Interview on Billy Campbell about the movie The Rocketeer in 2019
Check out our exclusive interview with the star of Disney’s 1991 movie The Rocketeer, Billy Campbell. Billy was born and raised in Charlottesville, Virginia and still returns to the area to visit friends and family. In his words, Billy’s “dream of becoming a professional actor” came true with the lead role of Cliff Secord in The Rocketeer. Join us this Sunday, February 17 at 2:00 PM for Paramount at the Movies Presents: Disney’s The Rocketeer. CLICK HERE to purchase your tickets now.
Continue reading to learn more about Billy Campbell’s experience shooting The Rocketeer.
“In the years before I left Charlottesville for Chicago, I had a ‘job’ at the cinema which used to be next to Kmart on Hydraulic Road (right behind what is now Whole Foods) painting posters for upcoming movies on their big picture windows. I was in love with films, obsessed. I frequented the place enough that I’d become friendly with management and so I struck a deal: all the movies I wanted in exchange for my tempera-painted ‘masterpieces’ on their windows (I recall the one for Disney’s Black Hole being a particular mess).
Filming The Rocketeer was, as you may imagine, the stuff dreams are made of for…[someone] who never dared dream a move to Hollywood would amount to much. But there I was, the lead in my first film, which itself was a love letter to the great, old dreamy days of cinema —matinee idols dashing across the silver screen— doing most of my own stunt work […].
I can’t really say which of the scenes was my favorite to shoot. The whole film was a kind of honeyed bliss for me. Every scene was 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, though, no less fun and more frightening: Joe wanted to know, before we started filming, if I’d go up in a plane to do the opening air-show sequence. It may add to your enjoyment of the film to know that, at the time, I was deathly afraid of flying. But, of course I agreed, if not eagerly.
Craig Hosking was our aerial stunt coordinator, one of the world’s best stunt pilots, and one of several working on the film. He and I flew in an open cockpit biplane, a two-seater, with everything rear of the forward cockpit tricked out to resemble the Geebee, Craig in the front with a mounted, rear-facing camera, piloting and shooting me at the same time. I was in the rear cockpit, unable, over the roar of the engine, to hear him on the one-way sewn into my helmet, and praying I’d remember when to operate the necessary controls (choke, tail-wheel lock, etc.), let alone do any acting. A couple 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 hundred mph, and I haven’t been afraid of anything since. I even took up hang gliding.
I have so many memories: working with Alan Arkin and his wickedly dry sense of humor, and 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 the stunt crew, you’ll end a long night of shooting with your vehicle 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 wants to draw comics); late nights at the hotel bar in Santa Maria, listening to stunt pilots laconically relate tales of vintage Mustangs folding up on 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, tells him to ‘Be careful up there’, and receives the jaunty reply ‘Let’s make some history!’ …that Cliff, in that moment, is well and truly hungover as blazes.
Alan and I have been friends since, I’ve adored him from that day. We see each other on occasion, as often as work and life on different continents will allow. I was once, years after the film, being grilled by a customs agent at an airport in Arizona, when a distinctive voice called out from far enough away to be heard by seemingly everyone in the airport ‘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, we 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, and I know from him that he was deeply happy with the film. He was a talented artist and a kind, kind soul.
I’ve seen the movie a handful of times in the nearly 30 years since its release. It’s the kind of film that bears rewatching; a great one for your kids […]. For kids of all ages, really. It has a sort of sweet spirit that moves me every time I see it.
If you’re seeing it again…you likely feel the same way. If you’re seeing it for the first time, well then I hope you fall in love too.”