How Steven Spielberg chose Henry Thomas to play Elliott in E.T.

Casting director of "E.T." explains how she found Elliott
Tony Pierce
Monday, November 3, 2014 - 12:15

Believe it or not, but casting the role of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial's BFF in 1981 wasn't as simple as just phoning home.

Casting director Marci Liroff explains in this week's video that the young actor who was originally chosen to play Elliott failed miserably in a game of Dungeons & Dragons. The 12-sided die did not roll in his favor when his true nature came out, revealing that he was not the sweet little angel director Steven Spielberg wanted to be Drew Barrymore's older brother and E.T.'s bestie. 

"In about three minutes it became very clear that nobody liked this little boy," Liroff said. "He became very bossy-- it just showed he was not our kid. So I basically had to start over."

Once nine-year-old Henry Thomas was recommended, he was flown out from Texas to read lines and improv in front of Liroff, Spielberg and some others.

As you can see from this footage, he hit it out of the park.

"The improvisation was so heartfelt and honest that I gave him the part right there," Spielberg told Premiere magazine in 1982. "I was blown away by this nine-year-old. Then I came to realize he’s an adult actor, not a nine-year-old. 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."

Nailing an audition and getting hired on the spot a rare occurrence for Thomas, he said.

 "I finished my scene and they were in tears, and Steven says, 'Kid, you got the job.' I keep waiting for that to happen again," Thomas told The Today Show in 2012. "It was the only part of my career that I knew I had [the role] before I left the audition room."

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