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Haley Joel Osment on 20 years of ‘The Sixth Sense’ — and ‘I see dead people’

‘The Sixth Sense’
Haley Joel Osment in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense,” which hit theaters on Aug. 6, 1999.
(Ron Phillips / Touchstone Pictures)

Iconic lines such as “I am your father” and “E.T. phone home” have the rare ability to trigger instant playback in our collective movie memory. Twenty years ago, the film was “The Sixth Sense.” The line: “I see dead people.”

But no one — except perhaps writer-director M. Night Shyamalan — associates more memories with the accidental tagline than 31-year-old Haley Joel Osment, who uttered the phrase and nearly stole the movie when it debuted on Aug. 6, 1999.

Bolstered by an infamously twisty screenplay and A-list performances from Bruce Willis and Toni Collette, Osment’s performance as 9-year-old ghost whisperer Cole Sear catapulted the movie to instant box office success. It scared up $672 million worldwide and became a touchstone of the modern thriller genre.

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Though Osment has since starred in projects ranging from Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.” to the buzzy 2019 Netflix drama “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” his overnight “Sixth Sense” fame fondly haunts him to this day.

In honor of the horror flick’s 20th anniversary, we spoke with Osment about working with Willis and Collette, getting Oscars advice from Spielberg and, of course, filming that star-making scene.

What was it like acting opposite talent like Willis and Collette at such a young age?

I knew a lot of Bruce’s films, and it was the first time that I’d been old enough to be aware of somebody’s stardom in that situation and to have seen some of their movies. But one of Night’s great talents and one of the great things about how Bruce was on set was that it felt really comfortable, and there was no separation between the giant, A-list star in the production and everybody else. For me, the only intimidating part of it was trying to accomplish what needed to be done with these scenes.

They all went out of their way to be really kind to me and definitely set an incredible example. ... Toni, from the very first rehearsals, was all the way there with the emotion of all these scenes and everything. We had a lot of really difficult stuff to do together, and to see someone come in so prepared and everything was really inspiring. ... At the time, when you’re 10 years old, everybody seems like an adult, but I think Toni was 26 or something and Night was 28. Now that I’m older than both of them were at that time, it’s even more impressive to me that they accomplished what they did.

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The “I see dead people” scene is now an iconic part of film history. Did it feel that way when you were filming it?

It’s still amazing to me that nobody, at any point during the production, was like, “Oh, OK, that’s the line. That’s going to be the tagline for our movie.” And, I guess, part of that was that I certainly had no [idea] that this was going to be the blockbuster that it was. Even a couple weeks before it came out, I was having dinner with Night during the press junket, and he was saying, “I think word of mouth will keep us in the top three. We might even do better in weeks after our opening week with people coming back on word of mouth.” Nobody saw this becoming a gigantic box office hit that spurs lines like these that go into the public consciousness. So on set, it wasn’t a line that was part of the call sheet or anything. It was just important because it was a crucial moment in the relationship between me and Bruce, and it was the first time that my character shared his secret with anyone.

BANG: ‘The Sixth Sense’ (1999)
Haley Joel Osment, left, and Bruce Willis in “The Sixth Sense.”
(Ron Phillips / Spyglass Entertainment Group)

What was the on-set atmosphere like for that scene?

It was an abandoned mental hospital that had not been kept in very good repair, and it was autumn and it was cold, and we were in this creepy hospital corridor. And there were a lot of people around in really bloody makeup because there was a shot at the end of that scene that didn’t end up making it to the final cut where they pan back, and ... there’s somebody with some different terrible injury standing in all the windows. ... So it was sort of a haunted house that we were shooting that in.

In addition to the box office and critical success for the film, you scored an Oscar nomination at 11. How does an 11-year-old process all that attention?

The awards season is so crazy that it’s sort of reassuring to see that most other people, who have had a lot more experience than I did at that age, are aware that it’s a surreal experience and that there’s no pressure that you have to be ready to handle this thing. ... I’d actually had my first meeting with Steven Spielberg at the end of 1999 — so right as all of that was starting to heat up — and I remember him saying, “The best part about the Oscars is watching at the commercial breaks, when all these famous stars that you know are running around like audience members themselves trying to meet the people that they are enamored with,” and that ended up being the case. ... Jude Law came over to my seat for the first time, and was like, “Hey, I heard we’re playing robots in this movie with Steven Spielberg,” and that was the first time we met.

Do you still get fans quoting your “Sixth Sense” lines to you on the street?

Not as much as it was back then, but it does show up in strange places. Even at Dodger Stadium a couple seasons ago when they did a movie trivia thing between innings, and [player] Yasiel Puig was up on the big screen saying the line — it always tends to surprise me.

What effect has “The Sixth Sense” had on your life and career, 20 years later?

It’s amazing to me that it figures so much in people’s memories — even right now, the fact that it’s been 20 years, and it’s still something that people want to talk about and do articles about. ... I remember the whole experience very well, and it completely opened up a bunch of new doors for me career-wise. So I feel lucky that, 20 years later, I’m still able to be in this industry and am still looking for the next new role.


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