'E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial' at 40: Dee Wallace thought her 'career was over'

Henry Thomas on the set of
Henry Thomas on the set of E.T.. (Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

After seeing E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial for the first time, Dee Wallace — who memorably played Elliot's strong single mother Mary in the 1982 Spielberg classic — thought the film would tank.

"I came home, looked at my husband and said ‘I think my career’s over’,” Wallace explains to Yahoo, 40 years after the film became a global sensation.

Looking back, it’s hard to imagine such long-lasting success — but before its arrival, expectations were low.

“I actually stood inline at the Cinerama Dome to see it with an audience,” says Wallace, casting her mind back. “I’d seen it at Universal with a bunch of executives where nobody reacted and nobody applauded."

Read more: E.T. and Elliot reunite

Thankfully, Wallace’s husband and fellow actor, Christopher Stone, reassured his wife that audiences would be the true judge of E.T’s success. “People were screaming, crying, applauding, standing up and cheering. Thank God for my husband. He’d been in the business a lot longer than I had and he was right.”

Drew Barrymore and Dee Wallace in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock)
Drew Barrymore and Dee Wallace in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Debuting on 11 June, 1982, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial was an instant hit. During its opening weekend alone, it grossed over $11 million against a $10 million budget and stayed at number one for the next six weeks before returning to reclaim the top spot in December thanks to a festive re-release.

That festive re-release proved to be a goldmine with sentimental movies drawing huge family crowds.

And there are few movie scenes more likely to turn you into an instant blubbering mess quicker than the final moments of E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial.

Henry Thomas talking with ET in a scene from the film 'E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial', 1982. (Photo by Universal/Getty Images)
Henry Thomas talking with ET in a scene from the film E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, 1982. (Universal/Getty Images)

As John Williams’ grand score starts to yank at the heartstrings and young Elliott, played by a watery-eyed Henry Thomas, takes one last look at his soon-to-depart alien BFF, the emotional stakes are about as high as a flying bike.

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When E.T raises his glowing finger and croaks the now-famous line 'I’ll be right here' there’s scarcely a dry eye in sight, both offscreen and on. It’s not just one of the most heartfelt scenes in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 family hit, but it’s arguably one of the most feel-filled sequences in recent cinema history.

In the now 40 years since it first graced scenes, it’s become iconic. Although according to one of the film’s stars, this key movie moment was captured in an almost throwaway manner.

Robert MacNaughton, Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Drew Barrymore, and Peter Coyote publicity portrait for the re-release of film 'E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial', 2002. (Photo by Universal/Getty Images)
Robert MacNaughton, Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Drew Barrymore, and Peter Coyote reunited for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial in 2002. (Universal/Getty Images)

“I had been sitting on the set for days and all of a sudden the Assistant Director comes over and says, ‘Come on, we have to get your reaction to E.T taking off,” says Wallace.

“As we were running to set, I asked what was actually happening [in this scene] and Steven said ‘you say goodbye to E.T, it’s really hard and I want a shot of you watching the spaceship take off and turning into a rainbow - alright, let’s shoot!’”

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With little time to prepare for such an important narrative moment, Wallace had to rely on her wits and gut instinct to adequately get her through. “Fortunately, I have a technique where I can drop into my emotions. I just pictured that spaceship and that rainbow and it made me feel all the love between my kid and this little alien,” she tells us. “That’s how I played my part in that iconic scene.”

Los Angeles - CIRCA 1982: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Steven Speilberg poses for a portrait in Los Angeles, California  (Photo by Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images)
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Steven Speilberg poses for a portrait in 1982. (Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images)

Throughout her five decade career, Wallace, now 73, has carved out a successful niche playing strong maternal figures prepared to risk everything for their kids. Whether it’s battling a killer dog in 1983’s Cujo or protecting the family farm from constantly hungry alien Crites in 1986’s Critters, Wallace seemed destined to feature in Spielberg’s story of a young boy who befriends a small stranded alien and fights against the odds to help him return home.

