Three Real Doctors Helped 'Save' E.T.—and One of Them Is a Space Freak Himself
With his compulsive attention to accurate detail, Spielberg had a casting agent contact the UCLA Center for the Health Sciences, looking for expert advice on cardiopulmonary resuscitation. UCLA referred the call to Dr. Bob Murphy, 33, an anesthesiologist who was then chief resident in charge of the CPR training program. Murphy called his friend Dr. Alex Lampone, 35, director of the emergency department at St. John's Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica, who set up a mock cardiac arrest demonstration for the director, with Dr. James Kahn, 34, playing the patient. As a result, Spielberg not only took the doctors' advice, he took them. "He wanted the organized chaos that cardiac arrests tend to stimulate," says Lampone, "where everyone is jumping in because a lot of things must be done simultaneously."
A few days later Kahn, Murphy, Lampone, a technician and five nurses—including Lampone's wife, DiAnn—arrived on the set to enact E.T.'s emergency for the crucial movie scene. "Spielberg wanted to know, 'How sick can we allow him to get before it becomes ridiculous?' and he gave us carte blanche," Murphy says. " 'Do whatever you think is right to make it medically accurate,' he told us." So, under doctors' orders, E.T. was hooked up to a network of plastic tubes. The doctors dotted his wrinkled rubber chest with precisely positioned electrodes. "We spent hours doing these little things to make them accurate," Murphy says. "And they're milliseconds in the movie." After all the realistic equipment had been brought in, Lampone says, "We could have taken care of a real patient." The doctors went through some 50 takes during six days on the set.
Murphy has the longest spoken part—he delivers a 30-second report on E.T.'s treatment, which he ad-libbed using the stock jargon of emergency medicine. ("He was defibrillated twice.... All intravenous lines should be sent to the laboratory for cultures.") Lampone heads the emergency team; Kahn is seen handing a clipboard to someone as he dashes out of camera range.
Kahn, bearded and impish, has a good reason not to mind the brevity of his appearance, though. A part-time writer with two sci-fi books to his credit, Kahn noticed that Spielberg just happened to be carrying a copy of Kahn's first volume, World Enough and Time, during filming (Kahn's agent had sent him the book months earlier). After Kahn introduced himself as the author, Spielberg began reading the book. He had just parted company with the first writer assigned to novelize Poltergeist, his other summer movie hit. "He offered me the job if I could do it in a month," says Kahn. "I jumped at the chance."
Kahn, writing 16 hours a day in longhand at the MGM offices, produced a spine-tingling tale in 25 days. While he and a typist worked late one evening, Kahn says, he even had a poltergeist experience of his own. "I was getting obsessed if not possessed," he says. It was a dark and rainy night, and Kahn had just written the line "Thunder and lightning ripped the sky." Suddenly lightning struck the building, and all the lights went out. When the lights came back on about five minutes later, Kahn says, "All the video games in the building started playing themselves. We both left immediately."
Kahn's Poltergeist novelization, which has 520,000 copies in print, led next to an offer from producer-director George Lucas to put the next Star Wars saga, Revenge of the Jedi, into novel form. While Kahn is busy finishing that book (he has, of course, seen rough cuts of the film but isn't spilling Lucas' plot), he is also pondering his future. Like his E.T. doctor colleagues, Kahn has returned to practicing medicine, but he admits that he wants to expand his writing. He hopes to do plays, novels and screenplays in addition to science fiction. "I'm an only child," he says. "I didn't have many playmates, and I had a rather extensive fantasy life. I imbued all my stuffed animals with living qualities." Now, he says, "I'm following in the tradition of doctor-writers. I see myself as a cross between Chekhov, Conan Doyle and Michael Crichton."