differently overnight. It made me very suspicious of people in general."
Over the next few years, Thomas booked starring roles in such films as 1984's Cloak & Dagger and 1985's The Quest. When he was working, he remembers feeling safe and protected by his mother — who accompanied him to his various movie sets — as well as the crew. But off-set, he says he felt the "huge burden" that child stardom places on families. "My mom would come away with me for months at a time and not see my dad and that caused a lot of marital problems between them," he says, candidly. "The filmmaking process is not conducive to short hours and easy weeks. You have a schedule that will never make any sense to anyone outside of the film industry."
Thomas grew up at a time where other child stars — including Barrymore — participated in Hollywood's vibrant after-hours scene. But he says that he mostly shunned those experiences, preferring to go home after attending movie premieres or other events. "I wasn't interested in hanging out with celebrities and filmmakers. That didn't appeal to me at all. What always appealed to me about acting was being part of a story and playing a definitive role in telling that story."
By the late 1980s, Thomas found himself in the midst of that difficult transition from child to adult roles. And while he's worked steadily in a variety of movies and TV shows — from dramas like Valmont and Gangs of New York to horror hits including Doctor Sleep and The Haunting of Hill House — for a long time he carried the weight of E.T.'s iconography. "That happens to you in Hollywood: They won't see you any way else," he muses. "They only see you as 'that guy' or 'the kid actor.' The only thing that really saved me was biology, because I kept getting older and changing. Then I became kind of interesting, because they realized, 'I guess he's not just a flash in the pan. He's an actor.'
"Honestly the only reason that I'm here is just through perseverance on my part," he continues. "I just never quit. Even though I've worked consistently over the years, there have been periods in my life where I haven't had anything for a year-and-a-half or two years. That's fine and dandy when you're 22 years old, but when you have a mortgage and a family and you're unemployed for two years, it's pretty grim."
Those periods of grimness are part of the reason why Thomas says he's discouraging his own kids from following in his footsteps. "I've warned them off of it, and I think for two out of three it's worked. But I do have one that I think is going to be a performer of some sort. As a parent, you should try to support and foster that in your children, if they express that desire to achieve something. It's not necessarily a tenable career all the time, and it's not a very reliable way of earning a living. So I warn them about the real world, because when the taxman cometh, they don't care about excuses — they just want their money."
Funnily enough, Thomas's kids are non-plussed about their dad's most famous role, which he discovered when he made plans to show them E.T. for the first time. "I was going to make a big deal of presenting the film to my kids at a certain point, when I thought they were old enough to appreciate it," he recalls. "I did this big reveal only to find out that they had seen the trailer a thousand times! So it went over like a wet sandwich. My middle daughter, who was seven or eight at the time, said: 'Dad, why are you hanging out with that alien?' And my son just kind of cowered in fear every time that E.T. came onscreen. He was a little bit too young to watch it then, I think. Bad dad — I ruined it for him."
— Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by Jimmie Rhee
E.T. the Extraterrestrial will have a 40th anniversary screening on Thursday, April 21 at the TCM Classic Film Festival.