courtesy of Howie Cohen

The BMX Boys of E.T. 

The untold story of the bike broker and the fearless riders behind the Spielberg blockbuster and its legendary chase scene.

by Emon Hassan

Robert Cardoza, Greg “Ceppie” Maes and David Lee were five minutes late to a private screening of Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” at Culver Studios in California in 1982, months before the film would open to the public. It was the first time the three boys, hired as BMX stunt doubles for the movie, would get to see their work on a big screen. As they rushed up to the studio entrance, they came upon a locked gate and a woman holding a little girl’s hands. The woman was kicking the gates with her heels and screaming, “Let us in, my daughter’s in this movie!” The boys were convinced they had blown their chance to get in. It turned out to be Drew Barrymore’s mom having a tantrum. Her outrage and insistent pleas eventually got them all in to the screening.

As the boys quickly settled into their seats, they eagerly anticipated the bicycle scenes. None of them had any idea what role their work would play in the overall movie.

At a crucial moment during the third act (the heart-wrenching scene in which the alien lay dying, just a few feet from his earthly friend Elliott) Cardoza heard a little girl’s voice cry out just a few rows back, “Please don’t let E.T. die. Please don’t let E.T. die.” Cardoza, twenty at the time, knew then that the movie he and his seven fellow BMX riders had worked on the previous summer for two weeks (the movie they knew by the working title “A Boy’s Life”) would be a huge success. E.T.went on to become one of the highest-grossing films of all time.

Robert Cardoza (left), one of the BMX stunt riders of E.T., next to the film’s actor, Robert MacNaughton, who played Michael, Elliott’s older brother in the movie, and an unidentified woman at Culver Studios. (Courtesy of Howie Cohen)

The moment that remains seared into the minds of audiences around the world is the pivotal chase scene near the end, when Elliott, with E.T. tucked in a basket on the front of his red bike and covered in a white sheet, is followed by his 16-year-old brother Michael and their three friends, Greg (“Can’t he just beam up?”), Steve and Tyler as they outwit and outrun government officials—all the grown-ups of the world, really—and fly away.

In the coming months, as adults and kids of all ages flocked to see the blockbuster, that chase sequence inspired thousands around the world to ride BMX bikes. Such bikes, or Bicycle Motocross bikes, are designed for dirt and motocross cycling. What sets them apart from “normal” bicycles is their ability to withstand the impact and rough terrain of a motocross track as well as the gyroscopes that allow their handlebars to spin freely. One of those thousands of BMX newcomers was Chris Hoy from Edinburgh, Scotland, who later went on to become one of the most successful Olympic cyclists of all time. “I was watching E.T. when I was six years of age,” Hoy told the Telegraph in an interview when he retired from cycling earlier this year. “I’d never seen a BMX bike before and it was the scene at the end where they are getting chased by the police and they’re all hammering through the streets in their BMX bikes. And I just thought, ‘wow, I’d like to give that a go.’”

As the movie was ending and applause filled the theater, the BMX stunt kids filled with pride, waited for their names to scroll up during the end credits. They never did. None of the eight BMX stunt riders were ever credited. Apart from a couple of articles in BMX magazines, the stunt kids whose work for the chase scene launched untold thousands of BMX riders were lost to history.

Also forgotten was the story of a bicycle broker from Torrance, California, and the relatively unknown Japanese BMX brand taken under his wing in 1979.

Present at the very same screening, at Culver Studios in West L.A., was Howie Cohen, in his forties at the time. Cohen was a savvy bicycle wholesale distributor and enthusiast who jumped at an opportunity when it presented itself. His company, “Everything Bicycles,” was the only hint at the story of the boys who never appeared in the credits.

“I remember tears of happiness flowing down my cheeks,” Cohen reminisces. “The excitement of inclusion of BMX bicycles in this movie was way beyond my expectation or imagination.”

Born in 1939 in Minneapolis, Cohen rode his first tricycle when he was eighteen months old and upgraded to a two-wheeler within a couple of years. His parents, Leo Sr. and RosaBelle Cohen, opened a bicycle shop the same year he was born and always encouraged their three kids—Louise, Howie, and Leo Jr.—to take part in local cycling events. The success of the shop took the family to California, where they opened three more. While working part time in the wholesale bicycle business, Cohen, at 18, began a lifetime passion of collecting bicycle memorabilia. He still owns fifty copies of the original E.T.poster.

Meanwhile, the Kuwahara Bicycle Company, a family business launched in Osaka, Japan, in 1918, was looking to expand to the United States. Kuwahara began by selling bicycle parts wholesale. The brand eventually began exporting bikes abroad and entered the American market in 1959. The bicycles they manufactured were for brands like Apollo, Schwinn and Azuki, but they wanted to distribute a bicycle with the Kuwahara name on it.

On a fateful day in 1981, when Steve Adler, an MCA executive, stopped into Cohen’s office to inquire about using Kuwahara bicycles for a movie, the exchange was an awkward one for Adler. Cohen recalls the conversation:

Cohen: “Great, how many do you want to buy?”
Adler: “We don’t want to buy them. We want you to supply them to us.”
Cohen: “Why? Why would I do that? Every time I go to the movies I buy a ticket, which is not very often, but whenever I go nobody gives me a free seat!
Adler: “No, you don’t understand, by co-operating you have the opportunity to an exclusive license to sell the licensed bicycles after the movie.”

