‘The Rocketeer’ Star Billy Campbell Reflects on a Superhero Masterpiece as It Turns 30 [Interview]

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This month marks a milestone for one of the most underrated Disney films. The Rocketeer arrived in theaters in the summer of 1991, delivering a 1930s-era adventure of a pilot who stumbles upon a jetpack being sought after by gangsters, FBI agents, Nazis, and millionaire industrialist Howard Hughes. Though the film failed to take off at the box office, its fans are legion (and this writer counts himself among them).

As the film turns 30, /Film sat down virtually with Billy Campbell, the actor who made his debut as Cliff Secord, the Rocketeer himself. Talking from his home of Norway, Campbell discussed the experience of making the film, conquering his fear of flying, his love of Master and Commander, and much more.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

First of all, describe the process of auditioning to play Cliff Secord. 

That was funny because [when] the audition came up, I was working at the Southern California Renaissance Faire doing Taming of the Shrew. So I had long hair and a beard. This was pretty much my natural state of being. I sort of skimmed the script. I went to the meeting, and I think they wondered what the hell I was doing in the room. It was like I was a feral animal.

I never heard back from them, and I didn’t think any more about the movie. Some months later, the Faire was over and they called and said they wanted to see me again for this movie. I took my head out of my ass and I actually read the script. And I [said], “Wait a minute. This is pretty cool!” At some point, I realized there was a graphic novel. I went to Golden Apple Comics in L.A., and I picked up the graphic novel and started thumbing through it.

I think I cursed out loud in the store because I was like, “Holy shit, I could actually get this movie.” At the time, I looked very much like the character. That’s because Dave Stevens based the character on himself, and we might’ve been brothers. I got all excited. I went away to shave my beard and cut my hair. They’d seen everybody in town. I mean people that you wouldn’t [think]. They couldn’t find their person. They were doing screen tests and I guess they had to hire a crew to do a screen test and they didn’t have enough screen tests to fill out the day.

So Joe [Johnston, the film’s director] just put his finger down the list and said, “What about Billy Campbell? We haven’t seen him in a few months.” I walked in the soundstage, and one of the first people I saw when I walked through the door was Joe. He did a double-take when he saw me, and my heart leapet. I was like, “I really have a chance of getting this.” I screen-tested and they loved me. And then they offered the part to Johnny Depp.

Everybody was hot and bothered about him. Johnny always wanted an offbeat career. So when they offered the movie to Johnny, my agent had his office right next door to Johnny’s agent at ICM. My agent called me and said that Johnny’s agent was about to have a meeting with him about whether he should do The Rocketeer or not. And he said, “She invited me in the room!” If anybody could talk anyone into or out of anything, it was my agent. He talked Johnny out of doing the movie. He argued that The Rocketeer was a standard studio hero movie, blah blah blah. So I got the movie.

Aside from looking like Cliff, what else appealed to you about playing the character?

Oh, easy. The time period. I’ve always been a sucker for period movies. If I had my choice, I’d never do anything but period pieces.

I was going to ask about that, knowing you’ve been in shows like Crime Story and films like Gettysburg. I assumed there had to be some appeal for you in period pieces.

Before I ever became an actor, I grew up in Virginia. So running around on battlefields and stuff. For my 17th or 18th birthday, my mom took me to a Civil War reenactment. I was blown away. I was like, “Oh my God, it’s life-size playing with soldiers.” Except you get to actually be the soldier. I remember standing behind the rope next to the battlefield back on one side next to an artillery piece. The guys who were working the artillery piece were, between shots, having conversations about their farms back in Georgia. They were totally in the roles and I found it so exciting. So I started reenacting. That’s some of my first times enjoying acting. And then I got into the theater program in my high school.

You had a fear of flying going into this film. What was it like having to deal with that head-on as part of the production? 

That was really something. I inherited a fear of flying from my mom. When it came time to do the movie, I had no thought of it. I thought it was going to be green-screen. And most of the stuff where the Rocketeer is flying was. But when we were in pre-production, Joe came to me and said, “How would you feel about doing the flying stuff in the beginning of the movie, in the Gee Bee [plane], for real?” Of course, my insides turned to water, but I stayed calm on the outside and I told him, “Oh yeah, sure, that’d be great.”

