What do the Eagles (the band), George Lucas, and Apollo 13 have to do with each other?
Updated: May 20, 2020
Like most kids growing up in the 80s, I loved the movies of the time. Star Wars and its sequels were, unsurprisingly, favorites of mine. The good vs. evil plot lines, the lasers, the x-Wing Starfighters, the TIE fighters, the Millennium Falcon ... they all captured my imagination in a way that can not be underestimated.
That period was also a time when my GE clock radio was playing a lot of songs by the Eagles. The band released three compilation albums in the 80s and as I sang along to "Hotel California" and "Life in the Fast Lane," little did I know that those performing had a six-degrees-of-separation connection to the Apollo program. Let me explain ...
The founders of the Eagles, musicians Glenn Frey and Don Henley, became close friends and learned about each other's complimentary music skills while playing in Linda Ronstadt's band in the early 1970s. Ronstadt was already a star at the time, having recorded hits such as "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" and "I Fall to Pieces." Things were going well; Henley and Frey had found a good gig in a competitive California music scene where success and failure were often as much a function of serendipity as skill. Many starving musicians would have been content to play in the shadow of a charismatic star like Ronstadt and be paid well for it. But shortly after meeting, Henley and Frey decided that they'd like to form their own band. To her credit, when Ronstadt was approached by the duo in 1971 and told by them that they wanted to strike out on their own, she was helpful and supportive. With that, the Eagles were born.
More than a decade after the Eagles' founding and the success that followed, George Lucas was a single man after divorcing his wife, Marcia, who had worked closely with him through much of his career. In fact, she won an academy award for editing work done on the first Star Wars film in 1977. The success of Star Wars carried through to the second film in the franchise, The Empire Strikes Back, and, in 1983, he completed a "hat trick" when Return of the Jedi took the world by storm. Lucas was killing it professionally. His personal life, however, had been tough; his divorce from Marcia was bitter and expensive. But that breakup apparently didn't sour him on love. Just months after announcing his break from Marcia, Lucas met Linda Ronstadt backstage after one of her concerts. It was the beginning of a five-year, romantic relationship.
Of course, the hero of the Star Wars films that Lucas made was Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill. Hamill, like me, was a military brat. His father was a Captain in the U.S. Navy and his childhood was (again, like mine) filled with frequent moves and new schools. While he found great success in the first three Star Wars films, he never had a huge Hollywood acting career beyond that franchise. In fact, he was involved in some significant flops.
One such flop was a science fiction film called Slipstream. Never released in theaters in the U.S. (it went straight to video), it had a short run in the UK and Australia; its total box office receipts down under came to less than $68,000, a far cry from Empire's take of over half a billion dollars by 2007.
Photo Credit: Lucasfilm
Hamill wasn't the only one responsible for the disaster that was Slipstream, of course. Making films is a team sport. One member of that team was a co-star of Hamill's, Bill Paxton. Paxton had starred in Aliens, another sequel that was a huge hit, and the producer of Slipstream, Gary Kurtz, hoped the combination of Paxton and Hamill, two established sci-fi stars, would bring success. He was wrong.
While Paxton wasn't a military brat, his great-great-grandfather was Elisha Paxton, a confederate general killed at the battle of Chancellorville. Not to be outdone by his ancestor, an 8-year-old Paxton also played a part in the history of the nation. In November of 1963, Bill was outside the hotel John F. Kennedy was staying at in Ft. Worth and witnessed the president leaving the establishment the morning of his assassination. A photographer captured Paxton being lifted above the crowd to get a view of Kennedy.
