X-15: Hollywood strikes out with a fast lady!

by Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News
Some years back I entered an auction for some movie memorabilia and when I won, I was given the opportunity to choose one item from a large collection. When I saw this theater lobby card, I just about fainted and quickly snatched it up before I woke up from my dream! What a score!

Hanging it in my office and looking at it this week got me to thinking about the movie X-15, wondering how such a great subject turned into a less than glamorous production — ending up as an afterthought in the world of aerospace movies.

When the idea for a movie was being floated around to the Bob Hope production company, it was thought that the Bell X-2 would be a great focus for a movie. Hollywood went to the Pentagon to get some backing and found out that the brass really didn’t like the idea of that older technology being the movie’s glamour girl. Instead, they offered up the idea that the sleek black beauty, the X-15, should land that starring role! The production folks were thrilled that such a new and cutting-edge program could be a film subject, and that the Pentagon would help to secure the necessary footage from NASA and the Air Force!

With the project getting the green light, it was all hands on deck to make it the epic that it had the ability to become, and to get it the gloss it would need to be successful. The project was handed over to Frank Sinatra’s Essex Productions, which had more contacts to staff it with the people that could really make it fly!

The flight line production team with the two biggest stars, the X-15 and B-52. (Courtesy photograph)

The first person to be brought on board was an unknown director named Richard Donner. People today will recognize him from the Lethal Weapon movie franchise, but in the early 1960s, he was just another hopeful looking to make his mark. The first really big “get” was when Jimmy Stewart, who turned down any acting role in the movie, was willing to narrate it as if it were a documentary. As a U.S. Air Force officer, he loved to showcase the ‘boys in blue’ whenever he could. David McLean and Charles Bronson were cast in leading roles, as was James Gregory.

As with so many Hollywood movies, this film showcased a love story and the stresses of the test pilot’s wives and girlfriends. Not wanting to sign a big-name female lead and possibly overshadow the subject matter, the producers went for a first-time, unknown actress named Mary Tyler Moore to play the part in her film debut. Another bit actor who played the part of an engineer was a Hollywood regular who had been in many films before, playing bit parts through the 1950s and 1960s — we would know him later as “B-1 Bob” or U.S. Rep. Bob Dornan from Orange County, Calif.

With the Pentagon working the film footage and access for location shooting, it came to the point with the script and filming that a “man in the know” was needed — someone with real inside knowledge of the world of flight test. A list of Air Force/NASA types was floated around, and when it was finally decided who that guy would be, NASA research pilot Milt Thompson was the last man standing. His inside knowledge would be key to the movie’s authenticity. (Incidentally, Thompson later went on to pilot the X-15 himself.)

First-time actress Mary Tyler Moore gets her shot at stardom in the movie. (Courtesy photograph)

With everything in place, it was felt that because the movie featured so much actual X-15 footage, the film’s budget could be reduced. Sadly, this resulted in what ended up being labeled a low-budget production, removing many key elements that would have given the movie the gloss it should have been afforded.

With production dates set and Edwards ready to open up the base and facilities, movie crews invaded the rows of motels in Lancaster and set up home for a couple of weeks, as they prepared to become one with the Edwards flight line!

If you’ve had the opportunity to view the movie (it came out for a limited release in the 2000s on DVD), there are many notable scenes. One early on was Mary Richards — oh, I mean Mary Tyler Moore —  in a convertible smoking a cigarette, mentioning her trip into Lancaster. It had those of us who know Edwards hoping for more of that local flavor, a la Captain Marvel, but that was not to be. One interesting sequence that still has me scratching my head was that of the officers’ housing. That was supposed to be somewhere around the base, but the only match I could come up with location-wise was a new housing development near California City! Many other locations around the base will be familiar to anybody who has worked there over the years and will bring back some memories of what once was at Edwards of old.

X-15 Pilot Joe Walker meets with the actors for a little hanger flying. (Courtesy photograph)

So with all this great subject matter, actors and location, why did the movie fall flat with the public and critics, ending up in a vault locked away for decades? Pretty much relying on stock footage and a low budget to carry the film, it was a recipe for disaster. The standard Panavision filming process, mixed with the Air Force/NASA film footage at a totally different aspect ratio, did not work well on the big screen. When the prospects of cost overruns threatened to shut down production, too many corners were cut. The end result was what many thought looked like an Air Force training film that strangely had a love story attached!

Many thought that with the voice of Jimmy Stewart connecting the dots, it would help cure the ills of a film that struggled to connect with those pre-screeners. But even with Jimmy’s golden voice, the cartoonish aspect of the X-15 in space flight never really made X-15 anything more than an “also-ran” in the library of aviation films.

Looking back, we can wonder what Milt Thompson and the ‘boys’ at the Pentagon thought when the final product hit the theaters to less than stellar reviews. The subject of the amazing X-15, which should have hit a homer and been a classic for all time, ended up as just a footnote in Edwards/Hollywood history.

Looking at the movie poster on my wall, it just looks like a hit, and yes, it does have some moments of great old flight test footage to tease the eye and please the memory. I hope that someday the X-15 program and all that amazing history and achievement may find its way to a movie producer that gives the subject a real budget and a storyline that doesn’t need the distraction of underlying subplots to sell it. Focus on the real heroics and edge-of-the-seat drama that this aircraft and those who flew it experienced, every time they heard the word “Release!” come over the radio.

Until next time, Bob out …

And the Oscar goes to? The movie didn’t go very far but needless to say the X-15 made it all the way to the Smithsonian air and space museum in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy photograph)


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