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

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Henry Thomas explains the movie magic behind the popular film's famous flying bike scene

It’s a scene every ’80s kid knows by heart: riding through the California wilderness with his alien sidekick ET, riding a shotgun — or more specifically, riding a shotgun.Basket – Young Elliott’s bike lifts off the forest floor and soars into the sky until the two are silhouetted against the full moon. This image not only defined Steven Spielberg’s 1982 blockbuster – it also became the signature logo of his production company, Amblin Entertainment, gracing hundreds of popular films and television series. While this scene defined movie magic for cinema audiences, it was just another day at work for the film’s young star, Henry Thomas.

“It was me on a bike on a crane arm on a sound stage with a blue screen behind me,” the 50-year-old actor previously told Yahoo Entertainment ETits fortieth anniversary. “I had just got up and was like, ‘Woo-hoo! Wow! Amazing!’ In theaters, of course, you see it with rear projection, and it’s this beautiful redwood forest floating beneath you.” (Check out our interview above.)

Although he couldn’t experience the magic in that moment, Thomas understands why this particular scene captured the imagination of moviegoers. “That was probably the most popular question from fans for at least 10 years: how did they make the bikes fly?” he remembers. “Back then, special effects weren’t as popular as they are today. Many people had no idea how they were made. It was just movie magic, which is kind of interesting because it kind of sucked the whole industry in, it was a little bit of a mystery, 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 to 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, ‘Okay, boy, you’ve got the job.’ That was Spielberg.”

ET was a passion project for the filmmaker, who works with action-packed blockbusters like Jaw and Hunter of the lost treasure. Released on June 11, 1982, the modest-budget film surpassed all of Spielberg’s other films at the time and remains his second highest-grossing release after 1993 Jurassic Park. Thomas recalls the director being a whirlwind of activity on set as he translated the personal story he had in mind onto the big screen.

“He wanted to be able to do any job on set,” the actor recalls. “That was the impression I got. If he could have done the whole thing on his own, he would have done it. He had this kind of energy, like, ‘Let’s do this!’ or ‘That’s an interesting idea, let’s move on to that.'”

One of the things Spielberg insisted on was that the film be an authentic portrayal of childhood, which meant it included 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. The same goes for another moment when ET is chugging a beer while Elliott is at school, and their psychic connection leaves the kid slightly tipsy.

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

Elliott and ET say goodbye inside ET the extraterrestrial. (Photo: Courtesy of Everett Collection)

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

Luckily we still have after 40 years ET and although Spielberg has made sequels to some of his other blockbusters, this film remains a unique story. (A sequel, ET: The Book of the Green Planet was released in 1985 and focuses primarily on ET with only brief appearances from Elliott.) Three years ago, however, Thomas reunited with his old friend in a Christmas commercial for cable company Xfinity.

When asked if this ad is the first step towards a second film, Thomas – who has enjoyed a successful career in film and television – says viewers shouldn’t get their hopes up. “I think this commercial is probably as close as we’ll ever get to one ET reboot,” he notes. “I don’t think Spielberg wants to tarnish ET in any way for anyone. It’s an iconic film in its own right.”

“What would a sequel be about anyway?” Thomas continues laughing. “It would be so artificial. They would just catch up and say, ‘How are you? Great! Yes, me too!’ So 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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