Melissa Mathison, who wrote the screenplay for “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” the science-fiction fable that became one of Hollywood’s signature depictions of the anxieties and longings of childhood and cemented the reputation of Steven Spielberg as a leading director of artful, popular movies, died on Wednesday in Los Angeles. She was 65.
The cause was complications of neuroendocrine cancer, her brother Dirk said.
Before “E.T.,” which appeared in 1982, Ms. Mathison had written only one feature film, sharing a screenplay credit (with Jeanne Rosenberg and William D. Wittliff) on “The Black Stallion” (1979), an adventure melodrama, based on the novel by Walter Farley, about a boy and the horse whose life he saves. It was a favorite film of Mr. Spielberg’s. Ms. Mathison met him in the Tunisian desert on the set of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which he was directing, and which starred her boyfriend (later her husband), Harrison Ford.
“It was 120 degrees, and everybody was miserable and looking to finish that part of the film,” Mr. Spielberg said in an interview on Thursday. “When I found out she was the one who wrote ‘The Black Stallion,’ I immediately thought she’d be right to write this story I’d been kicking around for years. So between shots we’d take long walks and I’d try to convince her to write ‘E.T.’, and she tried to convince me she wasn’t the right writer for it.”
“E.T.” begins when a spaceship plunks down in the forest outside a suburban California development, and it tells the story of the bond between a 10-year-old boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas) and the child-size but sagacious and big-hearted alien who leaves the ship and misses his flight back to the galaxy he came from.
In its variation on the no-place-like-home theme of “The Wizard of Oz” (not to mention Homer’s “Odyssey” and myriad other journey stories), the movie seizes on the grand confusion of an innocent entering the world of experience as Elliott and his two siblings (Robert MacNaughton and Drew Barrymore) do battle with a not entirely unsympathetic phalanx of adults and contrive to help their alien friend make contact with his native planet and return there.
The phrase “E.T., phone home,” became a meme, a message so universal about the tug of familiar surroundings and the balm of love that it pertains not only to humans on earth but to other creatures elsewhere.
“I didn’t write the script; she did, but we wrote the story together,” Mr. Spielberg said. “ ‘Phone home’ — that was her line. We didn’t even talk about it. I just read it in the first draft. I said, ‘Melissa, are you working for me or AT&T?’ and she said, ‘If the movie works, the line is going to stick.’ And she was right.” She received a best screenplay Oscar nomination, but the award went to John Briley for “Gandhi.”
The movie, which also starred Dee Wallace as Elliott’s loving if harried and heartbroken mother (her husband has left her) and Peter Coyote as a scientist who yields his desire to use E.T. as a research subject as he absorbs Elliott’s powerful emotions, became one of the biggest Hollywood hits of all time.
“I always thought of E.T. as very, very old, and Steven, I think, always thought of him as young,” Ms. Mathison told The New York Times in 2002. “We were striving to achieve ideas about responsibility, about unconditional love, about the unimportance of appearance and communicating on a deeper level.”
Melissa Marie Mathison was born in Los Angeles on June 3, 1950, to Richard Mathison, a journalist, and the former Margaret Kieffer, known as Pegeen.
Ms. Mathison graduated from Providence High School, a Roman Catholic school in Burbank, Calif., and attended the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of California, Berkeley. Among her first movie jobs were low-level positions on “The Conversation” and “The Godfather Part II,” both directed by Francis Ford Coppola, whom she had met, her brother said, when she was babysitting for friends of his.
Ms. Mathison’s marriage to Mr. Ford ended in divorce. In addition to her brother, she is survived by another brother, Mark; two sisters, Melinda Johnson and Stephanie Mathison; a son, Malcolm Ford; and a daughter, Georgia Ford.
Ms. Mathison lived in Venice, Calif., and Manhattan. Her other credits include a television movie, “Son of the Morning Star” (1991), based on Evan S. Connell’s book about Gen. George Armstrong Custer and the battle of Little Big Horn, and “Kundun” (1997), Martin Scorsese’s film biography of the 14th Dalai Lama.
At her death she and Mr. Spielberg were completing work on “The BFG,” based on the children’s tale by Roald Dahl, starring Mark Rylance in the title role, the Big Friendly Giant.
“She began working on it five years ago, and we had been working together intensely for the last 24 months,” Mr. Spielberg said. “Not just the script. She was on the set in Vancouver this summer, making changes. It was a fluid process, and that’s the way she liked it. She liked epiphanies. She liked to pitch me something that came to her in her sleep the night before.
“The movie evolved the way ‘E.T.’ did,” he continued. “Melissa was open to spontaneously combustible ideas from everyone. She was an active participant, and she stayed with every project until the very end. She was more than a writer. She was more like a partner.”