This piqued Cohen’s interest.

Three of five art boards, drawn by artist Ted Mayer, were provided by the studio to Howie Cohen who would use them as a guide to build twenty-five bicycles for E.T. (courtesy of Howie Cohen)

Two weeks after the initial conversation with Steve Adler, Cohen loaded up his truck with the first batch of the twenty-five Kuwahara “E.T.” bikes and asked one of his employees, Robert Cardoza, to come along with him.

Born in Torrance, California, Robert Cardoza rode his first bike when he was seven. “A bike to me was freedom. I realized early on that if I had a bike I could go anywhere,” he remembers. “Anywhere. And at that time, Torrance didn’t seem that big to me.” Sometime in the late ’70s, while riding his bike half a mile down from his house, Cardoza discovered Cohen’s shop. The two became friends and Cardoza began hanging out there, soaking up as much as he could about the high-end bicycles Cohen carried, as well as working for him in shipping and receiving.

When Cohen took Cardoza along to the studio to deliver that first batch of bicycles, Cardoza didn’t know what to expect. “I thought I was going to be the mechanic,” he recalls. It was the first time the filmmakers and the actors would “meet” the bicycles. All the bikes needed to be adjusted specifically for each young actor and this job fell to Cardoza. “We just needed to adjust seat angle, seat height, and handlebar angle,” said Cohen. “Everyone was happy.” Spielberg himself even gave one of the bikes a go.

Actor Henry Thomas riding a red Kuwahara bike that was designed for his character in E.T. (photo courtesy of Howie Cohen)

Sometime during that visit, Spielberg shared his ideas for the bicycle stunts in the movie with the young Cardoza. “I just laughed at him,” Cardoza remembers, telling the director, “There’s no way those kids will be able to do that!” Cardoza then showed Spielberg some of his own tricks on one of the Kuwahara bikes. Impressed, the director asked him if there were more riders like him.

A few days later, Kathleen Kennedy, co-producer with Spielberg on the film (her first producer credit) visited Ascot Park, a BMX track near Torrance, to pick out BMX kids capable of serving as stunt doubles for the actors in the movie. Cardoza was already on her list. Greg “Ceppie” Maes, fifteen (who lived across the street from Cardoza), David Lee, twenty, along with Grant Meyers, Chris Taylor, Duke Brickenton, and Steve Williby were cast to play specific actors based on a similarity of appearance but Kennedy still needed more stunt doubles.

Randy Cohen poses for camera while his father, Howie, talks to Steven Spielberg as they watch Robert Cardoza adjust one of the actors’ bike. (photo courtesy of Howie Cohen)

BMX cyclist Bob Haro remembers the “lucky call” that brought him to work on E.T.

Born in Pasadena, California, Haro had already won fifty motocross trophies by the time he’d turned seventeen. In 1978, he had teamed up with R. L. Osborn, son of BMX Action magazine founder Bob Osborn, to form the first freestyle BMX team in America. Haro had been working as a cartoonist and illustrator for the elder Osborn since 1976 and he’d made a name for himself, not only for his creativity with BMX and illustrations but also for his enterprising work as a designer and businessman. In short, his name was an obvious choice to “put in the hat” when recommendations were offered to the producers of E.T.

A total of eight BMX stunt bikers were cast to play the five actors in E.T. Five worked regularly while the remaining three doubled on occasion.

Like a lot of E.T. licensed products that launched after the movie, the E.T. Kuwahara bicycles sold like gangbusters. Cohen remembers working with over a thousand retailers who were ordering the Model 3003 that Elliott rode in the movie.

One of the original posters created by Howie Cohen’s company, Everything Bicycles. (courtesy of Howie Cohen).

Today, among the eight stunt riders, Haro is the only one who continued to work consistently in BMX as both a designer and rider. He is also the only one given credit on IMDb, the online film database.

David Lee left biking and moved to Florida in the ’80s, according to Cardoza. Ceppie Maes left BMX as well and now lives in California as an artist. Cardoza also left cycling for a decade and a half after he got married and moved to Palm Springs, California. He and his wife raised two kids who never became interested in biking themselves, despite his attempts to lure them with the best bikes money could buy. “They were into computers more than biking,” Cardoza says with a chuckle. Late into his thirties, after a divorce from his wife, Cardoza moved back to his childhood home in Torrance to take care of his aging parents and fix appliances. “I was the Maytag Man for a while,” he jokes.

Cardoza began riding again and now races as often as he can. “I just take my bike and go wherever I feel like going,” he says, “as far as I can.”

When the movie first came out and Cardoza told people about his involvement in E.T., the usual response he got was, “Yeah, right.” He stopped mentioning it after a while.

Howie Cohen lives in Colorado, where he is working on a “lifelong project” to archive, upload, and catalog thousands of items of bicycle memorabilia, including original merchandise from E.T. on his website, Howie the Bike Man. Cohen sells items of which he has duplicates.

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