Are the kids okay? is Yahoo Entertainment’s video interview series examining the impact of show business on the development and wellbeing of former child entertainers, from triumphs to trauma.
When Henry Thomas calls home today, he calls his family at a picturesque Oregon ranch. “It’s about half an hour between Portland and the coast,” says the now-adult child star of ET the alien tells Yahoo Entertainment. “We’re in a very rural area, and it’s very beautiful. It rains a lot, but there are no snakes coming from South Texas, I really appreciate that!” (Watch our video interview above.)
Thomas’ move from Hollywood to Oregon was a long time coming. For decades, after he rose to fame in Steven Spielberg’s beloved 1982 blockbuster, he lived at the center of the beating heart of the Los Angeles entertainment industry. But at some point, Thomas realized that having an LA zip code “didn’t make sense anymore” to him.
“I liked LA, but I didn’t work there,” he notes, adding that his recent acting gigs have regularly taken him to other cities for extended periods of time. “So you spend a lot of money to run a household, but you’re not part of it. I just said, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore.’ I grew up on a farm and that’s what I wanted for my kids.” (Thomas has two children with wife Annalee Fery and a daughter from a previous marriage.)
Thomas’ petting zoo was located in a small town near San Antonio, where he was born in 1971. Growing up, he found his way into acting through local community theater productions. “That was my first kind of realization that I liked being an actor,” he recalls. “My parents were into farming and stuff, so I should never have decided to become an actor. It didn’t make sense!”
The budding thespian ultimately didn’t have to go to Hollywood to make his first on-screen appearance; instead, Hollywood came to him. In 1980 Thomas made a breakthrough in Raggedy Man, directed by Jack Fisk and starring Sissy Spacek, filmed on location in Texas. The film, released the following year, didn’t set the box office on fire, but it did help Thomas secure the role that defined his career for forty years.
†ET was a universal [Studios] to film Raggedy Man was a Universal movie,” Thomas explains. “So by getting the part for… Raggedy Man“I was on the radar for people who worked at Universal. And one of those people was Mr. Steven Spielberg.” jaws director was 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 child’ [for E.T.],'” Thomas recalls. “‘Well, look at this boy.'” (ET will have a 40th anniversary screening at the TCM Classic Film Festival, which kicks off April 21 in Los Angeles.)
Thomas’ audition to play Elliott in ET has long entered the Hollywood legend for allegedly moving Spielberg to tears. And the surviving footage from Thomas’ audition shows that the then 9-year-old actor was also crying. “Honestly, I think I had the part before going into the audition,” he admits. “They created a screenplay, and I improvised and I got really emotional. And then at the end of the audition, you hear someone say, ‘Okay, kid, you got the job.’ That was Spielberg.
“That’s the only time I ever auditioned and knew I had it before I left the room,” Thomas continues. “It kind of spoiled me because I got the first three auditions I ever did! Which wasn’t something I should have counted on for the rest of my career.”
Thomas filmed ET in the fall of 1981 just after he turned 10 years old, and remembers the whole 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 was going to be as successful as it eventually did, but it did feel like we were making something special,” he says now. “Steven [knew] everything he wanted… and he could have done everything on his own. He had that kind of energy, ‘Let’s do this’ and ‘Let’s get on with it.'”
When ET premiered in theaters in the summer of 1982, audiences were immediately entranced. During that first theatrical run, it broke box office records, eventually grossing over $350 million in the US 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 had nowhere to go,” 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 part of the deal. That wasn’t why I got in, and it was strange to be treated differently” at night. It made me very suspicious of people in general.”
Over the next few years, Thomas landed starring roles in such films as 1984’s Cloak & Dagger and years ’85 The quest† While he was at work, he remembers feeling safe and protected by his mother – who accompanied him to his various movie sets – and by the crew. But off-set, he says he felt the “huge burden” child stardom places on families. “My mother would go with me for months at a time and not see my father and that caused a lot of marital problems between them,” he says candidly. “The filmmaking process isn’t conducive to short hours and easy weeks. You have a schedule that doesn’t make sense to anyone outside the film industry.”
Thomas grew up at a time when other child stars—including Barrymore—participate in Hollywood’s vibrant after-hours scene. But he says he usually shunned those experiences and preferred 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 was in the midst of that difficult transition from child to adult roles. And while he has worked steadily on various 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 bore the weight of ET‘s iconography. “That’s what happens to you in Hollywood: they won’t see you any other way,” he muses. “They just see you as ‘that guy’ or ‘the young actor’. The only thing that really saved me was biology, because I kept getting older and changing. Then I got a little interesting, because they realized, ‘I think that he’s not just a flash in the pan. He’s an actor.”
“Honestly, the only reason I’m here is just persistence on my part,” he continues. “I just never stopped. While 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. That’s fine and dandy if you’re 22 years old, but if you’re a mortgage and a family and you’re unemployed for two years, it’s pretty grim.”
Those bouts of grimness are part of why Thomas says he discourages his own children from following in his footsteps. “I warned them about it, and I think for two out of three it worked. But I have one that I think is going to be kind of an artist. As a parent, you have to try to support and nurture that in your children , if they express that desire to achieve something. It’s not necessarily a perpetual career, and it’s not a very reliable way to make a living. So I warn them about the real world, because when the taxpayers come, they don’t care about excuses – they just want their money.”
Funnily enough, Thomas’s kids aren’t thrilled with their father’s most famous role, which he discovered when he was making plans to show them. ET For the first time. “I planned to present the film to my kids at some point, when I thought they were old enough to appreciate it,” he recalls. “I made this big reveal only to find out they’d seen the trailer a thousand times! So it went 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 cringed in fear every time ET came on screen. He was a little too young to watch it then, I guess. Bad dad – I ruined it for him.”
† Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by Jimmie Rhee
ET the alien has a screening of the 40th anniversary on Thursday 21 April in the TCM Classic Film Festival†