1991’s The Rocketeer is a rollicking old-fashioned adventure which centres on Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell), a hotshot pilot who inadvertently stumbles on a rocket pack which enables its wearer to fly. Once he tries it on, Cliff soars directly into a dangerous underworld of mobsters, feds and Nazi spies.
Though set in the 1930s, The Rocketeer was ahead of its time in some ways. Boasting state of the art special effects, it was also the first major live action comic book adaptation made by Disney – a format the studio would pursue in a big way when it purchased Marvel Studios 18 years later.
Did you know the following facts about The Rocketeer? Let’s blast off and find out.
10. It took eight years to get the film made
Writer-artist Dan Stevens independently published his Rocketeer comic book all the way back in 1982. Stevens sold the film rights the following year, considering the character a natural fit for the screen, as he’d been inspired by 1930s serial Commando Cody.
Prospective directors Steve Miner and William Dear were linked to the project early on, but it wasn’t until Disney picked up the script in the late 80s that The Rocketeer really took off, with Joe Johnston attached.
9. Jennifer Connelly’s character was modelled on pin-up model Bettie Page
In the Rocketeer comics, Cliff Secord’s girlfriend is a nude model named Betty, and is directly modelled on 1950s pin-up Bettie Page (in fact, the comic is widely credited with kick-starting Page’s resurgence as a cult icon). However, this was deemed too risque for what was hoped to be a family film.
Screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo subsequently changed Betty the model into Jenny the actress. Jennifer Connelly was cast in the role, winning out over Diane Lane, Elizabeth McGovern, Sherilyn Fenn and Kelly Preston.
8. Johnny Depp and Kurt Russell auditioned for Cliff Secord before Billy Campbell was cast
Before they settled on Billy Campbell, Disney was keen to cast an A-list leading man as the Rocketeer himself. To this end, a lot of big names came in to read for the role, among them Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid, Kurt Russell, Emilio Estevez, Matthew Modine, Bill Paxton, and Johnny Depp.
However, director Joe Johnston pushed for comparative unknown Billy Campbell (then known professionally as Bill). Creator Dave Stevens concurred, and the studio eventually gave their blessing.
7. The Neville Sinclair Nazi spy story is inspired by actual allegations against Errol Flynn
The Rocketeer’s villain Neville Sinclair is a Nazi spy, deep undercover in Hollywood as a superstar actor, whose look and persona are clearly modelled on 1930s screen legend Errol Flynn.
Screenwriters Billson and De Meo were inspired by a biography of Flynn by author Charles Higham, which alleged that the actor had actually been a Nazi spy. It has since been confirmed that Higham’s claims were a total fabrication.
6. Timothy Dalton was cast as Neville Sinclair after Jeremy Irons and Charles Dance said no
Even though he was still officially James Bond at the time of his casting, Timothy Dalton was not the first choice to play Neville Sinclair, only being offered the role after Jeremy Irons and Charles Dance declined.
Ironically, Charles Dance would later accept a bad guy role which Dalton had turned down: Benedict, in 1993’s Last Action Hero.
5. Alan Arkin and Paul Sorvino were cast after Lloyd Bridges and Joe Pesci passed
Neville Sinclair wasn’t the only Rocketeer character played by a second choice actor. The role of Cliff’s engineer mentor Peevy was first offered to film legend Lloyd Bridges, whilst Joe Pesci – then at the height of his fame thanks to Goodfellas and the Home Alone and Lethal Weapon movies – was first choice for mob boss Eddie Valentine.
When both actors declined, Alan Arkin landed the part of Peevy, whilst Pesci’s Goodfellas co-star Paul Sorvino became a natural fit for Valentine.
4. Billy Campbell was actually afraid of flying
Our hero Cliff Secord has a great love for being up in the air, but this was not a passion shared by actor Billy Campbell. In fact, Campbell suffered from a great fear of flying.
Craig Hoksing, co-ordinator of the film’s aerial stunt sequences, helped Campbell overcome his fear, although stunt doubles were still used extensively for both the Rocketeer and aeroplane scenes.
3. The studio didn’t like how loyal to the comic the movie was
The Rocketeer has long been praised by comic book fans as one of the most loyal page-to-screen adaptations ever, with the character’s look and the settings near identical to Stevens’ designs; Campbell even got his hair cut to match Cliff Secord as drawn.
However, director Joe Johnston was often at loggerheads with Disney over this, as the studio had been pushing for a more modernised look and feel to the film.
2. Billy Campbell had a three-picture deal to make a trilogy of Rocketeer films
Hopes were high all around that The Rocketeer could launch an Indiana Jones-style series of films. Billy Campbell, for example, was signed up for a three-picture deal, whilst Connelly was signed up for two.
Alas, this was not to be. After making under $47 million at the box office, The Rocketeer was deemed a flop, and all plans for a sequel were soon scrapped.
1. It’s inspired a new Disney Jr. cartoon series
While there have long been murmurs of a big-screen Rocketeer reboot, only one new screen take on the property has emerged: a Disney Junior cartoon series, which premiered in November 2019. This reinterpretation centres on 7-year-old girl Kit Secord, who takes up the rocket pack to save the day.
While Disney Junior’s The Rocketeer is pretty far removed from the movie and the comic, there is one link: Billy Campbell voices Kit’s father, Dave Secord.