OS movie connection leads to reunion Oct. 15

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By Sharon Littlepage, For Roane Newspapers

When the casting call for a movie goes out, the extras never get the big money, but they usually walk away with a lifetime of special memories.

That’s the case with Oliver Springs resident Barbara Hilemon, who played five different parts in the highly acclaimed family-friendly movie, “October Sky,” which was filmed in Oliver Springs, Harriman, Petros, Wartburg, Oak Ridge and Knoxville in 1998.

Last year, members of the Oliver Springs Historical Society decided to celebrate the town’s connection to the movie and hosted their first-ever October Sky Fall Festival.  

For 2010, a Rocket Boys Extras Reunion has been added to recognize those who worked on the movie and helped bring Homer Hickam’s memoirs, “Rocket Boys,” to the silver screen.

The Rocket Boys Extras Reunion will begin with a 5:30 p.m. chili supper Oct. 15 in the Oliver Springs Disabled American Veterans Building. Cost of the meal is $5. To RSVP, call Hilemon at 435-5064 by Oct. 1.  

The film will be shown during the evening, and guests will also see movie artifacts that were collected after the production shut down and props and other memorabilia were auctioned off.

After the picture wrapped, Hilemon was instrumental in planning two picnics for the extras as well as the Oak Ridge premiere of the film at Tinseltown a dozen years ago.  

“We all dressed in formal attire, had our own limousine service, and got great media coverage ... just like the big-time events for A-listers in New York or Los Angeles,” she said. “But our focus was on the extras and support personnel who rarely get any recognition for all their hard work.”

More than 20,000 people applied for the 2,000 jobs that were posted for the production throughout East Tennessee.

Speaking roles paid $500 a day; nonspeaking extras received minimum wage ($5.15 per hour or time-and-a-half for overtime) plus meals.

Hilemon recalls working with a young Jake Gyllenhaal, who played the teenaged Homer Hickam Jr. and is now a mega-film star.

“Jake was adorable, sweet and down-to-earth,” she related.

At the crux of the story was the father-son relationship: young Homer wanted to pursue his dream to launch rockets, but his dad, played by veteran actor Chris Cooper, felt his younger son’s future was to work in the coal mines, as he had done all his life.  

After all, Homer Sr. reasoned, older son, Jim (played by Bristol native Scott Miles), had earned a football scholarship, and college tuition would be too expensive for the family budget to pay for Homer, who clearly preferred academics over athletics.

In the movie, Hilemon appeared in three major scenes: playing a coal miner’s wife, a mother, a sister-in-law, another man’s wife, and a neighbor.

“The movie is still very close to my heart,” she said.  So close, in fact, she paid all the costs of printing a full-color book of photos that document the making of the film, including many that have never been seen before.

“I lost money on the book,” Hilemon said.  “But the film changed my life.  I had just moved here from Mississippi, and the movie helped me meet so many nice people.  I just grew to love East Tennessee, and I want to keep the spirit of the movie going.”

One tidbit about the title that most people aren’t aware of: October Sky is actually an anagram for Rocket Boys (the same letters are used to spell either title).  

But this movie has a very strong message that anyone can relate to, Hilemon emphasizes: You don’t have to settle for just anything in life; you can shoot for the stars and go as far as you can be carried.

“Homer followed his dream, going to college and later becoming an engineer at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.,” she said.  Sometimes, you have to leave home to follow your dream.”  

Even Homer’s mother, Elsie, got to live out her lifelong dream of moving to Myrtle Beach, where she died at age 97 in October 2009.

As for getting to know Homer Hickam, Hilemon found him to be extremely kind and friendly.  

“He tried very hard to give everyone equal attention on the set,” she said.  

Universal Pictures accelerated post-production work on the movie so that it would premiere in Knoxville on Hickam’s birthday, Feb. 10, 1999.  

Because of her close association with so many extras, Hilemon volunteered to plan and coordinate the stylish premiere for them in Oak Ridge that same week.  

She also worked with the owners of the Ritz Theater in Clinton to hold an exclusive showing of the film, complete with vintage cars, a couple of months later.

Among special guests slated to appear at the Rocket Boys Extras Reunion are Fred Schwendel of Pembroke Pines, Fla.  Schwendel worked in the art department, helping to build and take down sets at various locations.  

His recollections of working on October Sky are posted online at www.coalwoodwestvirginia.com/fredschwendel.htmat.

For more information about the book, visit www.coalwoodwestvirginia.com/making_of_october_sky.htm.  

Copies of the book cost $25 and will be available at the Oct. 15 reunion and at the registration table at the October Sky Fall Festival on Oct. 16 at Arrowhead Park.

For additional information about the October Fall Festival, call 435-0385.

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Sharon Littlepage is publicity chairwoman for Oliver Springs Historical Society, organizers of the October Sky Festival and “Rocket Boys” Extras Reunion.