They tricked out a three-cockpit biplane. They painted everything from the back, the rear cockpit yellow, and tricked it out to look like the Gee Bee, put a canopy over it and everything. They stuck a camera in the middle cockpit facing backwards. Craig Hosking [aerial coordinator] was in the front cockpit, flying the plane and operating the camera. The nerve-wracking thing was that the plane is typically flown from the rear cockpit. So there are some non-redundant controls that are only in the rear cockpit. And these are things that they coached me on. But if they don’t happen properly in the proper sequence, things go pear-shaped.

They’d sewn a little receiver into my headpiece, my leather helmet. We tested it and I could hear him fine, but we tested it when the plane was not running. And then we went for our first flight, and I couldn’t hear a bloody thing. I was super-nervous, if I was going to remember to do all the things I was supposed to do, in the proper sequence. But I did, and we survived.

The Rocketeer animated

So, you got over that fear?

Yeah. After that, I was almost completely over it. I still don’t like to fly on a big commercial airplane, but I used to be a sweaty-palm flier. Now, it’s whatever. I would prefer not to fly at all in an airplane. But I get on them whenever I need to. I don’t mind heights or flying per se. In fact, after the film, I did a pseudo-documentary – it really was like an advertisement for The Rocketeer – on flying. One of the segments was on hang-gliding, so I went down to Torrey Pines in San Diego and went tandem hang-gliding with a guy off the cliffs. I was instantly hooked. I bought myself a hang glider, and I’ve been hang-gliding off and on ever since. I have no problem walking off a mountain with a hang glider on my back. I just don’t like being in a big airplane with an engine running and me not at the controls.

That’s understandable. Regarding the stunt work, how much of that was you as opposed to stunt teams?

It was a great experience. They ended up letting me do a lot of my own stunt work on the ground. There was some magnificent stunt work in the air with people sliding off the ends of wings and that stuff. Early on, one night we were shooting the sequence at the top of the [Nazi] zeppelin. It was when I was fighting with Lothar on top of the zeppelin, before it starts exploding. He hits me in the head with a pipe wrench, and I go sliding off the end of the zeppelin. And then I come around the other side.

So when we were rehearsing that piece, we were doing it half-speed. He hit me and I did a little somersault, and we’re on the top of this zeppelin piece, which is shaped like a Quonset hut. The apex of it is about, I want to say, 50 feet off the ground or something. So when I do my little roll-away from Lothar at half-speed, no big deal. I ended up sitting on my butt. Then we got up and we’re going to shoot it. So then we do it full speed, and I do my roll and it takes me further because it’s a full-speed roll. I start sliding down the side. There was nothing there for me except some dolly tracks at the bottom of where I was sliding. I instinctively got to my feet and ran diagonally as I was going down the Quonset hut, because there was a half-deflated crash pad. Not in my trajectory, but I could, by running diagonally, sort of make my way over. I turned and fell backward into the crash pad, and removed my helmet so I could see what I was doing. The first person by my side was Jim Arnett, our stunt coordinator, and his eyes were big as dinner plates. You know, there was the lead of the movie sliding off the Quonset hut 50 feet high onto dolly tracks. If I didn’t break my leg or legs, I was for sure going to sprain something. I’d be surprised if he didn’t soil his underwear.

I was full of adrenaline. I turned to him and I said, “Scared the shit out of you, didn’t I, Jimbo?” He’s like, “You sure did!” But everything was fine. After that, he started letting me down all my own stunts, because he felt he could trust me. And the fellow they had for me was fine, but we didn’t match very well physically. It’s always better to have the real person doing them if you can. So I got to do a lot of the rest of this stuff. And that was great. It was like an old-fashioned movie. I have to say, my first two films – The Rocketeer and Bram Stoker’s Dracula – both very old-fashioned movies, doing most of our own stunt work. I felt like an old-time movie actor.

Overall, what was it like for your first film to involve action sequences, some with green-screen effects, with a special effects craftsman like Joe Johnston as director? 

I enjoyed it. I love Joe. I had to get a little used to Joe, because Joe is a technical director. I didn’t have a lot of films under my belt. I had some TV under my belt, and that was more like a sausage factory. This was my first time doing something where you had multiple takes and things were done at a more relaxed pace. I’ve never been one that needed coddling of any kind. If things are going along fine, you don’t hear too much from Joe. You know, Alan [Arkin, who plays Peevy] helped me get used to that. He was like, “You’re doing great. Joe doesn’t need to be reassuring. Take it from me, when you don’t hear anything from Joe, that is him reassuring you. Because you’re doing things right.” And I was like, “OK, that’s fantastic.”

