What Happened to Henry Thomas?

We take a look at the life and career of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial star Henry Thomas, who’s become a horror icon in recent years.

Last Updated on April 9, 2024

Anybody who has ever taken a stab at acting knows one aspect of the process deemed the absolute worst: the audition. Imagine stepping foot into a room filled with several people who are all there to judge you. Your looks, personality, emotions… every aspect of who you are on display for a room full of strangers. Well, in Hollywood, there is a legend of one audition that has been deemed the best put on tape. It was an audition for a new film by a director who was credited with single-handedly creating the summer blockbuster and who had a dream about crafting a more intimate family story about a kid and an alien. Imagine the immense pressure any actor, let alone a ten-year-old child, would be under to nail this audition. Yet this audition was so good that within seconds, the director, Steven Spielberg, uttered the words that would forever change this ten-year-old life: “Ok, kid, you got the job!” For many of us, we know Henry Thomas simply as “the kid from E.T.,” but in the last 40 years, we have seen this child prodigy emerge into one of the most successful supporting players in roles many of us probably didn’t even recognize him in. Allow us to delve into the world of that kid from E.T. as we find out just WTF happened to Henry Thomas! 

E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial:

But as always, we must begin at the beginning, which started on his birthday, September 9, 1971, in San Antonio, Texas. While some performers languish in their craft for years, even decades, before landing something worthwhile, Henry Thomas would get his big break after only being alive for a decade! A movie was being cast that needed a child actor to carry a film who could command the screen with the skill of a seasoned professional. It would be a fateful game of Dungeons & Dragons that would lead Thomas to the role of a lifetime. As casting director Marci Liroff would explain in a 2014 interview, they had chosen a different child to play the lead of Elliott in a script tentatively titled A Boy’s Life to be directed by Steven Spielberg, who was on a hot streak with such hits as Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The unnamed child actor had nailed his audition as a lovable, sweet little angel, but during a game of D&D with the fellow child actors, a fateful role of the dice would show this child’s true colors to reveal someone who was not as wholesome as he seemed. Liroff said that in just three minutes it became clear that none of the other actors liked this kid at all, so she had to completely start over. 

henry thomas e.t.

That is when Steven Spielberg would take a call from Raggedy Man director Jack Fisk who sang the praises of this young actor named Henry Thomas, who had played the son of Sissy Spacek in the Golden Globe-nominated film. They would fly Thomas out to audition in front of Liroff, Spielberg, and a few others, and what would result would be an audition that has gone down in history books as one of the greatest auditions ever. They would set up a scene where Thomas would act opposite Spielberg, and instead of having Thomas read the lines, they let him improv the scene where he begs them not to take his little alien friend away. 

The film, which had been retitled E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial, would premiere at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival before receiving a wide release on June 11, 1982, where it opened in first place with $11 million (roughly $35 million in 2024 dollars). The film would remain atop the charts for six straight weeks before falling to second place, where it fluctuated between first and second place until December. E.T. still holds the record for most weeks (non-consecutive) in first place at 16, a record not even Titanic could break as it only was in first place for 15 weeks. The film would surpass Star Wars to become the highest-grossing film of all time in 1983 (it is currently number 29 on the Domestic list and 104 on the Worldwide list). Not only was it a commercial hit, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial would become a major awards player, being nominated for nearly 100 awards, including 9 Academy Awards, with Thomas receiving Best Actor nominations from The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, The Bafta’s, the Young Artists awards, and the Golden Globes. 

Life after E.T:

After such success, Thomas did the unthinkable thing… he went back to a relatively everyday life! He says that he struggled in the immediate aftermath of E.T not just in his personal life but with his career, so he would return to San Antonio, Texas where he would go back to school while doing some student theater and even taking up side jobs painting houses and working at a video store where people would come in and rent E.T with some customers recognizing him too much embarrassment. He would also learn how to play the guitar and write songs, which became his big passion as he later formed the Celtic Rock band Blue Heelers (sometimes known as Rain Dogs.) He would pop up in films from time to time, such as 1984’s Gene Hackman drama Misunderstood and Cloak & Dagger, a fun adventure flick for kids; he plays a gamer who gets involved in a real-life game of deadly espionage with the help of his super spy imaginary friend – for which he received a Young Artist Award nomination. Young Henry got thrown back on a bike in 1985’s Frog Dreaming (aka The Quest), a fun, spooky kid’s movie set in the Outback and 1989’s Valmont from master filmmaker Milos Foreman, while also appearing as a young Norman Bates in Psycho IV: The Beginning – which is some brilliant casting – turning the ET boy into a killer, automatic sympathy is added, making his transition into Mr/Mrs Psychoman even more powerful. This is where he gets to show us that he does very well in the horror genre… foreshadowing his future with Flanagan. 

Thomas says that getting older and growing physically helped him separate himself from his child stardom. This helped him nab a role in a different kind of Alien movie: Fire in the Sky (1993), a film which many still hail as one of the scariest films ever made, followed by appearing in the Sam Shepard stage adaptation of Curse of the Starving Class (1994) before having a bit of breakout with the Academy Award-winning film Legends of the Fall. This would lead to a bit of a resurgence in Thomas’ career that would nab him his second Golden Globe nomination for his supporting turn in the 1995 made-for-TV movie Indictment: The McMartin Trial,followed by starring in the 1997 film Niagara, Niagara before appearing in the excellent ensemble cast of Suicide Kings. 

