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Looking Back at The Rocketeer 20 Years Later

The Rocketeer 20 Years Later” width=”560″/>

It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since Billy Campbell romanced Jennifer Connelly and battled Nazis atop a zeppelin as The Rocketeer. At the time of its release in 1991, moviegoers weren’t sure what to make of a square-jawed throwback to the days of RKO serials in the wake of star-studded blockbusters like Batman and Dick Tracy. Two decades later, the film has developed a cult following thanks to its action-packed plot, strong supporting cast (Alan Arkin as Peevy is a delight), and copious shots of the aforementioned Connelly in low-cut period dress. (Check out this nifty fan film, which envisions what Pixar’s take on The Rocketeer might look like, for evidence of the film’s lasting impact on pop culture.) To celebrate the 20th anniversary of this enduring comic-book classic, the cast and crew of The Rocketeer (including director Joe Johnston, who also helmed the upcoming retro superhero flick Captain America: The First Avenger) reunited for a special Q&A screening hosted by Kevin Smith. Join me as we take a look back at the twisty path the film took to the big screen as well as some fun facts you may not know.

fridaythe13thpart3-125.jpgThe guy who made Friday the 13th Part III almost directed.

The Rocketeer’s journey to big screen began when director Steve Miner, helmer of such “gems” as Friday the 13th Part II and Soul Man, optioned the rights to Dave Stevens’s comic in 1983. Stevens, protective of his creation, didn’t see eye-to-eye with Miner’s take on the character. When Miner’s option ran out, the rights were picked up by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, two screenwriters who had discovered the series at the Golden Apple comic book store in Los Angeles. Stevens decided to sell the movie rights to Bilson and De Meo after seeing Zone Troopers, a low-budget World War II-era sci-fi flick that the pair had made. 

rachelbilson-125.jpgOne of the cowriters also gave us Rachel Bilson.

Danny Bilson, who penned the screenplay with Paul De Meo and William Dear, is the father of actress Rachel Bilson. (Bilson and De Meo are also responsible for the fun Flash TV series from the early ’90s.) Bilson and De Meo developed the script with initial director Dear, who suggested adding the climactic zeppelin scene and setting the story against the backdrop of Hollywood in the 1930s. After Dear dropped out, filmmaker and special effects guru Joe Johnston (Star Wars, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) signed on to direct the film for Disney.

rocketeer_snes-125.jpgIt was originally planned as a trilogy.

Stevens and the screenwriters envisioned a trilogy in keeping with the “Commander Cody” serials that inspired the comic. Disney had high hopes for The Rocketeer as the next big blockbuster franchise as well, cross-promoting the film with fast-food tie-ins and a Super Nintendo game. Unfortunately, The Rocketeer opened during a crowded summer (its competition included the hits Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and City Slickers) and proved to be a box office disaster. As Johnston explained at the 20th anniversary screening, “There was a lot of talk of a sequel on June 20th, 1991, but there wasn’t any on the 22nd.”

Bettie Page inspired the love interest.

Rocketeer fans who’ve read the comic know that Cliff Secord’s love interest is a bit morebettie-page-125.jpg scantily-clad on the page. Based on pin-up queen Bettie Page, Betty is a model who frequently finds herself in various states of undress. For the movie, the character was changed to a struggling actress both as a way to keep things PG and to tie her into the script’s Hollywood plotline. (Her name was also changed to “Jenny” in order to avoid comparison to the racy Ms. Page.) While Jennifer Connelly certainly had the curves for the part, Jenny is more of a wholesome girl-next-door type than her comic book counterpart. But both Betty and Jenny pack a mean right hook.

terryoquinn-125.jpgA future Lost star plays a famous aviator.

Lost fans will want to keep an eye out for Terry O’Quinn (Locke) as Howard Hughes, the real-life aviator who created the rocket pack Cliff and Peevy find. (Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t the only actor who has portrayed Hughes on the big screen.) Dave Stevens also a makes Hitchcockian cameo as a Nazi pilot who is killed while testing an early version of the rocket pack. Let’s see Stan Lee top that one in Captain America.

Johnny Depp nearly donned the rocket pack.

Dennis Quaid, Kurt Russell, and Bill Paxton were all in the running to johnnydepp-125.jpgplay Cliff Secord, aka The Rocketeer. But it was Depp, hot off his turn in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, who was Disney’s top choice. Of course, the role ended up going to then up-and-comer Billy Campbell. While not as famous as the rest of the contenders, Stevens and Johnston lobbied hard for Campbell. It helped that the actor, who was a fan of the comic, looked like he sprung from Dave Stevens’ pencil. I wonder what happened to that Depp fellow. Too bad Disney never used him in another swashbuckling adventure franchise…

 Cliff Secord lives…on AMC! 

No stranger to TV,  Campbell has enjoyed post-Rocketeer success on such shows as Oncebillycampbell-thekilling-125.jpg and Again and AMC’s The Killing, where he plays mayoral candidate and murder suspect Darren Richmond. Campbell told the audience at the 20th Anniversary screening that he shaved off the beard he grew as a Renaissance Faire performer in order to audition for the role. (Johnston also hinted to an on-set romance between Campbell and costar Jennifer Connelly, fanning the flames of fan fiction writers everywhere. )

 A sequel could be on the way.

While disappointing box office killed any potential for a sequel, that hasn’t stopped Johnstonrocketeer-blastoff-125.jpg from discussing the possibility of a return to the world of The Rocketeer. In a recent interview with FilmJournal, Johnston spoke of the “great fun” he had on the film and expressed a desire to “re-explore Cliff Secord’s world.” And the timing couldn’t be better. A recent deluxe hardcover reissue of the comic-book has brought Dave Stevens’s (who sadly passed away in 2008 after a long battle with leukemia) creation to a new generation, while Captain America: The First Avenger could usher in a return of big screen pulp comic-book adventures. At 20, it looks like The Rocketeer may fly again.

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