By Constance White
June 18, 2001 12:00 PM

It was as memorable as the five musical notes that reverberate throughout Steven Spielberg’s 1977 classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But the awestruck look on 4-year-old Cary Guffey’s face didn’t come from any training; the sense of wonder was entirely real. “It was like playtime for me,” says Guffey, who was plucked from his Douglasville, Ga., preschool to portray Barry Guiler, the young boy who is abducted by aliens. Spielberg would use visual cues to elicit the reactions he wanted. While filming the scene in which Barry sees food splattered all over the kitchen and his toys running amok, Guffey recalls, he looked behind the camera and “there is a [fake] gorilla standing there with an arm around Spielberg.”

Not surprisingly, Guffey considered acting more of a hobby than a job. “Other kids went to summer camp,” he says. “I made a movie.” But at age 12, after eight feature films and two TV miniseries, he moved on to other pursuits: “I had acne and wanted to chase girls,” he says with a laugh. Now 29, married and working as a financial adviser at Merrill Lynch in Birmingham, Ala., Guffey has only fond memories of his showbiz stint. “My whole life I’ve seen the movie,” he says. “This will be a part of me forever.”

Early on Guffey loved being the center of attention. The middle child of Goodyear executive Larry, 58, and teacher Sue, 58, he asked to go to preschool at age 3. (He has two brothers: Andy, 31, a computer technician; and Thomas, 22, a manager of a fast-food restaurant.) On the first day, his mother recalls, nary a tear was shed. “He walked in and said, ‘Hi, I’m Cary Guffey, and I’ve come to play.’ ”

Spotted by a casting director the same year, “he was selected from I don’t know how many thousands of children,” says Vilmos Zsigmond, Close Encounters‘s director of photography. But when the Guffeys arrived on the Mobile, Ala., set, they found another boy vying for the role. “They were equally good, and I had to make a choice,” Spielberg said in a documentary about the film. “I was just drawn to Cary.” During the shoot Spielberg—ever the Peter Pan—befriended the toddler. “He rode me around on his motorcycle,” says Guffey. “He got down eye-to-eye and talked to me.” Guffey, most of whose scenes were done in just one take, “was incredible,” says Zsigmond. “He believed that everything he saw was real. He had a wonderful expression because he was wondering about everything.”

When the movie hit, little Guffey found himself answering fan mail. “My dad believed that anyone who took the time to write me a letter got a response,” says Guffey. While he wrote, his parents fretted. “Anytime he had an offer, we would lie awake all night,” says Sue Guffey. “He had fun doing what he did. But we both worried that he would grow up and resent us. What mattered to us was that we do the right thing by him.”

They did, Guffey attests. “I had a great life as a child—just enough, never too much, never a pressure thing.” So when he decided to quit acting, his parents supported him. After graduating from West Windsor High School in Princeton, N.J., he earned a marketing degree from the University of Florida and an M.B.A. from Alabama’s Jacksonville State University. While in college he met fellow student Michelle Quillen at a Gainesville, Fla., dance club. “We wound up dancing all night,” says Michelle, 27, a Birmingham News reporter. “The next day I had to break up with my boyfriend.” Michelle, who married Guffey in 1997, had never seen Close Encounters until a friend told her about his role.

The second-grade girls’ soccer team he coaches doesn’t know him as a star either—just as an enthusiastic adult who mock-kowtows to the opposing team’s goalie when she blocks a shot. “He’s so much fun,” says soccer mom Sharon Bestwick, 43. “The girls love Coach Guffey.”

Which is a title he much prefers to Former Child Star Guffey. A Tiffany & Co. crystal vase—a wedding gift from Spielberg and his wife, Kate Capshaw—and the size 2-3T top he wore as Barry Guiler are among the few mementos of Close Encounters that he keeps in the suburban Birmingham home he shares with Michelle and their two dogs. “I don’t want the greatest thing I do in life to be something I did when I was 4 years old,” says Guffey, holding the tiny shirt chest-high. “I am trying to grow and develop all my gifts and talents, not trying to grow into a shirt that is too small for me.”

Constance White

Nancy Wilstach in Birmingham