It would seem that after E.T., Thomas couldn’t find much work worth doing, but as soon as he grew up, his resume saw few gaps. Sure, a lot of his movies may be little-seen titles such as Bombshell (1997), Fever (1999), The House That Screamed (2000) and other un- notable titles, while appearing on TV in titles such as Riders of the Purple Sage and Moby Dick. Still, he would also pop up in supporting roles in films that garnered strong reviews, with many of those reviews pointing out the strong ensemble casts, such as 2000’s Billy Bob Thornton directed All The Pretty Horses and 2002’s Martin Scorsese epic Gangs of New York. 

Mike Flanagan and horror fame:

While continuing to earn a respectable living as an actor with a steady flow of little-seen titles in the early 2000s, Thomas was also beginning to build up his horror cred by appearing in notable TV productions such as Masters of Horror, Stephen King’s Desperation (2006) and Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From The Stories of Stephen King as well as the films Ghost Writer and Red Velvet. He would also land some mainstream gigs in the romantic drama Dear John, followed by some memorable guest spots on shows such as Without a Trace, CSI and The Mentalist before landing the lead in the Hank Williams biopic The Last Ride (2011) that even though critics didn’t like the film, most praised Thomas’ performance calling it a “Heartfelt portrayal.” All those roles would lead Thomas to nab a leading role in the new ABC drama Betrayal, which unfortunately never caught on and was cancelled after just 13 episodes. 

henry thomas doctor sleep

Luckily, big things were right around the corner. We often look at collaborations between actors and filmmakers and think about the big ones: Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson and so on… but a 2014 meeting between Henry Thomas and future horror heavyweight Mike Flanagan would sow the seeds that would start a new collaborative powerhouse. Thomas says that at the meeting, he had one foot out of the door regarding his acting career. Still, Flanagan not only told him that he wanted to cast him in his film Ouija: Origin of Evil but also that he wanted him to be a part of every project he ever worked on! As Flanagan would go on to be one of the biggest names in the horror genre, he stayed true to his word by casting Thomas in his Netflix film Gerald’s Game as well as every single one of his hit Netflix horror shows, The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, Midnight Mass, The Midnight Club and the global hit The Fall of the House of Usher while also giving Thomas the chance to portray his inner Jack Nicholson when he cast the actor as Jack Torrence’s ghost in The Shining follow up Doctor Sleep... something I bet a lot of you are just now realizing was him! 

It would be late in 2019 when Thomas would again make good and bad headlines. When asked if I want the good or bad news first, I always take the bad so we end on a good note. So, let’s start with the bad headline. On the evening of October 21, 2019, a concerned citizen in Portland, Oregon, where Thomas has a home, noticed a car stopped in a travel lane and called the cops. When the cops arrived, they found Henry Thomas passed out in his car. After shaking him awake, they noticed his eyes were bloodshot, and he had bottles of Marijuana Tincture, which is a form of liquid concentrated THC, in the driver’s side door. Thomas would refuse a field sobriety test, resulting in him being arrested for Driving Under the Influence. At the police station, Thomas tried to fake taking a breathalyzer test by blocking the mouthpiece while faking heavy breathing, which I know isn’t a laughing matter, but that must have been hilarious for the officers to watch! I’m sure they see that move all the time! Then when asked to give a urine sample, he supposedly filled the cup with toilet water, again not a laughing matter… but pretty damn funny! Ultimately, Thomas would accept a plea deal in which he had to enter a diversion program for a year and pay a $500 fine. Look, being intoxicated behind the wheel of a car is never right… but in the grand scheme of things, this ranks pretty damn low on the celebrity scandal meter! For his part, Thomas seemed to have learned his lesson from this incident and moved on. So too shall we… to that good headline! 

Because just about a month after his arrest, Thomas would return to his most famous role when he reprised his role as Elliott in the short film/ Xfinity commercial: E.T- A Holiday Reunion. The short played on the nostalgia boom that sees many classic movie characters return in extended advertisements around NFL Playoff/ Super Bowl time. But this one was special. The second that classic John Williams score kicks in. At the same time, the screen is still black, the hairs on your arms immediately stand up, and by the end of this four-minute short, when Elliott and his family are standing back in the woods as E.T leaves them again, your heart is taken back to that moment in time when you first saw E.T. Then it is immediately lost when the Xfinity logo hits the screen. Still, before that glimpse of commercialism, you felt something you probably hadn’t felt in decades. That is the lasting impact of E.T. and Elliott.

We often talk about how a single role can embody a performer’s entire career, and for Henry Thomas, that role came at just ten years old. In the aftermath, he tried to live a typical child’s life and found that Hollywood was a place that was not suited for child actors. But he returned as a well-adjusted adult and paid his bills by starring in many films that didn’t register with audiences, yet knowing there are genuine opportunities around every corner as long as you are open to them. He went from being the kid from E.T., where he won a Youth in Film Award, to becoming a genuine horror icon with his memorable collaborations with Mike Flanagan, where he would win a Saturn Award for Best Actor for his performance in The Haunting of Hill House. He has said that he never expected to be considered a “horror icon” but loves his resurgence, especially when he was so close to giving it all up. He is busy with recent projects, including Netflix’s To All The Boys: Always & Forever, Sam & Kate and 2023’s Pet Sematary: Bloodlines. So, as we don’t always get to say in these videos, but are extremely happy to say here: no one should give a f**k about WTF happened to Henry Thomas because Henry Thomas is truly doing just fine! 

About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.