By Dan Jewel
May 04, 1998 12:00 PM

One recent evening, Henry Thomas was out for a stroll in downtown San Antonio when a woman approached. “Oh, God,” she gasped, “you’re E.T.!” The actor politely corrected her: “Uh, no, I’m not E.T. But I was in the movie.” As she wandered off, Thomas sighed, “Do I look like a short little alien?”

Hardly. But 16 years after playing E.T.’s young friend Elliot in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 smash E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the now 6-foot-tall Thomas is unable to shake the role. “You wouldn’t believe how many people—they’re usually drunk—come up and ask him if he’s Elliot or E.T,” says Chad Spencer, a childhood pal. “But what’s the worst is when they ask if he’s done anything since E.T”

For the record, he has. Thomas, 26, played Brad Pitt‘s younger brother in 1994’s Legends of the Fall, and he scored a Golden Globe nomination as an accused child molester in the 1995 HBO film Indictment: The McMartin Trial. This spring he has three projects to phone home about. He played a petty thief in the March road movie Niagara, Niagara, called himself Ishmael in USA Network’s Moby Dick, which aired in March, and he kidnaps a mob boss in the new black comedy Suicide Kings.

But while E.T.’s younger star Drew Barrymore grew up with her name in tabloid headlines, Thomas all but vanished from the public eye. “I’ve been ‘coming back’ for the last 12 years,” he says, puffing on a cigarette. “Every role I’ve done since I was an adult, people have gone, ‘Henry Thomas makes a comeback.’ ” The actor himself is partly to blame. Though he keeps a three-floor apartment in Hollywood, he shuns the local social scene. Instead, Thomas, who is single, spends much of his free time alone at the one-bedroom apartment he built on his parents’ 40-acre ranch, about 20 miles from San Antonio. “He can be a recluse at times,” says Spencer. “He’s a rootsy guy who likes to go out and work with the horses. He likes the seclusion. He’s a typical Texan.”

And a typical loner. The only child of Carolyn, a homemaker, and Henry Sr., a hydraulic machinist, he grew up with few friends in rural Elmendorf—or, as he calls it, “the middle of nowhere.” At age 8 he saw a PBS special on acting and decided he had found his calling. At an open audition in a San Antonio hotel he promptly landed a part in the 1981 Sissy Spacek film Raggedy Man. With it came his first taste of raggedy angst: “I remember being scared out of my mind. I was so worried that I’d do something wrong and be fired.”

Instead, an editor on the film recommended him for the E.T. gig. Spielberg recalls telling the 9-year-old to act out a scene in which “a bad man is going to come and try to take [your friend] away from you…. The minute he was done, I said, ‘Okay, kid, you got the job.’ ” Says Thomas: “It was the first and last time in my life that anyone has ever gone, ‘You’ve got the part’ right there and meant it.”

The thrill was quickly gone. “In elementary school,” says Thomas, “it doesn’t pay to stand out.” Indeed his fame made him an outcast. Chad Spencer recalls how kids “would poke him and say things like, I saw you in your underwear [in E.T.].’ ” And while classmates shunned him, strangers got too close. “There were all these weird fans that would drive down from someplace and take pictures of my mailbox and steal things out of our yard,” says Thomas. He also got occasional letters from pedophiles. “My parents were freaked out,” he says.

He briefly quit acting—”I just wanted to be a kid”—but during his first year at San Antonio’s East Central High School realized that “I wanted to work.” The no longer young, cute kid found, however, that “casting directors wouldn’t give me the time of day,” Thomas says. He built his résumé through roles in lower-profile films, then landed the spot in Legends of the Fall. “It gave me a little bit of a boost,” says Thomas, who dropped out of Texas’s Blinn College after one year to act full-time. “It put me back in people’s minds.”

Still, notes Patrick Stewart, who plays Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, Thomas will always be Elliot to some people. “That will go with him to his grave,” Stewart says. “No matter how old and wise and grown-up he gets, that will be there.” Perhaps, but Thomas hopes his latest barrage of films will finally update his image. “I’m excited to see what’s going to happen,” he says, lighting another cigarette. “You’re not a kid forever.”

Dan Jewel

Elizabeth Leonard in Los Angeles