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Spielberg put me in a suit like a big sausage skin and told me to fall over; EXCLUSIVE: REVEALED: BOY WITH NO LEGS WHO PLAYED E.T.

Byline: JAMES SCOTT

MATTHEW DeMeritt is one of the biggest film stars of all time, but the chances are you have never heard of him.

And it's a fair bet that you have no idea what he looks like - because in his one and only leading role 20 years ago he wore a 4ft-long "pinky-purply" rubber suit over his entire body for all his scenes.

Matthew, 31, has remained anonymous ever since. And he is perfectly happy to keep it that way, knowing that he played a major part in bringing the big screen's most beloved lost alien to life.

Yes, Matthew DeMeritt was E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial.

"Looking back now," he says, "it's really neat to know that I was there doing that.

"I've been anonymous ever since the movie came out. I don't mind, but recently when I've seen stuff on TV and adverts on the roads it makes me think about it. It's great to see it all happening again."

The little alien with the old woman's eyes had many incarnations, including two full-sized models and the rubber suit. The suit was inhabited, variously, by two dwarfs and Matthew - then an 11-year-old who had been born with no legs.

The film's recent re-release to mark its 20th anniversary has lead to a new outbreak of the E.T. fever that gripped the world in 1982.

Director Steven Spielberg says he has touched up a few scenes using computer graphics and added some new bits, but essentially the film remains the same. So Matthew's most notorious scene - where E.T. gets hammered on Coors beer - remains intact.

"I was in the suit," he says. "It was hot and Spielberg came up to me and asked if I was all right. Then he wanted to make sure I wouldn't get hurt and he said: 'Is there any way you could just walk straight into that cabinet there and just kinda fall on you butt and get back up, turn around and for the grand finale fall smack on your face?

"I don't remember putting up any protest to that - I guess, because I was comfortable with the padding and the suit. I think I had fallen down a couple of times anyway - unintentionally - and I don't remember it being that bad.

"Any scene where they wanted E.T. to fall over, they would use me. The suit was made of rubber and they sprayed it with something to make it look sticky. There were slits in the chest for me to look out of and the head sat on top of my head.

"It was hot in there, though. Even without the lights it would have been hot. I wish there had been a zipper or something in the back. It just went right over my head like a great big sausage skin."

As shooting started in the late summer of 1981, Spielberg's first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, was cleaning up at the box office.

But nobody guessed then that he would become the most successful director of all time and his next central character, a small, wrinkly alien, would coin one of the most memorable catch-phrases in movie history.

"E.T. phoooone hoooome" was voiced by Pat Welsh, a 67-year-old Californian housewife who smoked 40 a day. She took over from actress Debra Winger, who spoke the lines for Spielberg's rough cut of the film.

Matthew worked closely with Caprice Rothe, who made and performed the hands for E.T.'s close-ups - including using the red light at the end of one of his fingers.

As Spielberg and producers Kathleen Kennedy and Melissa Mathison - who later married Harrison Ford - prepared for shooting, they realised they needed some "little people" for the rubber suit.

"I was 11," recalls Matthew. "I was undergoing physical therapy at UCLA medical centre at the time because I didn't have any legs.

UNIVERSAL Studios caught wind of the fact that there were short people and people without legs there and somebody had the wacky idea of putting them in a costume to see how it would look."

Spielberg ended up with "Little Pat" Bilon and Tamara De Treaux, both dwarfs, and Matthew - who, they discovered, could lift himself and walk on his hands.

"They got in touch with one of my old doctors," he says. "We got a call from Kathleen Kennedy and she invited me to do a screen test at Carlo Rambaldi's (the creator of E.T.) studio. There was a fitting and they took all my measurements and they filmed me walking on my hands.

"I'm not sure what they were thinking when they got me down there. I'd never demonstrated to anybody that I could walk on my hands, and I don't see how they could think I could comfortably fit inside a costume and walk around and make a convincing alien - but it kind of worked out that way."

When filming started at Universal, Matthew didn't know who Spielberg wa`s. He says: "I hadn't even seen Raiders. At that time I wasn't really associating films with directors, but then Raiders became huge that summer. Spielberg asked me to do all the scenes where E.T. fell over or walked awkwardly. I had an awkward walk compared to Pat and Tamara because I was on my hands.

"I was there pretty much every day through October and November while they were shooting.

"Spielberg was a really nice guy. There was nothing arrogant or off-putting about him. He often had his office door open and invited us to go in and play the video games. He had a kind of mini arcade in his office. He was a real nut when it came to stuff like children's video games. That was cool. He'd be having a production meeting in his office and we'd be playing video games."

At the end of it all, Matthew was credited with "Special E.T. Movement". During filming, he was able to get close to Henry Thomas, who played lonely Elliot, the boy who befriends E.T., and Robert MacNaughton, who played Elliot's elder brother Michael.

The group stayed in touch for a few years after the film but eventually drifted apart. Thomas has since cropped up in several high-profile films, including Legends Of The Fall, alongside Brad Pitt, but MacNaughton gave up acting shortly after E.T. The entire cast and crew got together to celebrate in the film's re-release in Los Angeles last month.

"I didn't get to see Spielberg," says a disappointed Matthew. "There was such a throng of people around him and Drew Barrymore, but I did get to see Robert and Carlo Rambaldi.

"When I first met him he spoke very little English and he seems to speak even less now."

At the time E.T. was being filmed, Matthew and his parents - Juanita, a housewife who cared for Alzheimer's patients, and Bill, an artist for the postal service - were living in Torrance, California. Juanita now lives in Arizona, but Bill died shortly after seeing his son as E.T. in the film.

"Tamara sent me a letter of condolence after my dad died, which I thought was nice, but we didn't really keep in contact," says Matthew.

These days, he lives two hours outside Los Angeles with Nanette, his wife of eight years, and his stepson James, 16.

He teaches English at college, plays wheelchair basketball in his spare time - he gets through a wheelchair a year - and writes music. He is a big Rowan Atkinson fan and has the entire Blackadder and Mr Bean collection on video.

Since E.T., he has appeared in some straight-to-video sci-fi films, including Cyborg II - one of Angelina Jolie's first films. "I had my one and only speaking part," says Matthew.

But he has no illusions about his chances of carving a career in films, insisting he's happy to remain anonymous to E.T. fans.

"It's not something that really occupies my mind that much," he says. "But at the same time, if I see something that reminds me of what I did, I think it's neat.

"Twenty years comes around so quickly, and I've heard very little about it in all that time. When all the hype started again recently it was nice for a while, but I don't let it bother me.

"If I ever started thinking about playing a big version of E.T., I'd just think about that big old sausage skin."

CAPTION(S):

THE E.>T.> 3: Matthew (front, right), Pat Bilon and Tamara De Treaux; REUNION: With E.>T. creator Carlo Rambaldi; ACE: Spielberg and his alien; Picture: KATE LILIENTHAL/SPLASH
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Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:May 2, 2002
Words:1449
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