He's in the Mail
Still, Macnaughton admits it would take a lot of Reese's Pieces to lead from where he is now to where he was nearly 20 years ago, acting opposite the big screen's most beloved alien. Scoring the role in E.T. "was just fortunate," says Macnaughton. "I always felt like I had just been dropped in there, like a lottery winner." Following the film's astronomical box office success, Macnaughton found himself in the glare of an international spotlight, greeting Prince Charles and Princess Diana at the film's London premiere. "We had a real genuine talk," Macnaughton recalls with amazement. "Prince Charles said he laughed so much he cried."
But the thrill of fame soon waned for Macnaughton. Disappointed with the post-E.T. scripts he was being offered, he took roles on TV and in a few small films before moving to Phoenix in 1994 to pursue theater work there. Although he still receives residual payments from video sales and TV broadcasts of the movie, "it's not enough to live on," he says. So, five years ago, he signed up for a three-week post office shift during the busy Christmas period. Macnaughton has been hauling 70-lb. bags of mail ever since.
In fact, most of his fellow postal workers weren't even aware of the former celebrity in their midst until a colleague tipped them off more than a year after he'd taken the job. "I took another look, everybody took another look, and there he was," recalls Robert Leon, 32, a mail handler who works alongside Macnaughton. "He was real nonchalant about it."
Before nabbing his ticket to stardom in E.T., Macnaughton flaunted his acting chops with siblings Kathleen, now 28, and Craig, 32, and other neighborhood kids while he was growing up in Irvine, Calif. "They'd put together a little epic in the garage," says Macnaughton's mother, Millie, 59, an assistant preschool teacher. (His father, Bruce, who was a management consultant, died in 1998.)
After appearances in a string of plays, Macnaughton auditioned for director Steven Spielberg at age 14 and landed in E.T. alongside Henry Thomas and a then-6-year-old Drew Barrymore. "She was always the center of attention, though not a brat at all," recalls Macnaughton. "Me and Henry picked on her, just like she was our sister. Once we pretended she was invisible, and that upset her more than anything."
Indeed, on the E.T. set "everybody was kind of like a family," notes Dee Wallace Stone, who played the single mother of the three onscreen siblings. "All the kids hung out together. I remember Robert being very outgoing and mannerly. He was a nice kid."
Now Macnaughton has a kid of his own, 3-year-old Noah, with his fiancée, Jennifer Butler, 30. (Macnaughton and Butler, who were introduced by her sister in 1993, plan to wed next September.) The pair recently showed Noah his father's famous film. "Noah loved it," says Butler, who is studying to be a nurse's assistant. "He said, 'That's Daddy when he was a little boy!' "
For his part, "I like watching the movie," notes Macnaughton, "but I find it distracting to watch myself." And while fans who recognize him now often can't place his face ("People think they went to school with me," he says), he doesn't begrudge his former costar Barrymore, back on the big screen in Charlie's Angels, her superstar status. "I wasn't really on the same level as her—I never was," says Macnaughton candidly. "She's a star, and I never saw myself as a star at all. I always saw myself as an actor who was lucky."
Edmund Newton in Phoenix