Such has been my good fortune in life that, on certain rare occasions, I have been in the presence of historic figures. At the 2016 Houston Film Critics Society Awards, I was privileged to be honored alongside -- and to joke around with -- astronaut Gene Cernan, my fellow adopted Texan, who passed away Monday at age 82. Months earlier, I was grateful for the opportunity to interview him for Cowboys & Indians magazine at SXSW after the premiere of The Last Man on the Moon, the exceptional documentary based on his autobiography of the same name.
My favorite parts of our conversation:
Most kids say they want to be a cowboy or an astronaut when they grow up. But in your case…
Well, I thought I’d like to be both. [Laughs] But I think I may have been better at one than the other. I’ve got a little ranch out in Kerrville, Texas, where I have some longhorns, some horses. It’s my personal tranquility base. And I love it. See, my dad loved the outdoors. And I spent a great deal of time growing up on my grandparents’ farm up in Wisconsin. So I always wanted a ranch somewhere. At one point, I thought of having it in Montana – which, to me, is big-time cowboy country. But that wasn’t for me. This is the closest thing I’ve got to it. And, yeah, I’m a cowboy when I go out there.
Who would you say were your greatest influences during your childhood?
I’ve got two major heroes in my life. Well, maybe more than that. But, of course, the first one is my dad. And the other one is John Wayne. I always wanted to be like John Wayne. And the closest I ever came is when I crashed that helicopter out in Florida [in 1971]. I got out, and I swam to the surface – and saw the helicopter was a blazing ball of fire. And I thought, “I remember John Wayne in one of those movies where he was on a merchant ship that got torpedoed. And what he did what was, he’d go down under the water [to avoid the fire], and then kick his way back to the surface.” And that’s what I did.
You’ve been forthcoming while sharing your experiences in your autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon, and in the new documentary film based on that book. Do you hope to inspire young people with your story?
From my point of view, that’s the purpose of the film. Forget me. It’s not about Gene, the last man on the moon. It’s about inspiring those young kids to have a dream like I did. There was no space program when I was a kid. My dream was flying fighter planes off aircraft carriers. And I did. And I believe the important thing is to have a dream, and believe in yourself, and commit yourself to that dream. Did I ever think that dream would ever lead to my calling the moon my home? Not in a million years. But you’ve got to start somewhere...
Look, I don’t need anyone to tell me how wonderful I am. People have been telling me that for 40 years. I don’t need to be on another magazine cover, or anything like that. But walking on the moon gives me a platform to tell kids, “Look, if I can go to the moon – what can’t you do?” That’s the message of this movie.
(You can read the rest of our Q&A here. And you can view The Last Man on the Moon online.)