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Looking back at a film with 'The Right Stuff'

Director Philip Kaufman and some of his stars revisit the making of the 1983 space-race saga.

June 07, 2003|Susan King | 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.

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