Ann Robinson Interview on ‘War of the Worlds,’ Spielberg’s Nod to Her in ‘E.T.’ & More
Those three long, curled, red, alien fingers snuck up behind and gently touched Ann Robinson’s shoulder in 1953’s The War of the Worlds, her scream was heard ’round the world. It’s a scene any fan of the film will always remember — and it only took the then 22-year-old Robinson, who was playing Sylvia Van Buren, two takes to belt it out.
On the first take the soundman wasn’t prepared for the shockingly long shrill, so Robinson had to do it again so he could capture it. Fast forward 50 years to Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation of War of the Worlds and Robinson found herself laughing this time, as Spielberg jokingly evoked the same scene — she was on set doing a cameo — placing his three fingers on her shoulder.
We caught up with the endearing Robinson and her adoring son at Milwaukee’s PopCon in 2019, when she was just shy of 90 [the movie legend turns 94 today! (May 25, 2023)] — where she shared some of her memories of the film, meeting Steven Spielberg and his loving gesture, and more.
It was impossible to predict the cultural significance the film would have when you first read the script back in the 1950s, but what went through your mind?
Well, getting the script for the first time, I was so unfamiliar with extraterrestrials. It was all so new to me. I had read the book, but a long time ago, so I really didn’t remember what War of the Worlds was all about. I grew up with George Pal and the Puppetoons, so being able to work with George Pal was a thrill of my life — just to meet the man. And Les Tremayne, who played Maj. Gen. Mann in the film. Les was on radio when I was growing up, as Mr. First Nighter, so his voice was so familiar to me. I got to meet all my icons and people I loved. As I got into the script, well, then it was more understandable. And working with Gene Barry was rather exciting. I just really didn’t know what I was getting into and how lucky I was. … The very first scene we shot was the very last scene when Gene Barry and I find each other in the church. And I had no idea what we had done before. Not a clue.
You didn’t have the whole script at that point?
No. I didn’t know what I’d done. I just had the script for that scene. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. And then suddenly we run into each other’s arms and I’m sobbing because we found each other. Not knowing that we were even lost.
How old were you when you filmed The War of the Worlds?
Twenty-two. I’m 89 now. I’m gonna be 90, and 65 years has gone by in a wink of an eye, so anybody out there reading this, pay attention to your life. It slips by very quickly. [Editor’s note: Ann is 94 now]
So after the movie came out what was the response?
Well, it’s a surprise to everyone. They weren’t expecting it. And actually, when we had the sneak preview, people came out of the theater very quiet. They weren’t thrilled, they were nervous about it. Really, it was unusual. There were a few things edited. One scene when we’re trying to escape and I’ve also just screamed and cried because there was blood on my scarf. Gene Barry obviously says something to me like, “we’ll get out of this.” The audience fell apart laughing. So that was edited. I remember that there were a couple of things that were edited so they wouldn’t find any humor in what was going on. So it didn’t look like we were gonna be saved at all. Cecil B. DeMille owned the film and had an awful lot to do with this movie. And he was on the set an awful lot. He and George Pal were nose-to-nose together talking about it. I was just lucky, just so lucky that I was chosen for this because it’s lasted all these years and it’s gonna last another 65 years.
And you were in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation starring Tom Cruise, as well.
It’s Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the original story. He loved War of the Worlds. It’s one of his favorite movies. And growing up as an older man, or younger man, he fell in love with Sylvia. And my name, Sylvia, ends up in almost every one of Steven Spielberg’s movies. Somewhere some girl is named Sylvia.
Really? Did he tell you the story behind that?
No, not at all. We just noticed it, but he did tell me about E.T. He asked me if I’ve seen E.T. and I said, “Of course.” He said the scene in the closet with little E.T. and Elliott, when E.T. comes up behind him and puts his hand on his shoulder, he said, “I dedicated that to you.” Isn’t that wonderful? I swear, I mean my heart just stopped. I get just sort of chills thinking about it, talking about it. I mean it was such an honor. He loved Sylvia and he loved War of the Worlds so much. He said he just had to. People called it a remake and it’s not a remake. The only thing that’s the least bit familiar might be like that anaconda-type thing that goes through the basement.
Did you think back to the days when you were making the movie that it would stand the test of time? That this would be such a culturally significant film?
Only because of George Pal. Because he had done Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, and the fact that he was such a dedicated man. Nothing was science fiction to him. It was all science fact. And I knew, I laughed and I asked him that, too. I said, “Did you know it would?” “Of course I knew it was going to be, of course I knew.” It was a wonderful surprise that it’s lasted … They spent a lot of money on this movie with Cecil B. DeMille owning it, he was darn sure that it was going to be a success. Plus our director Byron Haskin. He was a war correspondent and a cinematographer in World War II. He filmed World War II. So he knew exactly how to make a war picture. That’s another reason this is so successful. He knew war.
Did you save anything from the film?
No. I wish I did. I had a serious fire seven years ago and all my memorabilia was destroyed.
You’ve also had a remarkable history on television in the ’60s, as well as in the movie Dragnet and as a stunt rider. Can you tell us about some of that?
I know. I did Rocky Jones, Space Ranger. I had a wonderful time on Fury with Bobby Diamond. I could ride my own horse and not fall off. That’s probably why I got hired for a lot of Westerns. [She’s pictured above on the set of Dragnet with (from left) director and star Jack Webb, producer Stanley Meyer, Ann Robinson, and technical advisor Margaret Groth in 1954]