EW Looks Back: Billy Campbell on how 'The Rocketeer' (kinda) cured his fear of flying

Rocketeers

Image Credit: Everett Collection

When it debuted June 21, 1991, The Rocketeer was dismissed by many (including EW) as too old-fashioned, too stolid and square. The 1930s period adventure film — about a young pilot (Billy Campbell) who gets pulled into Nazi-era intrigue along with his aspiring actress girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly) when he happens upon a human jet pack designed by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) — ultimately sputtered to a $47 million gross (roughly $88 mil in 2011 dollars). But it was far from forgotten. In fact, looking back at The Rocketeer now, 20 years later, it feels wonderfully old-fashioned for an entirely new reason: Directed by Joe Johnston (who’d go on to helm last summer’s Captain America) just before computer animation began to dominate Hollywood popcorn filmmaking, the film’s deliberate pacing and old school effects give the movie a real don’t-make-’em-like-this-anymore charm.

To commemorate the film’s release on Blu-ray today, we rang up Billy Campbell, currently shooting the second season of AMC’s The Killing, to talk about the film, how it helped him conquer his fear of flying (a bit), and which current Disney superstar is responsible for him landing his first feature film. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s been 20 years since The Rocketeer was in theaters. What memories jump to mind when you think back on the film?
BILLY CAMPBELL: Oh my god, it was huge for me. It was my first film. The whole memory of the movie is bursting at the seems with things. Why don’t you pick something and I’ll talk about it.

All right. The film opens with your character, a stunt and test pilot, flying a plane. Were you actually flying in that plane?
I was indeed. I have a fear of flying — a fear of flying in airplanes, anyway — and Joe approached me after I got the part and said, “Look, would you mind if we actually did this in real life? If you don’t have a good feeling about this, we can the plane on top of a hill, and we can shoot into blue sky, and you’ll be on the ground. And it’ll be fine.” I said, “No, absolutely, I’m happy to do it” — which I wasn’t. And I went up in a plane with our stunt pilot Craig Hosking, one of the better stunt pilots in the whole world. I went up with him in the plane with two cockpits. I was sitting in the rear cockpit; they had the back half of the plane painted out to resemble the Gee Bee [plane]. He was in the front cockpit with the camera, which was turned backward toward me. And he flew the ass off that plane, and scared the pants off of me. It was enormous. I’ve never been as afraid of flying again after that, to tell you the truth.

And then, at the end of the film, there’s the massive sequence set on the Zeppelin. This film came out just before visual effects were mostly done in a computer, so what was it like to shoot?
Oh, it was fantastic. They had an enormous section of the Zeppelin, kind of in the shape of a Quonset hut, you know? And they had these detonations at one end of it, and we were all on top of it. And it’s pretty high up there. It was I want to say 30 feet, or 40 feet at the apex. So we were all scampering around on the top of it, and it was a good deal of fun.

So you have a fear of flying, but not a fear of heights?
No, I don’t, actually. I even own and fly a hang-glider. It’s not so much a fear of heights as a fear of being in an airplane with an engine and somebody else flying it.

By the way, is it true Johnny Depp was in running for your role?
He definitely was. I got the movie because he turned it down. I will always be very grateful to Johnny for that reason. In fact, I got to meet him once, and I gave him a big hug.

Read more:
EW’s 1991 review of ‘The Rocketeer’
EW’s 1991 report from the set of ‘The Rocketeer’

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