When Tom Petty Imagined a Failed Career in the ‘Great Wide Open’ Video
Tom Petty knew what it was like to move to California on a whim in the hopes of becoming a star. So when it came time to make a video for the title track of 1991's Into the Great Wide Open, he took the trope and ran with it.
The clip starred Johnny Depp as the handsome Eddie Rebel, freshly graduated from high school and in search of stardom. The video included cameos by a multitude of actors and fellow musicians: Faye Dunaway as Eddie's manager (and vengeful fairy godmother), Gabrielle Anwar as his girlfriend, Terence Trent D'Arby, Chynna Phillips and Matt LeBlanc.
Unlike Petty's success story, Eddie's journey comes crashing down just as quickly as it takes off. After successfully launching his music career and tasting a bit of the high life, Eddie ditches his manager, who waves her magic wand and makes his career crumble. He causes scenes at awards shows and video shoots, and his girlfriend leaves him. At the end of the video, Eddie returns to the tattoo shop where it all began only to find the new tattoo artist is an older version of himself.
There was so much story to be told that Petty and the Heartbreakers had to cut a longer version of the song in order to fit all the footage. "The video was as good as the song, I think. It's a rare instance where they really complemented each other," Petty said in Conversations With Tom Petty. "We shot so much, and we didn't want to lose it. So we went back and did a reedit and remix of the song to make it fit the video."
Watch Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' 'Into the Great Wide Open' Video
“We just wanted to capture the song’s depiction of the perils of rock stardom,” director Julien Temple told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. Temple also helmed videos for Petty's "Free Fallin'," "Yer So Bad" and "Learning to Fly," in addition to directing clips for Sex Pistols, Neil Young, Judas Priest, the Kinks and many others. “There’s such a universal quality to it. Johnny Depp could be James Dean or Sid Vicious or Axl [Rose]. In fact, Johnny’s a huge Sex Pistols fan —and I think you can see a lot of Sid in his performance."
The Heartbreakers themselves got in on the action — Petty appears as the Mad Hatter-style narrator, tattoo artist and Eddie's roadie, guitarist Mike Campbell helps present an award to Eddie near the end of the video, keyboardist Benmont Tench is Eddie's record producer, bassist Howie Epstein serves as motorcycle dealer and drummer Stan Lynch appears as the doorman who denies Eddie's manager entry into a red-carpet event. Petty's real-life manager, Tony Dimitriades, even makes a cameo as the agent who first signs Eddie to a recording contract. (“He’s a natural,” Temple said of Dimitriades. “I just gave him a phone and let him loose.”)
Petty was, by this point in his career, not a rookie in the music video-making game. His clips for songs like "You Got Lucky," "Don't Come Around Here No More" and "Runnin' Down a Dream" were among the most lavish and popular of the era. Instead of straight performance footage of the band, Petty often opted for a more whimsical or dramatic approach, bringing the characters in his songs to life. "Into the Great Wide Open" in particular had an especially cinematic quality to it. “One of the only times I’ve ever felt fulfilled by a video,” he later said. “I even had people coming to me wanting to make it into a movie.”
Depp, who was 28 at the time of the video's release, would go on to maintain a close friendship with Petty for years afterward. “We’d call each other and ask, ‘Hey, you still smoking?’ ” Depp recalled in a 2018 interview following Petty's death. “Tom would go, ‘Yeah, I’m still smoking,’ and I’d feel better: ‘Well, if Tom is still smoking, I’m okay.’ ... I loved him."