Turns out Harrison Ford had a hand in the success of Steven Spielberg's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
Spielberg made the revelation while presenting the 40th anniversary screening of the 1982 sci-fi classic at the TCM Classic Film Festival last week, sharing that it was Ford who found him a screenwriter in the star’s then-girlfriend, Melissa Mathison.
As Spielberg told it, he was on location in Tunisia filming Raiders of the Lost Ark when Ford arrived on set with Mathison, who previously penned 1979’s The Black Stallion, a film Spielberg was a big fan of. Spielberg "pretty much had worked out most of the story" for E.T., and decided to pitch it to Mathison. He struck out.
"She said, ‘Well, I’m retired from writing. I don’t write anymore. I’m not interested in writing anymore, it’s too hard," the director recalled. "I went to Harrison and said, 'Your girlfriend turned me down. She doesn’t want to write my next movie.' He said, 'Well, let me talk to her.'"
By the next day, Mathison had changed her tune – at least enough to hear Spielberg out. "She came to me the next day and said, 'OK, you got Harrison so excited about this. What is it that I missed?' I think I hadn't told her the story very well because I told her the story again and she got really emotional," Spielberg shared. "She committed right there in the Tunisian desert."
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was nominated for nine Oscars at the 55th Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. It won four: Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Visual Effects.
Spielberg shared more about E.T.’s journey to screen while speaking with TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, recalling how he and Mathison worked on the script during the editing process for Raiders of the Lost Ark.
"We would spend two hours a day for five days and she would go off and write pages and come back," Spielberg said, praising Mathison for her creative contributions to the story, like E.T.’s telekinesis. "There were so many details for character that Melissa brought into my world from her world."
With E.T., the late screenwriter produced "the greatest first draft of my life," Spielberg said, adding that he immediately delivered the script to producer Kathleen Kennedy, who agreed it was the best script she had ever read.
Casting came soon after, with a young Drew Barrymore taking the meeting "by storm." "She stormed the citadel of my office at MGM, she really did," Spielberg recalled. "I said, 'Do you like acting?' And she said, 'I’m not an actor. I have a punk rock band.' She started telling me about this punk rock band that she had already formed and she was going to play concerts. I believed her. She had such an inner life. I realized after a while that she didn’t really have a punk rock band but if she could believe she did, then she could believe that this little mechanic creature was a real extraterrestrial. And she was in my movie that day."
As for Ford, the actor did wind up filming a cameo for the movie. While it didn’t make the final cut, he'll always get credit for his contributions to E.T. in Spielberg's book.
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