December 05, 1988 12:00 PM

It’s been six years—and more than $700 million in box office gross—since a spindly, rubberoid little alien first lit a finger on the big screen. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial not only earned Steven Spielberg Hollywood’s heavyweight title—he’s director of the top money-making movie of all time—it also spawned a galaxy of spin-offs, everything from E.T. bedsheets to pull-string talking dolls. On Oct. 27, MCA Home Video finally delivered what scads of home viewers have long awaited: the release of E.T. on videocassette. The industry predicted sales of 6 million tapes, but once again E.T. exceeded all expectations. So far, more than 11 million have been advance-ordered, making this the largest-selling video ever.

The consumers went kerblooey. In Omaha, would-be buyers were lined up outside a video store at 6 AM, and in L.A., one store placed an ad urging customers to remain calm. Recently PEOPLE caught up with five of the film’s principals to see how they’ve fared in the years since America’s favorite little creature first phoned home and made such a big connection.

With Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Close Encounters of the Third Kind under his belt, Steven Spielberg was already a hot Hollywood ticket by the time E.T. exploded in 1982. But in the wake of its phenomenal success, his forays into adult themes with The Color Purple and last year’s Empire of the Sun drew mixed reviews. Still Oscarless for his directing efforts, Spielberg, 40, has relinquished the administration of his production company to give himself more time to direct. “I have been in the candy factory for the last three years as a producer making sugar substitutes,” he said this year, “and I’ve gagged on it myself.”

Lately, the worst of it has been talk about the possible breakup of his three-year marriage to actress Amy Irving, with whom he had son Max, now 3. Counteracting the reports, the couple’s attorney has sent a “cease and desist” notification to various publications. If the rumors were true, release of the E.T. home video would only complicate a settlement: Its sales to date could boost Spielberg’s personal bank account by a hefty chunk of MCA’s estimated $172 million gross.

“I guess E.T wasn’t that long ago, but it seems like forever to me,” says Henry Thomas. Six years ago Thomas, now 17, played an extraterrestrial’s best friend. Now, with his tied-back chestnut locks and shy demeanor, he looks every bit the lanky teenager—right down to the black T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a friend’s skateboard shop back home in San Antonio. Thomas is now living in a hotel room in Paris, where he’s filming Milos Forman’s Valmont, based on the 18th-century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

As a grade schooler whose only screen credit was Sissy Spacek’s son in Raggedy Man, Thomas was hardly prepared for the nonstop attention E.T. provoked. “I was getting a lot of hassles from the public,” he says. “Everybody recognized me. I didn’t get a hard time from my friends. It was the people I didn’t really know, the ones who’d never talked to me before.” Carloads of tourists would photograph the family mailbox, and “there was weird mail, death threats. I don’t think most of them were serious. Some were just from little girls I didn’t write back to.”

Since E.T, Thomas has appeared in several films, including the recent Murder One. He’s had a check book since he was 10, but his earnings are held in trust. After E.T. his weekly $7 allowance was raised—by 50 cents. “That was printed in some article about Henry,” says his mother, Carolyn. “We were embarrassed—and raised it to $10.”

Short of a family Mercedes and Henry’s Jeep, there are no signs that the young actor has gone Hollywood. He doesn’t forget to phone home—to the family’s four-bedroom San Antonio homestead where they keep nine horses. “I don’t really like being so far away,” he says a little wistfully. “I grew up there, and it seems like the best place to me—somewhere where you know everything. Where you know where all the roads go.”

By the time Drew Barrymore landed the role of little sister Gertie in E.T., the 7-year-old had already racked up a long line of commercials, two TV movies and the part of William Hurt’s daughter in 1980’s Altered States. “I’ve wanted to be an actress all my life,” she once grandly confided to a reporter.

Since then the precocious granddaughter of the illustrious Barrymore dynasty has been hard to miss. At 7, she became the youngest host of Saturday Night Live. For her 10th birthday party, she discoed till 2 A.M. at Limelight. She was romantically linked to Carlo Ponti’s son Edoardo (a May-December thing; he was 12, she 10).

The actress who got her start at 11 months in a dog food commercial earned post-E.T; kudos for 1984’s Firestarter and half a mill at age 11 for her starring role in Irreconcilable Differences. Still, according to Drew, there hasn’t been anything to beat that 1982 blockbuster. “You see ‘E.T.’ on everything in the world but toilet paper,” she once said. These days the actress, who has campaigned for AIDS awareness, is a 5’2″, 95-lb. 13-year-old who, according to her publicist, “looks 16.” Spielberg himself once said it better. He described her as “7 going on 29.”

In one of E.T.’s tear-jerkingest scenes, the wizened terrestrial, pale and frail, lies helpless on the bathroom floor. On the verge of capture by the bad-guy scientists, he looks up at Elliott’s mother, Mary, reaches up and squawks the word “Mom.” “I guess that has a lot to do with who I am,” says Dee Wallace Stone, 39. What she means is that after five years of trying, she and her husband, actor-screenwriter Christopher Stone, have just welcomed their first child, Gabrielle, into the world.

Stone landed the part of Everymom after Spielberg spotted her playing a hooker in a Lou Grant episode. She remembers the “childlike atmosphere” on the E.T. set. For one Halloween sequence, Spielberg showed up “as a Gypsy woman. It was hysterical. Behind the camera is the biggest director in Hollywood—with earrings dangling and a bandanna on his head.”

Dee’s postblockbuster career had a few rough spots (“They either don’t approach you or they automatically assume you won’t be interested”), but eventually settled down to a steady run of mostly TV credits. She calls another mom role—in Stephen King’s 1983 froth-flecked horror flick Cujo—”my best work.”

She has taken the past few months off to clean house, make a baby quilt and read child-care books. When the doctor called to report that she was pregnant, “It was literally like those old commercials. Daisies sprang up from the tiles.” Now that the baby’s here, she says, “this is the only production of this kind I’m ever going to do, and I’m going to do it the best I can.”

Robert Macnaughton remembers quite clearly the day that he auditioned for the part of Michael, Elliott’s older brother: It was March 30, 1981, the day of the assassination attempt on President Reagan. “It was real hectic,” recalls the now-strapping 21-year-old. “In the middle of the meeting, people kept coming into the office to say that James Brady had been shot.”

Macnaughton; who came to E.T. from an off-Broadway role about a brain-damaged boy, recalls that during the filming, the director “kept saying, ‘This is going to be my little movie, my little classic’ ”

There was a certain underage camaraderie among the set’s kids, who would “just raise as much hell on the set as we could,” Macnaughton says. They would skateboard through the lot and stage wet toilet paper fights in hotels during lulls in postproduction publicity tours.

Acting mostly in repertory theater around the country, Macnaughton rents a room at a Chapman College frat house in Orange, Calif., from which he shoots by freeway into L.A. for auditions. The son of a child actor (Bruce Macnaughton played the blond rich kid in The Little Rascals), Robert’s post-E.T. credits haven’t quite made him a household name. Still, like the rest of E.T.’s cast, there’ll be one place he can always count on being recognized: “I have to be careful going into video stores.”

—Susan Schindehette, and the Los Angeles and Paris bureaus

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