It may not have been the box office bonanza that some of the superhero films that followed it became, but for a growing cult of fans, 1991’s “The Rocketeer” remains one of their favorite – and one of the most faithful – comic book adaptations to hit the big screen. Twenty years later, the fllm is making its debut on Blu-Ray and star Billy Campbell (“Once and Again,” “The Killing”) shares his memories of bringing artist Dave Stevens’ creation to life with PopcornBiz.
What was going on with your life and career when “The Rocketeer” first came along?
At the time I believe I was working at The Renaissance Fair: I was doing Shakespeare at The Renaissance Fair. I came in to audition for Joe [Johnston], for “The Rocketeer.” I had long hair and a beard. Then I went out – and I hadn't read the comic book before that – after that audition and I bought the comic book and I got terribly excited because I realized without my long hair and beard I looked exactly like the character. So I went and got a shave and a haircut, and I came back for Joe and got the job.
Joe and others in the production had to champion you to Disney so that they could give you the part. Were you aware that was going on, or did you just get a phone call saying that it was yours?
I think that I knew that they were pushing for me, and I would not have gotten the film at all had Johnny Depp not turned it down. Then after he turned it down…I was pretty much told, 'Depending on what Johnny does, the movie is yours.' But as it happened, my agent's office was right next to Johnny Depp's agent's office at ICM. My agent called me one day all excited and he said, “Tracy is about to have a meeting with Johnny about whether to do ‘Rocketeer’ or not, and she asked me to join in on the meeting. I'll call you back.” So, he went in on the meeting and he brilliantly convinced Johnny Depp that this was exactly not the kind of movie that he should be doing.
As an up-and-coming actor at the time, what was the experience like of working with Joe on a film that Disney made during a time when 'Batman' was the high water mark of superhero films?
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The making of it was incredible. It was one of the highlights, I think, of my career. It was my first film – it was a wonderful film to do even if it WASN’T your first film. It was a period movie. It was full of old cars and clothing and a great story, a really sweet and clever script. It was like an actor's fantasy of a first film, so it was nothing but terribly exciting and a great deal of fun for me.
Did you have an affinity for that era that was being depicted or did you learn more about it as you got involved with the film?
I've always had an affinity for period movies. The '30's, absolutely. The teens, '20's, '30's, yeah. I did – and do – have an affinity.
Did you swipe a good Art Deco souvenir from the set?
No, I didn't – I swiped a couple of books. I have a bad habit of stealing books. If there's a library on the set I can usually walk away with one or two books.
Did your jaw drop to the floor the first time you saw Jennifer Connelly in character as Jenny, with her look based on the classic pinup Bettie Page?
Oh my God, did I – yeah! She was some kind of amazing. She came into screen test for “Rocketeer” and there was just no competition. I think Penelope Miller and Annabeth Gish were the other two that screen tested on the same day that Jennifer did. Jennifer was the last screen test and Joe walked up to me and he looks at me. Jennifer had just walked out. He walks up to me and I think I looked a little like a dear in the headlights or something and he said “So, what do you think?” I just looked at him and he got this little smile and said “Jennifer.” I said “Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh,” and that was it.
Did you see what Joe did with “Captain America?” There was a lot to remind one of the flavor of “The Rocketeer.”
I did indeed, and I loved it! He was just the perfect person to choose for that film. He really was. They could not have chosen a better person to direct that movie and he really lived up to it. He did a fantastic job. I just loved it. I thought that it was tremendous. I thought the closing note of the movie was the best, so sweet and so sad at the same time. It was the best thing ever.
So many great character actors turn up throughout “The Rocketeer” – Terry O’Quinn, Margo Matindale, Eddie Jones and on and on. Did you make a lot of lasting Hollywood friendships while making that movie?
I did make some lasting Hollywood friendships. Alan Arkin and I are friends to this day. J.C. – Jennifer Connelly. Tim [Dalton] I haven't seen or talked to in a while, but some others, some behind the camera. So, yeah, it was really gratifying in a lot of ways.
Everyone would've liked the movie to have performed better at the box office, but its reputation and legacy has been continued to grow over the last 20 years. Can you talk about people's response to the film through the past two decades?
The people that love it really, really love it and the movie really inspires a kind of dedication from the people that like it that I'm not sure is matched by too many other films. Here it is 20 years later and I still get people coming up to me and talking about “Rocketeer” and that hasn't really happened for anything else that I've ever done. It's pretty neat. It's a good, sweet film and it doesn't surprise me that people have this kind of connection to it.
"The Rocketeer: 20th Anniversary Edition" is out on Blu-ray now.