'It's a very rare thing': Henry Thomas on 'E.T.' legacy, 'Mean' Joe Greene and his horror resume

Brian Truitt

Henry Thomas has played opposite some big names over the years – Anthony Hopkins and a young Brad Pitt in “Legends of the Fall,” Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Gangs of New York” – though none has quite the pop-culture cred of his famously adorable alien pal in 1982’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.”

“It's a very rare thing to have a film that sticks around for 40 years. People remember several films that I've been in, but it's nothing like the phenomenon that ‘E.T.’ still continues to be,” says Thomas, who was 10 when he played Elliott in director Steven Spielberg's family sci-fi adventure.

A new anniversary release (out Tuesday on Blu-ray and digital platforms) reintroduces the friendship between Elliott and his little pal to a fresh generation of fans. (Watch an exclusive clip at featuring previously unseen footage of Spielberg working with Thomas.) 

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Elliott (Henry Thomas) tries to help his new alien friend get home in the 1980s sci-fi classic "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial."

More recently, Thomas has become a frequent face for horror fans, playing a ghostly Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson’s role in “The Shining”) in “Doctor Sleep” and snagging roles in Mike Flanagan’s numerous Netflix series, including “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” “Midnight Mass” and the upcoming “The Fall of the House of Usher." The latter is a Poe-inspired show that’s “a dark comedy of sorts,” says Thomas, who re-teams with Sissy Spacek – a co-star in his 1981 film debut “Raggedy Man” – for the dramedy “Sam & Kate" (in theaters Nov. 11).

Thomas, now a 51-year-old father of three, talks with USA TODAY about his “E.T.” legacy, his kids' thoughts on the '80s classic and his early gig with a football icon.

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Director Steven Spielberg talks to a young Drew Barrymore during the production of 1982's "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial."

Q: What do you recall about working with Steven Spielberg?

Answer: Because of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and his association with George Lucas – I was a huge fan of the “Star Wars films” – I was really excited to work with him. And he wasn't at all intimidating. He was like a kid himself in a lot of respects and very approachable. He was very in tune with how to communicate with kids in a way that was easy to understand and it always felt like he was really into every aspect of filmmaking. That's what I remember most about him: I think if he could have done every job on set himself, he would've. None of us would've been there. (Laughs)

What’s your favorite scene when you watch “E.T.” now?

I haven't watched the film in its entirety in quite a while, but I always liked the first act: meeting the family, getting the pizza, rolling the ball into the shed and all of that stuff. That was the most fun for me watching for the first time.

E.T. wasn’t even your first iconic co-star: You acted with “Mean” Joe Greene in the 1981 TV movie “The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid,” based on Greene's famous Coke commercial. What was that like?

Mean Joe was great. He was cool and I got to meet a few other players. That was pretty fun as a kid. My dad was a diehard Dallas Cowboys fan and the big rivalry at the time was between the Cowboys and the Steelers. Here I was with all of this Pittsburgh Steeler paraphernalia after the show and I was kind of afraid to display it anywhere in my house.

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Henry Thomas (with Violet McGraw) plays the patriarch of a family that moves into a creepy mansion in the Netflix series "The Haunting of Hill House."

Do you feel the “Haunting” shows have reintroduced you to a new generation?

I'm not a huge horror fan myself but Mike does something quite unique in that universe. The Netflix series have been high visibility in terms of audiences seeing me again. I didn't really go away, but the big commercial things were pretty sporadic throughout my career and those are the things that usually people see.

Henry Thomas was 10 when he filmed "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial."

Do your children realize what big deals you and “E.T” were in pop culture back in the day?

When they were younger, there were some funny things that happened. I forgot my wallet one time, and I told my daughter that we had to get back in the car and go home. She said, "Dad, why don't you just tell them you're the guy from ‘E.T.’?" And I said, "I like your style but that won't work." I think they're kind of proud of it. My daughter's 13, so she's of course ashamed of everything that I do, even the way I look, which I can't even help.

Have any of your kids caught the acting bug yet?

They're all into different things. Not so much acting, but they are artists, each of them in their own right. So we'll see. But I've advised them against pursuing a life solely in the arts because it's too harrowing for normal people.

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