Paxton is seen as an 8-year-old raised above the crowd outside of Kennedy's hotel in Dallas in November of 1963. (Photo credit: Ray Cooper Collection: KTVT-TV)
This is the point at which we tie this thread to the American space program. Paxton's 33rd film was Apollo 13. (That film, coincidentally, also had Kevin Bacon in it, which allows us to say we played the "Kevin Bacon Six Degrees of Separation" game!). The story of that Apollo mission's harrowing effort to get back to earth after an on-board explosion was a surprising hit and educated much of the country about a piece of U.S. spaceflight history that (sadly) many were unaware of. Paxton played crew member Fred Haise, whom I met as a child during the first few years of my dad's "astronaut candidate" days at NASA. Haise had hung around the space agency after the end of the Apollo program and ended up flying the first test flight of the space shuttle prototype Enterprise when it was dropped off the back of a 747 over Edwards Air Force Base in 1977 to test is gliding ability.
Haise's commander on Apollo 13 was, of course, Jim Lovell. I had the amazingly good fortune of spending time in a short conversation alone with Lovell in Florida many years ago. I went to a reception where astronauts spanning most of America's space programs were going to be present. At one point, I went to the bar which was empty save one person whom I hardly noticed as I approached and ordered. As I waited for my drink, I turned to the left to introduce myself to the stranger waiting with me and realized it was Lovell. We ended up speaking for about 10 minutes, and to this day our exchange was one of the coolest experiences of my life.
Lovell and I were talking about the the film that had been made about his mission and released in 1995. During that conversation, he told me a fascinating story, some of which is now more widely known. While preparing to make the film, Ron Howard (the director) had asked Lovell who he might want to play him in the movie. Lovell said that Kevin Costner would be his choice. Costner had by then solidified himself as a box office draw with success in films like No Way Out, Dances with Wolves, and The Bodyguard. But, Lovell pointed out to me, one of the main reasons he liked the idea of Costner playing him was that he thought that he and Costner looked alike. And when you look at pictures of them in their younger years, I have to agree.
Photo Credits: Orion Pictures, DoD
Ron Howard liked the idea of Costner as the potential lead in the film and, according to Lovell, contacted Costner's agent to see if he'd be interested. The agent was dismissive. He didn't know the Apollo 13 story and, in any case, his client was working on a huge film that would take up his time. The film? Waterworld - at the time, the most expensive movie production in Hollywood history. Unfortunately for Costner, Waterworld was a critical and box office failure (although it did make a small profit) and his acting career never really recovered.
In contrast, Apollo 13 was a massive hit with Tom Hanks as the lead. Lovell told me that Howard said the great thing about having Hanks play him - even if he didn't look like Lovell - was that Hanks was so beloved by America, audiences couldn't help but cheer for him to make it back to earth (who wants to see Forrest Gump die out in cold, black space?). Lovell and I got a chuckle out of his telling of this story - I suspect he's chuckled at it many times.
As our conversation was winding down, I asked him a question I'm sure he's been asked a million times ... did he still get sad about not getting to walk on the moon?
"Of course," he said.
But then he told me that sadness is salved just a bit by a record he and his crew hold that he's very proud of.
"What's that?" I asked.
"We'e been further from planet earth than any human beings in the entire history of humankind." He said it with a smile that radiated the pride he felt. He went on to explain that because Apollo 13 didn't land on the moon, the spacecraft instead whipsawed around the dark side of the lunar surface at 158 miles altitude, taking Lovell, Haise, and Swigert further from earth than if they'd successfully accomplished their orignial mission. The record is indeed something to be proud of; only three men can boast holding it while four times as many can say they've walked on the moon.
So, that's how the Eagles are tied to the American space program: Henley and Frey played for Ronstadt who dated George Lucas who directed Mark Hamill who stared with Bill Paxton who was in Apollo 13 which was commanded by Jim Lovell. And if you want a more direct connection of the Eagles to spaceflight, there's this: In a recent interview in USA Today, Don Henley reflected on their song "The Hotel California" and noted that it's been played to wake up the space station crew. While he clearly thought that his music being used by NASA was a complement of the highest order, Henley seemed less sure of the choice of song.
"Personally, I don't know if I would want to start the day with that," Henley said. I think I'm with him on that one. Might be a bit creepy to be confined to an orbiting spacecraft and wake up to the words you can check any time you like / but you can never leave. As enjoyable as time on the space station would be, I think I'd like the option to check out one day and head home.