But when you ask Joe something, when you do need help, he’s right there. He doesn’t give a lot of hoity-toity direction. He’s to the point. “This is what I’d like to see.” I tell you something, there have been many times since when I have prayed or wished that it could be Joe. He’s just my cup of tea, against which I have measured many lesser cups of tea over the years.

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What’s it actually like to wear the Rocketeer outfit? In terms of moving around on the set and visibility for you during the sequences.

It was quite comfortable. I mean, the whole costume was very comfortable except running in the rocket pack. The rocket had a tendency to jiggle on the back. They tried to tighten it up, but there was no way it wasn’t going to jiggle. So that wasn’t the most comfortable thing. And the helmet had a tendency to get a little moist inside. And I could not see a lot while I was wearing the helmet. At almost every opportunity, the helmet came off when it could. And they want to see your face, not the helmet. The helmet is great for disguising the fact that it wasn’t me at various times. But overall, the costume was much more comfortable than you would imagine. And I would imagine more than many modern superhero costumes are.

You mentioned Alan Arkin. One of the many joys of the film is its cast – Arkin, Timothy Dalton, Paul Sorvino, etc. What was it like to work with such a stacked cast?

Oh, it was a complete headspin. It was fantastic. I enjoyed working with all of them, some for different reasons. Alan is one of the sweetest people you’d ever want to meet on this earth. We’re still fast friends. We don’t get to see each other very often, but in the summer of 2019, I was in Canada with my wife and kids, and we drove up to Cape Breton to spend some time with Alan and his partner. It was just head-spinning. It was amazing. There was Timothy Dalton, just a perfect gentleman and a lovely person to work with. I didn’t get to work with him nearly as much as I would’ve wanted to. Paul Sorvino is a strong cup of tea and, I’ll say, highly entertaining. And all the character actors – I mean, Margo Martindale! It was just fantastic.

I’ve seen the film many times, but my favorite scene is – speaking of Paul Sorvino – the scene where Cliff reveals to his character that Neville Sinclair is a Nazi, causing the mobster to shift allegiances. That scene’s grown more resonant over time. In the moment, making that scene, was there any sense of how that would play?

It is one of the best little moments, out of many in the film. Just that look they [Sorvino and a federal agent played by Ed Lauter] share when they’re firing their machine guns in the same direction. And “You know, I may be a crook, but I’m a hundred percent American.” It’s just fantastic. I love it. But I can’t remember that there was…when you get down to it, they’re all just actors. And there’s so many logistics and the clock is ticking. You know, shooting time is running out. It was thrilling, of course. But I can’t say that element in particular was at the top of my thrill list. Just by virtue of the fact that I was starring in this amazing film, my first film, and we were at Griffith Park Observatory at night, shooting with all these lights. The whole thing was just amazing.

Was there a favorite scene for you in the making of the film?

Honestly, I can’t say that there is. I might as well start at the beginning of the film. I just love the amazing score, and the way the film starts with the hangar doors being pushed open, the silhouettes of the guys pushing the doors open. The plane coming out of it. Of all the things in the film, I think that it has maybe one of the best beginnings to a film I’ve ever seen. It builds so wonderfully and the action starts right away. And it’s very obvious that the planes are actually flying and it’s not computer-generated imagery. 30 years later, it just holds up so bloody well.

If I had to pick something, I think the first 10 minutes of The Rocketeer is akin to the first 10 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which Joe also worked on. I remember when I first saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, from the very beginning to the point when he rolls out of the cave and then suddenly it’s quiet and all those spears are pointed towards his face…just the best 10 minutes of film time. I remember I was whooping when I first saw it. To me, the first 10 minutes of The Rocketeer feels the same way.

I can’t argue that. You mentioned Coppola’s Dracula was your next film. What other impact was there on your career of having starred in this?

