Looking back at a film with ‘The Right Stuff’

Times Staff Writer

When it was released 20 years ago, Philip Kaufman’s epic “The Right Stuff,” was a critical favorite -- though a box-office flop -- that became an award winner (four Oscars and a best picture nomination). The three-hour-plus film helped turn several of its male leads, including Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris, Fred Ward and Sam Shepard -- who received an Oscar nomination -- into hot commodities in Hollywood, and the film itself, a surprisingly complex look at heroism, media hype and the space race, seems only better with time.

“The Right Stuff,” based on Tom Wolfe’s bestseller, compared the hype and publicity of the Mercury astronauts -- John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, Scott Carpenter -- and the heated space race with the Soviet Union in the 1960s with the moxie and bravery of daredevil test pilots like Chuck Yeager, who toiled in near obscurity, eventually breaking the sound barrier and becoming the fastest man alive. Monday at 7 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, the American Cinematheque is holding a sold-out cast and crew reunion 20th anniversary screening of “The Right Stuff.” Kaufman, Harris, Quaid, Reed, Ward, Scott Glenn, Kathy Baker, Scott Wilson, producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, Yeager and astronaut Gordon Cooper are scheduled to appear. And on Tuesday, Warner Home Video is releasing a new two-disc DVD set of the film with documentaries, deleted scenes and commentary.

Kaufman and several members of his cast recently reminisced about working on the film and its legacy.


Flying with Chuck

Philip Kaufman: He took me for a ride and turned over the controls to me and then turned off the engine. He thought it would scare me, being one of the “Hollywood” guys. I just sort of looked at him and smiled, because I knew there was something blessed about this man. The funny thing about Yeager is that we would drive out to the sets, particularly in the high desert there, and he would not go above the speed limit. He was the fastest man alive, but he wouldn’t go over 55 because he knew how dangerous it was on the highway.

Pamela Reed (Trudy Cooper): I flew with Chuck Yeager. He took me up in his plane. We were flying around and I was sitting there thinking, “I am flying with Chuck Yeager. Just kill me now.” He said in the way he does: ‘You want to do a little trick?’ He dropped the plane a little fast and we kind of got a little weightless for a second and my stomach went up in my throat. You don’t worry too much because you are in the best of hands. He told me once, “You are a fine gal. A fine gal. But you swear too much.” I think that’s when I stopped swearing. Oh no. It’s when I had children.

Barbara Hershey (Glennis Yeager): Sam and myself went up with him and Sam never flies -- he has this thing about flying -- but he actually went up with him. It was the one time in my life I felt if I crashed I almost don’t mind because I would be crashing with Chuck Yeager. Chuck had utter confidence.

Casting call

Ed Harris (John Glenn): I don’t know who had told him (Kaufman) about me or if he had seen my picture. There was a certain resemblance [between Harris and Glenn] -- a Midwestern something or other that he noticed.

Hershey: I had met Phil before, and I went out to Edwards Air Force Base and they were already shooting. I had an interview with him and then walked around with Sam (Shepard, who played Yeager) and Chuck Yeager. By the end of it, I was dying to do it. Chuck was just stupendous to me. He would call me Glennis, and his son was there who was older than me and he would call me mom. I felt so welcomed. I would ask him, “Is Glennis coming?” And he’d say no. She won’t come anywhere near Edwards. It’s a very rough life for women. Like 50% of the test pilots died, so you would say goodbye to your husband in the morning and you didn’t know if he was coming back. I think the wives had a really rough job.

Working with Kaufman

Harris: Phil is very meticulous and very thorough, especially the time it takes him to decide on something and the years in between movies and all the projects he has developed and not done. You know this was something I think he thought long and hard about and had real specific ideas about and had a certain vision. So he translated that to us pretty well. The one thing I remember him telling me all the time was to smile more. He kind of maybe said that a few too many times, but that’s what he wanted me to do, so I tried to accommodate him.


Fred Ward (Gus Grissom): He’s a director who likes actors. He likes story, he likes narrative and he worries about the actors.


Harris: It was a very special time. For a lot of us, it was kind of the first big film we were in, so there was, at least among the guys, a friendly sense of competition.

Reed: It was wonderful. There weren’t any two or three big fat stars with their big fat trailers and all of the people they need to have around them. We shared honey wagons. Everybody worked such long hours, so this one Sunday afternoon off, I got a caterer and champagne and some tables were set up around the pool. It was at the Holiday Inn [near Edwards Air Force Base]. Everybody put out blankets and it was nice and peaceful and everybody was really tired. The press corps were played by this commedia dell’arte troupe, the Bologna Brothers. They were incredible. All of a sudden, they came through the archway of the hotel on these big stilts and they walked right into the swimming pool. It was very bizarre.

Waiting for Caleb

Reed: Veronica Cartwright (Betty Grissom) knit me a sweater and ripped out the sleeves three times! That is how long we waited for [cinematographer] Caleb Deschanel’s lighting. She rebuilt the sweater three times. It was beautiful, and so was his lighting. You wait for Caleb. I think he’s a genius, and so you wait for that.

The long haul

Kaufman: Every day we were up before dawn, and it was a long struggle. My assistant director, he’s since passed away, we were shooting in the boiling heat and I looked down and he was sort of sitting in the Buddha position next to me, and I realized he was unconscious. So they unfolded him and rolled him back, and as the ambulance came, he opened his eyes and looked at me and gave me the thumbs up.

Hershey: It was a difficult movie. It was very exhausting. The fact that it was a big-budget movie.... They worked really hard and we had some of the longest hours. We had some 19-hour days, but one day we shot for 21 hours, which is the longest I have ever shot in the film. By the end of the day it was pretty surreal and they were dealing with fire. It was the night they burned down Pancho’s.

Earthbound box office

Kaufman: It was released at a strange time in a strange way. The Newsweek cover of Ed Harris saying “Can a movie make a president?” -- it got into that political thing and people were sort of tired of that. They don’t necessarily want to go to a lecture. I thought we had made a grand entertainment. The reviews all over the world were great.

It was released here in a very small number of theaters, the idea that it could be platformed or roadshowed in a way some of the films had been done in the 1950s. It was a concept in a way that didn’t work because we were transitioning into this period of very wide release in a large number of theaters. The publicity had to be exactly right to attract people, and I think it was presented in a way as sort of academic and a history of the space program. I wanted to emphasize as I did in the movie -- a lot more the image of what Sam Shepard played of Chuck Yeager, the man in the leather jacket.

[The failure] hurt a lot at the time because partly we were talked into having these expectations. We just made the best movie we felt we could make and we had a great time making it. It was a really wonderful experience for everyone involved, and I spent four years making it.

Final thoughts

Harris: I haven’t met John Glenn to this day. I got a letter from him recently asking to come out to Ohio because it is the 100th anniversary of manned flight or something and that he and Gene Kranz are going to be out there. I can’t make it because of my schedule, but he didn’t mention anything about “The Right Stuff.” But he was running for president during that time [of the film’s release] and I don’t know if he had read the book, but he knew there was a certain element to it that was poking fun at his strait-laced attitude, and he was [hands off] about the movie because he didn’t know how it was going to be done or how he was going to be portrayed.

Ward: I thought what Phil did was very innovative at the time. It seemed to me like he had three things going on in the movie: this old western type of thing with Sam Shepard, the modern thing with the astronauts and then this commedia dell’arte thing with the reporters

Hershey: I always get chills with the last line, when Dennis says, “It gives a lovely light,” and we see the light kind of dawning on his suit in space. I am also really happy for Chuck because, as the movie tells, he never got his parade. I felt that the movie became his parade