Twenty-five years ago, Cliff Secord and his alter ego, The Rocketeer, blasted off into theaters everywhere—and crash landed. Though it's much beloved by many people today, audiences in 1991 weren't exactly wowed. Find out why—and 15 other facts about The Rocketeer.
1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY A COMIC BOOK.
In 1982, artist Dave Stevens created a comic book character called The Rocketeer, inspired by pulp characters and series from the 1930s through 1950s. Though originally intended to be a secondary strip in a more popular comic called Starslayer, the quirky character quickly proved his star power. Stevens' Rocketeer was so popular, in fact, that the movie was optioned just a year later.
2. MANY MAJOR STUDIOS TURNED THEM DOWN.
These days, movies based on comic books are de rigueur. But back in 1983, when The Rocketeer was first optioned, the comic-book-to-silver-screen thing wasn’t really being done. “In those days, no studio was interested at all in an expensive comic book movie," Stevens told Comic Book Artist in 2001. "We got there about three years too early for our own good. We had a lot of interesting meetings with executives who passed on it, but gave us some good criticisms." Disney was the last studio on the list and, according to Stevens, they signed on once they saw the merchandising opportunity.
3. JENNY BLAKE WAS "BETTY PAGE" IN THE COMIC BOOK.
Stevens used pin-up girl Bettie Page as inspiration for his comic book heroine—and felt really guilty about it later in life. In 1992, after the film came out, Stevens was able to get in touch with Page’s brother, Jack, and sent him a check to give to Bettie. “I told him that I used her likeness as a supporting character in a comic and I definitely felt like I owed her something and I wanted to make sure that she got some money because I had no idea what kind of financial shape she was in,” Stevens said. The artist later met his muse, and the two became good friends.
“Betty Page” was changed to “Jenny Blake” in the movie, in part because they didn’t want to acquire the rights to the name, but also because Disney didn’t want to be associated with such a sexy character.
4. THE ORIGINAL VERSION OF CLIFF SECORD WAS MUCH DIFFERENT.
“Initially, he was a red-haired, freckle-faced guy that I just made up,” Stevens said. “Almost a Sterling Holloway type ... a bit of a hayseed.” He couldn’t find anyone that met the description to pose for him, so Stevens ended up using himself as a model for the drawings.
5. DISNEY WANTED JOHNNY DEPP FOR THE LEAD ROLE.
Billy Campbell was hired for the starring role after Johnny Depp turned it down—and Campbell's agent played a part in getting Depp to nix the part. “As it happened, my agent's office was right next to Johnny Depp's agent's office,” Campbell later said. “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.”
Vincent D’Onofrio was also offered the lead at one point, but turned it down because he wasn’t sure it would fit with his image.
6. BILLY CAMPBELL CUT HIS HAIR FOR THE AUDITION.
At the time, Campbell had a job at a Renaissance Faire and hadn’t bothered to shave his beard or cut his long hair for his first meeting with director Joe Johnston. While the movie languished in development hell for a while, Campbell happened to come across one of the original Rocketeer comic books. “I couldn’t believe how much I thought the guy looked like me,” he said. So, when the time came around for the screen test, the actor shaved and got a haircut appropriate to the period. When he walked into the room, Johnston was visibly stunned. “He did a complete double-take, and I thought, ‘I have a chance,’” Campbell said.
7. CAMPBELL IS AFRAID OF FLYING.
Specifically, he’s afraid of flying in planes that have engines, but is perfectly at home in a hang glider. “I just don’t like being in the air and strapped to an engine,” he explained.
8. JAMES HORNER WROTE THE SCORE IN LESS THAN THREE WEEKS.
Due to test screens and re-editing, composer James Horner was under a serious time crunch when it came to scoring the movie. “There was almost 100 minutes of music in that film,” Horner said. “Even while I was writing it, they made picture changes.”
9. PILOTS REALLY DID LOVE BEEMANS GUM.
It's not often that chewing gum is part of a pivotal plot point—but Cliff's love of the stuff is right on target, historically. While chewing any kind of gum helps equalize air pressure, pilots preferred Beemans because it contained pepsin at the time. The antacid in pepsin helped with nervous stomachs.
10. THE BULLDOG CAFE WAS INSPIRED BY AN ICE CREAM CONE.
Stevens, a fan of 1930s style and architecture, found inspiration for the Bulldog Cafe in the novelty architecture that was particularly prominent in Southern California at the time. "During the Depression, my dad's family lived in the bottom half of a giant ice cream cone," he told Entertainment Weekly in 1991. "It probably spurred me to create the Bulldog Cafe."
11. STEVENS HAD A BRIEF CAMEO IN THE MOVIE.
He played a German man who tested a prototype of the jetpack Secord eventually uses. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t end well.
12. HIS TRADEMARK HELMET WAS ALMOST AXED.
Though the Rocketeer's uniquely streamlined helmet had always been his trademark, Disney exec Michael Eisner was convinced it should be changed to a NASA-style helmet for the film. Johnston defended the look, even putting his job on the line to save it—if the hero's iconic helmet was going, then so was he. Stevens recruited his own sculptor to get a look that everyone was ultimately satisfied with.
13. THERE WERE DIFFERENT VERSIONS OF THE ROCKET PACKS.
One, called “the hero,” was made of real metal and shot actual fire from the bottom. The other was made of fiberglass with a metal coating and was more suitable for wearing in scenes where the pack wasn’t actually active.
14. SOMEHOW, THE MOVIE ENDED UP FLOPPING.
Though the movie cost $35 million to make, it made just $46 million at the box office. Yet, today, The Rocketeer has a cult following. So why the flop in 1991? For one thing, the competition was pretty stiff that summer—City Slickers, Point Break, Terminator 2, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves were just a few of the blockbusters that The Rocketeer had to compete with. In addition, Billy Campbell believes that the marketing machine just wasn't fully behind the release.
15. MORE MOVIES WERE IN THE WORKS.
This news is bittersweet for fans: Before the movie flopped at the box office, a sequel (and maybe even a trilogy) was in the works. "There was a lot of talk of a sequel on June 20, 1991, but there wasn't any on the 22nd," Johnston said in 2011.
16. ADAM SAVAGE IS A BIG FAN.
Because The Rocketeer is one of Adam Savage’s favorite movies, the MythBuster attended the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con in character as Cliff Secord. Visit Tested to check out the amount of detail he put into the engines alone.