Harrison Ford has become known for starring in some of the most well-regarded and popular science fiction projects of the past 50 years. From Star Wars to Blade Runner, the prolific actor has aligned himself to classics of the science fiction genre that defined a generation of visionary filmmaking. Now, it has come to light that Ford was an integral part of making sure that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was made in the first place.
As The Hollywood Reporter details, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial director Steven Spielberg confirmed that Harrison Ford had to talk Melissa Mathison, the would-be writer of E.T., into writing the movie and not quitting completely. Ford was dating Mathison at the time and while visiting the set of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg pitched the story of E.T. to her. As he admired Mathison’s screenplay for 1979’s The Black Stallion, Spielberg thought she might be the perfect fit to tell E.T.’s story, but the screenwriter let him know she wasn’t interested and had retired from writing altogether.
Speaking to TCM host Ben Mankiewicz at the recent TCM Classic Film Festival, Spielberg noted how the idea for E.T. sprung from memories of his parents’ divorce. As Variety reports, Spielberg started working on a script focused specifically on divorce in 1976, just as he was filming another science fiction classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “We were shooting the scene in Mobile, Alabama, where the extraterrestrial comes down from the ship and does the hand signs with Francois Truffaut,” he explained. “I suddenly thought, wait a second, what if that little creature never went back to the ship?” This sparked the main plot points for E.T., which he further explained to Harrison Ford years later.
Not interested in continuing a writing career, Mathison insisted that writing was too hard, until Harrison Ford stepped in. After Spielberg told Ford that Mathison had turned him down, the actor said he would speak to her about it to see if she would change her mind. After Ford’s intervention, Mathison came back to Spielberg stating, “OK you got Harrison so excited about this. What is it that I missed?” From then on, Spielberg realized he hadn’t properly explained to her his ideas for the story, so he retold the plot ideas he had, and Mathison became very emotional over the plans. Spielberg went on to say to Mankiewicz, “she committed right there in the Tunisian desert.”
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial went on to become one of the most successful films in cinematic history. Grossing over $790 million worldwide to date, the film about a troubled child named Elliott who gathers the courage to help a child-like alien return to his home planet was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Original Screenplay for Melissa Mathison. The film’s stars included Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, and a young Drew Barrymore in one of her earliest roles. Mathison ended up continuing her successful screenwriting career, with contributions that included Twilight Zone: The Movie, The Indian in the Cupboard, Kundun, and another collaboration with Spielberg on 2016’s The BFG. Mathison and Harrison Ford married in 1983 but divorced in 2004. Years later, Mathison was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer and passed away in 2015 at the age of 65.