(Welcome to Close Up, a series that drills down on the absurdly niche movie moments we just can’t shake. From single lines of dialogue to individual shots, this is a space where we go deep on the cinematic small stuff that lives rent-free in our brains.)
There’s a moment in Joe Johnston‘s 1991 comic book film adaptation of The Rocketeer that feels like it’s ripped straight out of a Superman serial adventure. Handsome pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) has infiltrated L.A.’s swanky South Seas Club to try to win back his love interest Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly), who is there on a date with the evil Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton). When Sinclair’s goons discover Cliff’s ruse and chase our hero through the club, Cliff escapes by donning an experimental rocket pack and soaring over the heads of club patrons. As he flies by, a woman clutches her chest and says, “It’s the flying man!”, and a guy on the dance floor excitedly says, “It’s the Rocketeer!”
It’s the only line that character has in the entire film, and even though he’s essentially a featured extra and is never seen again, I’ve always wanted to know more about him. You can see a flicker of recognition in the man’s eyes as he realizes he’s in the presence of this newly minted celebrity, and there’s a mixture of wonder and excitement in his delivery of that single line that has inexplicably stayed with me for years.
With this year marking the 30th anniversary of The Rocketeer, this is the perfect time to debut Close Up, a new column here at /Film in which we devote an inordinate amount of time to dissecting and discussing incredibly niche movie moments. So let’s kick things off with a conversation with Rick Overton, the actor who played that memorable “South Seas Patron” as he recounts his experience of working on this beloved film.
“I met Joe [Johnston] when I was one of the Brownies on [the 1988 fantasy film] Willow and he was on effects, and we became buddies,” Overton told me over Zoom when I asked how he got the part. “We were sci-fi friends, hanging out and doing stuff, and he got the deal to do The Rocketeer. So he gives me a call and says, ‘Hey man, you want to come down and see the set?’ I went, ‘Are you kidding me? Of course I would.’”
That set is the South Seas Club, a 1930s ballroom restaurant complete with a clamshell stage, an orchestra, and a lounge singer – the same actress who played Jan from The Office! – belting out seductive tunes while characters dance the night away. When Overton arrived on the studio lot to check out the set, Johnston asked him for his clothing sizes and presented him with a fun opportunity: to play a bit role and say the name of the movie in the movie itself.
Johnston had introduced Overton to Dave Stevens, the artist who created the Rocketeer comics on which the film was based. “I knew Dave, so I loved the comic,” Overton said of his familiarity with the source material going in. Joe, Rick, and Dave shared similar pop culture touchstones, one of which was Commando Cody, a serial adventure character from the 1950s who also wore a helmet and a jet pack. “When I was a little kid, I made Commando Cody helmets out of cardboard and the jet pack and I’d take two steps and jump and then come right back down again,” he said, never dreaming back then that he’d be staring at a similar character on a movie set decades later.
“I wasn’t even supposed to be in the movie,” Overton said. “I just showed up – I rode my motorcycle down, went into wardrobe. I had long hair, so they had to really slick it back and tuck it down behind my shirt collar, because I was a long-haired troublemaker back then.” He knew the wardrobe department would be having a “brutal” time on this set with a ballroom full of people, all wearing era-appropriate clothing. “They were really pressed for time,” he explained, saying that his 6’4” frame could be a tough fit in some on-screen circumstances. “They did a fine job. ‘Get him this. That’s good enough. Sleeves – good enough,’” he mimicked, acknowledging that he was only filmed from the waist up.
Turns out the whole production was pressed for time that day: as Overton points out, it would be prohibitively expensive to bring all of those extras back for another day of filming, so Johnston and his team needed to get all of the crowd shots done in a single night. And there was a lot to do: wire work, live fire on the set with a fire crew standing by, stunts as the title hero blunders his way through the clientele, and more. They were so busy, in fact, that they only had time for two takes when Overton’s big moment came – but as a seasoned pro who by then already had more than 20 credits to his name, he nailed it.
In such a fast-paced, high-pressure scenario, Overton didn’t have a lot of time to create an entire elaborate backstory for his character. “[The character is] just some player guy with a date, who thought he was going to make out really great, but then, ‘Huh?’…A lot of times on stuff like that, a special effects kind of shoot, you’re dancing, you’re dancing, there he is, say the line. It’s not about motive or any of that. You don’t get that. By the time you’re there, you should know some of this stuff. What do you think his motive ought to be for saying, ‘It’s the Rocketeer?’ Probably he heard it on the news and there he is, right? There’s your motive.”
As for the delivery of the line itself, Overton remembers leaning in to the inherent cheesiness of the project. “He’s got that stupid ‘gosh!’ kinda quality to him. I was giving him that dopey ’30s ‘jeepers!” [delivery]. I love stuff like that. It’s a little over the top, but the whole movie’s a little over the top!” he laughs. “There’s no greater privilege to a performer than to be allowed the latitude to add your own wonderful found gifts in a moment or on a set,” he said, stressing that any up-and-coming actors reading this should make a point to study improv. “Some of what I was doing in my scene, in every scene, is on some level an improvisation – even if it is word for word.”
When I mentioned that it sounded as if he was doing a favor for a friend by dropping by and stepping into this role, Overton wanted to clarify that the assist wasn’t just a one-way street. “I’m a huge sci-fi nerd, so he was doing me a favor, too. Let’s just say it was a good deal all around.”
The Rocketeer is currently streaming on Disney+.
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