Times Staff Writer

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.

But Spielberg, he said, was the real thing: a mogul whose film credits were stupendously successful ("Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"). At their first meeting, Macnaughton was put immediately at ease by Spielberg, who joined the young actor in playing the video games he has in his studio office.

"He's really nice and understanding, a wonderful director," Macnaughton recalled of Spielberg. "It (the audition) was the same day in March (1981) that President Reagan was shot, so things started off kind of tensely. But he kept things relaxed and natural. He let me do improvisations, as well as read from the script."

Several sessions later, Macnaughton got the part--of Michael, the oldest boy in the suburban household in which the little lost extraterrestrial finds refuge.

Nearly a year later, when "E.T." opened in June, 1982, Macnaughton was in Vermont filming "I Am the Cheese," which is based on the Robert Cormier novel and co-stars Don Murray, Hope Lange and Robert Wagner.

That fall, he was set to play Buddy again in the South Coast Rep's staging of "The Diviners." But SCR later announced it had to drop him from the production: It could not afford the state tutor that was required under California law for any actor under 18. (Macnaughton was replaced by an 18-year-old actor, Jeffrey Combs. SCR had estimated it would cost $10,000 to hire the on-set state aide, who also acts as a welfare supervisor, for the rehearsals and five-week run.)

But SCR didn't forget Macnaughton.

Last fall, when SCR's co-artistic director, Martin Benson, cast "Master Harold . . . and the Boys," Macnaughton got--and kept--the role, winning himself more laudatory notices. "This (the stage) is where I feel I can really grow (as an actor). There's more chances to try things and to polish every kind of characterization. I mean, where else can you work with a Joseph Papp (New York Shakespeare Festival's producer) or actors in the best repertory companies?"

Macnaughton's life is now a nomadic one, shuttling from coast to coast, making the endless rounds of casting sessions for theater, movies and television. (Because of his cross-country travels, he never stayed very long in any regular high school program. But he earned his diploma last June in the Irvine Unified School District's special individual-study program, which allowed him to do his studies mostly by correspondence.)

"I know what an insecure field this is. I know it isn't all glitz and fun," he said, putting the scrapbooks away, his expression suddenly very intense. "The competition is something fierce, and you have to hustle like crazy. They (agents) keep telling me I have to learn to be more aggressive. The really good roles (for his age), you can count on one hand."

Just as suddenly, a boyish grin appeared: "My parents have been super. They have backed me all the way. But they haven't pushed me. They say if this is what I care about, then go for it."

Another bright smile: "You know, I used to be real scared about acting. Now I'm more, well, just nervous. I feel good up there (on stage); I don't feel so shy. It's what I want to do."

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