Sitting on the floor in his family's Irvine home one recent afternoon, Robert Macnaughton looked much the way he did three years ago in "E.T.," Hollywood's all-time blockbuster movie.
At 18, he may be taller, more gangling, his expression more intense, but he has the same tousle-haired, toothy look as when he played the older brother, Michael, in Steven Spielberg's tale of childhood visions.
"It (the film) was a terrific break for me. I was super-lucky to get the part," said Macnaughton, whose scrapbooks overflow with "E.T." mementos, including pictures of his 1982 meeting with Prince Charles and Princess Diana at a royal reception for the film's London opening. "We (cast and production company) got to be like real family. It was a wonderful time."
His part in the Spielberg enterprise isn't over. With the much-hyped upcoming rerelease of "E.T.," he has again hit the media trail with Henry Thomas (who played Elliott, the extraterrestrial creature's best pal) and Drew Barrymore (the kid sister in the film). They are making the usual rounds of national talk shows and other television programs in New York and Hollywood.
It is the kind of furor that has brought Macnaughton his share of celebrity--he is instantly recognizable to "E.T." groupies--even though his "E.T." role was a supporting one.
Nevertheless, young Macnaughton does have a complaint about his "E.T." status--politely put, of course. "I owe a lot to the movie, but I've done other things as an actor that I'm also proud of," he said quietly, flipping through one scrapbook that covers the work he's done since "E.T." was first released in June, 1982.
He has indeed been busy. He starred as the disturbed youth Adam in the movie "I Am the Cheese," a psychological thriller released in 1983. He later played the title role in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Last year, he appeared in "Henry V" at the New York Shakespeare Festival, followed by "Tobacco Road" at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn. He also appeared in "Hear Me Cry," a CBS-TV special about suicidal youths.
In a South Coast Repertory production last May in Costa Mesa, he won praise for his biggest role to date: the embittered South African youth in "Master Harold . . . and the Boys," the Athol Fugard drama of an apartheid society.
This month in New York, he begins rehearsals for another stage production. This time, it's the Circle Repertory Theatre's new staging of Lanford Wilson's "A Tale Told," which opens Aug. 7 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., before moving to the Circle Rep's own off-Broadway playhouse this fall.
The widely respected New York-based Circle Rep holds a special niche in Macnaughton's career. Until he first appeared at the Circle Rep playhouse in 1980, his credits had been rather sporadic and modest.
A graduate of South Coast Rep's Young Conservatory Program in 1979, Macnaughton had appeared in only a handful of local theater productions, all in Southern California. One was a Long Beach Center Theater presentation of "Critic's Choice" that starred Eve Arden. Early in 1980, after an audition in New York, he was cast in "Angel City," a CBS-TV movie of migrants that starred Ralph Waite.
But it was "The Diviners," opening that fall at the Circle Rep playhouse, that gave Macnaughton, then 13, an unusually plum part: He was Buddy, the strange, brain-damaged boy in Jim Leonard Jr.'s Depression-era drama.
His performance won laudatory notices from several major New York critics. It opened the way to two important roles for television. One was a CBS-TV pilot adventure, "Big Bend Country"; the other was an NBC-TV special, "Electric Grandmother," starring Maureen Stapleton.
(By then, Macnaughton was living most of the time in New York, where he had access to a far larger number of "stage opportunities," he said. His parents, Bruce and Millie Macnaughton, and younger brother, Craig, and sister, Kathleen, continued to reside in Irvine.)
"The Diviners" also brought him a reading the following March in Hollywood before Spielberg, then casting his "E.T." movie. "One of the talent people who saw me in 'The Diviners' got me an audition for another movie," recalled Macnaughton. "But someone else got the part. The agent felt pretty bad about it, and said, 'Hey, I hear Spielberg is casting for something. Would you like to try that out?' I told her, 'You bet! My gosh, he's one of my idols.' "
As a movie-struck kid in Irvine, Macnaughton had filmed his own small high-tech epics, inspired by Spielberg, George Lucas, Lee Majors ("The Six Million Dollar Man") and William Shatner ("Star Trek"). He even played the neighborhood mogul, screening his epics in local garages and charging just enough admission to cover his costs.