NME AFTER PRINT: Billy Campbell remembers The Rocketeer
I’d done a couple of plays in high school (in my...um...postgraduate year). But, I had no serious thoughts of acting as a profession until after I’d left my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, and gone to live with my father in Chicago. While in commercial art school, a friend invited me to join an acting studio he was part of. The bug bit me, and a year or so later, I followed after my then-girlfriend, a classmate from the studio, who’d moved out to Hollywood some months earlier.
But it was in the years before I left Charlottesville for Chicago I had a ‘job’ at a local cinema replicating posters for upcoming movies on their big picture windows. I was in love with films, obsessed. I frequented the place enough I’d become friendly with management and so struck a deal: all the movies I wanted in exchange for my tempera-painted ‘masterpieces’ on their windows (I remember the one for Disney’s Black Hole being a particular mess). It was there, I think, that I saw Sergio Leone’s epic Once Upon a Time in America and first took note of Jennifer Connelly.
I next took note of her in-person on a Disney soundstage in 1990. On the day of her screen test for The Rocketeer. I already had the job, itself a small miracle, and was now astonished to be introduced to the young lass I’d seen so many years ago on a screen in Charlottesville. Joe Johnston, the director, was equally smitten and we were in total, a nearly wordless agreement that she was absolute, without a doubt, Jenny Blake.
I was even more astonished to meet Alan Arkin and was equally smitten as he was not only perhaps my favorite film star of all time. But, eventually, proved to be one of my favorite people of all time, full stop. You can imagine, if you’re not already in the business, that not every relationship is as warm and loving between actors as it may appear onscreen. It can be a bitter disappointment to meet and work with someone you’ve admired from afar. I can tell you. Uncommon, in my experience, though it does happen.
But, that was as far from the case as could be with Alan. And Jen. The shooting as you may imagine the stuff of dreams for a young, mostly directionless, rugby bum from C’ville, who never believed a move to Hollywood would amount to much. But there I was. The lead in my first film - a love letter to the great, dreamy days of cinema - matinee idols dashing across the silver screen - doing most of my stunt work, and falling in love to boot.
I can’t say which of the scenes was my favorite to shoot. The whole film was a kind of honeyed bliss for me, every scene a first of its kind, every actor perfectly cast and a joy (or at least fascinating) to work with - so much happiness, so many fun scenes. One in particular was no less fun for frightening the pants off me.
Joe wanted to know before we started shooting if I’d go up in a plane to do the opening air-show sequence. It may tonight add to your enjoyment of the film to know that, at the time, I was deathly afraid of flying (thanks to my dear old mum).
Not for a millisecond did I think of refusing.
Craig Hosking was our aerial stunt coordinator, one of the world’s finest stunt pilots, and one of several working on the film. He and I flew in an open cockpit biplane, a three-seater, with everything rear of the two forward cockpits tricked out to resemble the Geebee; yellow paint, decals, a fake canopy, and all. Craig piloted from the front cockpit and operated a rear-facing camera mounted in the middle of the cockpit, piloting, and shooting me all at the same time.
I was, however, unexpectedly unable- over the roar of the engine- to hear him on the one-way sewn into my helmet as we taxied for takeoff. I was praying I’d remember when to operate the necessary controls (choke, tail-wheel lock, etc.), which were not redundant because my cockpit was— in all sane circumstances— the one from which the plane was usually piloted! So I was somewhat preoccupied and quite lucky to get any acting done. After a couple of days of this, some light (for him, though for me horrifying) aerobatics, and a few low-level passes over the runway, about 5 feet off the ground at a couple of hundred mph, and I haven’t been afraid of anything since. I even took up hang gliding.
So many memories: Alan’s wickedly dry sense of humor (a gem of a human being as anyone who’s ever worked with him will attest); falling off the Zeppelin for real; practical jokes getting out of hand (never try to out-prank Jim Arnett and his stunt crew, you’ll end a long night of shooting with your Jeep wrapped in chain, padlocked, 40 miles from home); hanging out on set with Dave Stevens, who created and drew the brilliant original comic (thrilling for a kid who wanted, and still kinda does, to draw comics); late nights at the hotel bar in Santa Maria, listening to stunt pilots laconically relate tales of vintage Mustangs folding upon them in mid-air. The kind of stories that go best with cold beer, which only washes loose more stories. I can report with some authority that when Peevy is about to fasten the Geebee’s canopy over his protégés head, tell him to "Be careful up there," and receives the jaunty reply, "Let’s make some history!"...that Cliff, at that moment, is well and truly hungover as blazes.
Alan and I have been pals since. I’ve adored him since that day. We see each other on occasion, as often as work and life on different continents will allow, so hardly ever. I was once, years after the film, being grilled by a customs agent at an airport in Arizona (or maybe it was NM?) when a distinctive voice called out to him from far enough away to be heard by seemingly everyone in the terminal, "Don’t believe a word he says, the kid’s a compulsive liar." Of course, it was Alan.
We both spoke with Dave Stevens in his final days and still miss him. Dave drew himself into his creation, he was the original Cliff, so it made sense that we bore more than a passing resemblance. We might have been brothers if you saw us in the street, and I know from him that he was deeply happy with the film. He was a talented artist and a kind, kind soul.
Jennifer and I were inseparable for years, then in touch for many more. Life happens, though; marriage, kids, work, new vistas, and reasons for living. We haven’t spoken in ages, but I’ll always treasure the memory of the bright, giggly gal with a sad streak, whom Peevy and I rescued from the evil clutches of Neville Sinclair, and of the time we, all of us, spent together. I hope she feels the same way.
I’ve seen the movie a handful of times in the 30 years since its release. It holds up well, I think, and it’s the kind of film that bears rewatching. A great one for your kids, your nephews and nieces, for any kind of kid, of any age. It has a kind of sweet spirit that moves me every time I see it, that would move me, I’m sure, even if it weren’t an actual part of my life.
If you’re seeing it again tonight, you likely feel the same way. If you’re seeing it for the first time, well then I hope you fall in love too.
Billy Campbell - 5 May 2022