I don’t know how many I own, but you can be sure I’m wearing one today. A man doesn’t have to go overboard, you know. A suit and a good watch are all he needs. Why did I sign with Breitling? Because I’m also a professional pilot and because Breitling has always maintained close ties with the world of aviation. It was natural, logical really, that we should get together. “Organic” even. I appreciate precision instruments, reliable objects, and Breitling watches have always lived up to these expectations. A pilot has to be on time. Punctuality must be in a pilot’s blood. For me, luxury is being able to wear beautiful watches. It’s also having a landing strip built next to my home. Plus a hangar where my planes can be repaired. I’ve turned my property into an airport. Just a couple of minutes, and I’m in my 747! The time it takes for my men to fuel it and for me to contact the control tower, which isn’t mine, by the way! [laughs].
I grew up in a New York City suburb, not far from La Guardia airport. Planes were constantly flying over my house and garden, pretty much one every five minutes. I learned to identify them, first visually then by the sound they made. I used to look up at the sky and tell myself, “Whoa, one day that’ll be me flying that thing.” The trouble is, my friends thought I was getting too big for my boots. Who knows, maybe those people who didn’t believe in me then ended up as passengers on a Qantas flight that I piloted. Ironic, really.
Hollywood has always loved flying machines. Already in the late 1950s and early 60s, flying and show business went hand in hand. I was friends with Marlon Brando during the last five years of his life. He could talk to you about his favourite plane with no end of detail. So could Lauren Bacall and Gene Kelly. Back in 1936, if you wanted to cross the United States by train, it took five days. In a DC3 it took fifteen hours! It’s a bit like comparing a pocket watch with a digital watch. Two completely different things. Thanks to the development of airlines, film stars and studio moguls could save invaluable time. They could travel from the East Coast to the West Coast by plane whenever they wanted. Aviation completely transformed the notion of time.
In 1994 I was flying a Gulfstream over Washington with my family onboard when suddenly the electrical system failed. The entire cockpit was plunged into darkness. Basically, there was nothing working any more. I hung on to the stick and tried to regain control, but neither the flaps nor the reactors were responding. I felt time had stood still. The minutes were without end. I narrowly missed a collision with a Boeing. Just when I thought my hour had come, I saw a supernatural light appear in the sky. Confident, I flew into it and two minutes later I was landing safe and sound on solid ground. That day I realised a kind soul was watching over me.
I often think back to when I was starting out, and all those people who didn’t believe in me. I remember being around 15 or 16 and going to an audition. I sang and danced my heart out, and at the end of my performance, the guy suggested I maybe wasn’t made for show business, in fact he even said I had no chance of making it. For me, there was no question of doing anything else. Fortunately, others did have faith in me. Like Gene Kelly’s brother. He taught me to dance. People often ask me if I miss the old era of Saturday Night Fever and Staying Alive. You know, dance is just a “vestige” of who I am. People need to understand that I’m first and foremost an actor who happens to know how to dance, not a dancer who can act. Knowing how to move and occupy space didn’t come spontaneously. Still today, people imagine that for Saturday Night Fever I just got on the dancefloor and did my thing. Wrong. Behind the moves there were hours and hours of work, rehearsals, wrong steps, even falls.
I just finished a new miniseries with producer Ryan Murphy, called American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. I play Robert Shapiro, the lawyer who defended the former football star in the 1990s. Forty years ago, in 1975, I was starting out in a sitcom called Welcome Back, Kotter so it’s kind of fitting I should come back to TV. There won’t be much law and order in my next film though. I play the role of John Gotti, the New York mobster who made headlines in his day. I’m also in a Western directed by Ti West, In a Valley of Violence, and in an action movie titled I Am Wrath. Then there’ll be a third feature in which I play a guy who installs power lines on pylons! Three films that are scheduled for release this year. I’m often asked if one day I’ll go behind the camera and direct. The answer is no. My mother used to put on plays, and she soon taught me what directing entails. You carry enormous responsibility and you have to be available virtually round-the-clock. Already, as an actor I only get five hours’ shuteye a night, so you can imagine how little sleep I’d be getting if I started directing! When I’m sleeping, I really am asleep, in fact I always have to set the alarm on my watch to pull me from my slumber! [laughs].