I’m pretty sure I got Dracula because of The Rocketeer. Because the film had not opened when I got Dracula. I’m sure they were banking on Rocketeer being bigger than it was. I don’t think I would have got to Dracula otherwise. But then Rocketeer opened and it didn’t do the business that Disney had wanted. You know how it is in the business. You’re only as hot as the last thing you did. But the impact on my life was maximal. I fell in love with JC [Jennifer Connelly, who played Cliff’s girlfriend Jenny Blake], and we were together for five years after that. That was life-changing.

I have a couple lifelong friendships out of it. Alan Arkin and a couple of others. It’s funny – I was saying this to somebody the other day. Films are like a living, breathing yearbook in a way. Do you know what I mean? You can open your old high school yearbooks and memories come flooding back. When you put in a movie and it was a whole section of your life, it’s pretty amazing. It was a huge, formative thing for me. To have that be my first film and to be such a wonderful experience, it’s amazing.

I mean, my first film was almost Die Hard 2. I was almost one of the terrorists. In fact, I was cast and I was at the studio doing wardrobe fittings. My agents pulled me out of the film because they thought the TV season was going to be much better for me. That didn’t turn out to be the case, but if that had not happened, I may not have been part of The Rocketeer. And then my first film would’ve just been some tiny bit part as a terrorist in Die Hard 2, [and] I don’t even really care that much for Die Hard 2.

Rocketeer animated series

You alluded to the film not doing as well as Disney wanted. When did you get that sense of the film not being the success they were hoping for? 

I guess I understood that to be the case within the first several days of the film opening. I didn’t pay all that much attention to it, because I was going onto Dracula and other stuff. I’m sure I was a bit disappointed at the time. There had been other offers on other films which I had decided not to do. I was a little surprised by it, though not in retrospect.

There were a few things that happened. One, we didn’t get our Roger Rabbit opening, which we were supposed to have. A Roger Rabbit short where Roger Rabbit goes off to World War I or something like that. And we opened in the two weeks between Terminator 2 and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. There were no box office draws in the leading roles, and it’s a period film.

Several months after, I ran into a guy working at Disney in the advertising department. And he took me aside and said, “I really got to tell you, we dropped the ball.” He went on for a couple of minutes to tell me how he thought that the whole advertising was misconceived. Jeffrey Katzenberg had this notion of the film being kind of adult or something. In the beginning of the campaign, there was this Art Deco poster, which is a beautiful poster, but…who under the age of 35 gives a shit about Art Deco? It wasn’t until too late that they started coming up with other posters. Anyway, it was a perfect storm of circumstances that conspired to make the movie not as profitable as Disney would have hoped. From what I heard, it wasn’t even a box office failure. It just was not as profitable as they hoped. And they decided to call it a loss.

Maybe I’m a rare case – I’m 36 and that poster has always been burned in my brain.

I love that poster!

When did you get the sense that, even if it wasn’t a smash, The Rocketeer was inspiring passion among its fans? 

It would’ve been years afterwards. And collectively over the years. It has been a steady dribble of people saying how their parents had taken them to see The Rocketeer when they were 10 years old and how much they loved it. That happens to this day.

I think the most amusing story happened to me 7 or 8 years ago. I was in San Diego, doing a play at the Old Globe. I was out at a pub one evening with some old rugby enemies. We’re all fairly long in the tooth and we’re in this big, boisterous pub. And there’s a table with pretty beefy, young, rowdy guys. You keep them on your radar, right? If for no other reason than you want to know when and which direction to run away if something happens.

I remember going to the restroom and noticing one or two of them looking in my direction with what I thought were antagonistic looks. But nothing happened. I went back to my group and after another beer or two, they fall off the radar. Then my buddy is looking past me with big eyes. And a hand comes on my shoulder. I look up and it’s one of these guys. And he says with the sweetest voice, “Excuse me, but are you the Rocketeer?”

And I say, “Why yes, I am!” I was so relieved. He said, I shit you not, “This is my platoon. I just want to say that you are the reason I’m a Navy SEAL.” His father had taken him to see The Rocketeer when he was 10 years old. And it was during that movie that he had the feeling that he wanted to be a hero of some sort. And that led directly to him joining the Navy and becoming a Navy SEAL. We sent them drinks, they sent us drinks. I’m still friendly with a couple of them all these years later. I kept a single souvenir from the movie, a menu from the Bulldog Cafe with a call sheet stuffed in the back of it. I wish I had hung onto at least the call sheet. But I gave it to that Navy SEAL for his birthday. To see a Navy SEAL shed tears was pretty fun.