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“Steven had seen me in The Howling and I had auditioned for Used Cars for him, so when E.T came along he offered it to me,” recalls Wallace. “I knew from reading Melissa Mathison’s script what an amazing piece of work it was. I didn’t know how much it was going to do for my career but I thought it was going to do a lot for the world and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Dee Wallace holds her son Danny Pintauro while aiming a gun in a scene from the film 'Cujo', 1983. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)
Dee Wallace holds her son Danny Pintauro while aiming a gun in a scene from the film Cujo, 1983. (Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

Playing the part of Elliott’s mum Mary came easily to Wallace. The character was a single mother struggling to hold her small family together in a typical mid-American suburb while her ex-husband lives it up somewhere in Mexico, as we discover during a particularly tense dinner table scene.

“I could be mistaken but I think I was the first single mum [in a movie], other than single mums who’s husband had died and stuff like that,” suggests Wallace.

“I knew Mary so well. My father was a severe alcoholic who died when I was in high school so for all practical purposes, I was raised by a single mum. She was the backbone of the family so I had a really good role model. Did I consciously say ‘this is my mum?’ No - but she pretty much was.”

This personal influence is perhaps best utilised in the aforementioned dinner table sequence; a moment early on in Spielberg’s film where we’re introduced to a family with a missing piece.

“That was one of the first scenes we shot and my energy was so high I thought I was going to pass out,” says Wallace, remembering the infamous bit where Mary struggles to keep control of her family and a 9-year-old Thomas yells at his brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton), inventively calling him 'Penis breath'.

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She continues: “That’s why that iconic laugh came out of me. If you played the typical mum, you wouldn’t have laughed, you would have scolded him for swearing but it was such a real moment when it happened. When [Elliott] says his father is ‘in Mexico with Sally’, I could literally feel the tears coming up and I didn’t want my kids to see me cry so I got up and left.”

This impromptu moment of authenticity was something Spielberg embraced wholeheartedly: “Things would happen to me in the moment that would change a scene and Steven would come up to me and say ‘Dee, why did you do that?’ I’d explain what was happening inside of Mary and he just got it.”

Dee Wallace, a cast member in the classic 1982 film
Dee Wallace, a cast member in the classic 1982 film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, poses at a 40th anniversary screening of the film. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Playing the family drama straight allowed for the more fantastical aspects of Spielberg’s movie to shine extra bright. In fact, Wallace still vividly remembers the first time she came face to face with the movie’s titular star.

“I walked on the set and they had E.T right in the front of the sound stage and I stopped cold. I looked at him and fell in love instantly. Carlo Rambaldi captured a soul in that little rubber guy,” she says, referencing the effects artists that designed the creature. “E.T was just magical to me. It was like working with another actor, truthfully.”

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While E.T felt like just another actor to the film’s adult stars, for all intents and purposes this dumpy little alien was another actor for its younger cast which included a seven-year-old Drew Barrymore playing Elliott’s sister Gertie.

Drew Barrymore on the set of
Drew Barrymore on the set of E.T.. (Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

“Steven went out of his way to keep E.T alive for the kids inbetween shots,” smiles Wallace.

“Drew was around six at the time and reality and fantasy get very blurred at that age. We would find Drew talking to E.T when somebody had put him in a corner. From then on, Steven had people running hydraulics on E.T whenever Drew would come over so he stayed alive,” she reveals. “That’s a director who’s really in-tune with his actors.”

Cut to 2022 and with Wallace enjoying a successful career as an author, penning self actualisation texts like Born and kids picture book BuppLaPaloo, she still finds herself utilising lessons learned from her experiences helping E.T return home.

Henry Thomas on the set of
Henry Thomas on the set of "E.T.". (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

“A lot of the things that E.T addresses are principals that I teach in my books,” she admits. “I don’t think it was by accident that the universe set it up for me to be the mom in this movie because years later I would establish my own healing practice and teach the principals of self creation and loving yourself.”

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On the flip side of the coin, Spielberg’s film remains a firm favourite and bonafide modern-day classic among cinema fans worldwide. “I feel in good company,” smiles Wallace, contemplating the movie’s legacy, four decades on.

“I’m sure Judy Garland was really happy that people were still talking about The Wizard of Oz years later. Iconic movies like this tell a truth that reaches the heart.

"They last forever - and E.T is our new Wizard of Oz.

Watch: Henry Thomas looks back at 40 years of E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial