Known to millions of early-'80s filmgoers as Elliot, the young boy who befriends a leathery, long-necked alien, Henry Thomas rocketed to fame with his starring role in Steven Spielberg's 1982 blockbuster E.T. the Extra-terrestial and then, just as quickly, plummeted out of sight. Unlike countless other child actors who seem to fall off the face of the earth with the onset of their first pimple, however, Thomas remained somewhat active in low-profile projects while maturing in the relative obscurity of his native Texas. When he eventually re-emerged on the big screen in the mid-'90s, he did so in a variety of projects that emphasized his versatility, until he was granted a sort of second coming, with his acclaimed supporting turn as a wandering cowboy in Billy Bob Thornton's 2000 epic All the Pretty Horses.
By the time he was cast in E.T. the Extra-terrestial, Thomas had already made an impressive screen debut as Sissy Spacek's son in the 1981 drama Raggedy Man, which also starred Sam Shepard. A native of San Antonio, where he was born the son of a hydraulics mechanic on September 9, 1971, he returned to Texas after all of the hype surrounding E.T. the Extra-terrestial, acting in film and on TV from time to time while attending school and generally leading the life of a regular kid. In 1989, he appeared in his most high-profile project since E.T., playing the chivalrous young man who dispatches Colin Firth's titular ne'er-do-well in Valmont, Milos Forman's adaptation of Choderlos DeLaclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Although the film was nowhere near as successful as Stephen Frears' adaptation of the same work the previous year, it did give Thomas exposure in one of his first adult roles.
Substantially greater exposure followed for the actor in 1994, when he was cast as one of Anthony Hopkins' three sons in Edward Zwick's Legends of the Fall. Co-starring with Hopkins, Brad Pitt, and Aidan Quinn, Thomas was on the screen for a relatively brief length of time, but the popularity of the lavish, big-budget film did allow the young actor to make an impression on audiences who hadn't seen him since E.T. He subsequently switched gears to portray a troubled drifter in the independent production Niagara Niagara (1997), in which he co-starred with Robin Tunney, and then returned to large budgets and lavish production values when he won a major role in the most hotly anticipated project to date of his adult career, Thornton's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses. Featuring stunning Southwestern cinematography and equally photogenic turns by co-stars Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz, the film cast Thomas as Lacey Rawlins, Damon's best friend. Although the film came in for very mixed reviews, most critics were in agreement about Thomas' wry, low-key performance, with some even asserting it was the best thing about the picture. Despite the adulation surrounding his work, Thomas kept a low profile, playing in his band the Blueheelers and spending time in Italy to shoot Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York (2001) alongside the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson, and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Thomas continued to work throughout the 2000's on a wide variety of projects, completing at least a few films a year, including the horror film Dead Birds and the comedy Tennis, Anyone?.... In 2007, he signed up to star alongside Anne Heche, Carrie Fisher, and David Boreanaz in the Alan Cumming-directed black comedy Suffering Man's Charity.