That sounds like a great present. Aside from fan encounters, there was the animated Rocketeer show on Disney Junior on which you appeared, and rumors of a possible live-action revival. Why do you think the film endures still?

As of yet, nothing’s happened. To be honest, I don’t know if anything will happen. What I do know is that the film endures, and the reason it has such a long-lasting appeal, I think, is its spirit. It has a really sweet spirit. That more than anything is the reason for its longevity. I hope they do another something but I also hope they respect the spirit of the original. I can only imagine that unless you get the right people involved and do it properly, that it’s almost bound to be a disappointment.

I agree. I love the movie, and have read the graphic novels, so I know there’s other stories that could be told. But I think of current blockbusters using CGI so often, and I worry. One of the best parts of The Rocketeer are the practical effects. 

I hate CGI. I mean, I can’t say I hate CGI with a blanket. There are times when CGI is brilliant, but that’s mainly when you don’t know it’s there. It’s wonderful for erasing wires and stuff like that. Take Master and Commander, right? What a fricking wonderful film that is. The boat is in the middle of the ocean in that fantastic storm sequence, where they have to cut away the mizzenmast. I mean, you believe that ship is out there in the middle of the storming ocean. And that’s CGI. You can’t tell where the real stuff ends and the CGI begins. When the ship shoots at them from the fog bank and they’re all on deck, and Russell Crowe shouts “Get down!” Everybody dives to the deck and shit is flying all over the place. A lot of that is practical, but then they’ve put in some extra stuff flying that you don’t know where it is. That is maybe the best example I have ever seen of CGI done well and done properly.

But take Pearl Harbor, for instance. Michael Bay thinks, “All right, let’s have this piece of metal from an explosion come towards the camera, and six inches past the camera.” And you’re like, “Fuck off.” You know for a fact that’s a CGI piece of metal, because they’re never going to pass a piece of metal, nor can they figure out how to, that close to a camera crew. But no, it’s “cool” because it passes close to the camera. It’s just bullshit.

One of the smartest things Peter Weir did in Master and Commander was, when the two ships come and start shooting at each other – he pops way, way out and you see them both. The noise is diminished because you’re so far away. It subliminally tells you that what you’re seeing is dangerous because we’ve taken you away from it. As opposed to having cannonballs pass right by the camera, which is not as dangerous. You know damn well that real cannonballs are not passing close to the camera. Sorry, that’s my soapbox. I can’t stand CGI. I love old movies with practical effects and handmade cityscapes and rocket ships made out of who knows what. I love it.

Rocketeer animated series

I’m right there with you. 30 years later, looking back on its legacy, how does The Rocketeer stand out for you?

Well, really in all the ways that we talked about. It was this wonderful, seminal moment in my career and in my life. It’s immensely gratifying that something so seminal in my life is also something that is so well-loved by so many people.

Really, that’s it. I’m happy that so many people love it and it means so much. But that’s kind of an abstract thing for me until it becomes real when people tell me about it. The main feeling that I have about it is personal. It was just a wonderful moment in my life that led to so many things.

Last question. You mentioned opening right after Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It feels like things are full circle now, as you’re starring in a pilot, National Parks, at ABC that Kevin Costner co-wrote and produced. What can you tell readers about this role?

Kevin is producing it through his company and he also co-wrote the script. It’s set in the National Parks Service in the U.S. The national parks have rangers who keep things in order. But you also have the ISB, the Investigative Services Branch. They’re federal agents. There’s an awful lot of actual crime that goes on in the national parks. All that wilderness is very attractive to people who want to do things away from the prying eyes of the law. So when bad things happen and park rangers are not quite qualified to completely deal with it, they call in the ISB.

Hopefully that becomes more than just a pilot. 

We’re still waiting to hear. And I think they have to tell us something by the end of this month.

Well, this has been an absolute joy. The Rocketeer is one of my favorite movies. I can’t claim to have as meaningful a story as the Navy SEAL you met, but it’s been a big touchstone for me since I was a kid so this means a lot talking with you.

It’s been my pleasure. It’s a never-ending pleasure to talk about it. I’m actually going to write it [the June 21st anniversary] down in my notebook so that I can send a couple of people, Alan and Joe and some other people, a note to thank them for all the years of joy.

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